Professor of Rhetoric & Director of Debate
Director of Forensics
Claremont McKenna College
Debating has long been a vital part
of American education. Training in debate improves valuable analytical and speaking
skills, and enables the discussion of important issues, whether scientific,
historical, religious or political. It contributes to the intellectual and ethical
development of its participants by challenging them to make defensible judgments
in which they must critically investigate complex issues, question given assumptions,
evaluate the reliability of data and consider alternative perspectives. Debate
stimulates and refines communication skills that empower individuals to speak
for themselves, to discover and use their own voices. But most students debate
because it is also fun. Debating provides a unique intellectual challenge and
excitement, as Malcolm X reflected in his Autobiography:
The specific formats, rules and conventions
of parliamentary debating vary in different nations and leagues.2 One of the
virtues of parliamentary debate is its flexibility. Speaking times. numbers
of speakers, judging and other elements of the debate format may be altered
to accommodate particular needs and purposes.
In competitive parliamentary debating, each round of debate has a different topic announced just before the debate begins. The amount of preparation time varies, allowing from ten minutes to (in British secondary school tournaments) one hour of preparation between the announcement of the topic and the beginning of debate. 3 Fifteen minutes is the most common allotment.
During preparation time, the participants analyze the proposition and outline their major arguments. They ask themselves: What does this proposition mean? What important issues are raised by it? How may it be affirmed or denied? What examples and events are relevant to its discussion? The answers to these and other questions will serve as the foundation for the government case and prepare the opposition for its refutation. Some tournaments and competitive leagues permit the use of dictionaries, texts and other prepared materials during preparation time. Others limit or even prohibit coaching and use of prepared materials prior to the debates.
The first speaker for the proposition must use some of the preparation time to organize the main issues of the case into a logically complete and persuasive form to convey the best possible impression of the their case. The first speaker therefore uses preparation time to arrange the essential elements of the case into a brief outline. The argument outline should clearly bring the major elements of the case into relation with each other and constitute a complete case on behalf of the motion.
A standard American tournament format for parliamentary debate consists of six speeches:
The speakers for the proposition
(sometimes called the government), open and close the debate in defense of the
motion. Unlike other forms of American team debate, parliamentary debate features
just one rebuttal per side. The rebuttal is given by the first constructive
speaker for each team.
The presiding officer of each debate is the Chair, or Speaker of the House (usually a judge or moderator). The Speaker of the House manages the debate, recognizes the speakers, and rules upon any disputes that arise in the course of the round.4 The Speaker introduces each debater in turn. There is no preparation time between speeches. After one speech is finished, the Speaker of the House calls upon the next debater to proceed.
In most American tournament debating, there are two persons on a team, with one person on each team speaking twice. Public debates often feature three-person teams, with a different person giving each speech in the debate. Three-person teams allow more people to participate and provide more variety for audiences.
Parliamentary debates may either have set topics, known days or weeks in advance of the debate, or be conducted extemporaneously. In American parliamentary debating, set topics are used primarily for one-on-one debates between two schools and for public debates, so that the topic can be announced and publicized. Set topics permit advance research, brainstorming and practice debates. In the debates themselves, however, minimal notes are used and no speeches or briefs are read. Written quotations are used sparingly or not at all. Parliamentary tournament debating is generally extemporaneous., with a different topic announced a few minutes before each round. 5
Most propositions in parliamentary
debate begin with either the phrase "Be it resolved that. ." (often
abbreviated as "B.I.R.T.") or "This House believes. . ."
(or "This House would The "House," unless otherwise specified
by the first proposition speaker, refers to the judge(s) and audience attending
the debate, who serve as a deliberative parliament. The proposition or topic
in a parliamentary debate is usually referred to as the motion.
Two types of motions are commonly used in American parliamentary tournament debating: straight motions and linkable motions.
