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What is a Debate?

By Sheri Cyprus
Updated May 23, 2024
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A debate is a verbal argument that is conducted within a set framework. Debates are common in both political and educational environments. People can disagree with opposing views in a structured setting that gives all participants a chance to present and defend their arguments as well as reach conclusions about the arguments of their opponents. There are many different formats possible for a debate, but debates also have many features in common.

The topic of a debate can be virtually anything. However, most debates with a public audience center around a controversial issue that has interest for the audience such as the topic of gun control, for example. Some debates have audience participation with some questions posed by the audience to the debaters. Debates may involve one participant against another or they may be in a team format. Basic debate formats vary widely in terms of time limits for speeches, the order of speeches and how arguments are presented.

The beginning speeches in a debate are called "constructive speeches" because the debaters present the basic construct of their argument. An argument in a debate means stating your position and then justifying that position by stating why your position on the topic is the right one. Evidence gained through research such as in the form of statistics or in the form of research results is used to justify a position in a debate. Quotes and personal testimony can also be used as position-strengthening evidence.

The two positions in a debate are the affirmative and the negative. The affirmative or "pro" side in a debate argues in favor of something while the negative or "con" side argues against something. For instance, the affirmative stance on gun control would argue why firearm regulations are necessary for public safety while the negative stance on gun control would argue why controls wouldn't work to ensure the safety of the public.

Presidential debates are held prior to every American Presidential election and have a long history in the United States. They date back to 1858 when Abraham Lincoln debated Stephen A. Douglas in seven different debates on slavery held in seven Illinois congressional districts. High school debates usually involve debating teams rather than one-on-one debating formats. Sometimes, student debaters are assigned a position rather than choosing their own position. Whether positions are chosen or assigned, proper debate strategy is essential for winning debates.

Good debaters understand the importance of appealing not only to logic and reason but to the emotions of the audience. Argumentative strategies are important and debaters must anticipate the responses of the other debaters and the audience. An in-depth understanding of the topic and not just the main points is absolutely essential for a good debate. A good debater needs to prove not only why his or her position is the right one, but why the opponent’s position is the wrong one.

Most debate formats include a cross-examination section where participants can pose questions to the other candidates. The strategic debating idea here is to try to expose weaknesses in your opponent's argument. Rebuttal speeches are those at the end of a debate. They offer both a summary of each debater's argument as well as conclusions drawn from the arguments of the other debaters.

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Discussion Comments

By jessiwan — On Oct 30, 2013

Apropos makes a lot of sense. I remember when I first stumbled upon this guy's website, he was championing for animal welfare and rights. At that time I did not care for animals whatsoever, however he had a diary section, and I read his diary entries, fell in love with his character, and decided to take up his cause. Looking back, his logic did not have as big of an impact on this decision of mine as his diary. It still did have some impact, just not as much as all those emotions he aroused in me with his diary.

By CoolWish — On Jul 13, 2010

Apropos - It actually seems to me that particular topics of debate are especially susceptible to an unfortunate preponderance of emotional appeals. Questions relating to personal or religious values – and really, anything that is less easily accessible via straightforward logic – too often seem to devolve into mutual accusations of sophistry.

By Apropos — On Jul 13, 2010

Like the article says, the debaters must appeal to both logic and emotion. However rational we might like to think ourselves and others, the truth of the matter is that simple logic is rarely sufficient to convince anyone in matters of great complexity. The trick is to strike the proper balance between appeals to logic and emotion, taking care to not lose touch with one's rational argument amidst the anecdotes, impassioned exhortations, and other attempts to win the hearts of the audience or judges.

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