Monday, March 12, 2007

LSE Open 2007

Well, I survived.

The tournament was a huge success. Everyone had great fun, the organisation was sharp and I saw some good debates. In particular, the debate on selling citizenship brought out interesting questions such as the price/value distinction which rarely emerge in debating.

The winners were Sam Block and Diairmuid Early. The best speaker on tab and in the final was Sam Block. The best team on the tab were "The Half-Chinese Construction Barrister Lobby Group" composed of Alex Wright and Shannon Eastwood.

The motions were:

Round 1: This house would Directly Elect the British Prime Minister.
Round 2: This house would Admit Taiwan to NATO.
Round 3: This house would provide tax breaks to couples with children.
Round 4: This house would crimininalise smoking and drinking while pregnant.
Round 5: This house would allow individual British people to sell their citizenship.
Quarter-final: This house would introduce a 28% flat rate of tax on any income above £9000 per year.
Semi-final: This house believes those suspected of crimes against humanity should be tried in British courts regardless of where the crime took place.
Final: This house would leave the European Union.

Two trends I noticed. Firstly, debating is becoming very, very law oriented, almost to the exclusion of all other disciplines. Only international relations is still permitted to muddy the water. At the mere notion of financial or, particularly, tax implications in a motion there is a widespread sense of resentment and a chorus of "boring". This hasn't always been the case, when I started out, not so long ago, it was non-political legal theory motions that got such a reaction but they are now the vogue.

That debating might come to be dominated by lawyers is entirely understandable, although possibly a shame, as it is such a vital training for the bar; trainee barristers who haven't debated during their undergraduate years are a sad sight. However, with an economics training I find it pretty alarming that the legal minds of the future find economics so alien for a couple of reasons:

Firstly, legal thinking has been radically affected by the ideas coming out of economics. The Coase Theorem is the classic example but there is an entire journal devoted to the 'law and economics' genre. Secondly, many of the consequences of all the cases that these future barristers go on to argue will play out through the economic system and, often, through the tax system which they find so boring. Having an interest in these issues seems vital to any lawyer who wants to understand the world the law operates in and the interests of their clients.

The second trend was that the anti-French meme had been taken to bizarre levels. In almost every round the debate was somehow related, by at least one speaker in each round, back to the shortcomings of the Gauls. Myself and Neill Harvey-Smith (there is a funny account of just how tenuous some of the critiques of France were on his blog) were discussing this before the final and joking that things weren't likely to improve with a motion about the European Union. That proved alarmingly prescient as an American team defined the final into a joke (which was good fun but something of a shame) about how awful the French were and that they should leave the EU.

I am hardly a great apologist for the French political system and the country is far from perfect but at what stage does a funny, ironic old rivalry become ugly and closed-minded? Voltaire, Montaigne, Bastiat, Rousseau; most nations would be proud of just one of them. That is but a tiny sample of the French contribution in one field and the French can boast a similarly impressive achievement in almost any important human activity you care to mention. Jokes about the shortcomings of France are funny but if we use them too often might we internalise the joke and actually blind ourselves to the breadth and depth of the French contribution to the best things in life? Or am I taking things too seriously?


Anonymous said...

Lawyers have always been overrpend-you sure this isn't just or at least because your comptions(the ones you're at) have changed-no longer unacculatued novices dabbling ect?

Think you have a point onthe French point-

why can' people bash the Swedes instead?

Meg said...

First of all, good job with the running of the tournament and everything. I liked the citizenship motion too.

Second, while I certainly don't intend this to be a oneupsmanship thing, I do think that the huge prevalence of legal motions is something that the US circuit handles better than the BP circuit. The kinds of cases that are allowed are MUCH broader, so we're much less limited to legal stuff and current events. Also, requiring a model in practically every round means that you're mostly limited to topics that can be "implemented" in some way in current society. Analysis debates, which make up a very large percentage of American rounds, let you debate things that are really interesting to talk about in the abstract even if they aren't about being for or against doing a specific thing. (I think this is self-reinforcing to a pretty large extent-- just look at people's reactions when motions go up on the screen. If something's been done a lot before, people groan; if it's way out of left field, they groan even more. That pretty much leaves you with "safe" areas like the law and IR that you can choose new things from because they keep changing all the time. Obviously these are both good areas to debate, but I think more exposure to analysis rounds would make BP debaters less likely to fall back on these as being nearly the only viable option.) For example, while a bad gov team can make them go very badly, I think cases that make the judge somebody specific (an international leader, for example) are great because it's an exercise in a different kind of debating and coming up with arguments you'd never have thought of if you weren't trying to convince, say, Hu Jintao of your case.
That was way, way longer than I meant it to be.

Only other thing I wanted to add was that the "France leaving the EU" round really wasn't because the Americans wanted to bash France. They spent over half their time trying to pull together enough info to run it "straight," then finally decided that the only way they had a chance on this motion against two and a half British teams was to catch the others off guard and prop it in such a way that the Britons didn't have such a gigantic informational advantage. France, I'm sure, was chosen because that tends to be the European country Americans know most about after the UK... and probably for the comedy value as well. :)

Matthew Sinclair said...