Straight motions are meant to be debated literally. They may be drawn from current events (e.g., "Be it resolved that the United States should lift its economic sanctions against Cuba"; or "This House would support the admission of Russia to N.A.T.O."), or they may be broader statements of historical judgment or philosophy ("Be it resolved that the American dream has become an American nightmare"; "This House believes that the United States has been more sinned against than sinning"). Some motions require value comparison ("This House believes that the local is preferable to the global"; "This House despises flattery more than slander"). Such debates rely upon examples to prove or disprove the proposition, but the proposition itself is still the focus of the debate. In motions used for tournament competition, the proposition team is sometimes permitted to choose which side of a given issue it will defend (e.g., "The United States should/should not extend Most Favored Nation trade status to China"). Their choice is announced at the beginning of the debate.
Linkable motions need not be debated literally, but may instead be linked to specific policy proposals selected by the government team and not known by the opposition until the first constructive speech is heard. A linkable motion may be drawn from a pithy quotation ("B.J.R.T. It is better to die on one's feet than to live on one's knees") or a song lyric ("B.I.R.T. freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose"). The proposition team may define the terms of the motion in most any way they choose, generally linking the abstract motion to some specific controversy through the use of metaphors. For example, the last topic ("freedom's just another word ) might be linked to a case statement in favor of restoring the eligibility of legal
immigrants (who came here seeking "freedom") for welfare benefits (without which, they have "nothin' left to lose"). The topic "it is better to die on one's feet might be linked to the case statement that "the United States should not extend Most Favored Nation status to China," arguing that America should "stand up" for its principles rather than remaining on its knees to placate China.
The link between the motion and case is often quite loose, although some leagues and tournaments insist upon tight links. Topicality arguments, common in other forms of American competitive debating, are highly unusual in most parliamentary debating leagues, in part because they are regarded as less interesting than talking about the issues of the case. On the other hand, as the authors of the English-Speaking Union's guide to secondary school debate in Great Britain explain, "intelligent and straightforward definitions are expected and rewarded" by adjudicators.6 In parliamentary debate, the linkable motion is generally less important than the case, which must provide the basis for a good, evenly matched, debate.7
Although adjudicators of parliamentary
debates generally pay more attention to content and strategy than to style,
speaking skills do receive more attention in parliamentary debate than in most
other forms of debate competition. Good parliamentary debaters speak at a rate
of speech comprehensible to the layperson untrained in debate. Physical and
vocal delivery, humor, passion and persuasiveness are important elements of
parliamentary debating. A parliamentary debater should maintain eye contact
with the audience and develop a speaking style that is fluent and expressive.
Parliamentary debaters do not read written speeches, briefs, or evidence. Instead, parliamentary debaters speak from a few notes that record the arguments that other speakers have made in the debate and outline their own main points. Each of these points should be signposted, explained, supported by relevant facts and examples, and given impact. Because there is no preparation time between speeches, parliamentary debaters must learn to think on their feet, adding and elaborating upon arguments while speaking.
Each speaker position in parliamentary debate also involves specific responsibilities for the discussion of the motion.
First speaker, proposition
The opening speaker establishes the framework for the debate and establishes a logically complete case for the proposition. This involves an expository presentation in which the speaker may define any ambiguous terms of the motion, interpret the motion through a clear case statement, offer a history of the issue in controversy, and disclose any limitations for the discussion. After such preliminaries, the first speaker should state and support the main arguments of the case.
Interpretation of the motion. The motion should mean the same thing to all participants in the debate. To that end, the proposition team has the responsibility to clarify the ground for debate by defining any distinguishing, technical or ambiguous terms of the resolution. Debates in which ambiguous terms are not clearly defined in the opening speech often go astray, lacking clash and clarity. A debate on welfare reform, for example, in which the opening speaker failed to explain what the government meant by '~welfare" (food stamps or farm subsidies?) and 'reform" (abolish, reduce or expand?), for example, would probably be a waste of time. Clear definitions permit clear debate.8
In addition to defining any unclear terms of the motion, the first speaker should offer a concise case statement. The case statement should plainly express the government's interpretation of the motion in one sentence, such as "federal income tax should be set at a flat rate" or "high schools should not conduct warrantless searches of student lockers." The wording of the case statement is very important; it will frame the discussion and determine the relevance of arguments. It should be carefully transcribed by ail participants in the debate. Once presented, the case statement may not be changed.
