Purposeful Debate

Tardie ’17 talks with Zoë Seaman-Grant ’17 and Matthew Davis ’18, finalists at the World Universities Debating Championship


Rather than aggressively complain about our current political events, this week I decided to ask for insight, advice, and tips from Zoë Seaman-Grant and Matthew Davis. The two debate team members recently competed in the World Universities Debating Championship, reaching the final round. Regarding the competition, they agreed that they struggled the most with was defending South Korea pursuing nuclear weapons. Davis explained, “The debate developed in a way that we weren’t expecting and I think both of us had trouble figuring out where we wanted it to go next,” and Seaman-Grant added: “We felt somewhat confident going into the debate, but then the debate got away from us and the arguments we planned on making did not go over as well as we expected.” Challenges like these did not stop Seaman-Grant and Davis from excelling in the international competition, which in part can be attributed to the intensity of their preparation, which sounds as taxing as taking an extra course at Bates. Seaman Grant noted, “During the months leading up to Worlds, Matt and I did practice debates together at least 3 times a week.”

In terms of research preparation, the two agreed that keeping up with current events were necessary, especially from sources or opinions they did not agree with in order to understand the other side. Davis recalls, “I also try to look out for viewpoints that are contrary or counterintuitive to my own because those are often the hardest to defend if you get assigned to that side in a debate.” These strategies around teamwork and research can be applied to the way social conversations go within and beyond classrooms at Bates. In terms of maintaining healthy and productive discourse, the two competitors offered the following advice:

“One of the most important things is to share a premise or goal. A debate that frequently comes up is the role of the United States in East Asia, and when both sides share the premise of wanting peace and security for all involved it can be a nuanced and productive discussion about how US presence affects those things. If one side wants a war with China, it not only becomes a very different debate, but it is impossible to have the debate about whether or not US presence is “good” because both sides have competing definitions of what “good” means. Of course sometimes you need to have those debates, but within discourse around policy not sharing a premise or goal with your opposition usually devolves the conversation into a shouting match rather than a debate.” -Matthew Davis, ’18

“Something that I really love about debate is that it encourages people to think about arguments that they wouldn’t normally believe. In debate, you are assigned a topic, which means you sometimes need to defend things you don’t necessarily agree with. Because of this, you start to develop empathy for people who disagree with you in everyday life because you have experience thinking about arguments that you’re normally not exposed to. I think the most important thing is to understand that the person you’re talking to is a person with thoughts and feelings and emotions just like you, even if they’re defending something you strongly disagree with.” -Zoe Seaman-Grant, ’17

In terms of intervention and social activism, the two agreed that trying to understand the other person’s perspective– rather than say, trying to win– is the most effective strategy. Moreover, speaking up against things you don’t believe in is extremely important while remembering to make it productive. Grant notes the confidence the debate team has given, “I used to sit back and just quietly be angry when people made arguments I strongly disagreed with. Now, I feel like I have an obligation to speak up on behalf of people who are made uncomfortable by those arguments and debate has taught me how to speak up in a productive and empowered way.”

In light of MLK day and the upcoming inauguration, I hope we can keep these strategies, tips, and insight in mind in our interactions with those we may not agree with.


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