The case for a new debating society

In the wake of recent controversies in both the Phil and the Hist, should we consider forming a new debating society in Trinity?

It is no easy task to balance comedy debates about teenage regrets, with more serious topics such as gun rights and combating terrorism.”

The Phil and the Hist are the two largest and oldest student societies on campus. Their existence predates even the foundation of the Irish state. They are a part of Trinity’s rich history, providing a vital link to the past. That being said, in light of recent events which have affected both societies, should we question whether or not another debating society formed on campus is a good idea?

It is essential that one considers the function, aims, and mission of the two societies before beginning to engage with the question at hand. The primary aim that both the Phil and the Hist have is to facilitate discourse for students and to allow them to think about issues that are not usually debated within their respective degrees. This is mostly done through debate in the classic British parliamentary style and the procedure is repeated each week. The hosting of prominent and distinguished guests also plays an important role in the purpose of both societies.

It is safe to say that the week would seem quiet without the weekly Wednesday and Thursday night debates. They are hosted at accessible times and both of the societies endeavour to showcase as broad a range of motions as possible. It is no easy task to balance comedy debates about teenage regrets, with more serious topics such as gun control and combating terrorism.

Both societies also offer their members the opportunity to speak at a competitive level and travel to competitions across Ireland and the UK. Some of the best speakers go on to compete at the annual European University Debating Competition (EUDC) and the World University Debating Championship (WUDC). This is unique to the Phil and the Hist in Trinity. Allocations of university teams are expensive, but the debating departments of both the Phil and the Hist have their own separate budgets that enable them to partake in such exciting opportunities. It seems highly improbable that either an existing society or a new one could send teams to these competitions especially the more prominent ones such as those in Oxford or Cambridge, let alone the EUDC or the WUDC.

“A close knit inner group is present in both societies. In addition to this, the extremely competitive nature of elections for positions in either society can be a barrier for those wishing to get further involved.”

Both societies aim for open debate and encourage discourse. However, they have received criticism from those who do not spend their free time around the Graduates Memorial Building (GMB). A close knit inner group is present in both societies. In addition to this, the extremely competitive nature of  elections for positions in either society can be a barrier for those wishing to get involved.

The issue of promised guests not visiting either society has been an issue for years. While the Phil and the Hist obviously work extremely hard to ensure every guest arrives, it is rather unprofessional to promise speakers without informing the guests themselves of their own supposed visit. Evidence of this was seen when a spokesperson for the prominent activist Malala Yousafzai had to clarify that she was not aware of any invitation to visit the Phil.

Last year, controversy was stirred when the Hist invited former UKIP leader and far-right politician, Nigel Farage, to speak. The public Facebook group for the Hist erupted, with former and current members of the society voicing their disgust at Farage being awarded the Gold Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Public Discourse. The Hist later rescinded this award but still were happy to have Farage speak. The Phil has not escaped controversy either as accusations of insufficient female representation in weekly debates were published in a recent University Times article. This, along with the withdrawal of the controversial motion “This House Believes Middle Eastern Women Need Western Feminism” has not reflected well on the society.

The question still remains: does Trinity need another debating society? While both the Phil and the Hist still deserve to hold their respective places on campus as the premier competitive debating societies, either existing societies, or new ones, should add to the debate on campus. TCD LawSoc has hosted debates in the past, while Trinity Politics Society (PolSoc) has had guest speakers for debates. Both of these societies have also invited prominent speakers, from politicians to investigative journalists.

However, forming another debating society, or having existing societies facilitate debate amongst its members does face constraints. Speed bumps do not only arise from the mere existence of the Phil and the Hist alone. The Central Societies Committee (CSC) regulations prohibits the formation of political societies on campus with an exception given to the youth wings of Irish parties.

“Debate on a college campus should not be monopolised by two large societies and should be promoted in as many of them as possible. Over time many have caught up such as An Cumann Gaelach along with the LawSoc and PolSoc.”

Some of the issues discussed in this article are also not unique to either the Phil or the Hist. The formation of cliques is commonplace amongst many of the larger societies on campus, and the issue of competitiveness in seeking elected positions is common across many college societies. Students will be competing against their peers to make themselves stand out to potential employers once they graduate – many students see committee positions as a viable supplement to their CV and this competition is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

We must pose the question as to whether this hinders the societies’ ability to facilitate the debate and discourse they were initially set up to provide for Trinity students. It can be said that it has not helped, as both the Phil and the Hist have seen corporate sponsorship from some of the most popular graduate employers such as PwC and McCann FitzGerald. Is this what both societies are supposed to provide for the numerous members they sign up every Freshers’ Week, along with the hundreds of students who have signed up for the multi-year membership?

The ideal situation would be that students have the opportunity to participate in debate without the fear of exclusion or a feeling of inadequacy, especially when competing against experienced debaters who have had years of practice from school competitions. Debate on a college campus should not be monopolised by two large societies and should be promoted across campus as much as possible. Over time many other societies have caught up, such as An Cumann Gaelach along with the aforementioned LawSoc and PolSoc. Students deserve more than controversial guests and questionable debating motions, and while it is no fault of the Phil or the Hist, a change in culture is needed in facilitating debate and discourse amongst students.

Cian Mac Lochlainn

Cian Mac Lochlainn is an Economics and Politics student, and a staff writer at Trinity News.