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Book Summary: Good Arguments – How Debate Teaches Us to Listen and Be Heard

Good Arguments (2022) is one part memoir, one part guide to the art of speaking. It introduces us to the thrilling and eccentric subculture of competitive debate and distills its secrets into timeless principles for effective communication. If we can only learn to disagree better, it argues, we can improve our relationships and revitalize our democracies.

Book Summary: Good Arguments - How Debate Teaches Us to Listen and Be Heard

Content Summary

Genres
Introduction: Get over your fear of conflict and learn how to disagree productively
Bo Seo’s Journey
How to find the disagreement
How to make an argument
How to refute a point
How to sound persuasive
Summary
About the author
Table of Contents
Overview
Review/Endorsements/Praise/Award
Video and Podcast
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview

Genres

Speech, Communication Skills, Biography, Memoir, Professionals and Academics, Psychology, Leadership, Language, Sociology, Business, Adult, Science, Autobiography, Social Skills

Introduction: Get over your fear of conflict and learn how to disagree productively

The spirit of free and open debate in Western democracies today is under threat. It’s not that we lack things to disagree about. It’s just that we seem to be forgetting how to disagree well.

Perhaps the reason for this is that the values that make good-faith debate possible – like mutual trust and respect – are at an all-time low. They’ve been steadily eroded by a toxic mix of polarized politics, conflicting ideologies, and misinformation.

And, as a result, the quality of public discourse has taken a nosedive. Whether it’s an argument with a stranger on Twitter or a heated discussion with a relative at dinner, the exchange is often so bitter and hostile that it resembles more of a shouting contest than an actual conversation. On top of that, many people avoid participating altogether out of fear of getting caught in the crossfire.

But avoiding conflict out of fear isn’t going to heal social division. What we need to learn is how to approach our disagreements in a more constructive way. According to author and debate champion Bo Seo, the key lies in competitive debate.

He argues that if we only approach our disagreements with the same skill and respect that competitive debaters do, disagreement can actually be a force for social connection rather than a wedge driving us apart.

This summary to Bo Seo’s Good Arguments translates the wisdom of competitive debate so you can learn to disagree more productively. You’ll discover some of the core principles of debate – as well as which exercises professional debaters use to improve the way they think and speak.

Bo Seo’s Journey

Before we begin, we have to introduce the star of the show.

Bo Seo was born in South Korea. But when Seo was just eight years old, his parents made the risky decision to uproot their lives; in search of greener pastures, they moved the family to Australia.

At this point Seo spoke no English – and, as one might expect, he struggled to find his place in his new home. At school, unable to communicate with his peers, or even understand his homework, Seo receded into himself and eventually gave up speaking altogether. He learned that to get by in this world, it was easier just to keep quiet and do as he was told.

For several lonely years, Seo was your typical wallflower. He was never loud; he never asserted himself. He just kept his head down and studied, slowly getting a grip on the nasal Aussie English. But when he was in fifth grade, something happened that would change his life forever: his teacher invited him to take part in a debate competition.

Competitive debate is like a formal game in which two rival teams participate in a verbal battle in order to persuade judges to join their side on some issue. It’s a sport that thrives in schools and universities around the globe, and a surprising number of presidents, CEOs, and civil rights leaders have competed.

The rules are pretty simple. The opposing teams are assigned a motion – the topic of the debate – 15 minutes to one hour beforehand so they have time to prepare. After that, the debate begins. Each team takes turns speaking in front of the judges for about five minutes. Once the debate is over, the team that’s spoken most convincingly is declared the winner.

This is the world Seo had stumbled into. In his first-ever debate, he was asked to defend the motion, “All zoos should be banned.” On that stage, between the fearful walk up to the podium and the thrill of unbroken applause at the end, something happened to Seo – he found his voice.

Over the course of the next decade, Seo entered one competition after another, gradually honing his skill and rising in the rankings. He didn’t just excel at debating either. It turns out that the skills he was learning in debate – logical thinking, composition, public speaking – all helped him to excel in his social and academic life as well.

Eventually, his passion for debate carried him to places he never dreamed possible. First, he won the World High School Championship, and then he went on to study at Harvard, where he led the team to yet another victory at the World University Championship.

Needless to say, competitive debate transformed Seo’s life for the better. Not only did it expose Seo to a mind-boggling range of ideas in everything from science and history to politics and philosophy; more importantly, it gave him a reason to care about learning.

For Seo, debate was a powerful tool in his continued education – and it can be for you too. So, let’s shift gear and turn to the principles of good debate.

