About Life, Debating And How To Become A Better Debater – An interview with Owen Mooney

Datum: 8. November 2017
Kategorie: [:de]International[:en]international[:], Menschen, Mittwochs-Feature

A few days ago, we interviewed the magnificient Owen Mooney, current EUDC champion. We asked him some questions about his debating development and which advice he would give to novices and debaters who seek to become better. Enjoy some funny stories, expert suggestions and clever comments!

Achte Minute (AM): When did you start to debate? And what was your motivation, so why did you start?

Owen Mooney: So, I first started when I came to Glasgow about four to five years ago. I just went to some training sessions fairly regularly and didn’t go to any competitions until half way through my second year. In terms of why I did it, I’m not really sure. There was nothing like debating at my school, but I guess it was something I was interested in the idea of, so I gave it a try during fresher’s week, went to the public debate and a couple of introductory sessions. Then I’d made some friends, so I kept it up at least partially for the social side.

Owen Mooney in the Open final at EUDC Tallinn 2017 © Mihkel Leis, mihkelleis.ee

Owen Mooney in the Open final at EUDC Tallinn 2017 © Mihkel Leis, mihkelleis.ee

AM: Debaters often try to convince others to start to debate by explaining real life benefits like “you can improve your free speech skills, your self-confidence in front of an audience etc”. Did you have any explicit “aims” or “hopes”?

Owen Mooney: I definitely have gained a lot of those sorts of skills from debating, confidence especially, but I don’t think I first started in order to get them. I maybe did expect to get better at convincing people of things, but I primarily took it up because it was something I found interesting rather than expecting to get something out of it.


AM: A few months ago, you and your partner Bethany won the euros in Tallinn. Are you planning to continue your “speaker career” or are you going to focus on judging now?

Owen Mooney: Well, I definitively don’t speak competitively anymore. So, this means that for several years my big motivation was to either win worlds or euros and I am not trying to do that anymore. I will still speak at occasional competitions, maybe I will do some Pro-Ams. Also, I will probably do some opens with people and definitely some competitions with our worlds squad, so that I can try to help them. But besides that, I will focus basically on judging.


AM: You were one of the CAs at the NAMDA Novice a few days ago. That’s usually not seen as being one of the highly prestigious things, so why did you do that?

Owen Mooney:  I just don’t really care about how prestigious a CAship or competition is. I mean in any way, it is an honour to be asked. And as well, I think novice competitions are important to contribute and to give something back. I think this applies especially for people who had a lot of competition success. Given that this is an activity that I got a lot out of, like gaining skills and making a lot of friends, I think it is important to make sure that others can also have the same opportunities that I had.

Further, I think this is especially important because NAMDA, as the region of Northern and Midlands of England, has historically not been a very strong debating region. I mean it is just not like in Scotland, where we have many, very well established, long running debating societies, or like in Oxford or Cambridge or anything like that. So especially there, novice competitions are crucial for people for sticking in the activity and getting better in it. Also, I think it is very important for the competitive nature or competitive integrity of UK debating, as a whole, to make sure that the standard, across all regions, is as high as possible.

The other thing is, I really enjoy CAing novice competitions. Because my philosophy for CAing in general is to not set motions that have been done recently. This means, at regular competitions, I cannot set all the really good, classical motions, that have been done loads of times. But at novice competitions you can set these motions, that have been done to death, but still produce good and interesting to hear debates.


AM: What was your best debating experience or moment, either in a debate or at a competition in general?

Owen Mooney: Oh yeah, definitely the best debating moment was when me and my partner Chris broke at Malaysia worlds in 2015, for the first time. We were not really expecting to break. Even if we had some success before, like we had broken at Cambridge and got a couple of other breaks, we did not expect that to happen. We were more like “Ok, let’s go there and let’s just see how it goes”. I actually remember that exactly. The first day we took 3x 2nds, then on day two we went 2nd, 3rd, 3rd. So, at the end of day two we were at -2 team points. Then on day three, we go into round seven and we have no idea how we have done. After that we go in round eight and literally didn’t know any of the other teams. So, we assumed that we were probably really dead in the water. Then, the draw for round nine comes up, and I still remember it like it was yesterday, in our room was Oxford A, Oxford B and Cambridge C. My partner and I just started to laugh semi-hysterically for the first five minutes of our prep. But I remember we beat Oxford A in that one and that they came 3rd, with only one speaker point ahead of Cambridge, and if they would have been 4th they would not have been broken. What is weird, because they ended up making it to the final. But that was definitely by far my favourite debating moment, to know that we had beaten them from the top half and then to break at worlds. Because now it is more like that I just expect myself to break at competitions and am disappointed if I don’t, but on the other hand I am not super happy if do. But that break, back then in Malaysia, genuinely meant a lot to me, also in terms of proving myself that I am good enough and that I can do it.


