The Euros 2011 ESL final deserved a better motion

doorBionda Merckens

The Euros 2011 ESL final deserved a better motion

On the request of SevenTwenty, Eric Stam agreed to voice his opinion on the ESL final motion in order to start a proper debate about motion setting and the “parliamentary” nature of parliamentary debate. On Friday, Manos Moschoupoulos will respond with a defense of the motion. Any other author wishing to contribute to this debate can use the respond boxes below, or send in an article to seventwenty@debatbond.nl.

There seems to be something ‘’wrong’’ with motions used in ESL final rounds. At Cork Worlds 2009, the motion ‘’This House Would require a domestic quota of players in football teams’’ was held responsible by many debaters for a poor performance of some of the teams in the final, which eventually resulted in a petition on Facebook ‘’This House Believes the ESL final motion of Cork Worlds 2009 is a disgrace’’. I remember that I didn’t sign that petition because I believed it to be an excellent motion. Not only because I strongly disagree with those who claim that football has a marginal societal impact, but also because it was a perfectly fair and balanced motion in my opinion. I couldn’t comprehend that some people believed this was a debate that required ‘’specific knowledge’’. Some people – literally – didn’t know who Lionell Messi was. That time, I was asking myself: How can people be so ignorant? How can people live such an empty and shallow life?

However, I must confess I had a strong emotional reaction myself when I heard the motion of the ESL final of the EUDC this year. Not that it was of any concern to me – I wasn’t there, it was not my final – but there was clearly a sense of disbelief on not just my part but also on Facebook and Twitter after the motion was announced. Surely, debating the existence of God might be very interesting to people. No doubt it’s one of the biggest questions in life for many people around the world. But how – in the name of God – did it qualify as a good final motion for the ESL competition?

Ironically, the complaining this time is not about the marginal societal impact or a lack of opportunity to show some serious cleverness. The ESL competition has not been underestimated this time – to say the least. Most people I spoke with had no idea how they would have handled this motion. Some points to consider:

1. This motion requires very specific knowledge about non-intuitive argumentation. The only way to practice this motion is by practicing this motion. It’s disproportionally dependent on knowledge one cannot take for granted. This motion is especially hard, for instance, for debaters coming from countries where secularism is strongly institutionalized.

2. The burden of proof for the proposition is disproportional. Any argument in favor of the existence of God can be refuted by saying: “That doesn’t proof there is a God.’’ It’s also extremely hard to debate about a concept without a clear, fixed meaning. Why is it invalid to show a carrot and define it as God?

3. The motion hardly has any tradition in most debating culture, except maybe in the British/IONA circuit. Debating metaphysics is something we usually don’t do within parliamentary debating. Most debaters have reasonable expectations about the kind of motions they have to debate – something more parliamentary. This particular motion has never come across at tournaments or training weeks such as DAPDI as far as some of us can remember. Those debaters would feel that this motion is the equivalent of saying after the semifinals of Wimbledon: ‘Ok, now in order to determine who the winner is, we are going to play gulf.’

4. Especially in outrounds the ‘’shock effect’’ seems to be very important with escalation to crazy motions as a result. Many (experienced and old?) debaters defend this motion by remarking how ‘refreshing’ it is to do something ‘out of the ordinary’. It might be asked to those debaters how they would feel if they had to debate in a final about a motion that would never have been picked in their time as an active debater.

Personally I would be interested to know whether the adjudication team has considered to run this motion in a preliminary round, and to find out why they would or wouldn’t. My guess is that by running this motion in a preliminary round they would have been overwhelmed by complaints because both teams and judges would not be comfortable with this motion. One can argue that a motion in a final round can be more challenging, but the question always remains whether teams can live up to the sometimes ridiculous and notoriously hard-to-guess expectations of people in the adjudication team. When something goes wrong there, the adjudication team is (partly) to blame.

Disclaimer: this article has been written on personal behalf after an initial response and his unsuccessful parodic attempt to inspire others to start a petition to show the world that this motion WAS A DISGRACE!! – The author doesn’t consider this to be ‘‘his business’’. However, signing the petition can be done here.

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Bionda Merckens contributor

10 reacties tot nu toe

Andreas LazarGeplaatst op2:05 pm - aug 17, 2011

I wasn’t in the ESL final and can’t presume to know how I would have handled the motion, what with an exhausting week of debates and parties behind me and the pressure of having to perform at my best to take the win before me. Therefore, this is all very much Monday morning quarterbacking and should in no way be taken as a disparagement of the very fine teams that made it to the final and braved the debate. Well done everybody!