How to find the disagreement

The first thing any budding debater has to learn is how to spot the disagreement in an argument. After all, how are you supposed to know what to say if you don’t even know what the subject of the argument is?

Yet you’d be surprised by how many people run into arguments headfirst without thinking about this question. It’s no wonder so many conflicts are unproductive.

Try it yourself. Think back to the last argument you had. It doesn’t matter who it was with – just try to recall what was said and what sparked it. Then answer this question: What was the disagreement? There’s an important distinction here. You’re not asking what the argument was about. What did you actually disagree on?

If you can’t put your finger on the disagreement, it’s possible there may not have been one to begin with. Like bad dreams, petty arguments are forgotten just as quickly as they come.

So that’s the first thing a debater does. Armed with a pen and paper, debaters write down the disagreement. And they don’t bother arguing unless there’s really something to argue about!

Now, broadly speaking, there are three types of things that people disagree about – facts, judgments, and prescriptions. Let’s take a closer look at each.

Facts are claims about the way things are. For example, it’s a fact that Jakarta is a megacity. And it’s also a fact that the boiling point of water is 100°C, or 212°F. On the face of it, facts may seem impeachable. But given that humans are always working with limited knowledge and evidence, there’s typically room to argue that your opponent has got their facts wrong.

Judgments are a little different from facts in that they involve subjective opinion. Statements like “Berlin is dangerous” and “lying is wrong” are examples of judgments. Disputing judgments usually involves disputing the facts or assumptions on which they’re based.

Finally, there are prescriptions. These are judgments about how we ought to act. Think about those “should” statements – like “you should go to the gym” or “the government shouldn’t limit free speech.” Disagreements about prescriptions usually center on the likely consequences of the action.

So, those are the three types of disagreements. Unfortunately, as you’ve probably noticed, life is rarely neat and tidy. In real-world arguments, we usually disagree about all of these things at the same time. And, to make matters worse, we’re often forced to untangle the different threads of a disagreement mid-argument.

To make our job a little easier, we can repurpose a technique from competitive debate called topic analysis. Debaters use this technique to draw out the different layers of disagreement in a topic. For example, the topic could be “parents should not send their children to private school.”

First, you would write the topic down, and then you’d draw a circle around all the contentious words in the sentence – everything you could have a disagreement about.

At first glance, the disagreement here may seem straightforward. This is clearly a prescriptive disagreement about whether one should or should not send their children to private school. So the word you would circle is “send.”

But take a closer look, and it turns out there are other parts of the sentence you can disagree about too. If you’d like, pause and have a think.

You could, for example, circle the words “private school” because you might have factual disagreements about the quality of private schools – or even what counts as a private school. You might circle the word “should” because you disagree about the value of private schools or the obligations of parents toward them. You might even circle “children” because you can disagree about what children’s needs and wishes are.

So what appeared at first to be a purely prescriptive statement about what parents should do turned out to contain a bundle of assumptions about facts and judgments as well. The failure to recognize the plural nature of arguments often causes people to talk past each other as they argue over different things.

You can utilize topic analysis in your personal and professional disputes. It’ll help you identify the most important disagreements in any argument, thereby making it more focused and manageable.

How to make an argument

Once you’ve identified the disagreement, the next step is to argue your case.

In the world of competitive debate, argument reigns supreme. You simply can’t win without it. This makes competitive debate rather exceptional in our culture. In most other areas of life, arguments tend to decline in value. Ours is a culture of images, not arguments.

Maybe you’re not convinced. Let’s take the world of commerce, for example. Pictures of abs and cleavage can persuade us of a lot – anything from buying sodas to signing up for a gym membership. And even in politics, the traditional home of debate, politicians try their best to avoid making arguments; they prefer the power of the photo op.

Now consider this. In the workplace, we’re expected to follow instructions and not argue or question them. It’s no wonder many people have never learned – or have forgotten – how to construct a proper argument.

Let’s start with what an argument isn’t. An argument is not a slogan or a pep talk, nor is it a list of facts or an assertion of your feelings. It’s not a description or an explanation. And it’s definitely not raising your voice louder. So, what is it then?

An argument is a conclusion that you’ve arrived at logically from a set of premises, supported by evidence.

OK, to unpack this jargon a little, there are basically two things that every argument has to prove: First, that the claims it makes are true. And second, that they support the conclusion. Let’s look at an example.

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a vegetarian who wants to convince a meat-eater to give up eating meat. “You should give up meat” is essentially the conclusion you’re trying to sell.

