Argument and Debate: Forms and Techniques, Part 3. Issues

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Issues, simply put, are the questions that are critical for the positive's side. They are inherent in the proposition itself, and they are questions whose answers DIRECTLY prove the proposition. Here, of course, lies the heart of debate. Few debates are as simple as answering a simple question with an undisputed answer. Often, the positive may feel that he has sufficiently answered the question, but the negative will respond with the assertion that the positive has not satisfied peripheral questions that bear directly on the answer to the issue. These questions are called contentions.

Contentions are the supporting statements for a proposition. It is helpful to think of the proposition as a house constructed on stilts, which are analogous to contentions. Perhaps the house only has four stilts, one on each corner. Or perhaps it has dozens, each placed only a few feet from the other. The house with only four stilts is strong so long as all four supports remain, but if even one is yanked out from underneath, the house is in serious danger of falling over. If two disappear, the house is doomed. In the case of the house with dozens of supports, one could knock away perhaps six or eight, and the house would still be structurally sound. In some cases, there is a support that is crucial to many others, and knocking it over has a domino effect. You can also imagine a house built on an enormous central support, with several smaller supports around the edges. Even if you pulled all the supports except for the center, the house would still stand, supported by the immense power of the unperturbed center. There are many possible scenarios, as you might well imagine. The negative seeks to undermine the claims of the positive by attacking the contentions that support the proposition. The savvy debater is quick to identify the most solid supports and determine if he can destroy them, or whether it is best to chip away at the edges until there is not enough support left to hold the issue. So, there is no rule as to a percentage of contentions that must be defeated in order to defeat a proposition. Each debate hinges on different topics, each with their own unique character. The important thing to remember is that the positive MUST be able to demonstrate the ISSUE, not the contentions.

A side note to issues and contentions: Admitted issues are those that the negative concedes without argument. This is most often done simply because the issue in question has so much supporting evidence that the negative considers it a lost cause, or not worth the trouble of dismantling, piece by piece, given time restrictions. There is the occasional case where the negative admits an issue with the hidden agenda of using that admission as a trap later in the debate, feeling that the positive claimant has missed something important inherent in the issue.

In most debates, there are a number of issues inherent in the proposition, and the two sides must agree to the issues before proper debate is begun. Most often, they are labeled for ease of discussion. Imagine a debate where the proposition includes issues A, B, C, D, and E. The negative readily admits A and C. This leaves B, D, and E as issues for the debate. In many cases, through the course of the debate, it will become obvious that there is a single, central issue dividing the sides. This is known as the ultimate issue. The positive cannot win unless the ultimate issue is satisfied.

The first step in a debate after the introduction of the positive's proposition, then, must be discovery of the issues. Often, they are inherent in the question, as when questions of law are introduced. If the debate is over whether or not Mr. Magoo killed Kaptain Kangaroo with the garden hose while standing in the tomato garden, the first step is to narrow the debate down to propositions and contentions.

* Is Kaptain Kangaroo dead?
* Did Mr. Magoo kill him?
* If so, what was the weapon?
*If so, where?

The first thing to notice is that not all of these questions are necessarily critical to the debate. It is likely that the positive would be quite happy with a finding that Kaptain Kangaroo was killed by Mr. Magoo. If this is the case, then the first and the last two questions would be considered contentions supporting the issue of KK's death.

As you can clearly see, some contentions are much more important than others. If the negative can produce a living Kaptain Kangaroo, then the positive's case is irrevocably lost. However, if the negative manages to prove that there was no garden hose, and that there is no tomato garden, the positive might still prove that KK is dead and that MM did, in fact, kill him. It must be noted, though, that negation of the final two contentions throws strong doubt upon the positive's case. When the issues lack a clear, factual answer, the negative can often win simply by demonstrating that the positive's case is so weak as to be distrusted. This would be similar to a murder trial in which the prosecution bungled the case so badly that even if the defendant was guilty, the jury would not be disposed to see it that way. On the other side, you can imagine a trial in which the prosecution bungled the case badly, but there was video documentation of the murder happening. No matter how badly the prosecution fared, the jury would still be convinced of the defendant's guilt, and the only hope would be a mistrial or other technicality not directly involved in the question of guilt.

Now, on to the actual introduction of the issues. The positive claimant is responsible for introducing the issues. If the negative, after hearing the introduction, feels that issues have been omitted or misstated, this is the proper time for him to say so. It is quite possible that a mini-debate will result as the two sides come to an agreement on the actual meat of the debate. It is possible that the debate might change drastically at this juncture. Imagine the positive stating the issue thusly: "Once a wall has been built along the US-Mexico border, it is in the best interest of the United States to form a new branch of the military with the sole purpose of policing the wall." The negative might raise several valid points, and change the debate substantially. First, there is no wall between the borders, and at this juncture, it is little more than speculation. The negative will raise the question, "Are we certain that there will be a wall?" Once the positive admits that this is not a certainty, the entire issue as proposed becomes irrelevant. Either the two parties must re-assess the issue and discover the real question, or abandon the debate. Perhaps, the debate should be, "It is in the best interest of the U.S. to form a new branch of the military to police the border." This takes the unknown element out, and addresses the real concern felt by the positive claimant -- that the U.S.-Mexico border should be better secured.

If this statement is agreed upon as the issue, there are many contentions:
* There is at least one problem inherent in open borders that is serious enough to warrant closed, patrolled borders.
* The borders are not closed and patrolled enough now.
* There are sufficient resources to maintain the proposed status.
* The political means to enact such a change exist
* There is not an existing branch of the military capable of incorporating this job into their duties

As you can see, some of these contentions, if disproved, would cause serious harm to the issue, while others would damage it slightly. Also, it is important to notice that the current debate, though not proposed by the negative, was essentially dictated by him when it was pointed out that the issue raised by the positive claimant was not a valid issue.

A second objection might well be raised by the negative: "Is this plan the best for securing the objective of a safe border?"

At this point, the negative has become a positive claimant. He now bears the burden of proof for demonstrating that there is, in fact, a better way to secure a safe border. Should he fail to demonstrate this claim adequately, the original positive position is considered the status quo, and the positive wins by default. If the negative is successful in demonstrating a better method, then the two sides must agree: Does the debate continue with the positive adopting the new plan into his proposition? If he does, then an odd paradox occurs. Even though it was the negative who proposed the new plan, the positive has adopted it into his proposition, and now must defend it against the negative! Another common situation is that both sides will agree that the new plan serves the purposes of all participants, and the debate is over before it even begins. In any case, the purpose of this illustration has been to show how issues are discovered and refined, and also how the burden of proof shifts in the process.

Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin
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