What if God was one of us? Thoughts on Eric’s criticism of the ESL final motion.

Datum: Aug 17th, 2011
Category: Themen, Turniere

Disclaimer: This article reflects my (Manos Moschopoulos’) own personal point of view, which does not necessarily reflect the opinion of anyone else involved with the Adjudication core or Organizing Committee of Belgrade EUDC 2012.

Addendum: Manos’ text refers to a Facebook group where a Dutch debater complains about the motion of the ESL final at the European Universities Debating Championships (EUDC or Euros) at Galway, Ireland. This very debater, Eric Stam, has also voiced his opinion on the website of the Dutch debating assosication. By the way, the motion read “This house believes that God exists”. Manos’ essay was first published on the website of the Dutch Debating Association or the Nederlandse Debatbond.

Last October I found myself in the company of Adriaan Andringa, Steven Nolan, Isa Loewe and Danique van Koppenhagen in the adjudication core of the UCU Open. While we were throwing motion ideas around, Danique offered one that struck me as odd, out-there, crazy, metaphysical, you name it. But I very much liked it. And so did the rest, and our final was Even if scientifically possible, THBT human life should not extend over 100 years.

The youngest (by a mile) member of our CA team offered a motion that, by Eric’s analysis, would be called a disgrace – or, if we accept the bad humour in which the word disgrace was used, a motion either too hard or not worthy of an ESL final. The fact that that member was also Dutch (and the tournament was in the Netherlands) sort of proves the point that these motions are not extremely foreign to Eric’s home circuit.

For the record, that final was a very good round and was eventually won by two prominent members of the ESL circuit: Jens Fischer and Anne Valkering in second opposition, while Sam Block’s Prime Minister speech in that round is still seven of the best minutes of debating anyone in that room has seen live.

But the point of this article is to deal with Eric’s complaints against the ESL final motion for this year’s Euros. For that, I’ll discuss religious arguments as a valid (and necessary) knowledge area for debaters, then go on to God’s existence as a perfectly balanced debate, then talk about its selection as a motion for the ESL final. Take a deep breath and here we go:

Religion as a knowledge area

Europe’s political discourse is quite loaded with religious debates and the strong presence of the various Christian denominations that in many cases have a direct impact on the voting patterns of individuals as well as the integration of non-Christians in European societies. It is also a key factor in the debate over Turkish EU accession, while the Balkans have seen religion tear the region apart and lead to large-scale conflicts that have left millions grieving and displaced.

It isn’t really true that the Netherlands (or any place in Europe) are devoid of religious people that are often quite fanatic about their beliefs, quite the opposite – the country’s ‘bible belt‘ pops up on every cartographic attempt to visualize what sort of names parents give their babies, the country was set up on the basis of an uprising against a denomination the locals deemed was not their own and, today, the fact that well educated people turn around and dismiss those arguments as ‘non-intuitive’ raises an alarming point: that we as a community seem to be unable to comprehend and engage with significant parts of our society that eventually will go out and vote for the only people that seem to care about them. Which also happen to be the sort of people that we don’t like.

A ‘well-rounded’ individual, which is what we demand our speakers to be, should be able therefore to understand what is at the centre of these arguments, which is nothing else than the belief that a lot of individuals have in the existence of God. Understanding why millions of people believe in something that we may find unrealistic demands that we know why they do so – eventually that is the only way that we can try and sway them towards adhering and supporting our own secular values which, sometimes, have their own semi-religious and certainly dogmatic element in supporting things like the universal freedom of people to say whatever, act in whichever way they please, sleep with whoever they wish and not be bound by other people’s set of beliefs.

God’s existence as a debate

Which brings us to the assessment of the motion as such. Eric claims the burden of proof in this debate on the proposition side is disproportional. I tend to disagree: I think that there is a wide range of arguments that point towards the existence of a superior power creating the world and most of those arguments are quite rational. I will happily concede that there is no proof beyond any reasonable doubt that God (or whatever you want to call your superior being) exists – but really, that is not our job out there. As Arielle Dundas brilliantly put it on my Facebook wall yesterday, it’s all about being the most persuasive team in the room.

Given that I’m not religious myself, I can understand why someone would think that “hey, that doesn’t prove there is a God” is a legitimate opposition line – I’ve used that against my family members on a number of occasions. What the opposition in this debate should be arguing is that there is sufficient proof to argue that God does not exist, which is closer to the status quo: it is the assumption upon which most (if not all) education systems in Europe strive to operate in.

No education system though would turn around and teach its pupils that “all of that is rubbish, God doesn’t really exist”. The good reason for that being, of course, that we really don’t know whether she does or doesn’t exist. The point eventually is that no-one can prove either beyond all reasonable doubt. Also, we can’t simply dismiss the most central ideology of millions of people across our continent by claiming their viewpoint is impossible to argue.