So, to construct an argument, write the conclusion, add the word “because” next to it, and then fill in the blank. What you write after this “because” is the main claim of the argument that you’ll have to prove.

For instance, you might write, “We should give up meat because modern industrial farming causes great suffering to animals.”

Next, you’ll need to establish the truth of your main claim by supplying evidence, such as further facts and information.

You might point to the conditions in which animals on factory farms live; you could say they live in extreme confinement and unhygienic squalor. Or you might point to their behavior, such as signs of abnormal aggression and distress. Evidence takes many forms, so there are a lot of possibilities here.

Once you’ve sufficiently justified the truth of your main claim, is your job done? Not quite. You still need to explain why the main claim supports your conclusion that people should stop eating meat.

This last part of an argument is the one that’s most often forgotten. In the rush to pile on reasons and evidence for the main claim, people often forget to explain why it all matters. A meat-eater might accept everything you’ve said about the conditions of animals on factory farms, and yet still shrug their shoulders. And they have a point – so far it isn’t clear why anyone should stop eating meat, as opposed to, say, eating meat less often or being a bit more selective about the meat we buy.

So you need to make the connection explicit. For example, you could argue that not eating meat is the strongest action you can do as a consumer to pressure the meat industry to change its ways. And then you can support this claim with further evidence.

And that’s an argument! It’s not as simple as it first sounded, is it? It requires careful structuring and logical progression. And it helps to have a good memory for facts and details. Try writing arguments down. The more you practice putting arguments together on paper, the easier it’ll be to make them when you’re speaking.

How to refute a point

Now, unless you’re having an argument with yourself – which is fine – you’re not going to be the only person making arguments in a debate. Your opponent might also be making some good points. That means the next skill you need to get good at is rebuttal.

As we’ve just discovered, every argument has to prove two things: that the claims it makes are true, and that they support the conclusion. To refute an argument, then, you simply need to do the opposite. You need to either show that the claims your opponent is making are not true – or, that even if they are true, they don’t support their conclusion.

Let’s look at another example. This one’s a little less serious. Say your partner is trying to convince you to buy a new car because “the old hatchback you’re driving just isn’t fashionable anymore!” You, on the other hand, are quite fond of your old clunker, and you don’t feel like forking over the money for a new one. You need to rebut her point – so, what do you say?

First, you could target the truth of her claim, in which case you have several options. You could either argue straight up that her claim is factually incorrect: “No, people are buying more hatchbacks today than ever before, and I can prove it!”

Alternatively, you could argue that her view lacks evidence. You could say, “You haven’t given me any reason to believe that fashions are changing.” Or, if she does have evidence, you could argue that it’s inconclusive: “It’s true that fewer people in our neighborhood drive hatchbacks, but that doesn’t necessarily reflect a national trend.”

Your other option is to accept that your partner’s claim is true – but to argue that it doesn’t support the conclusion that you should buy a new car. Here you have two more options. You can either argue that it’s not important at all: “Yes, I know it’s not fashionable, but I don’t care what other people think.” Or you could argue that the argument is outweighed by other factors: “Yes, I would prefer to drive a fashionable car, but I also have to think about the money.”

Hopefully, this exercise has given you a sense of just how many directions you can go in for pushing back against another person’s arguments. Of course, not all arguments are going to be so easy to refute.

You can avoid a lot of hemming and hawing if you show up to an argument prepared. The real world doesn’t always afford us time to prepare. But if you do know you have an argument coming up, try a debate prep technique called Side Switch.

Side Switch involves stepping into your opponent’s shoes to try and guess what they’re going to say. For five minutes, really try to set your own convictions aside and consider the debate from their perspective. Then brainstorm as many arguments as you can in favor of their view. When that’s done, all that’s left is to come up with a rebuttal for each one of these arguments. That way, you’ll know exactly what to say if they raise this point in real life.

The purpose of Side Switch is to help us preempt our opponent’s lines of attack. But the effect of this imaginative exercise is often that we see our opponent’s side more clearly. Our own convictions become unsettled, and we usually end up approaching the argument with more seriousness, openness, and respect.

How to sound persuasive

So far, we’ve covered the content of what you should say in an argument. But what you say isn’t everything. You also need to think about how you say it. That’s where rhetoric comes in.

Rhetoric is the study of how to speak persuasively. It’s a broad subject that includes everything from the words and structure of your speech to the tone of your voice to the body language you use to express yourself. All of these affect how people perceive you.

Just think, who are you more likely to believe: someone who speaks confidently and fluidly, or someone who appears nervous and breaks into umming every few seconds?

