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The Discipline Of Debate

( Originally Published 1912 )



THE art of debate is one of the best means of developing mental alertness, self-confidence, and the ability to think on one's feet. In its highest form it combines the power of the logician, the strategy of the general, the skill of the rhetorician, and the voice and grace of the orator.

The word debate literally means to strike down; hence Hamilton in his "Parliamentary Logic," says : "If your case is too bad, call in aid the party; if the party is bad, call in aid the cause; if neither is good, wound your opponent." We do not approve the latter advice, as the real object of debate should be, not personalities but principles. There will of necessity be conflict, but only of ideas and with the purpose of finding the truth. This conflict, this clash and contrast of opinion, should bring out the best that is in a man. Judgment, decision, and boldness are required in preeminent degree. Debate is not mere exhibition, but a measuring of abilities between men honestly holding opposite views upon a given subject. It requires patient drill and discipline as in military tactics, which Napoleon called the art of being the stronger. He maintained that to insure victory an overwhelming force must be concentrated upon a given point. We quote from Chambers's "Encyclopedia" :

"First, as to the art of being the stronger, which is undoubtedly the highest recommendation in a general, we may cite the example of the battle of Rivoli. In 1796, Napoleon was besieging Mantua with a small force, while a very much smaller army operated as an army of observation. The Austrian commander had collected at Trent a force powerful enough to crush completely the French army, with which he was marching south. Parallel with his course lay the Lake of Garda, and to prevent the enemy escaping up one side, as he marched down the other, the Austrian leader divided his army into two powerful corps, and marched one down each side of the lake. The instant the young French general knew of this ,division, he abandoned the siege of Mantua, collected every available man, and marched against one body of the enemy. Tho far inferior on the whole, he was thus superior at the point of attack, and the victory of Rivoli decided virtually the whole campaign. This corresponded in principle with Napoleon's general plan in battle. He formed his attack into column, tried to break through the center of the enemy's line ; and if he succeeded, then doubled back to one side, so as to concentrate the whole of his own force against one half of the enemy's, which was usually routed before the other half of the line could come up to the rescue."

A good debater, like a skilful general, thinks out everything possible beforehand. Weapons, plans, and proofs are chosen with care and precision, sometimes for weeks or months in advance. A notable instance of readiness was that of Webster in his great debate with Hayne. Much of the material used by him on that occasion had been prepared long before and reposed in his desk. Asked, after making the speech, how much time he had given to preparation, he replied, "all my life." Webster, speaking of Hayne again, said : "If he had tried to make a speech to fit my prepared notes, he could not have done it better. No man is ever inspired; I never was."

To be a successful debater, a man must keep two principal elements ever before him: convincingness and persuasion. His work does not end with merely convincing his hearers of the truth of his contentions; he must, like the genuine orator, move men to action. This, after all, is the true test of debating, as it is of, oratory.

No matter how earnest a man may be in his beliefs he should not assume infallibility. There is always the possibility of being in error, and if such be proved he should be quick to acknowledge it. A man who persists that he is right, when it has been made clear to every one present that he is wrong, simply holds himself up to possible ridicule. To resent contra diction is to be without one of the most essential qualities of a level-headed debater. The speaker should seek to explain rather than to defend. He will not pro-test too much. He will concede every-thing possible to the other side. He will despise petty advantages, and concentrate his powers on the main ideas. He will remember not to make too much of 'his opponent's arguments, since to elaborate them excessively would invest them with undue significance. Neither will he wholly ignore them, lest it be thought that he can not answer them. He will adopt rather a middle course, saying neither too little nor too much.

A common fault to be avoided in debate is that of protractedness. Some men insist upon having the last word. This endless reply to the reply becomes irksome to an audience. When two sides of a subject have been fairly stated, both should be willing to rest their case on that. If side issues and personalities were avoided, debates upon important questions might easily be concluded in reasonable time. The student should not forget that "The victory in a debate lies not in lowering an opponent, but in raising the subject in public estimation. Controversial wisdom lies not in destroying an opponent, but in destroying his error; not in making him ridiculous so much as in making the audience wise."