AM: That sounds really good! On the other hand, what was your worst debating experience or moment, either in a debate or at a competition?

Owen Mooney: Oh, there is actually a couple things to choose from. One would probably be the year after that, the Thessaloniki WUDC 2016, where we had exactly the opposite experience. So, we were 6th of the tab on the end of day two, then made triple 4ths on day three and did not break at all. We dropped like a hundred places on the team tab. That was quite disappointing, especially because it was Chris’ and mine last competition together. And then to end it like this, after we had a lot success, was very sad.

The other potentially worst debating moment was at Ljubljana IV, a couple of years ago. We did that before Vienna EUDC, so we went there for prep. We arrived there, at the first night, checked in to our hostel and went out for drinking. Then, me, my partner and a guy from Edinburgh ended up staying up quite late. But then I got separated from them at two or three in the morning. And I was like “Ok, no problem. I will just walk back to my hostel.” and I decided to take a shortcut. Unfortunately, I ended up somewhere not knowing where I was. Eventually, I hailed a taxi. And what did I do? Of course, I told the taxi driver to bring me to my hostel. But sadly, he wanted to know the name of my hostel and that was something I did not know. So, I said: “Oh shit, my phone is dead, I don’t know the address or the name of my hostel. Please, just drive me to different hostels, so that I can check which one is mine.” Then after five or six different hostels that we checked, he kicked me out. After that I went to an hotel that was open and asked them: “Where is the nearest hostel?”. They told me it was around 100 metres down the street. But I was absolutely tired, checked in into the hotel and slept there. The next morning, I found out that the hostel, which was 100 metres away, would have been my hostel.

Meanwhile, my partner went home, crushed through the door, shouted: “I lost Mooney!” and then passed out in his bed. The next morning, they woke up, realised I was not there and half of them immediately decided that the best thing to do was to sort of jump into my grave. Actually, Bethany was the only person who was on the foreign office’s website, googling for “What to do if a person goes missing abroad.”. In the end, it all worked out fine, but I was dead and I guess that was my worst debating related experience.


AM: Did you ever have any heroes, role models or people who inspired you? Someone who you would have said about: “I wish I could do XYZ as person ABC does it.”.

Duncan Crowe at his 3rd Master's Final ©DutchWUDC2017

Duncan Crowe at his 3rd Master’s Final – © DutchWUDC2017

Owen Mooney: Well, I think in general in life I try not to compare myself to others. Hence, I don’t really do the whole role models thing. The closest I had to that was Duncan Crowe. Actually, he came to Glasgow the same year as me, but he started his master’s and had been debating for a while. He was my trainer in my second and third year and ran our senior’s training for a long time. Probably, he has been the person who inspired me the most, especially in terms of showing us that Glasgow could achieve certain things. I think he also was the first partner I won a competition with. Especially when I started debating, he was just one of the persons who knew by instinct how to win a debate. That really impressed me and was always something I wanted to be able to do.


AM: Did you ever want to quit debating? Maybe for example because you started to think things like “it’s only about arrogant people talking about things they have no real clue of”?

Owen Mooney: Oh well, yeah, please don’t get me wrong. The more I have done this, the more I think this is true and the more I am certain that no one knows anything. There are so many topics that, when they are debated, have no relationship to what the real world is like. But I never really recall that I wanted to quit. Probably the closest I ever came to that was in my first year, when I was aggressively terrible. In my first year, I was not a complete idiot or anything like that, but I really could not win debates. And it was only at the end of my first year that I started to realise what debating actually was about. I guess the only reason I did not quit was because I already was really socially involved in debating.