Admittedly, rhetoric has a bad reputation these days. It’s often synonymous with the kind of hollow and misleading speech that politicians use to obscure the truth and manipulate the public. And there’s definitely something to this criticism.

But there’s also another side to rhetoric that’s decidedly more positive. When used in the right way, rhetoric can be truth’s greatest ally, helping to spread ideas further and inspiring people to act on what they hear.

The fact is, people have a very high “butt-off-the-couch” threshold. In other words, it takes a ridiculous amount of energy to move people to act in this world. You can’t just rely on facts alone to move people. Only people can do that. So we shouldn’t give up on rhetoric just yet.

Thankfully, Bo Seo has come up with a few handy rules of thumb for more persuasive speaking. Let’s take a look at them.

The first rule is pretty straightforward: clarity is key. You won’t convince anyone if they don’t know what you’re talking about. So avoid using abstract words, and ditch the confusing metaphors. What’s more, be specific; use concrete examples to explain your points.

The second rule? Cut the excess. Delete anything from your speech that doesn’t contribute to the arguments you’re making. That means stick to the point. Don’t ramble. Avoid unnecessary repetition and excessive qualification. Don’t bother with long-winded introductions. Just get to the point before you lose the listener’s attention.

And here’s the third rule: make it personal. If you can strike an emotional chord with your audience, they’ll be more engaged and more sympathetic to your cause. So speak to the listener’s needs and experiences directly. Sprinkle in stories from your own life. And relate your arguments back to what they mean for real people.

Finally, you also need to pay attention to the manner of your speech. You’ll appear far more persuasive if you can speak fluidly without stops and starts.

Speaking fluidly is perhaps the most difficult thing to master, but you can get there through practice. Competitive debaters do speaking drills to improve their flow and weed out distracting quirks in their speech.

Consider this drill, for example. Give a one-minute speech to a friend. Every time you trip up or say “um,” your friend throws a paper ball at you. Repeat the speech until you can get through it without being hit.

And here’s another one. Try making an argument while inserting the word for a random fruit between every word. Like this: Tax banana havens banana should banana be banana banned banana!

Doing speaking drills over and over again can be tedious. But it comes with the promise of a great reward – an elegant form of speech that’s sure to make people stop and listen.

Summary

You’ve just been introduced to the principles of debate – what to say and how to say it. You can begin putting them into practice by trying out the exercises outlined in this summary. Of course, the easiest way to harness the power of debate is just to, well, debate!

If the idea of staging a formal debate with teams and judges seems a bit awkward to squeeze into your daily routine, don’t worry about it. You can reap all the benefits of formal debate just by debating with your friends and colleagues in a more natural way. The important thing to remember before you start is that all parties must be willing to have an argument, treat each other with respect, and try their best not to take anything personally.

When it comes to society at large, many leaders are beginning to appreciate the power of debate to enhance learning and solve problems. Movements are already underway all over the world to incorporate debate into school curriculums and workplace procedures. Warren Buffett, for instance, recently floated the idea of hiring two advisors before making any big acquisition – one to argue in favor of the move, the other against.

These are exciting developments. Still, debate has the potential to be so much more than a decision-making tool. Debate holds the key to solving some of today’s most pressing problems. If democratic governments committed to educating their citizens in debate and established forums for doing it, such as citizen assemblies, debate could be a powerful force in repairing social divisions and invigorating democratic participation.

As citizens, we have a responsibility to learn how to debate well – to deliberate with our neighbors on matters that affect everyone, to settle our disputes with reasoned argument rather than violence, to listen to one another’s concerns and make compromises. Debate is the very soul of civic participation; to give up on it would be to give up on the social project altogether.

About the author

Bo Seo is a two-time world champion debater and a former coach of the Australian national debating team and the Harvard College Debating Union. One of the most recognized figures in the global debate community, he has won both the World Schools Debating Championship and the World Universities Debating Championship. Bo has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, CNN, and many other publications. He has worked as a national reporter for the Australian Financial Review and has been a regular panelist on the prime time Australian debate program, The Drum. Bo graduated from Harvard University and received a master’s degree in public policy from Tsinghua University. He is currently a Juris Doctor candidate at Harvard Law School.

