sciences po IV 2009, le havre

it has been an extremely long week with a huge activity-filled weekend, so today’s holiday was a much needed breather. for the most part  i was horribly sick after mistakenly eating dark soy sauce with kimchi dumplings. i probably missed half my classes in total as a result of extreme stomach gas, bouts of nausea and then a full day of uncontrollable diarrhea. sleeping and eating late every night as a result of z’s organizing the debate tournament didn’t help my health much either, but thankfully i was well enough for the tournament which started on friday and just came to a close yesterday, which brings me to the real subject of this post.

i have never been keen on debating. it’s a sport that has intimidated me for years. debators to me have always had a reputation for being the most aggressive and arrogant speakers of all forms of public speaking tournaments, and somehow that just always put me off. they tended to be the sort of the people who loved listening to themselves talk and who were all too aware of their personal charisma. they never switched off. their debating persona seemed to extend into their overall personality so holding a normal conversation with them was never quite possible. while this is still true for some, i’m actually only thinking of a very small and specific group of  people back in high school. 

but mostly, i think i was always just afraid of exposing my own intellectual flaws during debate. being out-debated can make you feel painfully small and stupid. not only do you hate yourself for sounding like you have an IQ the size of a shoe, but you hate the competing team for exposing it. i also could never come to terms with how each debate would split the motion neatly into two, as though only one team could possibly be right or wrong. it left no room for a middle ground, which would only serve to make you look weak. you could not play the relativist or leave room for compromise. you really had to pick sides.  on hindsight, i think i was disdainful of being so objective. i wasn’t ready to make myself see both sides of each debate. 

that said, british parliamentary debating is extremely different from the american and australasian style of debate, which, prior to meeting z, were all i knew. there is a different motion for every debate, with only 15 minutes of preparation each time after the motion is released and your position is disclosed, unlike the american and australasian ones, in which you have the entire week to prepare and the only thing left to chance is whether you are proposing or opposing the motion. also, four teams participate in each round, not two, meaning that there will always be two proposing and two opposing teams. this makes the competition a lot more subtle and really puts the focus on the motion. you get to really watch the debate develop as each of the eight speakers have respective roles. it is like watching a well-structured conversation, in which you already expect an introduction, body and conclusion, develop before you. and in the end, you don’t just think about which side of the house is more persuasive, but which team on the same side of the house argued better, which is probably the aspect of BP debating i enjoy the most. the debate isn’t split into two opposing sides anymore, so it isn’t as simple as who is right or wrong. the winning team may well be the opposition while the team in second place is the proposition. much more nuanced and ten times more interesting.

the european mentality is also extremely different altogether from the asian one. the competition is good-natured and the debators are really just there to have great fun. no hard feelings are had after any tournament. one of my favorite moments in debate is probably when the opposing team delivers a great speech or a handsome POI and the competing teams actually applauds them heartily, as though to say “great point – you really got us there.” working adults will gleefully leave their jobs and lives behind for a weekend abroad as an adjudicator at some tournament in some random country in europe. young people will flock diligently to every other tournament. these people really love debating to the point of obsession. a tournament in europe is not a quick or overtly competitive affair. each day ends with a social event which involves a lot of drinking and hanging out. a typical conversation between debators is often peppered with debating jargon, about extensions and whips and opening governments. the culture is almost church-like, with everyone mingling and united in one common belief – the love of  debating. 

i was very hesitant at first to join the tournament, knowing that z was going to judge and being fully aware of my limitations as a beginner. but in the end, daniel finally agreed to sign up with me and i think we both had a blast. we were badly trashed in the second round, when the motion was horribly technical and neither of knew wtf the CAP was and didn’t know how to deal with it, but we definitely got better towards the end of the day. my overall performance was a surprise to myself. i wasn’t as nervous as i thought i would be, with z judging me, a 5-minute time limit and me arguing about something i only knew vaguely about. we didn’t break into the semifinals, but it all ended on a high note. i delivered my best speech of the day and felt very happy to feel like i had gotten something right at last. 

after avoiding the whole debating thing for the last 6 to 7 years of my secondary school life, i’ve finally been sucked into it. and it hasn’t been as bad as i thought. seeing both sides of the debate is a heady sensation, as though you’ve gone through a looking glass to see the other side. and it really is as z said, you can’t truly have an informed opinion on anything unless you have been able to see arguments for both sides of the coin. i was afraid of looking like a fool in front of z, but now i think i’ve overcome that too. i had to start somewhere and i think where i did wasn’t so bad.

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