Joining the Debating Fold – Jozispeak Lessons Learned

I’ve foregone writing for a while now due to a whole bunch of ‘things’ coming up. Varsity deadlines being the prime culprit, manifesting in the form of papers, proposals and presentations. They’re done now. Also, there was a small thing called the National Debating Championships. Lasting the entirety of last week and situated on campus at Wits. My previous aversion to debating has… abated (hurr hurr!) and I now kinda wish I’d started this damned debating thing in undergrad. Alas!

When my brother and I went to high school, he did debating and I did hockey. I was good at the sport and got to go on tours and things. I had precious little interest in speaking more than absolutely necessary, let alone doing it as an activity. However, during varsity and my intellectual re-edumacation, I gradually began to appreciate the ability of good argumentation. Philosophy helped in no small part, as did politics. I still perceived debating as this internal, nerdy mental masturbation which a few folks from each university did in order to feel self-important. I now realise that this is exactly true. And I kinda dig it.

But the real reason why I started debating in 2006 was because Richard just wouldn’t shut up about this or that competition; how the nationals of 200x or the so-and-so tournament was such great fun and whatnot. In 2006 I still didn’t really get it. But then, I was a crap speaker, so that would probably have had something to do with it. Then I trundled off to Japan and thought nothing more of it until I came back for Masters. I figured this might be a good time to try out debating once again, given the challenge I perceived and the lack of professional sponsorship in my failing hockey career.


Team names were locations of fictional, fantastical and obscure countries and places.

I chose a good year to restart! Nationals 2009 dubbed “Jozispeak”, hosted by Wits and sponsored in a BIG WAY by Standard Bank proved to be the biggest and most impressive national debating championship ever seen. The challenge of debating all day, concentrating and talking and concentrating some more left one drained physically and mentally, but allowed for recharge through the many socials occurring in the evenings. Rinse and repeat. I found this year to be the year of debating improvement. With my partner, Oyena, we practiced quite a bit and got to some sort of decent capability before the tournament. After making the ‘break’ (debating equivalent of finishing the pool games and moving on the elimination rounds) and getting as far as the Semi-Finals, I think it’s safe to say that I learned more from this past week’s debating than I did in the entirety of 2006 and this year up until the competition. Likewise, from speaking at this year’s nationals I have reached several conclusions on why I enjoy the damned activity so much:

Firstly, I enjoy the challenge of formulating relatively nuanced arguments and critiques of other speaker’s speeches in a relatively short timeframe. It really does enable one to sound damned-near professorial about anything and is a handy life skill for the obvious speaking ability debating allows. Debating isn’t a challenge like a team sport, where you’re a relatively small part of a larger strategic effort, but you are 50% of a team, formulating and executing a planned (and sometimes not!) argumentation quickly and effectively. There’s a lot more pressure, and there’s a lot more at stake, relatively-speaking, and this is something I truly enjoy.

Secondly, I enjoy the challenge of the persuasion. This is a conclusion I only reached near the end of the tournament. I initially despaired at how adjudications seem random even with experienced and well-respected adjudicators. How you could deliver the “bestest speech evar!11!!!1eleven” and still not win. It was something which threatened to overwhelm the enjoyment I got from debating. But I now realise that, for the most part, failure to convince the adjudicator, however experienced, is entirely the fault of the speakers, not the adjudicators. I see this persuasion of the panels now as a challenge, and not a curse to the sport(?), and look forward to figuring out just how to achieve this.


Debaters. Wits Debaters.

Thirdly, the friendships made in debating circles tend to be strongly-forged and easily-found, given the range of personality types of debaters. It’s not a sense of camaraderie one gets from team sports, and I’d daresay most debating societies are disadvantaged by sleeve-tugging interdependency on one another. Wits, at any rate, seems to be split up into groups of people and cliques happily going about their own business, and seem unconcerned with “team unity”. It’s probably a good thing or, at the least, makes no difference. It’s not like one speaking team particularly depend on another for progression. There’s no shared consequences of victory or defeat. That’s up to the speaking partners. It sounds almost bleak…

… except that by being so disconnected from “team spirit” one meets the most amazing people from other institutions, creating a great atmosphere post-debate regardless of result or affiliation. That’s remarkably mature considering these same people make a practice of spending the better part of a tournament verbally castrating one another. Likewise, it makes me want to just hurry the hell up to the next tournament!

I had initially attempted to remain detached from debating circles in 2006 onwards, as I didn’t really see how I fit into this weird world of debaters. Certainly, a lot of the people at Nationals knew each other because of their school debating experiences, often being trained in high school by the same people who they debate against in university. It creates a relatively formidable bubble against which outsiders generally have to simply ignore. But there are ways and means around this, and it’s well worth the effort!

Ultimately, after this fantastic tournament I’ve become hooked. I see the purpose, at least for me, and I perceive a challenge which sport will not even potentially have. That being said, I must admit that having a full night’s sleep after a week-long tournament like this is priceless!

Music of the day. Something I guarantee almost none of you will like!: Killswitch Engage – Starting Over:

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