Inside the Australian Intervarsity Debating Championships with a mass debater

April 29, 2014
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Last week, I was lucky enough to have my university subsidise a trip to Melbourne so that I could hotly argue ideas with strangers under the guise of debating.

This was my third time as a debater at the Australian Intervarsity Debating Championships – lovingly known as Easters – and involved all the usual shenanigans that come with any congregation of 400 experienced arguers, free alcohol and two public holidays in the same week.

On a more serious note, this tournament is the largest annual gathering of Australian debaters, and often witnesses some of the highest standards of debating in the world. I think it’s an event that highlights the skill and importance of debating, while demonstrating that it’s not just for nerdy kids with pocket protectors.

Tournaments such as Easters and the Australasian-wide equivalent, Australs, also act as a solid marketplace of different ideas, and we usually see some pretty interesting attendees and speakers. This year’s Monash University hosts kept with a tradition created last year of having Katter family speakers. Last year’s Easters on the Gold Coast saw Bob Katter as the championship dinner keynote speaker, which was one of the more interesting speeches I’ve heard in my life.

This year, Bob junior’s half-brother and LGBT rights advocate, Carl Katter, was the keynote speaker at the championship dinner – which, similarly to last year, I used as an excuse to analyse group think behaviour by starting unnecessary rounds of applause during the most politically incorrect moments. (Yes, us debaters do have a warped sense of humour.) Another notable speech at this year’s Easters was by US Consular Officer Michael Allyn Brooks-Lasure. He gave a rather empowering speech about the importance of having the gift of the gab, all within the context of the civil rights movement. 

This Easters was my first year as a team ‘pro’. This essentially meant leading the team and having an overall say on how our case would run during the half an hour we got to prepare our debate after being given a topic. And speaking of topics – one of my personal highlights this year involved arguing that we ban the bible, as part of a debate on censoring offensive religious material.

As ideal as banning the bible would be in my imaginary utopia, I think that one of the best things about debating is being given the free reign to argue things that will never really work or that we strongly disagree with. Being forced to logically justify unimaginable stuff like banning the bible helps you to analyse all sides of an argument and see things from different angles.

Debating is a generally fun exercise even for the more introverted, and it really works to ask the bigger questions. This is especially true during more counterintuitive arguments. A favourite topic of mine from university debating over the years is “that murderers should be sentenced based on the social status of their victim”. Seems ridiculous, right? But it actually raised some quite significant questions about social contract theory and the role of retribution in the criminal justice system (i.e. should all people logically be considered ‘equal’ in a society where everyone contributes differently?).

There was no real answer to the murder sentence argument, and I doubt this would ever happen, but arguing it certainly provided lots of juicy food for thought.

This year was also the first time that my institution, The University of Technology, Sydney, had a team break into the finals in recent history. (I actually think in all UTS debating history, but nobody’s quite sure.) So, what did we argue about? The grand final topic was “that we should force artists to blind cast, unless a direct and proven need to do otherwise can be demonstrated”.

For the initiated, blind casting is the act of ignoring racial features, gender, sexuality, or other features when casting people for roles. The University of Sydney team was inevitably victorious on this topic. They persuaded the judges that there is a serious problem with minority representation in Hollywood, which ends up being detrimental to these communities as a whole, and that a blind casting model would fix this.

Strangely enough, the losing side of the house, from the Australian National University (widely regarded as the underdogs of this debate) ended up receiving a much larger applause than the USYD team, and even a standing ovation. In my opinion, they managed to convince us all that race and gender are characteristics that affect all characters and make them more three dimensional, however, the benefits of their opposing team’s model ended up putting them in the lead. 

I’m obviously biased, but I think that debating is absolutely fantastic. This is not just because it give me licence to make crude jokes at the expense of debaters studying mathematics based degrees (yes, that is a reference to a well-known “maths-debating” masturbation joke). Debating gives me a personal rush, and over time has taught me to overcome nervousness when talking to a crowd with little to no preparation.

Public debating is also probably the only place when you can discuss extremely politically sensitive topics, such as the emancipation of the ‘n’ word, side by side with really politically incorrect jokes and assertions – like my really lame jokes about the Bible being a magic book (which did actually get a lot of laughs) without being shot.

I would encourage anyone with any sort of interest to get involved in debating. Most of the campus societies are extremely friendly and encouraging, and even for the best debaters, the entire experience is about learning more and more. It also got me a $40/h position coaching debating at a primary school, allowed me to watch Bob Katter Jr. tell a room full of uni students that Australia single-handedly won WWII, and has given me more free drinks than all the 21st parties I’ve ever attended combined.

Sam Caldwell

Sam Caldwell goes to The University of Technology, Sydney and is studying a BA Communications (Journalism). He’s also a passionate debater.

Photo credit: Monash Easters

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