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Strathclyde Debate Society Interview

The Strath Debate team in the Chamber. A man has his hand on forehead in deep thought

At part of Strathclyde Union we have a number of clubs and societies.  We’d like to take the time to feature the fantastic Strathclyde Debate Society within this article.  We chat with Miles, the publicity convener about life in the society, challenges of moving online and a desire for fun debating.

Introduce yourself!

My name is Miles Wright, and I am the publicity convener for the debating society. I am currently a 3rd year law student here at Strathclyde and have been debating for nearly seven years.

What do you do for the Strath Debates Society?

I am mainly responsible for our social media accounts and using them to advertise events that we are holding.  I put together show debates every so often to give people an idea as to what we do. We are a very active society, with a lot of events going on throughout the year, so there is a lot for me to advertise!

The Debate society at the Trinity Cup

How long has Strath Debate Society been going?

The short answer is that this society is really old! It certainly predates anyone that I know who has been involved in it and has been around since I started debating in secondary school. To give you an idea of how old most Scottish debating societies are, Glasgow University has had theirs since 1861.

We have the debates chamber in the building, but how have things transitioned to online for you?

There is nothing like the debates chamber. Something about sitting around a table, with people watching from right beside you creates an atmosphere that you just cannot replicate online. That said, we have found zoom to be very useful! It allows us to record and livestream debates to all our members, something that we never really had the capacity to do in the debates chamber. It has also made competitions far more accessible. Before, we would have to travel to wherever the competition was happening and often crash on someone’s sofa for the night. Now it can just happen from the comfort of our own homes! We are hoping to learn from this experience and integrate the greater accessibility that we have worked with this year into our society going forward.

Miles speaks at the Debate society meeting

What would you say makes a good debate?

Debating, as we do it, is really just a game. You have two sides, and their arguments are to be evaluated objectively by a panel of judges. This means that a debate is only really good when there is balance in what you are debating. It is no fun where one side has clearly won before anyone has even had a chance to speak! More than just balance, a debate is always improved by depth; if you know exactly which arguments the other side will make before they stand up, there’s only so much to be said. A debate that can keep you coming back with more questions is all the more fun.

We also think that a big part of what makes a debate good is being respectful towards one another. Attacking the person that you are competing against, rather than the arguments that they are putting forward, is not persuasive, nor is it fun for anyone participating or watching.

We don’t try and teach ‘style’ within our society – it’s too vague, too subjective, too open to biases. What we do think always improves the quality of a speech however is clarity; figuring out how to present the ideas in your head in the terms the audience will understand, and with the concision that becomes necessary when speaking with a time constraint. Clear communication is one of the most-cited benefits our members enjoy.

Is the art of the debate being lost in modern times?

A debate is about so much more than just being right, as counterintuitive as that may sound. The art of a debate comes in the construction of your arguments and the deconstruction of your opponent’s arguments, in a persuasive way, with the ultimate goal of proving your case. This means challenging not just your opponent, but also your preconceptions of the world, to ensure that they hold water. Often, people become so entrenched in their own views, that they resort to relying on rhetoric or stereotypes, neither of which hold up to scrutiny.

One could argue (and like most things this is debatable) that “debates” online, specifically on social media, often just turn into squabbling matches, with neither side really proving anything beyond blind assertions. For the sake of balance though, I would point out that while poor quality debates are far more visible than they were before the age of the internet, it’s hard to really say that the innumerable unrecorded debates that happened at dinner tables around the world pre-comment section were at all preferable. Indeed, widespread exposure to ideas from the countless poor debates may even give opportunities for learning that didn’t exist before. However if you want to get away from this, and practice your ability to listen, analyse and rebut, come to our society!

Debate Chamber table with people around discussing ideas

Who would you say is the best speaker is and why?