The case statement should clearly advance a controversial claim, capable of affirmation and denial, susceptible to proof and disproof. The case statement can be based on a narrow construction of the motion or an understanding that is creative, unusual or enterprising. Any narrow construction should have a link to the resolution or serve as an appropriate analogy for the motion. In support of the motion, "This House would expand N.A.F.T.A.," for example, the government might define "This House" as the government of Chile and "expand N.A.F.T.A." as the adoption of internal economic reforms likely to secure Chile's admission in the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Here is an example of how the first proposition speaker might provide definitions and case statement for the motion, "This House would further restrict free speech":
In parliamentary debate, a debater
may rise to make a point while another person is
speaking. There are three types of points that may be made: points of order, points of personal privilege, and points of information. Points of order and points of personal privilege are rarely used and should be reserved for important violations of debate protocol. Points of information are a regular part of most parliamentary debates and are much more common than the other two.
There are several distinct types
of cases in parliamentary debate. Some are similar to those used in other forms
of debate, others are quite different. Because the proposition team is given
great latitude in its selection of cases, debaters have the opportunity to discuss
issues of particular interest for them, whether drawn from current events, sports,
popular culture, literature, science, history or ethics, for example. So long
as the case provides the basis for a good debate, the proposition team on a
linkable motion may talk about virtually anything. The most common forms types
of cases used with linkable motions are these:
Current national or international policy controversies
Russia should be admitted to N.A.T.O.
The U.S. should end its embargo of Iran.
Nepal should close Mt. Everest to climbing.
Local controversies of broader interest
Dade County, Florida should permit concerts by Cuban musicians.
The Eye of the Needle (a 200-foot natural sandstone arch in Montana destroyed by vandals) should not be repaired.
Sports and popular culture disputes
Baseball should eliminate the designated hitter.
Vinyl records are better than compact disks.
You're Cinderella. Don't marry the prince.
You're Dorothy. Don't go back to Kansas.
You should not eat meat.
You're the parent of a five year-old boy. Don't buy toy guns for him.
Time-space cases stipulate an alternative identity for the adjudicator (as a specific person, group, or Organization) and an alternate time and/or place at which the debate is conducted.
It's August 6,1945, and you're Harry Truman. Don't drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
It's June 1936 and you're Franklin Roosevelt (or, alternatively. the U.S. Olympic
Committee). Boycott the Berlin Olympics.
When debating a time-space case, the participants must restrict themselves to arguments based on what was known at that time and not on later events. A debate on the Hiroshima topic. for example, could not include the fact that the war would end within two weeks of the bombing. Similarly, the Olympics debate could not include details that only became known after the specified date, such as the number of medals that African American track star Jesse Owens would eventually win in the 1936 games. Time-space debates must be restricted to what was known at the time and, if an individual persona (such as Harry Truman) is assigned to the judge, to the attitudes and
interests of that historical figure. Time-space cases are used both in competitive parliamentary debates and as a classroom exercise for the discussion of historical events and figures.
In public parliamentary debates and
in the final rounds of tournaments, floor speeches by members of the audience
are sometimes permitted between the constructives and rebuttals. A floor speech
is a brief address (often limited to one minute) offered in support of the proposition,
the opposition, or some third position (a "cross-bench" speech).~3
At the conclusion of the constructive speeches, the speaker of the house calls
for speeches from the floor. The speaker of the house may begin by asking for
a floor speech in favor of the government, then ask for one in favor of the
opposition, and continue to alternate. The speaker of the house may close the
floor after a certain number of speeches have been delivered for each side,
or after some set period of time (usually ten or fifteen minutes). The speaker
of the house then calls upon the opposition rebuttalist to begin.