Now, I don’t believe this motion to be especially hard, biased, unusual or crazy. I don’t believe it to be too hard because I think well-educated Europeans should know their way around some basic proofs of the existence of god like the cosmological argument, Aquinas’ quinque viae or even the ontological argument, if only to baffle an opp that will think “WTF??” Even if you don’t know about these classic proofs, it shouldn’t be too hard to come up with questions like “Where does the universe come from?”, “Why are we here?” etc. which most people have thought about many times, and where they have often come up with God as a plausible-seeming answer. For cleverness points, you might even want to dispute rationality and reason as the only ways of getting to the truth.

Thus, I don’t think this motion is biased either because both Prop, as described, and Opp, dismantling the proofs, demanding evidence and showing why only reason is paramount, can talk about enough stuff to fill an hour with persuasive arguments. You might say the motion is unusual because it is more metaphysical or philosophical than most of the motions we debate, but then, philosophy debates aren’t entirely uncommon. Nor crazy, because why would it be crazy to think about things?

What I find most “abnormal” in this motion is that it challenges us, especially on Prop, to move out of our comfort zone of western liberal equal-rights atheist-agnostic thought into more unknown territory. But isn’t one of the allures of debate to discover different points of view?

Eric StamGeplaatst op2:19 pm - aug 17, 2011

To answer your last question. Yes, it is.

But would you run it in a final? The point made by you and others how this motion helps prop to ”move out of their comfort zone” is just another way of admitting that 1) yes, some of the argumentation is very unintuitive for many debaters; and 2) that the adjudication team was looking for a ”shock effect” to please the audience.

Now, that’s all fine and well. But other people would prefer to set a motion in a final round more in line with ”business as usual”. Just because stakes are high and because you wouldn’t want to create even the impression of an unbalanced motion.

Also, I noticed that people on Manos’ wall just responded by saying ”well, to me these arguments are very intuitive” or ”these stuff should be intuitive because it’s not a debate but it’s the debate”. That’s not exactly an argument to show that debating about the existence of God is intuitive for everyone. The point is, if you’re the product of a very secular environment, you simply feel that the so-called rational arguments are NOT convincing at all – thus it is hard to engage with them.

Andreas LazarGeplaatst op2:56 pm - aug 17, 2011

If not in a high outround where you can expect very good teams to compete, where else to run this motion if it is so challenging? I’m happy with outrounds providing a motion challenge in addition to the challenge of the round itself, because we want the best all-around capable teams to win, and also want to watch an entertaining final.

As for certain topics being nonintuitive for certain debaters, isn’t this the case for almost all debaters in one topic or another? For example, one reason why my team partner and I didn’t win the Botswana Worlds ESL semifinal on race was that there is almost no public discussion about race and racism in Germany due to our country not having many immigrants of notably different skin colour. This made it harder for us to come up with arguments and to foresee areas of contention. It might be the same for teams from very conservative countries having to debate pornography, teams from traditional countries having to debate equal rights between the sexes etc. If anything, most motions seem to me to be rather biased towards a western liberal mindset, so a change from this is refreshing to me because it forces us to think on our feet and not take anything for granted.

Lastly, even if you think an argument is ultimately unsound, it could still win you the debate because it might convince the judges and the other side might be unable to respond to it. What is obviously false to you might seem very true to others.

Eric StamGeplaatst op3:40 pm - aug 17, 2011

Yes, it’s the case for almost all debaters on one topic or the other (as I tried to make clear in the opening paragraph of this article).

Ultimately, it’s a matter of taste (to what extend do you want to play save or are you willing to take a risk?) and judgement (will it actually result in an entertaining final?) No one would set an unfair motion on purpose. However, this was the kind of motion some people really did not see coming. Therefore, I wouldn’t have used it.

ArielleGeplaatst op3:44 pm - aug 17, 2011

I will say that my initial reaction to the motion was similar to yours. I am not sure I would not have also have tried to runaway from the motion as well, and I do have academic experience with this topic. However, I do not think motions that scare us and push us out of our comfort zone our to blame for poor debates. Instead I think it is a debaters gut reaction to blame and attempt to escape the motion, instead of trying to think through the motion that is to blame. (I am not saying that the ESL final was a poor debate, but I do know from experience that each team in that final is capable of better).

I have answers to all the objections you raised and if I have the time and energy, I may yet respond. But I will say that while I do think we should be allowed to voice objections to motions in any way we choose. I do think that a more thoughtful, tactful and less divisive discourse surrounding the motion would have been better. I think starting facebook groups with intentionally provocatives names or swearing in the comments of official blogposts is counter productive behavior. Not only are we a group of people who pride ourselves on the productivity of rational, fair debate, we are also adults. I think we as a community can expect more from each other.

