Singapore Secondary Schools Debate Championships 2019 Round 2

As it seems to be the norm on this site, I’m going to start off this article with a little rant. Motions are not all created equal. Some are more balanced than others. Some are more fun to debate than others. Some are easier and more accessible. And perhaps most importantly, some motions are timeless, and some aren’t. There’s a reason why some motions are no longer debated. Like whether abortion or civil unions should be legal. Because

a) societal norms evolve over time, and what moral conflicts existed in the past, are more or less resolved today

b) the liberal bubble that we operate in i.e., the debate circuit, tends to develop our own values that we believe are inalienable or have become so over time, resulting in some debates being ‘settled’. More importantly, as those values become more and more certain within the debate circuit, they eventually evolve into what we call ‘silver bullet’ arguments that are so persuasive, they usually end the debate.

This House Would abolish the death penalty

What does this have to do with round 2 motions? Well the death penalty for one, is a prime example of a motion that isn’t timeless. The reasons I mentioned above are why death penalty debates were all the rage 10-15 years ago, but haven’t been seen at major tournaments in the last 5 years. The vast majority of developed countries have abolished the death penalty, and most people at least within the debate circuit don’t believe in the value of the death penalty any longer. Don’t get me wrong, there are still (kinda meh) debates on variations like whether prisoners should be able to choose the death sentence over life imprisonment, but those can function because the morality and legality of the death penalty itself isn’t in question, but what should we do assuming it’s available.

That’s why I believe that opposition teams have the short end of the stick because the vast majority of arguments lose to “What if we kill an innocent man?” and “We would rather let 10 guilty men go free instead of killing one innocent man.” Of course, any decent proposition team will have to first prove the frailties of the judicial system, how it isn’t perfect, how the police and prosecutions sometimes fail in following procedures in an attempt to secure as many convictions as possible, why racial profiling and bias often results in the unfair treatment of minorities, particularly in the severity of punishments meted out. Which is admittedly a lot of ground work. But that results in 1. The death penalty is awarded arbitrarily, and 2. There always exists the possibility of killing someone who didn’t deserve it or was completely innocent.

Of course, proposition teams shouldn’t neglect the morality of states killing individuals or the fact that the costs of a death penalty case far outweigh that of life imprisonment.

Is all hope lost on opposition though? Well no, because it might be possible to sway a few judges using powerful rhetoric on the severity of the crimes where the death penalty, that it’s reserved for the worst of criminals, and that there is no hope of rehabilitation. It might be convenient to actually just focus on serial murderers and child rapists because it’s just so hard to view these people other than animals deserving to die. Opposition needs to also argue that it’s critical for deterrence, and that people aren’t willing to gamble with their lives. Alfred strongly believes this is why people shit themselves when attempting to traffick drugs in Singapore, but I think the reality is that the Central Narcotics Bureau is too way too efficient and cracking down on drug smuggling rings. So even though it’s a persuasive response from proposition that the real deterrent effect comes from the likelihood of getting caught and not the severity of the punishment, judges still expect the deterrent argument from opposition and teams should run it anyway. Just don’t focus on that as a winning strategy.

The last thing that I want to discuss with this motion is that almost every debate on the criminal justice system revolves around 5 key objectives.

1. Retribution (or punishment)
2. Deterrence
3. Isolation (or incapacitation)
4. Restitution
5. Rehabilitation

These are the metrics we tend to use to decide whether a specific sentence is just (at least within a debate), and these metrics often come into conflict with one another, which becomes the focus of the debate. So in the death penalty debate, opposition needs to explain why rehabilitation can be ignored entirely in favour of the ultimate punishment, whereas proposition needs to defend the propensity for rehabilitation even with the worst of criminals. Or at the very least to argue that this is far too extreme a punishment and that all other objectives of the justice system can be fulfilled equally with life imprisonment.

This House believes that students holding leadership positions within a school should be selected by staff rather than being elected by fellow students

This particular debate revolves around the specific characterisation of these leadership positions and what they entail. On proposition, teams should consider arguing that there are critical tasks undertaken by student leaders and not anyone can be expected to wield that power responsibility. This can include enforcing discipline, running student activities in lieu of teachers, and deciding on the overall direction of clubs and societies. There then exists far too great a risk to leave the decision up to the average student, and that teachers are far better at evaluating which individuals are suited for these positions given their sensitive nature. Opposition can argue that these leadership positions are less about wielding large amounts of power which is susceptible to abuse, but about representing and fighting for the interests of the average student. This is an important conduit for creating tangible change within school policies and as such the individuals elected need to understand and be representative of popular sentiment.

The next issue is whether students are good judges of character and how these elections would actually play out. It’s really easy for any proposition team to claim that student elections often are shams that end up being glorified popularity contests and the most competent individuals aren’t necessarily the most popular. Opposition can claim that students in secondary school (this debate really shouldn’t take place in primary school, at least secondary and above) are rational enough to be able to make these decisions, and in the worst case scenario, there are checks and balances like removing badly behaving student leaders just like in any democracy.

This House believes that doctors should be allowed to help terminally-ill patients end their lives

This motion gave me fits 4 years ago when PLMGSS had to do opposition and it’s doing the same now with Kent Ridge on opposition. This is another example of a motion that isn’t debated at higher levels because it’s been ‘settled’ and generally people in the circuit tend to accept that access to euthanasia should be a protected right. The case on proposition is extremely simple, that pain and suffering is terrible, the vast majority of individuals die horrible deaths when suffering from a terminal illness, and that it’s important to be able to die with dignity and retaining some semblance of yourself, instead of writing in pain, with no clue where you are, unfamiliar faces around you…you get the point. It just sounds like a really really shitty way to die, and the calm, peaceful, measured death (sometimes where you can have a euthanasia party!) is just far more preferable. There might be other interesting arguments about providing an alternative to suicide (which a number of patients opt for) or changing the narratives surrounding death and making it far more acceptable, but generally powerful rhetoric about dying with dignity should suffice.

The reason why opposition is tough, is because the most compelling arguments tend to be the propensity for abuse and exploitation – be it through pressures from family, not wanting to be a burden, being worried about the financial cost of staying alive and the like. As such, it becomes hard to guarantee that this choice will be a fair and measured one. Proposition teams can and should try to account for this within their policies, by explaining some level of checks and balances to prevent abuse. This can take the form of counsellors and psychiatrists to ensure that you can make the decision independently, and that you comprehend the consequences of your decision. One interesting element of the policy that came up during a spar we did earlier this week is the use of 2 physicians that come to the same diagnosis independently. This prevents the ‘Hail Mary’ type arguments that miracles can happen or that your diagnosis might actually be incorrect, leading you to euthanise yourself when you didn’t have to.

In addition, there are other issues with doctors being the ones to prescribe such a course of action when they are bound to ‘do no harm’ within the Hippocratic Oath (fun fact, the phrase First do no harm is often misquoted as it never actually appears in the original text, but it’s a principle within the Oath nonetheless). Anyway, this Oath is nothing more than a code of ethics which are not bound in law, and as such can be broken so it isn’t a winning argument.

There are much stronger arguments than these, but they require such complex analysis that it’s almost impossible to pull off within a secondary school level debate. It’s one of those strange things where the motion seems simple at face value, and has been done so many times that it should be accessible, but without trying to contest the value of life, it becomes quite difficult for any opposition team to win. And I honestly have no clue how a 16 year old kid is going to explain why life is meaningful or has value. If you do figure out a way, let me know.

Anyway, hope this short discussion helped those who are struggling to construct cases. Good luck for the rounds tomorrow!

Whipping up clashes

Singapore Secondary Schools Debate Championships 2019 Round 1