Sunday, February 3, 2008

What the Heck We're Talking About

After my last post, it occurred to me that some of our readers might be utterly perplexed by pretty much everything I was writing. And by "it occurred to me" I mean that I was made aware by Meredith's family in the comments section. If you already know what British parliamentary style debate is, or have read this snazzy wikipedia article, you can probably go without reading this. Or you can correct me in the comment section: your call.

British Parli is a form of debate wherein four teams compete against each other, which is perhaps rather confusing to Americans who are accustomed to debate rounds with two teams per round, or who can't fathom an argument outside of black-and-white, diametrically opposed sides... such as our president. These four teams are each assigned a position in the debate: first proposition, first opposition, second proposition, and second opposition. Each of these two person teams then tries to establish themselves as the best in the round through some combination of 'role fulfillment,' style, and good argument.

The round opens with the first prop speaker presenting a case in favor of the resolution. For example, our third round topic was, to paraphrase, the non-profit file sharing of digital media files should be legalized. In my first prop speech, I argued that no longer prosecuting file sharers would move us toward open source software and away from the present day music industry. This position is sometimes called the prime minister.

Then came the first opposition speaker, or leader of the opposition. His or her obligation is to refute arguments put forward by the first prop speaker and to introduce new matter in opposition to the resolution. In this round, he attacked our points about open source and the music industry before moving on to arguments about how it would harm the economy to endorse our model since it would harm revenue and cost jobs.

The second proposition speaker then begins, who is sometimes called the deputy prime minister, rebuilding the case of the proposition, largely by refuting the arguments of the leader of the opposition and introducing more justifications for the resolution. In our round, Meredith talked about the marketplace of ideas improving as a result of increasing communication.

The second opposition speaker, or deputy leader of the opposition, then performs a role similar to that of the deputy prime minister by refuting arguments and introducing new matter - in this case, arguments about the decline of the movie and game development industries.

At this point the first proposition and first opposition team are done with their speaking time for the round. These speakers will hope that their arguments are strong enough to stand and remain relevant throughout the round and in the eyes of the judge, and perhaps help that along with some well placed points of information, or questions, to the non-debater.

The back half of the debate then begins with the third opposition speaker, the first to talk on behalf of the second proposition. This speaker, also called the member of government, will aim to distinguish their side from the first proposition without contradicting (knifing) them. They might bring up more principled points if the first prop focused on pragmatic issues. In this round, the third prop speaker talked about benefits that would come from regulating digital file sharing.

The third opposition speaker then does pretty much the same thing for the other side. In our round, the first speaker from the second opposition team discussed problems that would arise from hacking, among other points. This speech is sometimes called the member of the opposition.

The last two speeches, the fourth proposition and fourth opposition, are rebuttal speeches in much the same way they would be in any other debate activity. While answering the arguments raised by earlier speakers, the debaters, sometimes called the government and opposition whips, convince the judge to see the round in light of their side of the resolution, and ideally to convince them that their half of the bench (which is to say the second and not the first prop or opp) is the reason for that victory.

Following the round, the judges deliberate to reach a consensus about the round. In probably the biggest contrast with American debate, the three or five or however many judges do not render individual decisions, and then total them up to determine a winner. Rather, the judges agree on the raking of the teams by convincing one another to see things their way. In this process, the teams are ranked 1-4 and speakers are individually assigned points. While I can't speak to how speaker points work, the ranks are totaled up to determine the teams that advance to the break rounds. You get three points for a 1, two for a 2, one for a 3, and zero points when ranked 4. At the Inner Temple Inter-Varsity, we were able to clear with a minimum of ten points or so. Ranked 3-4-1-1-1 in our five preliminary rounds, we received points of 1-0-3-3-3.

With eight teams advancing to two semi-final rooms, the top two teams in each of those rounds advanced to the final round. At some tournaments, such as this one, the final topic is announced beforehand so that people can prepare arguments for a higher quality round. Indeed, the final, featuring a slew of law students on a topic about the charter on human rights and the power of UK courts to enforce its provisions, was one of the substantively better parli debates I've seen.

Well, if this makes our descriptions a little less confusing, we're glad. And if you're a brtish pali style who wants to correct us, we heartily encourage you to do so. If you're an American debater looking to start a flame war about the activity being lame, go ahead: the comment counts make us feel loved.


Nancy said...

I am certain I am not smart enough to debate with the british parli style. In fact, I'm pretty certain I'm not smart enough to even sit through watching one and have a glimmer of a clue what's going on, but it does sound terribly exciting. Thanks for the tutorial!
Is this anything like the semester of Portuguese that I took that jettisoned my ability to think in Spanish, and now you're going to debate in the British style evermore, unable to go back to the "American way"?


Judith Strom said...

yes thank you for explaining the process, it is so much fun to read about all issues you debate. meredith is a fast learner so those Brits better watch out, love mom judith

Meredith Price said...

I'm glad everyone is on the same page. I think that both British and American style debating have positive attributes. I think the British style is still so novel to me, and the accents are so mesmerizing, that Cardiff next weekend should be great fun. Thanks for following the trip. I tried to call you Mom, I'll try again. Thanks for following the tour Nancy!


deb said...

Very helpful background information. I can now pretend I know what's going on.

Maybe The Readership would like to hear a little more about what outfits you wear. Are there white wigs with curls, and robes? Or a small tiara? I'm not too knowledgable about UK customs. Love the cross-cultural learning.