Henry Payne ’84/PAW, April 20, 1983
From the PAW Archives: April 1983

Decked out in formal academic robes, students in Nassau Hall contested an array of issues at the world championship for “off-topic debate” in the spring of 1983. Susan Craighead ’86 described the event in PAW’s April 20, 1983, writing that the British House of Commons was a model for its parliamentary procedure (and its unruly hecklers).

One team would speak in support of an assigned resolution, and another was asked to rebut. Resolution topics included “Those who think must govern those who toil” and “This House prefers men who have a future and women who have a past.” The consideration of “humor and style,” in addition to rhetoric and reasoning, encouraged winking reinterpretations of the assigned topics.

An exercise called “doubletalk” involved connecting two wholly unrelated subjects — with a catch: The competitors couldn’t know their second topic until halfway through each 6-minute argument. An Australian student named Christopher Kelly said his first topic was “columns.” The second was “dentists.” He managed to argue that “dentists are the pillars of society.” To his great relief, the argument went over well. “The first two minutes are fine,” said Kelly, “But then doubt sets in. Your mind staggers at the thought of what the second word might be. Imagine if they had given me ‘communism.’ ”

A team from the University of Glasgow emerged as the new world champion in a field of 34 teams, not including the reigning American champions — Princeton. By tradition, the hosts provided judges but no competitors.

The Princeton Debate Panel continues to be a national powerhouse, though it has returned to a more traditional format, competing in the American Parliamentary Debate Association. According to the debate panel’s website, Princeton has won the group’s Team of the Year award a record nine times.

Read Craighead’s full On the Campus column below.

World Championship Debate

By Susan Craighead ’86

(From the April 20, 1983, issue)

The British invaded Princeton last month, and this time they won. The occasion was the 10th annual off­topic debate tournament, the first world championship to be held in the United States. Thirty-eight teams from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Scotland, and the U.S. competed. Princeton holds the national championship, but as the host team it provided judges and was not allowed to participate.

Off-topic debate favors humor and style over logic and argumentation. Participants are assigned topics and given 15 minutes to prepare their cases. Delivery is modeled on debate as practiced in the British House of Commons. The Government, led by the Prime Minister, addresses the Speaker, advocating the assigned resolution; and the Loyal Opposition rebuts it. Debaters usually wear academic robes, which give them an air of dignity, but that is promptly undercut by the audience, which is encouraged to jeer and heckle. Arguing against nuclear weapons, semifinalist Grant Oliphant of Swarthmore said, “We have a system that is sucking us into the vortex of destruction.” Someone in the audience shouted, “A nuclear Hoover,” and the comment was greeted with deafening desk pounding.

That was one of the more serious subjects. A sampling of the generally unlofty off-topic topics included: “Those who think must govern those who toil”; “This House prefers men who have a future and women who have a past”; and “Religion, the fu­ture tense of fear.” The nuances of the King’s English provided some of the banter. When the Scots good-naturedly attacked their New Zealand competition as “people who speak with pseudo-English accents,” there were loud cries of “Shame! Sit doon!” from the audience.

Though off-topic debate has a British tradition, a Yankee twist appears to be catching on. American teams like to “squirrel” the resolution—change its context or definition in order to debate an issue only tangentially related to the original. Shara Aranoff ’84 says, “My partner and I are international relations majors, and we usually manage to argue from that point of view.” Recently, they were assigned, “Art is not a mirror; it is a hammer.” They argued that American perceptions of the Soviet threat are exaggerated, man-made like the hammer, as opposed to the reality one sees by looking in a mirror. Though this approach initially confused the other teams, they quickly adapted and some have adopted the style.

Another feature of the debates, called “Doubletalk,” requires competitors to speak extemporaneously for six minutes on two unrelated subjects. Judges flash a topic at the speaker and after three minutes flash a second. The trick is to make a smooth transition and then tie the subjects together in the summation. Christopher Kelly from the University of Sydney was given “columns’’ and ‘‘dentists.’’ He went on to prove that “dentists are the pillars of society.” Commenting on his performance afterward, he said, “The first two minutes were fine, but then doubt began to set in. Your mind staggers at the thought of what the second word might be. Imagine if they had given me ‘communism.’”

According to Robert Gilbert ’83, president of the Princeton Debate Panel, ‘‘Debate is getting more popular, and off-topic debate is maturing quite a bit.’’ Nationwide, college students seem to be turning away from the rigors of formal debate and toward the more relaxed off-topic style. “I wouldn’t be involved in debating if I had to do it in a cut-throat way,” said Amherst’s Tom Massero. That seems to be the sentiment at Princeton. For the past two years only off-topic debating has been done and the Debate Panel has grown to more than 30 members, with five times as freshmen as seniors.

Off-topic debaters are expected to exhibit intelligence, knowledge, delivery, and style. Arrogance is prized. “You have to be sure what you’re saying is right,” says Gilbert, adding that the mark of a superb debater is spontaneity. Edinburgh University student Hillary O’Neill demonstrated this skill when she was handed a “One Way” street sign during the final round of the Doubletalk competition. “I put it to this House that one way’s the British way,” she said, vigorously rolling her “r’s.” “I was told on my way over here that the Brits were once thrown out of this building. Well, we’re back with a vengeance.”

At the start of the tournament, teams were drawn on a random basis. Then, as the week wore on, the panel began pitting the top teams against each other, which resulted in some dramatic matches. The finals saw the University of Glasgow team argue that the United States should humbly apologize to the British for the American Revolution. The opposition view was presented by the University of Auckland, which held the world championship.

The question still has the power to stir emotions. One Yale debater argued from the floor that it was simply a matter of good manners. “There are lots of times when we apologize for things we’re glad we did,” he said. But a representative from Dublin’s Trinity College observed, ‘‘We tried to follow the American example and throw the British out, but now we’ve got a country torn in two.” When the House vote was taken, it was a tie. The judges granted the victory to the team from Glasgow (2-1), representatives of the world’s oldest bating society, which was founded in 1451.

The championship round took place in Nassau Hall. The fact that the building is celebrating the 200th anniversary of its brief reign as the U.S. capitol made it an appropriate setting for the final question.