Rhetoric – the art of persuasion, or the art of manipulation? It’s a question that perplexed many of the ancient Greeks, including Plato and Aristotle, and is hugely relevant today. Aristotle identified three elements of rhetoric: ethos – the esteem and respect the audience has for the speaker; pathos – the speaker’s appeal to the emotions, and thirdly, logos – the use of logic and knowledge to inform an argument.
We can see all three of these elements in the greatest and most passionate public debate of our time – Brexit. Both sides wheeled out experts to give credibility to their arguments, emotional appeal was everywhere and endless ‘facts’ were produced to convince the public to vote leave or remain. The process may have been imperfect, but nevertheless it’s clear that debate is fundamental to a democratic society.
Debating London is a bi-monthly series of debates organised by The Great Debaters Club. Based at the lovely Tea House Theatre in Vauxhall, the events are free, open to all and cover topics of current interest. In a period when public discourse seems to have become more and more polarised, often descending into personal insult and invective, we went along to see if it was still possible to have a civilised yet robust discussion of a current hot topic. In fact, it turned out to be a really interesting and stimulating event.
The evening is organised like this: firstly the audience is invited to confer with their immediate neighbours about the topic for 5-10 minutes – in this way you get to know some of the people around you and get a feel for where the topic might lead. An audience vote is taken – usually there are quite a lot of abstentions at this stage. Then, the first of three speakers for each side is invited to speak for a maximum of five minutes each, followed by questions from the floor. The second speakers from each side then develop the points for and against, again followed by more questions. After a 10-15 minute break, the chair asks for any contributions from the floor, lasting about 20 minutes, and the evening is rounded off by the summary speakers and a final vote.
One of the interesting things about the debates is that, on average 20% of the audience change their vote after hearing the arguments. Another fascinating aspect is that, after the result is announced, each main speaker reveals their true personal standpoint, which is often the opposite of their side in the debate. The point is that the club exists to train people in public speaking, developing their confidence and argumentation skills, as well as providing a lively forum for public debate. Topics are decided a week in advance to ensure relevance: recent topics include; should crypto-currencies be made legal, should the UK join the EU customs union, and does identity undermine diversity. You can see all the topics and results on the Debating London website.
These days it’s easy to be a ‘keyboard warrior’ on social media, but it’s a lot more difficult to stand up in a crowded room, make a coherent argument and have it challenged by an audience. I’m not sure what Aristotle would make of Twitter, but I’m pretty sure he would approve of Debating London.