AM: From your perspective, how much is winning big competitions, like the euros, about luck and how much is it about skills or intrinsically being better than the other teams?

Owen Mooney: Of course, it is a combination of both. Just from my own experience, I think that usually the difference between the team that breaks top and the team that breaks 10th is literally almost nothing. This means a lot only depends on things like whether you get a motion that you are good at or whatever side of the draw you are on. So yes, luck does play a huge role. For example, I also remember this situation when we broke to the worlds semis on a 3-3 split. When the margin is that fine, it is clear that there is a big element of luck playing an important role.

Having said that, I think the way it probably works is people who are better will tend to have, firstly, more chances and, secondly, better chances to have luck. This means to at least some extent you make your own luck. I would never be able to assume, one the basis of one tab or one competition, if a team is necessarily good or bad. But over large numbers of competitions, on average, teams who are intrinsically better will perform better. So, skill does definitely matter, too.


AM: Did you and Bethany practise together purposefully for the euros? If yes, how?

Owen Mooney: Yes, we did a lot! Our and my philosophy has always been that the way you get better at debating is by doing debating. This means we just did a lot of preparation competitions. I think we did every single one that was on in the UK running up to that. And I even tried to speak at the ones Bethany could not make it to. That was the first thing. The second thing was, even if we did that a lot more prior to the worlds, that we made sure that we had decent fundamental knowledge about all important, big topics. So rather than preping specific motions we for example asked ourselves, in terms of IR motions: “What are the important areas in the world? What is going on there?”. And then we made sure that we knew enough about these regions. Other than that, we also made sure that we practised speaking before round one. Like the night before the competition started, we and the other teams from Scotland did a round together. And on the morning of the outrounds, Bethany and me did a top quarter. Because especially when it is coming to the first debate of the day there is often a lot rust and it is just important to break through that as quickly as possible


AM: Besides doing debates, what would you recommend to people who want to become better debaters?

Owen Mooney: Well that may sound simplistic, but I believe the most important thing you can do is just to think about things. That is a bit vague, but what I mean is, that very often people recommend you to read stuff like the economist or whatever and I am sure that is useful and good to do. But it is not just about reading, but rather about thinking about the world. So how do things work, why do they work in a particular way and how might that apply in a debates context. Of course, this can be stuff like thinking through possible motions, but it can also just mean to make sure that you take an interest in a lot of things that happen in the world in a lot of different topics. The thing about debating is, you need to be able to debate on a very wide range of topics, rather than specialising in one field.  And in debates we never do really deep or really special things. For example, in a philosophy debate all of the philosophy we do is below that what a first-year undergraduate does. Similarly, it goes with economics or whatever, all you ever do is picking up a very basic concept or phenomenon and explaining it very slowly and clearly. So, you need to know the basic in many areas, but you don’t need to know very much beyond that.


AM: What do you think about case filing? Is it useful? What are the advantages and disadvantages?

The GGU delegation at the Durham Open with winners Bethany Garry (standing) and Owen Mooney (in chair) - © GGU

The GGU delegation at the Durham Open with winners Bethany Garry (standing) and Owen Mooney (in chair) – © GGU

Owen Mooney: Literally the only things that I have as case files are four info sheets with lists of names of countries or organisations and their leaders. So, who is the president or prime minister, what are the main parties and, similarly, some information about NGOs, terrorist groups et cetera. The joke is that if you give an example for a case and give some proper names or facts, then you get two speaker points higher. That is definitely true, especially in IR. Unfortunately, sounding like you know things is sometimes more important than really knowing things. Other than that, I don’t case file specific motions and I have never watched videos of debates or something like that. I know some people who do find these things helpful, but just personally I don’t and it is not something that I have done with either Chris or Bethany. Additionally, I only have a few odds and ends from my degree, so I have a few pages about international development, but I think I never used those. Having said that, I believe that, at least to some extent, this also because I have quite a good memory for stuff that I have read. Maybe, this is one reason why I don’t feel a big need for case filing.


AM: Ok. So, the reason why you don’t case file is just a personal preference and not that you believe that it is useless?

Owen Mooney: Yes.


AM: What is the first and most fundamental thing that a novice must learn?