Bo Seo | Website
Bo Seo | Twitter @helloboseo

Table of Contents

Introduction
1. Topic: How to find the debate
2. Argument: How to make a point
3. Rebuttal: How to push back
4. Rhetoric: How to move people
5. Quiet: How to know when to disagree
6. Self-Defense: How to defeat a bully
7. Education: How to raise citizens
8. Relationships: How to fight and stay together
9. Technology: How to debate in the future
Conclusion
Acknowledgments
Notes
Index

Overview

Two-time world champion debater and former coach of the Harvard debate team, Bo Seo tells the inspiring story of his life in competitive debating and reveals the timeless secrets of effective communication and persuasion

When Bo Seo was 8 years old, he and his family migrated from Korea to Australia. At the time, he did not speak English, and, unsurprisingly, struggled at school. But, then, in fifth grade, something happened to change his life: he discovered competitive debate. Immediately, he was hooked. It turned out, perhaps counterintuitively, that debating was the perfect activity for someone shy and unsure of himself. It became a way for Bo not only to find his voice, but to excel socially and academically. And he’s not the only one. Far from it: presidents, Supreme Court justices, and CEOs are all disproportionally debaters. This is hardly a coincidence. By tracing his own journey from immigrant kid to world champion, Seo shows how the skills of debating—information gathering, truth finding, lucidity, organization, and persuasion—are often the cornerstone of successful careers and happy lives.

Drawing insights from its strategies, structure, and history, Seo teaches readers the skills of competitive debate, and in doing so shows how they can improve their communication with friends, family, and colleagues alike. He takes readers on a thrilling intellectual adventure into the eccentric and brilliant subculture of competitive debate, touching on everything from the radical politics of Malcom X to Artificial Intelligence. Seo proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that, far from being a source of conflict, good-faith debate can enrich our daily lives. Indeed, these good arguments are essential to a flourishing democracy, and are more important than ever at time when bad faith is all around, and our democracy seems so imperiled.

Review/Endorsements/Praise/Award

“[An] enlightening introduction to the style, function, and variety of formal debate . . . Full of intriguing historical snapshots and practical advice, this is an inspiring study of how good-faith arguments can bring people together rather than tear them apart.” —Publishers Weekly

“Bo Seo pulls off the hat trick of persuasion, combining crisp logic, a compelling story, and a likeable, trustworthy narrator. While his book will turn the shyest introvert into a wannabe debater, it makes a compelling argument of its own: that civil disagreement can save our troubled civilization.” —Jay Heinrichs, New York Times-bestselling author of Thank You for Arguing

“At a time of polarization and rage, we all need to learn how to disagree well—and this important, compelling and wise book should be at the heart of how we do so.” —Johann Hari, New York Times-bestselling author of Stolen Focus and Lost Connections

“This is not just the electrifying tale of how Bo Seo won two world debate championships. It’s also a user manual for our polarized world. I can’t think of a more vital resource for learning to sharpen your critical thinking, accelerate your rethinking, and hone your ability to open other people’s minds. Good Arguments is the rare book that has the potential to make you smarter—and everyone around you wiser.” —Adam Grant, #1 New York Times-bestselling author of Think Again and host of the podcast WorkLife

“Good Arguments is a book so timely and needed in this fraction-ing world we are living in. It assumes that a quarrel is something you first have with yourself, get it out of the way and start to respect and listen to the person across the room from you. Seo has written a book that forces us to think and then speak as the philosopher he knows is right on the tip of every tongue. This book is brilliant and a pleasure to read; in the end, he instructs us not to win but to convince and unexpectedly, it teaches how to persuade for words are deployed as weapons of love.” —Jamaica Kincaid, author of See Now Then, Mr. Potter, and The Autobiography of My Mother

“In a world increasingly rent by division within and between nations, Bo Seo’s lucid and humane search for ‘better ways to disagree’ could not be more timely or valuable.” —Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister of Australia and author of The Case for Courage

“I adore this beautiful story of a young person’s journey from fear of conflict and altercation to embrace of wonderful disagreement and argument. In this touching memoir, debate is not a mere activity but a way of life that offers hope of a cure for a diseased society. Good Arguments is essential reading!” —Jeannie Suk Gersen, John H. Watson Jr. Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and author of A Light Inside

“From two-time world champion debater Bo Seo, a thoughtful, instructive and eloquent meditation on the art of debate and why its central pillars—fact-finding, reason, persuasion and listening to opponents—are so valuable in today’s alarming ecosystem of misinformation and extreme emotion. When Bo Seo’s family immigrated from South Korea to Australia, he was a shy, conflict-averse eight year old who worried about being an outsider, and in Good Arguments, he recounts how debate not only helped him to cross language lines, but also gave him confidence and a voice of his own.” —Michiko Kakutani, New York Times-bestselling author of Ex Libris and The Death of Truth

