Echo chambers and privilege

Debating remains an exercise in thought

Entering the GMB chamber as a first-time debate goer can be a terrifying experience. A committee of suit-wearing, wine-swilling students sit in the centre of the room, going through the confusing motions of “private business”, “public business”, and “oratory returns”. Terms which, before entering the world of debating, are not familiar.

What is most terrifying however, is when one of the speakers, seemingly on a much higher plane, points at you and says “slut”, points at another person and says, “rapist”, then points to the only black member of the audience and says the n-word. The mood in the chamber when this happened was tense. This was something that was clearly condemned by every member of Phil Council, and the speaker in question, though allowed to continue, was swiftly banned from society events.

“When faced with external criticism, the debate was immediately cancelled. But that leads us to ask, where was the internal criticism?”

Even for students who do not go to chamber debates, or are not members of the Hist and the Phil, this situation is worrying. The degree of legitimacy that is attached to what is said in debates is huge. Lucrative sponsorship is pumped into these events. Even if regular students are uninterested in debating, these events attract attention from Dublin’s most powerful corporations. We should not accept that the institutions, which call themselves training grounds for new ideas, allow this behaviour to prevail. Debating is a play exercise in being a politician, but the people who engage in college debates are often the ones equipped with the privilege and opportunity to legitimately change our world.

It is the culture which allowed this to happen that is worrying. Even if you stand by the use of slurs, it was the intent of the speech that was flawed. The use of minorities as nothing more than rhetorical devices, only as a means to prove a point, is unacceptable. Once you enter a debating chamber, there exists an idea that anything you can do to win a debate or please a crowd is justified. It is described by both societies as “just a competitive exercise”, not necessarily something the speakers believe in. This effectively absolves debaters of responsibility for anything they say. The culture of show debates is that there are no consequences to anything you say because it is nothing more than rhetoric.

This was seen previously when the Phil set “This House Believes Middle Eastern Women Need Western Feminism” as their fourth week motion. When faced with external criticism, the debate was immediately cancelled. But that leads us to ask, where was the internal criticism? How did it get this far? The insular nature of debating societies attaches more importance and less consequence to chamber debates than they deserve. The GMB bubble that many debaters live in, have us forget that there is another world outside the walls of Trinity. We forget that our live-streamed, publicly available words could have an effect on the people to which they refer.

Discussions about feminism in the Middle East are important ones to have, but just because something is a good conversation does not make it a good debate. The inherently competitive nature of debating leads speakers to never back down, to go as far as is possible to win. “I see your point” is not a phrase ever found in a chamber speech, or a point of information. If you understand and empathise with the other side’s point, you are the weaker debater – you have lost the game.

“Audiences and membership are what keep the Hist and the Phil alive, but in the face of backlash, pandering too aggressively to sensationalism may be what kills them.”

It is not only the competitive aspect but the entertainment that can poison important discussions. I would rather a speaker give nuanced, considerate points when arguing about the rights of real people, but this does not draw crowds. Bold rhetoric and controversial statements are what engage and entertain audiences. Table banging and “hear hear” are reserved for witty retorts or powerful one liners, not complex arguments. This is why this is the rhetoric that features most often in chamber speeches, often to the exclusion of tact.

The same is true for the setting of motions. Debating societies have an incentive to favour flashy wording over nuanced topics. “This House Believes Middle Eastern Women Need Western Feminism” looks a lot better on a poster than “A Discussion about Feminism in The Middle East”. Audiences and membership are what keep the Hist and the Phil alive, but in the face of backlash, pandering too aggressively to sensationalism may be what kills them.

There is no doubt that debating has a history of being an activity exclusively for the entertainment of the privileged elite. The Hist is only approaching its fiftieth anniversary of allowing women to join the society. The first female member of Phil Council was not until 1968. Although times have changed, and there are now women in charge of both of the societies, debating is clearly struggling to escape its elitist past.

So much of debating, competitive and in-chamber, is an intellectual exercise which can make tokens of and sweep aside the least privileged in our society. It’s difficult not to question the integrity or usefulness of a group of mostly white, disproportionately wealthy Trinity students standing up arguing about what is best for people in the developing world.

It is very rare that someone’s position is ever changed by a debate. We enter these evenings with preconceived ideas, and often with our minds already set on what we believe to be right and wrong. Chamber debates are not held to change minds, or challenge views, they are intended to be entertaining. It isn’t a conversation, it’s a performance. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the performance of argument, but we must accept it for what it is. When debating societies recognise this fact, they can also recognise the limited importance of what they have to say. Diluting this importance is a necessary step to changing the culture of show debates. When we can see that men in suits are not the moral arbiters of society’s every problem, but performers, the chamber becomes a less intimidating and more accessible place for everyone to speak.

“It is not until we make these ideas accessible to more than the black tie-clad elite, that they mean anything at all.”

Chamber debating is flawed, but it’s not unsalvageable. With more consideration for the motions we set, and better briefings for speakers, this culture can and will change. The problem of the Phil debate was not only that a student said a racial slur, it’s that he entered a debating chamber believing that it would be accepted, or even praised. Public speaking should be an outlet for those less-heard in society, those whose voices have been silenced for decades. Instead of arguing about what they do and do not deserve, instead of using them as tools to win a fight, we should be encouraging and aiding less privileged people to speak in our debates.

Things can be learned from chamber speaking, new ideas and information can spread. But it is not until we make these ideas accessible to more than the black tie-clad elite, that they mean anything at all.