One of the better arguments against the motion however doesn’t come from Eric, but surfaced somewhere else on Facebook: that eventually all arguments about whether or not God exists as such exist in a parallel and rarely clash with each other. However, if we take a look at, for instance, debates regarding taxation and social welfare, they stem from two very incompatible theories (capitalism and socialism) which, by definition, are mutually exclusive. However, we do expect debaters to draw logical links from those theories and try to bring arguments that will persuade a seemingly neutral observer of their truth. You can pretty much do that in a debate that puts creationism on one side and natural selection on the other, which THBT God exists does and which THW not allow Intelligent Design to be included in the school science curriculum (round 6 at Worlds 2006) does by proxy.

Also, any sort of claim that the motion is unclear or hard to define is rather unfair as well – the best way to set it up is also the simplest: “something created all of this and we’ll call it God and tell you it exists”.

God in an ESL final

So we come to what I think is the most contentious of areas in Eric’s claims. Had this motion been set for the Open Break final, would we have had this reaction? Possibly not, given that Eric seems to be making the point that ESL speakers are unprepared (or even unfit) to have metaphysical debates.

If we look back onto what the usual complaints of the members of the ESL community have been, they were the fact that they were treated as lesser debaters by being handed, allegedly, worse motions and less experienced adjudication panels in their break rooms and elimination rounds. So here we are in 2011 when suddenly we get this claim that this motion is ‘too British for us’ – something Eric explicitly states when he says that such a debate is only part of the British debating culture. A blatant contradiction of course, given that Britain is a very secular place, so anything that links debating cultures and the institutionalization of secular values in society just goes down the drain.

It is true that continental tournaments often do not set this type of motions, but they do. The International Debate Academy in Slovenia, possibly the best-attended international BP training week I know of, ran a motion about outer space and trying to find aliens at least once, while first contact has also been debated quite frequently on the continent.

Making an argument that metaphysical debates are not well suited for the British Parliamentary format (the way Daniel Schut brilliantly makes in his own reaction to the motion) is one thing, however claiming that the ESL community is not ready for them begs the question: is our language category defined by our language barrier or by some sort of wall erected between the IONA and continental circuits which inhibits our ability to argue anything that isn’t linked to a policy or, at least, a very real and quantifiable consequence?

If the community accepts these motions as legitimate then we should prepare our teams for them. That also includes our ability to handle motions that are more open than usual, such as THBT democracy has failed that featured in this year’s Athens Open final. That should be the real response – not blasting an Adjudication core for setting a debate that we think is out of our comfort zone.

But on a further note, saying that we prepare for a specific type of motions that we expect alarms me: are we training our speakers to be good debaters or are we just training them to win a particular competition? In my view, we should be doing both. Speaking from the perspective of someone who lives and works in an area where debating activities are often linked to wider social goals, I see a lot of harms in telling our debaters that it’s all about coming up with three add-water-and-stir arguments that will win you most debates rather than trying to expand their knowledge base and their ability to argue about a wider set of motions.

There is also a claim that says that being in an ESL final adds extra pressure to the teams involved, thus making it harder for them to debate any given motion. However, last year I was one of the finalists that produced a pretty messy debate in the ESL final at a motion that was very down-to-earth or, as we might call it, ‘real-life’ and tangible. Most finals of competitions are not the best debates of the competition and doesn’t necessarily prove the motion set for them was bad.

Therefore, to reach a conclusion, I don’t think that the criticism of this adjudication core is either fair or justified. The motion is quite good, it can lead to a brilliant debate – however, the fact is that this year it did not. Therefore, we can take a sober look at the outcome and think about what approach we think continental debate training (and motion-setting) should look like and engage with what is a much more important debate to be had: whether metaphysics should be part of our British Parliamentary culture generally or not.

In so far as today it is, this was a proper motion and, if anything, prove that the Adjudication core believed that ESL speakers are just as capable as natives to engage with such a motion. If we go around and argue that we aren’t, we’re practically shooting ourselves in the foot and claiming that we are ‘lesser’ debaters than the others. Which we clearly (and thankfully) aren’t.

Manos Moschopoulos is one of the driving forces behind the Belgrade Bid for the European Universities Debating Championships 2012. He also is one of the most eminent debaters the European circuit has to offer. In 2010 at Koc Worlds in Turkey, he was awarded best speaker in the category ESL, or English as a Second Language. The same year, he was runner-up of the final at Amsterdam Euros. Ever since, he is a sought after chief adjudicator for numerous tournaments throughout the continent. He has already stopped by VDCH country earlier this year when he was CA-ing the Vienna IV in the Austrian capital in March.

Manos’ reflections on this were originally posted on the website of the Dutch debating association, the Nederlandse Debatbond. He appeared as an author for Achte Minute previously, most recently right before Euros when he gave an insight into the orgcomm of Belgrade Euros 2012 and in May when he wrote about how a homophobe audience attacked debaters at the final of the Split Open.

Addendum: Manos’ text refers to a Facebook group where a Dutch debater complains about the motion of the ESL final at the European Universities Debating Championships (EUDC or Euros) at Galway, Ireland. This very debater, Eric Stam, has also voiced his opinion on the website of the Dutch debating assosication. By the way, the motion read “This house believes that God exists”. Manos’ essay was first published on the website of the Dutch Debating Association or the Nederlandse Debatbond.
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