“I had lots of conversations about political and social issues with Bo Seo when he was a student at Harvard, and I never felt even, for a second, that he was being disputatious or even argumentative. On the contrary, they were delightfully agreeable. Now I understand why: it was because Bo Seo is a debater, in fact, one of the best debaters in the world. If you want to learn how debating can help you become a more engaging conversationalist, a more broad-minded thinker, or even, maybe, just a better human being, you must read Good Arguments.” —Louis Menand, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Metaphysical Club and The Free World

“Today, more than ever, we see the importance of navigating disagreements constructively. In his new book, Good Arguments, Bo Seo offers some tips we can all use in doing so, drawing on his deep experience as a champion debater.” —Stephen A. Schwarzman, New York Times-bestselling author of What It Takes: Lessons in the Pursuit of Excellence

“Good Arguments is an antidote to spin, fake news, ‘political correctness’ and plain muddled thinking. Bo Seo teaches us how to listen and to be heard in both a healthy democracy and around the kitchen table.” —Gillian Triggs, author of Speaking Up and UN Assistant Secretary-General and Assistant High Commissioner for Protection with UNHCR

“This excellent book begins with the challenge faced by a schoolboy whose family moved from South Korea to Australia. From a culture where structured debate was sometimes considered a futile and impolite game to one that saw it as a call to the pleasure of discovering new ways to look at our world through the eyes of others. From school debating to university dialogue and on to witnessing global political conflict, Bo Seo identifies how debate and argument are essential to human understanding. Out of good arguments comes a synthesis. It has been so from the time of Socrates, to the world of Khrushchev and Mandela, and of Putin and Zelinsky. He argues that debate is central to human freedom even as our world faces dramatic challenges for human survival. Distinguishing ‘good arguments’ from unconvincing rubbish, has never been more central to human survival and to achieving love for one another.” —Michael Kirby, AC CMG, former Justice of the High Court of Australia and former President of the International Commission of Jurists

“A useful reflection on how to disagree, especially important in toxic times.” —Kirkus

“Lucidly recounting anecdotes and observations from his live debate sessions, Seo takes readers on a refreshing and inspiring journey . . . this illuminating book examines the fascinating world of competitive debate and offers much food for thought.” —Booklist

Video and Podcast

Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview

1. Topic

How to find the debate

On a Monday morning in January 2007, a couple of months after my graduation from elementary school, the green gates at the entrance to Barker College served as a portal to a new world. For me and the other twelve-year-olds on the first day of middle school, the contrast between where we had been and where we were now felt stark. My former classmates had galumphed around the playground in loose interpretations of the school uniform, but the students on this campus, in their starched white shirts, seemed to be facsimiles of the children on the admissions brochures. Whereas the grounds at the Bush School had sprawled and tangled, the manicured campus of this all-boys middle school intimated an order of things-one I had good reason to learn, and fast.

By lunchtime, I had realized this would be no easy feat. In a school with a couple thousand kids, it made less sense to speak of one order than of multiple. The classroom conformed to one set of expectations-students referred to teachers as “sir” and “miss” and politely raised their hands to speak-while outside, on the playground, jungle rules prevailed. One carried on a certain way in the light-filled atrium of the music building and another way in the mildewy locker rooms next to the gymnasium. The place was a kaleidoscope of expectations.

Over my three and a half years in Australia, I had grown into a fine code-switcher. I had learned to toggle between the intimate language of home and the cheerful, shallow vernacular that school seemed to reward. However, the problem at Barker was that its rules and codes were illegible to me. What jokes were appropriate and when? How much should one reveal about oneself and to whom? I gleaned answers to these questions only by tripping over them.

In these first weeks of school, I never regressed to silence, but I found my comforts where I could. I fell in with a group of laconic, easygoing Aussie kids named-for neat alliterative effect-Jim, Jon, and Jake. Whereas the most ambitious kids in our class shook and fizzed and used every conversation to prove their virtues, the Js seemed to take things in their stride. In the afternoons, we shared a box of hot chips from the kebab shop-a staple of Australian takeout food-and not more than a handful of words.

What I never told them was that I had come to the school with a goal of my own: to join the debate team. Since my first competitive round in the fifth grade, I’d had only fleeting opportunities to revisit the activity. But I knew that the culture of debate was well-entrenched in Sydney’s middle and high schools, most of whom maintained a team that competed, weekly, in a league. Debate occupied an odd place in the life of these schools. Like chess or Quiz Bowl, it provided a competitive outlet for unathletic kids but, unlike these other indoor activities, enjoyed a certain credibility on account of the reputation that its alums went on to do big things.

