Updated: Oct 26, 2020
When the Committee decided that we would write these testimonials/records of our experiences, I suggested that we focus on our personal feelings towards the Society, the friends we've made and the things we've learned, but now I'm thinking that the others have that covered. They've done a wonderful job of presenting our Society as it is - a close-knit yet welcoming community of students who are committed to learning and discussion. I won't discuss my personal experience with the Society because I'd rather focus on why I think debate societies in general are valuable, not only to a Students' Union's roster of societies, but to the individual, and how they benefit society on a greater level. So, why debate?
First of all, let's get the obvious reason out of the way. 'Debate is good because it exposes the individual to differing opinions.' I hear this a lot, and I don't disagree with the sentiment but there's some clarification needed. If there's anything that has been proven to me in my two years of participation in the society it's that there's always room for disagreement, and there's always another opinion. We're the Brighton Debate Society; disagreements are our bread and butter. However, let's not pretend that disagreements aren't found just as often outside of the Society. You can't avoid differing opinions. The main difference in my eyes is that, within the Society, we provide the framework to generate discussion and encourage an educational experience. A disagreement outside of the Society can easily lead to argument, and that inevitably leads to you being in a bad mood - rarely do either party learn anything in an unmoderated disagreement. This is the first reason I think debate societies are so vital to the university experience. They enable a platform for disagreement to be fruitful, and this is a platform you'd be hard pressed to find on social media, in universities and out in wider Society. This can help us grow as individuals, to be better able to deal with the presence of disagreement outside of the Society, and hopefully you won't get so mad when you see people continuing to prefer cats over dogs.
Secondly, there's the freedom of speech and freedom of debate argument. My presidential predecessor never failed to openly support individual freedom of speech or debate whenever possible, and he did everything in his power to ensure that every member of the Society had the ability to exercise their freedom of speech in session, and I don't recall him ever failing at this task. He felt very strongly that the Society was a beacon of free speech and debate - everything was up for debate, and the central pillar of free speech and freedom of debate ought to be held up regardless of the committee in charge. He deeply believed that only through freedom of speech and freedom of debate could democracy be effectively upheld, and I agreed with this sentiment. In the past, I have done my best to ensure that our members are comfortable voicing their opinions, regardless of how unpopular.
Quite honestly, I have struggled with this recently. I've found my opinions wavering over what qualifies as freedom of speech, and when it may become hate speech. The BLM protests have taught me a lot and I'd like to say I'm a much better person for it, but they've also shown me that there's a lot of grey area when it comes to individual expressions of free speech. For example, the BLM mantra of "being 'not-racist' isn't enough, you must be 'anti-racist'" has demonstrated to me that some issues can't be tackled in a non-partisan way. Some issues inherently do not allow for the capacity of respectful disagreement. This makes me wonder whether an opinion such as "I don't agree with Black Lives Matter" qualifies as hate speech. We don't tolerate hate speech in any capacity in the Brighton Debate Society, so, if that opinion is hate speech, then there's no room for debate over whether Black Lives Matter. This can be extended to other issues we may face, for example, can we debate women's rights to suffrage in a respectful way? I'd wager not, because to take a contrary opinion on women's rights is, by its very nature, dehumanising hate speech.
Therefore, although anything can be debated, not everything should be. This is the conclusion I have arrived at, and is the attitude I will be bringing forward into the new academic year. So how does this tie in to why I think debate societies are valuable? I think the distinction between the ability to debate a topic versus whether it ought to be debated is an important difference that may not be found elsewhere. Within Brighton Debate Society, we debate important and divisive current affairs respectfully, without the risk of alienating any of our members. We enter the sessions with the base agreement that everyone is entitled to the same respect, and there's nothing to be debated there. We don't debate whether women deserve the right to vote, but we are able to debate, for example, any gendered divisions in career choices. This makes the entire arena of debate a fairer and more respectful place to voice one's opinions, as they can be sure their arguments will be discussed, rather than their right to voice those arguments. This is a safety and comfort that we can moderate and uphold, as opposed to the sometimes overwhelming mass of bigots in wider society.
The final reason is the huge benefit to the individual. I've never been too fussed by the prospect of public speaking, but many of our members come in absolutely petrified by the concept. The amount of questions I got from freshers last year (and am anticipating from freshers this year) about whether we expect participation in the debates is wild, but it's a fair question. I've never been in the debate for the competitive nature, but many of our members are, so we strike the middle ground. We do discussion based debates, and we do Parliamentary-style debates. I'm pleased that this satisfies most of our members, as it means we can get a wider spread of individuals, from those who are there to listen to those who are there to win. This has an effect of instilling quiet individuals with more confidence to speak, and louder individuals with a better understanding of the importance of listening.
I think that debate societies grow their members as people, enabling them to engage in constructive and educational discussions, which has a benefit to our academic and professional lives, making us more effective within seminars, better versed in general knowledge and current affairs, more confident public speakers.
I hope this gives a bit more insight into what I think are the benefits that debate societies can have in developing well-rounded, patient, intelligent and respectful members of society, and might convince you to start or continue to attend our sessions, we'd love to have you. I'm proud of what the Society has achieved under my presidency and I'm incredibly excited to begin the new academic year. I learned a lot last year and I'm looking forward to putting that knowledge into effect to better lead the Society in a direction that we can all be pleased to be a part of.