I’ve been thinking about organising a long term debating ‘school’. I’ve been looking on-line and about the only place you can learn to speak and argue properly is the studio during question time, London Debates and Debating Matters. None of these provide consistent training. The other option is to pay several hundred pounds for a course designed for those entering business. I would like to learn logic, rhetoric, devices, tricks, styles; I would like to learn projection and how to organise my notes. When I go to university next month, let’s hope the debating soc. provides that.
Actually I’ve had this idea for a while, but I recently watched the last Question Time for this season and one of the panellists was Douglas Murray. His views might be somewhat elitist, stuffy and right-wing (which doesn’t stop me agreeing with most of them), but his powers of argument are brilliant. Here he is talking about Multi-culturalism:
He moves seamlessly from one idea to another; he has a clear set of principles which he sticks to; he maintains eye-contact with the audience; his feelings are made known through clever and precise adjectives… ‘An extraordinarily dry and supine supplement’ for example. He doesn’t ‘um’ and ‘ah’. He seems to be taking the subject very seriously and attempts to provide solutions rather than simply saying that he doesn’t like it, that it’s bad etc. There are no ad hominem arguments, although at times, in other videos, he comes close to it. He knows what he is talking about. He takes a position of ‘common sense’ and textures it with context; his last point about not spreading ideas which you do not believe in is an example. Whilst I could probably work out how to do this by practising in front of the mirror, I don’t think I could develop the robustness of my ideas since I will be speaking to myself and therefore largely unable to contend ideas I myself have posed…
George Galloway is another one. He came to my college once and actually I was unimpressed. He was reactionary. His speech was one he’d prepared earlier. No-one criticised him except me and I was hardly cut out for sustaining the argument. I notice that his style is slower. He depends on rhetorical questions, whereas Murray depends on phrases such as ‘ie’ or ‘This is to say that’. I guess every speaker needs time to think, and the more intelligent methods of attaining that time could be one of the constituents of style. Here is Galloway on Sky news:
This interview was extremely controversial, but thank god it was live. I cannot imagine Sky ever broadcasting it of their own volition. You’ll notice that Murray and Galloway are completely opposed – and, if you watch more interviews or speeches by them, that they both claim the other side is brainwashed, lying, blind, stupid, amnesiac etc.
Whilst I was in New York, I read ‘Letters to a Young Contrarian’ by Christopher Hitchens. The video below is a prepared speech, which makes it somewhat too ornate (much like the book), but Hitchen’s pitch falls at the end of a point – and the slow fading out allows him to check his next point; he uses adjectives more cleverly than Galloway and Murray, but he lacks some of their sincerity.
43 years ago, Malcolm X spoke at the Oxford Debate Society about the condition of black people in America. In this segment he uses a lot of repetition, a lot of polar opposites to make his case, which, it could be argued, is bleakly appropriate. Interestingly, his speech also implies that the odds are against him. He makes appeals to common sense, to humanity, to our powers of observance – and thus he speaks as though he is trying to convince his audience, who, given their expressions in the video are largely unimpressed or indifferent. His gestures are really interesting too. Murray, in the above video hardly moves at all. Hitchens stretches his arm a bit, but his finger and thumb remain closed and directed at his head. Galloway’s expressions are angry. X is opening up his chest in the first few minutes of the video. His arm goes right out. It drops on the word ‘devil.’ This tells me that the atmosphere in the room was tense; he had to make a lot of appeals and crack jokes to break that tension.
I remember being in secondary school and there being a rather paltry series of lessons in which we were grouped together and had to debate a topic. I was against the motion ‘modern art is rubbish’. For one thing, did the question refer to modern art, as in the modernist movement, or did it actually refer to contemporary art – as in the YBAs? Well, I remember thinking that my performance could have been improved – but we were marked and my team won and that was the end of it. Later in college, I gave an appalling speech on what can only be described as the socialism of fools; the kind which is anti-McDonald’s and little else. No-one corrected me. No-one challenged me. No-one said I’d made huge and unjustifiable logical leaps. How many others are sitting in schools or bedrooms wishing to clarify their ideas through proper, head to head debates? How many others wish to make a hobby of it – one they can indulge in outside of an institution?
I don’t know how it would work, since I’d be learning myself – but it would be something along the lines of a loose curriculum or a syllabus; the interested people would come and meet once a week or whatever and we’d spend a few hours first looking at texts, speeches – things written for or about oration, then maybe some of the more recent talks made by prominent politicians etc; then we’d debate among ourselves and criticise each other’s performance. Part of me thinks video would be extremely helpful, so as to review how we’d improved (or not) during the course. Big kids with little kids. And no crying.