Have you got the gift of the gab? Debate

A Town Crier Community Column

We live in an era of open mouth talk show hosts on private radio,hopelessly scripted politicians, and cartoon characters dressed in pink sport jackets who get invited to inaugurate newly elected mayors of Toronto.

What these folks tend to share in common is the distressing(dis)ability to shout louder than their opponents as they deliver their bombastic views without much evidence of intellectual rigour or creative thinking whilst standing on their feet.

Their idea of what it means to deliberate an idea is too often reduced to insults, innuendo or meaningless clichés.

Against extremely long odds that they’ll ever succeed in their mission,there is a small organization based in west end Toronto that’s dedicated to improving the way we engage in public discourse.

For more than 15 years, the Toronto Debating Society (originally known as the Swansea Debating and Public Speaking Society) has been meeting at Swansea Town Hall on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month,September to May, to give common folks experience in the cut-and-thrust of advocating and challenging topical – and offbeat – issues using proper rules of engagement.

Current membership in the society amounts to a couple dozen enthusiastic participants, about half of whom live in the neighbourhoods around Swansea. Some travel from as far away as Mississauga to sharpen their skills. Men slightly outnumber women, and their occupations range from university students to retirees.

While debating societies are commonplace in law schools, on university campuses and inside some high schools, organizers of the Toronto group say they represent the only “civilian” debating society anywhere in the world.

Members learn rules of debating etiquette and put them into practice,often with a flair for the theatrical. Strict limits are put on the length of time motions can be defended (“by the Government side”) and rebutted (“by the Opposition”). At the end of the debate an adjudicator summarizes the strengths and weaknesses of both sides and declares a winner.

Following adjournment members often retreat to a local Bloor Street West pub where “we usually debate about who really won,” says local president David Heppenstall.

The art of debating is serious business – and lots of fun, too, as a sample of recent Motions show. For example:

• “Nuclear power is worth the environmental risk.”

• “Cake is better than pie.”

• “Road tolls should pay for public transit.”

• “It is more desirable to be a Crachit than a Scrooge.”

The annual membership fee is $65 and only members in good standing are permitted to take part in the formal debate (two in defense of the motion and two in opposition, along with a moderator, time-keeper and adjudicator). But the society makes considerable effort to attract new members by hosting short, informal public speaking exercises open to all guests and non-members to kick-off the evening.

(To learn more about the TDS)

Spend an evening or two watching society members in action and one is struck by the admirable level of civility that participants exhibit toward each other. It’s an example our parliamentarians could benefit from, where “debate” in Ottawa or at Queen’s Park is too often marked by insults, put-downs and obfuscation.

There is, after all, something to be gained from the society’s motto:“A good debater has the privilege of being right, all the time!”

About this article:

Posted: Dec 26 2010 3:31 pm
Filed in: NEWS
Edition: Toronto

One thought on “Have you got the gift of the gab? Debate

  • December 27, 2010 at 8:39 pm

    Good debating skills does not get the community a good politician a good debater keeps the snoring levels to a minimum.

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