Five Reasons Every Issue Deserves an Oxford-Style Debate

By May 3, 2014Blog Post

The decline of informed, civil disagreement on public issues, policies, and ideas is well-documented. In media, the explosion of news sources now makes it possible for information consumers to design and build their own hermetic echo chamber where they can exist for long periods without encountering intelligent disagreement. Or take government, where congressional districts are engineered into safe zones and increasingly extreme incumbents speak only to increasingly narrow segments of their voter bases.

This is why contested topics of every stripe deserve a public, Oxford-style debate. I’m speaking of of the sort that Intelligence Squared US has superbly delivered in the United States. The traditional format of an Oxford debate begins with a sharply framed motion (“Snowden Was Justified” or “Ban College Football“) proposed by one side and opposed by the other. A winner is declared either by a majority vote or by which team has swayed more audience members between the two votes. The debates follow a formal structure which begins with audience members casting a pre-debate vote on the motion that is either for, against, or undecided. Each panelist delivers a seven-minute opening statement, after which the moderator takes questions from the audience with inter-panel challenges. Finally, each panelist delivers a closing statement, and the audience casts a second vote.

Here are five reasons why this format can revive intelligent discussion in public discourse, while simultaneously entertaining and informing the public:

  1. The end of strawmen: It’s impossible to caricature and oversimplify an opposing POV when two of its most informed advocates are sitting five feet away from you. And if you do, you pay.
  2. An end to sound bite cable news rhetoric: No fact of the American infoscape is more lethal to the development of informed opinions than the gauche shouting matches that now dominate cable news. The Oxford debate format ensures that each participant has time to summarize their case at the outset, and to make uninterrupted closing comments.
  3. Ensure the best arguments are made: The careful selection of the most capable advocates on each side ensures that neither position will be represented by a lightweight stand-in.
  4. Entertaining optics: Not just for policy geeks, but for citizens of all stripes, Oxford-style debates cultivate a provocative energy around ideas that attract both the opinionated and those still forming opinions. The sharp repartee of Oxford-style debate is UFC for the intellectually curious. The seventh chapter of IQ2US’s “Russia Is a Marginal Power” debate is a superb illustration of Oxford debate fireworks, as Peter Hitchens and Robert Blackwill spar with Edward Lucas of the Economist and Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group.
  5. Tangible impact: Oxford debate as structured by IQ2US manages to measure the persuasiveness of each argument by polling the audience before and after the debate and naming a winner on the basis of the number of opinions changed.

So if you want to be more informed and aren’t afraid to challenge your own thinking, I’d urge you to watch debates on subjects that matter. Aside from IQ2US, look for videos from the Cambridge Union Society and Silicon Valley’s Churchill Club for inspiration. And if you are part of an organization working to develop a more fully-informed public or if you simply seek to add some intellectual theater to your next conference, consider hosting an Oxford-style debate.

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