ArielleGeplaatst op3:53 pm - aug 17, 2011

There were some careless typos in the statement above:

I will say that my initial reaction to the motion was similar to yours. I am not sure I would not have also have tried to runaway from the motion, and I do have academic experience with this topic. However, I do not think motions that scare us and push us out of our comfort zone are to blame for poor debates. Instead I think it is a debater’s gut reaction to blame and attempt to escape the motion, instead of trying to think through the motion that is to blame. (I am not saying that the ESL final was a poor debate, but I do know from experience that each team in that final is capable of better).

I have answers to all the objections you raised and if I have the time and energy, I may yet respond. But I will say that while I do think we should be allowed to voice objections to motions in any way we choose. I do think that a more thoughtful, tactful and less divisive discourse surrounding the motion would have been better. I think starting facebook groups with intentionally provocatives names or swearing in the comments of official blogposts is counter productive behavior. Not only are we a group of people who pride ourselves on the productivity of rational, fair debate, we are also adults. I think we as a community can expect more from each other.

Eric StamGeplaatst op4:08 pm - aug 17, 2011

Well, earlier today I was discussing the exact connotation of ”disgrace”. I must say that I always believed it to be synonymous with ”shame”. But as we found out, it has a much stronger connotation in English than I was aware off:

1. loss of reputation as result of dishonourable action
2. shameful person or thing

Apart from that, SevenTwenty seems to have a lot more pageviews today than it has on ordinary days. That’s why I don’t buy the point that provocation always is counter productive behaviour 🙂

Aidan RoweGeplaatst op8:37 pm - aug 18, 2011

The reason the ESL final was a bad debate (and it was, I was there) is because OG ran it badly. It’s totally legit to claim that God exists because people believe in him, but they didn’t do any of the philosophical legwork to support the claim. We could have had a really interesting debate about subjectivist vs. materialist philosophy and what it means to say that a thing exists, but we didn’t. Nor did we have a existential-metaphysical debate about why we exist and what meaning, if any, there is to our existence.

More importantly, it’s totally reasonable to expect a debater at the level of the Euros final to have thought about these kinds of questions, and to be able to talk about them intelligently and persuasively, just as much as it is to expect them to be able to talk intelligently about all kinds of things that they don’t have direct experience of or that don’t relate directly to their lives or immediate cultural/social environment, like, say, the Arab-Israeli conflict. The fact that debaters hadn’t come across the motion before is irrelevant: Euros is not a prepared tournament, and their is no obligation on the CAs to tailor the motions to your prep.

    LarsGeplaatst op11:29 am - aug 19, 2011

    You’re missing the point entirely. The primary condition of a good motion isn’t wether debaters are able to talk about the issue intelligently and persuasively; it’s about fairness to all teams participating in the debate. I can talk about topics like nuclear weapons and inner city crime pretty intelligently and persuasively, but that doesn’t mean that it’s reasonable to expect from me that I argue from opening government that nuclear weapons would have been the best way to deal with the London riots.

    This discussion should be about what is fair to the debaters. Fairness isn’t decided by the question if it’s possible to think of arguments in favour of a motion – it’s all about the question whether it’s roughly equally difficult for proponents and opponents to think of persuasive arguments. It’s not about the question if you can think of good arguments about 150 hours after the final – it’s about the question if it’s equally difficult for proponents and opponents to think of persuasive arguments in less than 15 minutes after hearing the motion.

    For a discussion on this please read the replies to the other blog on this topic:
    http://www.debatbond.nl/2011/08/17/what-if-god-was-one-of-us-thoughts-on-eric%E2%80%99s-criticism-of-the-esl-final-motion/

Yael BezalelGeplaatst op9:04 pm - aug 21, 2011

Here’s my perspective as one of the finalists, we were 1st op. The motion is a legitimate one, but it has 2 elements that made it far from ideal for the final.
Yes, it ran successfully in an Irish tournament, but here wide cultural gaps will make for volatile definitions.
Second, I never ran a metaphysical motion before. I never ran a motion that is not based upon human-conceived ethics. Speaking of the object rather than how we value it just leaves us stuck in incommensurability – a recipe for a messy debate.
Personally during prep I started writing the case about empirical knowledge and it just felt so boring, technical and sterile. Passion-wise, really it felt like debating on the existence of the color blue, with an extension on color blindness..

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