Personal invective should not be permitted to deface dignified debate. When feeling and animosity take the reins from judgment it is difficult to foretell to what extremes a speaker may not go. We do not wish to think of men debating like common scolds. Temper must not usurp the place of truth. An incident may here be noted pertaining to the speech of Charles Sumner, on "The Crime Against Kansas," delivered in the United States Senate, May 9, 1856. Mr. Douglas, Senator from Illinois, by way of resenting attacks that had been made upon him, had said :

"Sir, God grant that when I denounce an act of infamy I shall do it with feeling, and do it under the sudden impulses of feeling, instead of sitting up at night writing out my denunciation of a man whom I hate, copying it, having it printed, punctuating the proof-sheets, and repeating it before the glass, in order to 'give refinement to insult, which is only pardonable when it is the outburst of a just indignation."

Then followed this sharp passage at arms:

"Mr. Sumner.—The Senator has gone on to infuse into his speech the venom which has been sweltering for months—ay, for years ; and he has alleged facts that are entirely without foundation, in order to heap upon me some personal obloquy. I will not go into the details which have flowed out so naturally from his tongue. I only brand them to his face as false. I say, also, to that Senator, and I wish him to bear it in mind, that no person with the upright form of man can be allowed- (hesitation) .

Mr. Douglas.—Say it.

Mr. Sumner.—I will say it—no person with the upright form of man can be al-lowed, without violation to all decency, to switch out from his tongue the perpetual stench of offensive personality. Sir, that is not a proper weapon of debate, at least, on this floor. The noisome, squat, and nameless animal, to which I now refer, is not a proper model for American Senator. Will the Senator f Illinois take notice?

Mr. Douglas.—I will; and therefore will not imitate you, sir.

Mr. Sumner.—I did not hear the Senator.

Mr. Douglas.—I said if that be the case I would certainly never imitate you in that capacity, recognizing the force of the illustration.

Mr, Sumner.—Mr. President, again the Senator has switched his tongue, and again he fills the Senate with its offensive odor . .

Mr. Douglas.—I am not going to pursue this subject further. I will only say that a man who has been branded by me in the Senate, and convicted by the Senate of falsehood, can not use language requiring a reply, and therefore I have nothing more to say."

The laws of controversy were succinctly exprest by a writer some years ago, in five simple headings that may easily be remembered:

1. Consult the improvement of those opposed to you, and to this end argue not for resentment, or gratification, or pride, or vanity, but for their enlightenment.

2. When surmising motives do not surmise the worst, but adopt the best construction the case admits.

3. To distinguish between the personalities which impugn the judgment and those that criminate character, and not to advance accusations affecting the judgment of an adversary without distinct and indisputable proof ; and never to assail character (where it must be done) on suspicion, probability, belief or likelihood.

4. Never make an incriminating imputation unless some public good is to come out of it. It is not enough that a charge is true; it must be useful before it can be justifiably made.

5. Be so sure of your case as to be able to defy the judgment of mankind, and when assailed, maintain self-respect in reply, not forgetting justice to those to whom you are opposed.

The life of debate, as of any form of public speaking, is vigorous thinking. Nothing so clearly appraises a man's knowledge at its true value as spirited public argument. It discovers a man to himself. Repeated experience will prove to him that he can not be too well prepared for such a contest. Several ways are open to him in the delivery of his speech:

1. He may write out his speech in full and read it to his audience. This is the least effective of all.

2. He may write it out and memorize it, but in this case the memory is likely to speak instead of the personality.

3. He may write it out and memorize the more important parts. Here the audience will be likely to observe the difference between that which is memorized and that which is extempore.

4. He may speak from notes or headings. This method has some advantages, but usually leads to unevenness in delivery.

5. He may wholly extemporize. This is the ideal form of delivery. It does not imply lack of preparation. On the contrary, it exacts the most careful premeditation on the part of the speaker. Nothing must be left to chance. This does not mean, however, that the speaker is to depend upon his recollective forces, to try simply to recall what he has written out on paper, but at the moment of speaking his creative powers are to be fully liberated and he is to speak out of the fulness of his knowledge and his experience.



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