What other institutions on campus could possibly be more representative of Trinity than its two resident debating societies? They are centuries old, both have played host to such historical figures as Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker and Edward Carson, and the two societies occupy one of the most illustrious buildings on campus, the Graduate Memorial Building. Like so many other first years, I signed up to both during Fresher’s Week, persuaded by promises of engaging, entertaining debates, world-renowned guest speakers and free food. I also signed up to Maidens’ debating with the best of intentions, which, as usual, fizzled out after two weeks of class.
Both societies are very skilled at what they do. I’ve been to a number of debates, with far-ranging topics covering areas such as Catholicism, international aid and feminism. These debates are unquestionably entertaining. Those who take part in the debates learn to speak confidently and convincingly in public. The societies certainly bring big names to speak and debate at Trinity – figures as diverse as Bob Geldof, Hugh Laurie and Antonin Scalia come to mind. And (most importantly) they definitely deliver when it comes to free food.
But having said that, I’m not convinced that either society is the best place for real debate about important contemporary issues and the problems and difficulties facing Trinity students and Ireland in general. Both the style of the debating and the fact that they are run solely through the societies themselves means that debates in the Phil and Hist are more about individuals competing at public speaking than seeking out the truth about a particular matter or resolving thorny issues.
The first problem with Trinity’s debating societies is the rigid style employed in debates. Each debater delivers their seven minute long talk in turn, alternating between opposition and proposition. Although they have the option to take a point from the floor now and again, they may speak uninterrupted and then sit down, often not heard from for the rest of the debate. Sometimes the subsequent speaker may briefly address previous points, but given the short space of time they have their main focus is on getting out their own points. Rather than a two-way conversation, where ideas travel back and forth and each speaker has to respond to challenges and questions, these debates resemble long series of speeches on the same topic. Neither is there a real chance for the audience to respond at the end, bar deciding the issue with shouts of ‘yea’ and ‘nay’ to decide the winner. The second difficulty is that only the officers of the Phil and the Hist may decide what topics are to be debated and these are decided upon before the year begins. They might be willing to take suggestions or adapt their schedules given the prominence of a particular issue, but ultimately what gets debated is decided by the committees of the debating societies. As the topics change from week to week, there is no chance for follow-up of a particular issue that could be addressed again where there is demand for it.
“The first problem with Trinity’s debating societies is the rigid style employed in debates… Rather than a two-way conversation, where ideas travel back and forth and each speaker has to respond to challenges and questions, these debates resemble long series of speeches on the same topic.”
So what alternatives are there for debating on campus? The Students’ Union also organises debates from time to time, particularly during SU elections and referenda, but again from what I have seen of these debates they have the problem of a restrictive style, which consists of each speaker delivering a short speech followed by a limited time for questions and answers. They are also organised through the SU itself, and although it accepts calls for discussions ultimately the SU decides which issues to bring to debate. These debates also often receive very little publicity outside of a line or two in the SU weekly email.
I think the solution is for a new forum for public debates to be set up in college. Not literally a new dedicated building, but rather the facility for students to organise and promote debates through a neutral body dedicated to that purpose. Perhaps it could be organised through a department of college and a system similar to that of setting up a society employed, whereby signatures would have to be collected to show that there is interest in having a debate around a particular topic. This way any topic may be brought up for debate at any time without requiring the say-so of a small group of students in the Phil, Hist or SU who might have no interest in that topic being discussed. Any student would be able to call for a debate around a particular issue, be it a national issue of government policy or something affecting college in particular, such as the recently mooted privatisation of Trinity or the raising of fees for non-EU students, or even party political debates between the representatives of the college’s political societies at election time. It would be interesting to see officers from Fianna Fáil Ógra, Young Fine Gael, Labour Youth and other such societies offer their own take on why to vote for their party.
In terms of new approach, these debates could use the same style as the political debates we see on television: an impartial chair with two speakers for each side (or multiple speakers if there are a variety of viewpoints to be discussed) and an open format where each speaker delivers their points and argues them with other speakers free to challenge them on any point and be challenged in turn, and a substantial time for questions from the audience. Speakers would then have to defend each point they make and the audience may get a better idea of which side, if any, stands up under scrutiny. Rather than a series of relatively static speeches there would be a genuine conversation or debate going on between the sides. The Phil and the Hist, being the official debating societies of Trinity, need not be cut out of this scheme; they could provide the chairs for this debate and indeed run classes on how to debate in a more freeform style.Even if there would only be a few such debates during the course of an academic year, if college is meant to be a forum for ideas and debate, there is no reason that there shouldn’t be such a facility available. The Phil and the Hist could go on providing entertaining, engaging debates and inviting well-known guest speakers as they have always done, but for those interested less in competitive debating and more in trying to find concrete answers to current affairs questions, a more open and informal space would do greater justice to Trinity’s legacy as a genuine forum for developing original thought.