At Barker, anyone could attend debate training on Wednesday afternoons, but only one team of four students in each year group could represent the school at our local league on Friday evenings. To join the team, one had to audition. Ahead of trials in the first week of February, I sussed out the competition-“So this debate thing . . . ?”-but few people seemed interested. Perhaps this was going to be a piece of cake, I thought. Thank goodness for sports and other distractions.

But I was mistaken: the first round of trials, set to begin at four o’clock on a Thursday afternoon, attracted more than thirty kids. The white-paneled room on the top floor of the English building felt like the inside of a refrigerator; as the students arrived, alone or in pairs, dressed for the outside heat, they shuddered. Presiding over the auditions was the year coordinator, Miss Tillman, a history teacher with a stoic air.

Miss Tillman explained that we would not do a full debate for the audition. Instead, each student would be given a topic, a side (affirmative or negative), and thirty minutes in which to write a speech that covered two arguments for their position. In elementary school, we had prepared our cases over the span of weeks, often with the aid of teachers and the internet, but now we had to go solo against a strict time limit. “This audition format won’t show me and the other judges everything,” Miss Tillman said, “but it should reveal your . . . responsiveness.”

In the waiting room, I stumbled on another discovery: some trialists seemed confident about their chances. The students who had attended Barker since the third grade made it known in the subtle way of twelve-year-olds that they had been successful debaters on the junior circuit and that they expected to continue their run. “We were successful on the junior circuit and expect to continue our run,” one of the trialists said, before scanning the room for signs of comprehension.

Out of nowhere, I heard Miss Tillman call my name. I wondered whether she would give me some additional instructions or words of encouragement. Instead, she handed me a white envelope that contained a scrap of paper with a few handwritten words: “That we should have compulsory military service. Affirmative.”

After I read that last word, things began to move fast. Everything before the envelope had been potential energy-a mind in search of an object, tension in need of release-but now the setting, a windowless nook next to the main waiting room, crackled with consequence. I found the experience of prep to be oddly liberating. The topic transported me to a new environment and assigned me a new identity. I went from being a twelve-year-old, uncertain of his beliefs and others’ expectations of him, to an advocate in some chamber of deliberation.

The fact that I had no say in what I had to argue added, paradoxically, to this sense of freedom. I felt at ease to flirt with ideas, unencumbered by expectations of consistency or deep conviction (I didn’t choose the side), and to explore every dark corner of contentious issues (I didn’t choose the topic). In debate, the other word for topic was motion and, for these thirty minutes, that was exactly what I experienced.

Then, as Miss Tillman knocked on the door, I fell down to earth. In the audition room, a panel of three teachers sat behind a long desk. One of them, a rotund biology teacher whom I had met during orientation, managed a sympathetic look, but the others looked ashen-faced, worn down by the waves of children.

I found my place at the center of the room and focused my gaze in the gap between two panelists’ faces-an ersatz form of eye contact that I hoped would pass for engagement. Then I began: “Everyone has a duty to ensure a country’s safety. When we fulfill that duty through national service, we get more united societies, better armies, and happier lives.” The combination of nerves and an eagerness to get noticed increased, with each word, my pitch and volume. I reached a near shout and spent the next minute adjusting down.

My speech had two points: that every citizen had a responsibility to serve and that this would result in a safer nation. In truth, the material resembled less a proper debate speech (whatever that was) than a rambling and passionate plea. “Look in your hearts and ask what you owe your fellow citizens,” I implored in one of the more cringeworthy moments. However, I felt that some of my points on the effect of mandatory military service on national security had landed with the judges. As I spoke about the importance of giving political leaders a more direct stake in the fate of military operations, one of the exhausted judges seemed to briefly rouse from her stupor. The other speakers in my time slot were good but not unimaginably so. I felt I had a shot.

The next day at school, shortly after the start of recess, a notice appeared on the bulletin board near the canteen: debating team-year seven. Mine was the last name on the list, above the instruction to attend the first training session with the coach at four o’clock on Wednesday afternoon. Like the topic itself, the notice felt like a ticket made out to someplace new.

That the seventh-grade coach, a lanky college student named Simon, had been one of the most successful debaters of his year group at Barker seemed an improbable fact about him. Standing at the front of the room, Simon was the shade of pomegranate seeds-wine-dark and uneven. The edges of his voice crackled with self-doubt.