Good floor speeches are limited to a single important point. The floor speaker may address some point that has already been raised in the debate, or introduce a new point that has not been raised in the constructive speeches. The rebuttalists should take important points raised in the floor speeches into account, respond to them when necessary and use them when possible.
Floor speeches add a great deal to debates. They permit more people to participate and increase the diversity of perspectives on issues considered. They are a good Opportunity for novice debaters to offer brief speeches (a less intimidating prospect than being asked to deliver a full-length debate speech) and for experienced debaters to think about what one issue could win the debate for their side. They transform passive listeners into active participants in the debate, more attentive and engaged during the principal speeches.
In an increasingly polarized and
fragmented society, more individuals need the opportunity to engage each other
and contest ideas about the common good. By participating in public debates,
students may promote community discussion of controversial issues and encourage
democratic participation and expressions of difference in the public sphere.
Public debates may be held in schools, primarily for audiences of students and teachers, or at non-academic sites in the community for wider audiences. Parliamentary debate, with its combination of issue analysis, rhetorical skill, humor, and lively interaction, is enjoyable for general audiences. The debate format helps frame the discussion of current controversies and educates audiences in different ways of approaching social and political concerns.
A good public debate will promote the desire of those attending it to speak for themselves about the issues raised. The standard parliamentary debate format is easily modified to include public participation in the discussion. Public parliamentary debates often provide an opportunity for floor speeches from the audience between the constructives and rebuttals. Some public debates feature questions from the audience or open discussion after the debate.
Public debates can become an important forum for communities with few existing opportunities for public expression. They also encourage student participants to consider community perspectives on issues and to adapt their own persuasive appeals to community interests and concerns.
1 Malcolm X (with Alex Haley), The
Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Grove Press, 1965), 184. See
also Robert Branham, "'I Was Gone on Debating': Malcolm X's Prison Debates
and Public Confrontations," Argumentation and Advocacy 31 (Winter,
2 In Canada, the leader of the opposition gives the second opposition constructive speech and the rebuttal. In British tournaments, there are four different two-person teams in each debate, two defending the proposition and two opposing it.
3 Most American parliamentary tournaments provide fifteen minutes of preparation time.
4 In some debate leagues, it is the Speaker of the House who announces the topic once the debaters have arrived in the room where the debate will be held. The Speaker then times the preparation period.
5 Some British secondary school tournaments, such as those sponsored by the English- Speaking Union, feature several rounds of debate, some with set topics drawn from a list of possible resolutions announced in advance of the tournament, and at least one round of extemporaneous debates, in which students have one hour to prepare after the topic is first announced.
6 Trevor Sather, The Schools Mace 1997-98 Official Handbook (London: English- Speaking Union, 1997), 17.
7 Parliamentary debate tournaments sometimes issue two topics for each round, one linkable resolution and one straight resolution. The government team may choose between these two, with their choice of resolutions announced at the beginning of the debate.
8 Robert Branham, Debate and Critical Analysis (Hill sdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum,
9 Raymond Alden, The Art of Debate (New York: Holt, 1900), 61-62.
10 Branham, Debate and Critical Analysis, 150-176.
11 This rule is not applicable in the National Parliamentary Debate Association, prominent in the Western United~States, in which many judges permit the disputation of points of order.
12 Trevor Sather, The Schools Mace 1997-98 Official Handbook (London: English- Speaking Union, 1997), 14.
13 The Speaker of the House usually recognizes cross-bench speakers after floor speeches for the Opposition and proposition have been completed. Cross-bench speeches do not support either of the two sides in the debate, but instead support some third position or perspective. In a debate in which the proposition team argued for lifting all economic sanctions against Cuba and the opposition supported keeping current sanctions in place, for example, a cross-bench floor speaker might support a partial or conditional lifting of sanctions.