Edmund, my impression of the change in the kinds of motions and what people like in a motion was shared by Neill who has been on the circuit, and a 'pro', for longer.

Good point well made Meg. I suggested an analysis round for the final but Jess really hates them. I think that's a discussion the debate community should really be having. Possibly Worlds will need to lead the change as I think its the trend-setter.

Matthew Sinclair said...

Oh, and I don't think the problem was running France as the country to withdraw. You can make an argument for that (undermining the welfare state etc.) and I see the tactical reasons. However, they did choose France and to make the debate a joke. Fair play, it was fun, but it does seem a shame to throw such a big final like that.

Mr Eugenides said...

As someone who was debating back in what I think we can call "the old days" (mid-late 90's), allow me a couple of observations which spring from this "when I were a lad" theme:

When I first started there were far fewer IVs than nowadays; societies' budgets varied, of course, but even many top debaters might only do a half-dozen domestic competitions a year (this was particularly true of Scots and Irish debaters), partly for reasons of cost and time; travelling from Glasgow to London, Oxford, Cambridge and Cork, say, on subsequent weekends is an expensive and tiring business).

I remember being astonished, going to the USA with the ESU in the late 90's, that people were debating every weekend, until my partner pointed out that many English debaters did exactly the same. Now every society has an IV: most weekends see a choice of two or sometimes even three competitions. So people do a lot more debating, broadly speaking, than their predecessors did.

It's also worth pointing out that, prior to 1996, there was no standard set of rules for Worlds; tournaments basically picked their own (Princeton Worlds in 1995 was run in US Parliamentary format, though there were some concessions to the international nature of the tournament). But it didn't matter when we were doing domestic IVs: we all knew what the rules were, and a photocopy of the standing orders of the Mace normally sufficed, along with a printout of a marking scheme for adjudicators (which varied more widely than now). Since 1996 there has been a single, standard set of Worlds rules, and even though for British debaters they really only codify what they already know (and have some significant shortcomings), these have filtered down to all levels of domestic debate and become an accepted (though not universal) standard.

The upshot of this increasing "professionalisation" is twofold, I think. First, as people put more and more time into debating, and go to more competitions, they have more time and more incentive to research topics. I remember being mildly scandalised in 1997 when a 1st prop team at Worlds produced a briefcase and ran a case they'd prepared in advance. Now it's utterly standard practice. I never bothered because I did half a dozen competitions a year: I was a good enough debater that if I got 1st Prop in a final once a year and got found out by my lack of preparation, it wasn't a disaster, as hopefully I'd get another chance the next time. The potential reward was simply not worth the time required to cover all the major topics. If you do fifteen IVs a year, though, the balance shifts radically. So you have a kind of "arms race" - the minimum level of knowledge and research goes up year-on-year. Winging it, as I used to do, is just not a viable option any more.

Second, and related, the "technical" side of debating has become more important. Open adjudication (which again is much more common now) means that debaters expect explanations for their rankings which go beyond vague bromides about how good everyone was and how difficult it was to pick a winner. Judges now have to justify their decisions by reference to a set of publicly accepted standards (and rightly so) - and factors like funny jokes, style, an elegant turn of phrase or a put-down that draws applause from the audience simply aren't considered acceptable grounds on which to give a team a fourth place rather than a third. Rather, teams are told several times every week about the importance of structure, of evidence, of technical points rather than generalities. If teams are consistently losing debates because their structure isn't up to scratch, for example, then naturally the importance of structure will grow over time. And this is doubly true of Worlds; in the absence of a clear common instinct of what makes a good speech or a bad one, everything has to come back to the rules, so teams learn to abide by the rules.

Lawyers have these skills (or, if they don't, they need to acquire them anyway). The gap between mooting and debating has shrunk as the structured, evidence-based, technical side of the latter has increased and the importance of rhetoric has declined. The skillset required to win debates on a regular basis is fairly close to that required to be a barrister; and over time it seems that's increasingly so. I don't know if lawyers form a larger proportion of the debating pool than they did ten years ago, and I don't know why economics is seen as the dismal science in relation, but if the art of debating becomes a wholly-owned subsidiary of the legal profession then we'll all be the poorer for it.

Anonymous said...

Do you know of anyone who took any good photos at LSE that weekend? I’m mainly talking about sweeping panoramic photos of the debaters in the HK theatre and ones of the quarters, semis and final.

I know the answer is almost certainly going to be, “no, even debaters aren’t that sad” but thought I’d give it a go.

Alex Marsh

Matthew Sinclair said...

Joshua Lo took some pictures for Jess Harvey Smith which she said would go up on Facebook. They're not up yet though.

Communication consultant said...

Mr Eugenides, who, in my book, was one of the three best debaters ever, is right. Worlds has only closed motions, which tell you exactly which policy to propose. There used to be a place for semi-open "THW do something about Russia" and totally open motions at tournaments. Casefiles spoiled that by having one team reel out an obscure case and everyone else spout nonsense in response. It would be good to have variety. Perhaps LSE should take the lead.