Our society is full of incredible speakers! Since debating is a team game it’s only fair we recognise that with our power pair. From an objective standpoint, both Andrew Brough and Liam Oldrey have had incredible success competitively over the last few years. Breaking together at competitions from Aberdeen Open to London Open. so either of them could legitimately be afforded that title. Both of them have the advantage of years of experience and hard work to have gotten to this point, so it is certainly a merit that has been well earned.

However, pitting firm friends and partners against each other for the title of ‘best’ doesn’t make sense – as a team, they offer very distinct skills to each other.

Tell us about your successes in recent competitions?

Orla O’Neil and Liam Oldrey have had success at multiple competitions this year as a team. At Bristol Pro-Am they were the 11th best team and made it to the bronze finals. Furthermore, at Literific IV, a social sciences themed competition, they were the 6th best team and made it to the silver finals, with Liam being the 6th best overall speaker and Orla 10th.

Andrew Brough and Aidan Mackie made it to the semi-finals of the Scottish Mace, one of the biggest annual debating competitions in the Scottish debating calendar. Andrew also teamed up with a friend from EUDU to be second top team at the Charity Fantasy Open, ranking as 7th best speaker. Liam has also had international success as a judge at multiple competitions, notably judging the Final of Colgate IV a New York based competition that was accessible due to being online. Additionally chairing a Final at Scotland’s Pro-Am competition and judging the English Second Language final of Cambridge IV.

The year is not over yet though, and we will still be sending speakers to many more competitions. In particular, we are looking forward to the Korea World championships where we will be sending two teams of our best speakers, and some judges too!

Strath Debates Society Members Liam and Andrew in front of a University of Aberdeen banner

How does Strath Debates society fit within the wider circuit?

As with all university debating societies, we have a seat on the Scottish Universities Debating Council, where our president represents our interests. Here, we are able to host competitions that are annual events on the Scottish circuit.

We have taken the opportunity with things being online to do online sparring sessions with Aberdeen, Stirling, and Dundee Universities. These have allowed us to practice and learn from esteemed debaters outside our own institution. Practicing with other societies not only benefits our speakers with a wider range of opponents (and friends!) but helps us give back to the community by helping smaller, younger societies.

It has become a tradition for us to hold our own debating competition, Strathclyde Presidents Cup, at the beginning of the first semester of every academic year. This year was no different, despite the move to an online format. We even took this opportunity to raise money for Shelter Scotland, as the running costs had gone down while the competition got more accessible. Raising over £300 for the charity from a comp that was twice the size since last we held it before the pandemic.

In a normal world, Glasgow University’s debating society will often invite us to join in their events and training sessions. It is recognised by all University debating societies that we are one community. That helping one another out makes the experience all that more enjoyable.

How does someone join your society?

At the moment, while online, either contact us on Facebook or email us at strathdebates1@gmail.com. We also have a group chat where we provide updates and send out meeting links.  By messaging us we can add you to that. If you would prefer however, then by becoming a member of our society, for free on the Union website, you will receive emails to join any activities we are holding.

Normally we have training on Thursdays at 5.30pm. There is no membership fee so there is absolutely no harm in coming along to try it out! We do more than just training, so if you cannot make Thursday, we have other ways to be involved, such as our Tuesday sparring sessions, going to competitions, or helping train secondary school debaters. Debating is a great way to make friends and develop your confidence, so we recommend it to anyone. Although a knowledge of worldly affairs is useful it’s not necessary. It is easy to pick up, no prior experience needed, though it may take a while to master!

The Debate society at their social

Any general fun facts?

There seems to be a general perception of debating as very intimidating. This could not be further from the truth! We are very laid back and welcoming of people with any level of experience in public speaking. Members who started debating with a stutter, are now among the best speakers that we have. The topics are not always serious conversations about worldly affairs and philosophy either. Last Christmas we had a debate about ‘replacing’ Santa!

You can view the Debate Society in action here:

Huge thanks to Miles and the Debate society for taking the time to speak with us!

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