It was 4:00 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, nearly one week after the trials, and around a dozen students had gathered in the same air-conditioned room where auditions had been held. The four of us who had been selected for the team-Stuart, Max, Nathan, and I-sat near one another but exchanged little more than pleasantries. Of the group, I gravitated toward Nathan, a sensitive kid who put me in the mind of a naturalist. None of us acknowledged the chilling fact that only two weeks remained until the start of the league.

Then the session began and I witnessed a transformation. As Simon stood at the whiteboard and spoke about debate, he seemed to become a different person. Some internal force filled out his posture and rounded out his words. The color remained in his face but now took on a more vital, reddish hue. He uncapped a marker, then, turning to the board, wrote one word: topic.

“Cast your mind back to the last argument you had,” Simon said. “Recall as much as you possibly can about the encounter: the setting at the particular time of day, the specific arguments, claims, and even insults.

“Now answer this question: What was the disagreement about?”

I thought about a series of tiffs with an old friend from the Bush School who now attended a middle school in a distant part of the city. The conversations were vivid in my mind, but I found Simon’s question hard to answer. For some arguments, I could not remember the instigating dispute at all. As with bad dreams, the contents disappeared even as their effects lingered. For others, I could remember too much. These disagreements began with some trivial dispute and accumulated more mass-other disputes, perceived slights, past baggage-any one of which could be described as what the arguments were about.

“This is a problem. If you don’t know the subject of the argument, how can you decide what or what not to say, which points to pursue or let go, and whether you want to have the argument at all?”

Simon referred to research from sociologists and linguists that posited that people are better at “talking topically” than actually staying on topic. That is, we give the impression of being relevant-often through a series of verbal cues such as “on that point”-while subtly changing the subject. Since most of us enjoy breezy, free-flowing conversation, we rarely take the time to consciously reflect on what we are talking about. “So we tend to drift, covering lots of ground but moving further from resolution,” Simon said.

“However, debaters do the opposite. Every round begins with a topic. That’s the first thing we debaters write-on our legal pads, on the whiteboard in the prep room. Consider it an act of naming: we name our disagreement and, with it, the purpose for our gathering.”

Over the next two hours, Simon taught us more about topics than I had imagined possible-or healthy.

According to Simon, the topic is a statement of the main point on which two or more people disagree:

That Jane is an unreliable friend.

That the government should not bail out the big banks.

An easy test for whether a proposition is an appropriate topic is to write it in the negative form:

Both sides of the disagreement should be able to say that the statements fairly describe what they and their opponents believe.

The defining characteristic of a debate topic was that it allowed for two sides. So a general subject area such as “the economy” or “health care” could not be one because it did not identify the particular debate in question. Nor could a topic be a purely subjective opinion, such as “I am cold,” since the other person could not argue that “no, you are not cold.”

Broadly speaking, people disagreed about three sorts of things-facts, judgments, prescriptions-and each one gave rise to its own type of debate.

Factual disagreements center on claims about the way things are. They take the form “X is Y,” where both X and Y are empirically observable features of the world.

Lagos is a megacity.

The crime rate in Paris was lower in 2014 than in 2016.

Normative disagreements concern our subjective judgments about the world-the way things are or ought to be, in our view. They take the form “A should be considered B” or “We have good reason to believe that A is B.”

Lying is (should be considered) immoral.

(We have reason to believe that) tomorrow will be better.

Prescriptive disagreements relate to what we should do. These usually take the form “C should D,” where C is the actor and D is an action.

Our family should get a gym membership.

The government should not impose limits on freedom of speech.

I found all this plenty interesting, but as the training session drew to a close, I also felt pangs of disappointment. Instead of secret strategies and killer moves, we had been given taxonomies; rather than sharpening our skills, we had taken a bunch of notes. I wondered whether competitive debate, like other high-skill games such as chess, tended toward esoterica until it could no longer sustain an analogy to real life.

However, later that same night, I stumbled on a reason to revisit my concern.

For the first couple of years of our life in Australia, my parents had seldom argued with each other or with me. Disagreements of opinion abounded, but Mum and Dad took the view that fighting about them was an indulgence we could not afford, not while so much work lay ahead of us. Though we had started to argue more openly in the past year or so, we still tended to elide points of conflict. This worked fine most of the time, but when one of us snapped, the resulting arguments were tangled and endless.

At this time, in the spring of 2007, almost four years after our arrival in Sydney, our family had begun to consider naturalizing as Australian citizens. In some respects, this was a bureaucratic decision that came down to such secular concerns as taxation. However, for my dad, the choice took on symbolic magnitude. Dad had been the consistent voice in our family for the importance of maintaining our cultural roots and, for him, the word citizenship carried real weight.

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