An interview with the CA of the Oxford IV: Harish Natarajan

doorNederlandse Debatbond

An interview with the CA of the Oxford IV: Harish Natarajan

Seventwenty: Harish, you’re busy these days – you’re CA’ing the Oxford IV immediately after the UCU Open, you’ll be part of Berlin WUDC 2013 and you’re organizing Chennai WUDC 2014. Do you have any time left for anything not debate-related?

Harish: Well, I certainly don’t have many free weekends! But I’ve gotten used to that. I do have enough time though to work during that day (for an international security company) and a law degree at BPP.

Debating is time consuming enough that eventually most people slowly reduce their commitment. I think I’ll do that after Chennai – but I’ve got over a year to go.

Seventwenty: Let’s talk about the coming Oxford IV for a while. The final of the UCU Open required debaters to imagine themselves on the position of a journalist finding undisputable proof that Obama had gay sexual experiences when he was younger. The motion was that the journalist should publish it. How did this situational motion go, and can we expect more of them at the Oxford IV?

Harish: One of the products of debating for so long is that you see the vast standard majority of motions several times over. There are also so many competitions (multiple in Europe every weekend) now that its often worth trying slight different debates and slight spins on originals.

I find that situational motions often work well – because it mirrors the way people often think and address issues. In everyday life we normally don’t think about what the state should do, but what individuals should do in a certain scenario.

The UCU final went well. Obviously the finals had some of the competition’s best speakers, and all were able to make interesting and well argued arguments. There was also some attempts to make non-standard arguments. To some degree though, that was forced on the debate by the non standard format.

Its possible that you’ll see them at Oxford – but I’m always looking for interesting and varied debates. Situation motions are just one potential path.

Seventwenty: Another motion at the UCU Open read “THBT MGM Film Studios should cast a woman as the next James Bond” – unorthodox because it requires debaters to argue from the perspective of a private, not a public organization. How did that debate go?

Harish: I really enjoyed the debate I saw on the topic, and across the 14 rooms it was balanced. Most people I spoke to seemed to enjoy it, though they probably wouldn’t complain to the CA team if they didn’t like the motion!

One observation though was that, at least in the debate I saw, the public/private distinction didn’t really play a part in the debate. Both sides focused primarily (though not exclusively) on what this would mean for women’s rights, particulary given that James Bond is the archetype  of traditional masculinity.

Seventwenty: In an interview with Seventwenty, you said you would like to see more ‘argumentative insanity’ from debaters, by which you meant a little bit more creative arguments in stead of the standard arguments. What are the standard arguments we as a community have been focussing too much on?

Harish: Well, to start with a clarification. Often ‘standard arguments’ can still be very effective and very well made. I appreciate carefully made ‘standard arguments’ and speakers who explain traditional arguments well.

However, I do think lots of speakers often don’t think outside of a small range of arguments. There are lots of standard arguments, but broadly I think its the political-philosophy paradigm that we default to.

Perhaps unsurprisingly we make liberal arguments based on western liberal thought (broadly speaking). We focus on the state’s primary duty as being to maximise choices, and think of individuals as atomistic, often rejecting the very notion of group rights.

That’s not to say that I disagree with any of those stances, its just that there are sways of arguments you can access if you aren’t just focused on that paradigm.

Seventwenty: Why do you think we converge on standard sets of argumentation? Is it because they are just the arguments that ‘work’, or is it more of a social paradigm – we’ve seen the last WUDC winners do it, so that must be good? Or something else?

Harish: I think it’s a few things. First, most judges start with a liberal bias and need you to justify movements away from it. Thus its easiest to make a conventional set of arguments. When you’re just starting debating you are unlikely to have the clarity, word economy, laguage selection, or explanatory ability to make the complex arguments in a ‘persuasive’ way.

I remember when I was starting to debate, I would try and make ‘original and complex’ arguments, but, more often than not, I didn’t have the prerequisite debating skills to make them well enough. Being standard is easy.

Second, I think the format makes it harder to make complex arguments. Chomsky has a great explanation on how cable news time constraints (short segments) creates a structural bias towards ‘received wisdom’. You don’t often have the time to challenge a dominant paradigm, and if you do so rapidly, you come across as crazy!

It can work in a similar way in BP debates. For instance, most debates end up focusing on consequences, and deontological arguments a rarely made well. That’s in part a product of only having 7-5 minutes to speak. You can’t easily convince someone of a Kantian imperative in that time.

Third, there is, like you say a tendency to copy. When a good (or very good) debater comes up with something new, it often disseminates through the circuit very quickly and becomes ‘standard’. We don’t really credit arguments about ‘false conciousness’, ‘moral monsters’, ‘self actualisation’ and ‘self defence against zombies’ as much now as we did before, though there was a time when these things were new and interesting.

Seventwenty: So, can you give an example of what ‘argumentative insanity’ looks like? What creative venues of argumentation have we been missing so far?

Harish: I think the first time Shengwu argued that ‘suicide was a legitimate “lifestyle” choice’, that seemed a bit insane, but was really effective. I similarly remember Doug Cochran (speaking with me) arguing that while a certain policy was racist, it was entirely legitimate for states to make decisions according to racist criteria. Sounded insane – though argued well enough so that it was very effective.

But you can be creative in many other ways – not just in ‘insane’ ways. Often its just about challenging the premises of debates and traditional arguments. And sometimes challenging the narratives dominant in the media. There is a tendency to accept what you hear and read as accurate, but there is a sense in which reports (on TV and in newspapers) are determined by editorial lines, received wisdom.

I think one of the most interesting things to snap debaters out of preexisting beliefs and ‘force creativity’ is to set debates with unusual actors. We have lots of debates about what the US should do, but its interesting to challenge (say) the traditional demonisation of Russia in the Western press by setting a debate from Putin’s perspective and asking both sides to think of the interests of the other.

Seventwenty: Allright, Harish, the Oxford IV is almost starting – thanks for your time and good luck!

De Nederlandse Debatbond (NDB) stelt zich als doel het wedstrijddebat te bevorderen en ondersteunen in Nederland. Als nationaal overkoepelend orgaan vertegenwoordigt de NDB ongeveer 1.000 leden waarvan de meesten lid zijn van één van de debatverenigingen die Nederland rijk is.

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Nederlandse Debatbond administrator

De Nederlandse Debatbond (NDB) stelt zich als doel het wedstrijddebat te bevorderen en ondersteunen in Nederland. Als nationaal overkoepelend orgaan vertegenwoordigt de NDB ongeveer 1.000 leden waarvan de meesten lid zijn van één van de debatverenigingen die Nederland rijk is.