Owen Mooney: By far the most important skill, and what I always look for, is “matter generation”, so being able to come up with a wide variety of arguments. The reason why I think that this is the most important skill is that it makes learning all the other skills so much easier. So, you can teach and explain to people how to do rebuttal, but it is much easier to understand that if you are able to come up with five different arguments for a case. Whereas, if you are only able to think of one, and that one is not the right one or not strong enough, then you will never be able to learn how to use that for rebutting someone. Similarly, I think that, especially at lower novice levels, in a lot of stuff, like understanding the clash or being able to win a specific comparative or framing, it makes it much easier to go up and get better.

On a top level, most of the times everyone will know in advance of the debate what everyone else is going to say. Of course, you can’t know what analysis they will give, but you can know what arguments they are trying to run and what they are trying to prove, usually. But I think at a novice level or when you are beginning, it is much more important to come up with good arguments, because no one is really good at all the other debating stuff, like framing or rebuttal.


AM: On the other side then, what is the last thing or skill that makes the difference between very good and excellent debaters?

Owen Mooney: That’s an interesting question! Probably, the last thing, in terms of what I learned to do and what mattered a lot, was pre-emption. So, beating arguments before they are even given and that not just in a way of giving prebuttal, but more in a way of giving arguments in your speech that beat out whole cases, regardless how well they are made. Other than that, I think it is just developing a strategic sense of what is the most important thing to prove. A lot of the times, I think the difference between the very top-level teams in a certain debate is made by who is able to know which is the most important thing to prove, because they are all making their arguments equally well. This is not necessarily about the highest impact, especially in debates with many, very inter-linked arguments, but about knowing what the key thing to prove is.


AM: What is not perfect in debating? Assuming you had the power to change whatever you want, what would you improve about debating or the structure around debating?

Owen Mooney: I don’t know if I would change any of the rules or something like that, probably not. But the biggest issue I have is that people often re-use arguments. So, some arguments are becoming some sort of stock, even if they don’t necessarily have much explanation behind them. Unfortunately, I am not really sure how to change that.

In terms of something that is changeable, I would want people to understand or know more about basic principles, so philosophical principles, questions like: “Where do rights come from and why do we have them?”. That’s something a lot of debaters, unfortunately, are not able to answer. And I think the difference between Bo and Fanele winning worlds on large principal cases is that they are able to do that, so to fill out the gaps with explanations and to not just appeal to the people’s intuition. Sadly, the quality of how principal arguments are run is often quite low.


AM: Do you think every topic should be debateable? Or are some topics totally taboos?

Owen Mooney:  I think whenever discussions like this come up the first thing to always remember is that debating is, first of all, a social, voluntary activity. So, you and your partner should find every topic enjoyable, at least to a certain extent. And even if not everyone enjoys every motion, at the very least it should not be something that alienates people or makes them to not want to continue with the activity. There definitely could be motions on reproductive rights or something related to sexual violence, because at least in the abstract they could lead to good debates. But nonetheless, in general I believe this is not something that people enjoy debating about a lot of the times. Beyond that, in terms of stuff you genuinely should not debate, this would only apply to things that are logically or morally indefensible.


AM: Now we got some more questions from the community, some are more and some are less serious. “How can I find general meta-level topics (freedom, security, …) with pro and con arguments for beginners?”

Owen Mooney: I am sorry, I really don’t know. I think I personally learned that by trial and error or having them explained to me by trainers. In terms of resources, I don’t really know where you could go online to find such stuff. I think a lot of this is just about intuition. The way I always do or did it was to think about what I would try to run on the other side and then to identify the clash by that and therefore also the meta-topics.


AM: “What is your favourite SSDC institution outside of Scotland?”

Owen Mooney: Definitively Newcastle!


AM: “Why Oxbridge sucks?”

Owen Mooney: No comment.


AM: “How to meme?”

Owen Mooney: I don’t know, because I don’t make memes. I guess Photoshop is the answer.


AM: Thank you very much for your time!

The interview was conducted by René Geci.



Mittwochs-Feature: Every Wednesday the Mittwochs-Feature features an idea, interview or book regarding debate – usually in German, sometimes in English, sometimes both. If you would like to do a feature regarding a certain topic please mail us your idea to team [at] achteminute [dot] de.

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