The Art of Debate in the 21st Century

There is an art to debating. That art can be traced all the way back to Ancient Greece, with some of1156735_53212445 the greatest minds, Plato and Aristotle. It was further refined by the Roman Senators such as Pliny the Elder and Marcus Cato. However, it was not until the 18th century, that which has been termed the Age of Enlightenment, that debate became a true scholarly pursuit and art. Also called the Age of Reason, it began in the late 17th century with such people as Sir Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, John Locke and Sir Isaac Newton. Across Western Europe thinking became fashionable. Salons were opened that catered to those who wished to chase not just scholarly pursuits, but wanted to engage others in discussing the very ideas that shaped the core of their society. From these places the art of debate was born.

Debate became such a part of society that by the end of the 17th century satirists would use it for IsaacCruikshank-DebatingSocfodder in their works.  In universities across Europe, debate societies began to spring up. The oldest one, the University of St. Andrews Debate Society can trace its origins back to 1794 and the Cambridge Union Society was founded in 1815. In these groups, young minds were able to but against each other in a controlled, civil fashioned the helped to foster some of the greatest changes Western society had ever know, changes that we can still feel to this day.

From a simple discussion of viewpoints between members of a town council, to the floor of the House of Representatives, debate is an intricate part of our society. Without certain mutually agreed upon rules, our arguments might devolve into simple shouting matches and name calling. Without it our founding fathers who never have been able to agree upon the articles of the Declaration of Independence and we would still be sipping tea, saying “Cheerio!” and “God Save the Queen!” (No offense to my British readers, you all are the Dog’s Bollocks, but hey, we Americans need our own culture.). Without debate our current government would devolve into petty squabbling, cursing and actual fights… For a bit of history, read up on Preston Brooks and Charles Sumner from the 1856 Congress. It will help if you add in the word “cane” to your Google search.

With knowledge of the history of debate and an understanding of its role in our society, that brings me to the intent of this post. Stop allowing your discussions with other people via the internet to devolve into petty name calling, shaming, bullying and out-right threats of attack. You are better than this people! You don’t believe me, do you? You don’t think it happens, or that it happens that often. You think what I am referring to is the work of immature children who have been allowed to walk the digital byways of our culture lacking adult supervision. I hate to say this, but you are incredibly wrong. To prove my point I have found a few examples with which to rest my case:

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Now, because my Ma taught me to never present a problem without a solution, we have arrived at the portion of this post where I will stick my two cents in for what it may be worth. Taken from the International Debate Education Association (IDEA – we find this information:

Public Forum Debate
Public Forum Debate offers students a unique opportunity to develop on-their-feet critical thinking skills by situating them in contexts not unlike US political talk shows. Public Forum debaters must anticipate numerous contingencies in planning their cases and must learn to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances as discussions progress. Public Forum’s open-ended cross-examination format encourages the development of unique rhetorical strategies. Public Forum debates should be transparent to lay audiences, while providing students with real-world public speaking skills, through the discussion of contentious ideas.

Public Debate
IDEA believes that debate should not be limited to the setting of competitive debate tournaments in which only students take part, but instead feels that debate should operate within a broader context of public participation and should embrace different segments of a community. IDEA strongly encourages its members to promote and support public access to debate through the organization of public debates and by inviting the public to debate competitions.


Looking through the website you can find a great deal of information on debates. However, I am not suggesting that each time you get into an argument that you whip out a copy of Robert’s Rules of Order (, but rather have an understanding of the structure of a debate. Each discussion or debate normally has a topic. I first learned about debate in high school. Yes, I am so old that we had this as a class. Our teacher, Mrs. James, walked us through the structure and rules of debates, before finally putting us into them. She would provide a topic, such as “Birth control, among high school students, is a necessary tool.” From there, we would be allowed to choose which side of the argument we stood on, whether we were pro, or for the topic’s idea, or Con, against the topic’s idea.

By the end of the semester we had become experienced in debating, and our final exam was a debate where the teacher chose the topic and which side we were on. I state this, because it brings about a necessary element to debate: research. Being given a topic is one thing. You probably have an understanding of it, and you know what side you are on. However, being given both the topic and the side from which you must argue, that necessitates research. I encourage you, when you find yourself in a discussion (especially online) to take stock of what you know and understand concerning its topic. If you do not have the necessary knowledge, perhaps you might want to brush up on the information before you dive in.

I’m not asking you to immediately search up the necessary details for a fifty page dissertation, but having a better than average knowledge of the topic will help to prevent your side of the argument from devolving into name calling and beating people with a cane.

So, a topic has been put forth, someone has made their opening statement and you’ve been allowed to speak your piece. Here is where the real meat and potatoes of debate comes in: the rebuttal. The person you are in a discussion with has the opportunity to refute your argument and evidence. Of course, when they are finished, you also have this ability, which will more than likely further the conversation, but then isn’t that what we want out of debate? We are looking for a venue to share thoughts, ideas and opinions. We are looking to do this intelligently, calmly and through the use of critical thinking. In doing so we are able to hear different sides of argument on the topic and in the end make up our own mind about it.

Sometimes this will lead to one person changing their mind on where they stand concerning the topic. That is something wonderful, because it concretely reinforces our need for debate. The swaying of minds to an opinion like our own. In other times will end in a stalemate, where neither side will budge from the opinion, but perhaps walks away a little bit wiser on another person’s viewpoints.

Finally, I would ask that besides researching to understand your topics, allowing your opponent the chance to speak their mind and opinion, and allowing for stalemates between the two of you, think of the ability to simply walk away from the conversation. Sometimes we cannot express ourselves in the most eloquent ways (see above examples). This does nothing to help our side of the argument and does everything to make ourselves look less than intelligent and credible. If you cannot find a way to speak your mind using intelligence, critical thinking and patience: walk away.

It can be difficult out there in internetlandia. There are trolls, seeking to draw us into explosive arguments simply for the joy of watching our little heads light up like Christmas trees before blowing the circuit breaker on the entire house. There are people out there who simply want to abuse and bully others of a differing opinion than their own. Don’t be them. Be intelligent, critical and most of all patient. Cheers!


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