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“Room for Perfectly Honest and Friendly Differences of Opinion”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - April 21, 2010

Debate – along with drama, music, speech, and dance – was a mainstay of the MIA program during much of the 20th century. In today’s atmosphere of political and social incivility extending even into the ranks of the church, it seems a little unreal that in ward after ward, year after year, with apparently few exceptions (too few to draw public censure from the General Boards), Latter-day Saints were expected to have honest but friendly differences of political opinion. Not only that, but they were actually encouraged to discuss those differences courteously and intelligently, and not to allow their political differences to carry over into daily life. What would that be like?

Below are the debate rules and the choice of topics to be debated by the MIAs in January, 1923, after a period of preparation and study:

Purpose. – Debating as practiced in the associations should have two main purposes: First, to train the young men and women in public speaking, and, second, to train them in clear, logical thought based upon accurate information.

Instructions

Before a debate, the two teams, or associations, or sides, should formulate a written agreement covering the following points:

1. The time and place of the contest.

2. The time for submitting the question and by which team it shall be submitted.

3. The time for the team receiving the question to return its choice of side.

4. The number of debaters on each side and the length and order of their speeches.

5. The method of choosing judges. Three judges should be chosen but no person should be retained as a judge who is not acceptable to both sides. Judges should render their decision without consultation.

Points for judgment:

1. Development of argument, 60%.

2. Delivery, 40%.

In selecting a question for debate care should be taken to choose a subject upon which difference of opinion may fairly exist, in fact one upon which public opinion is divided. Questions should be chosen, the study of which will be worth the while of the debaters and the discussion of which will be beneficial and enlightening to the hearers.

Each team may consist of either two or three debaters. The contest will probably be long enough with two on a side.

Principal speeches should be from ten to fifteen minutes in length. A good order is as follows: first affirmative speaker, 15 minutes; first negative, 15 minutes; second affirmative, 15 minutes; second negative, 20 minutes, 15 for his principal speech and 5 for closing rebuttal and summary for his side; followed by a five-minute closing rebuttal by one of the affirmative speakers. If desired the five-minute closing rebuttal may be given as a second speech to the first negative speaker instead of adding it to the time of the second speaker, but the affirmative must always close the debate.

Another plan which has some advantage over the first is to give each man a principal and a rebuttal speech.

It should be the primary purpose of each team to present clearly and fairly the arguments for its side and to defend its position with as much information and logical argument as possible. This requires much careful study and preparation.

Mere assertion of one’s own opinion has no argumentative force and should be avoided. Attempted flights of orator should also be omitted.

It should not be forgotten that there are two sides to every controversy, and that there is room for perfectly honest and friendly differences of opinion on most questions.

The debates should be opened and closed by music and prayer, and conducted in an academic spirit of fairness and with a view to getting at the truth. It is no disparagement to be defeated in a contest so conducted.

Respectful courtesy should be shown on both sides, and all personalities avoided. In referring to the debaters on the opposite side, no names should be used, but rather the expression, ‘the gentleman, or speaker on the affirmative,” or “negative,” as the case may be.

Improper motives should not be attributed. Only small petty minds do that. A debate should never degenerate into mere contention. It is held to get information, gather knowledge, and ascertain the truth, and not to gain personal advantage.

The wording of the question should be agreed upon by both sides, and a definition of the terms should be thoroughly understood. The debaters should confine themselves to the points of the question, and not permit themselves to treat topics not germane to the issue. A chairman should be chosen to conduct the debate, who will announce the subject, the names of the judges, the respective speakers, and the decision of the judges, and see that the debate is carried on in fairness.

Let the discussion close with the debate, and not be carried on later, nor on the outside. In regard to the judges, let it be remembered that their decisions are only the opinions of three out of the many who have listened, and that their decisions do not necessarily settle the merits of the question – only the points of that debate – in their opinion.

Officers desiring to debate other questions than those suggested, should submit them to the General Boards for approval.

Questions for Debate

1. That life in the country is more favorable to human development than life in the city.

2. That universal peace is possible by arbitration.

3. That the horse has done more to promote civilization than the locomotive.

4. That the initiative and referendum should be adopted in State legislation.

5. That for American cities, the municipal ownership of those public service corporations, which furnish water, light and transportation is preferable to private ownership.

6. That state, county and city officers should be nominated by direct primaries held under State regulation rather than by delegate convention.

7. That all immigration to the United States by people of the yellow race should be forbidden.

8. That the United States government should own and control all railroads.

9. That it is more profitable to grow hogs than it is to grow cattle in this community.

10. That poultry is the most profitable business for this community.

11. That fruit culture is a profitable business in this community.

12. That boys and girls have a better opportunity in the country than in the city.

13. That universal physical training should be required in all public schools.

14. That immigration to the United States should be prohibited for five years.

15. That the government should control the price of wheat.

16. That every able-bodied man in the United States should be required to perform one year’s military service before attaining the age of twenty-five years.

17. That it is not best to pension teachers.

Humorous Debates

18. That an old maid is of more benefit to a community than an old bachelor.

19. That women are as brave as men.

20. That the broom is of more value than the dishrag.

Caution to visitors: Regular participants at Keepa know that it is fine to admire or laugh at the specific debate topics, to wonder why a given topic was included and to speculate about arguments that may have been made in those 1923 debates. What we don’t do is record our 2010-era opinions about these 1923 topics as if we were holding those debates today.



21 Comments »

  1. I think members of the church still have the potential to be respectful to each other. Unfortunately, universal access to the internet has allowed anyone, even the least polite and informed among us, to express their unrestrained opinions, hence the rampant outbreak of hostilities between those of various political hues.
    Just my twopence worth!

    Comment by Alison — April 21, 2010 @ 9:48 am

  2. The broom is definitely of greater value than the dishrag. Did you ever try to fly on a carpet that small?

    Comment by Mark B. — April 21, 2010 @ 10:26 am

  3. Speaking of immigration, I’m not sure if we should permit people to value their opinions (or others’) in foreign currencies. This is an American blog, after all. :)

    Comment by Mark B. — April 21, 2010 @ 10:28 am

  4. I think we’d be safer doing the humorous debates — especially if Mark B. is participating. {guffaw}

    I know others have been talking about this around the ‘nacle, and I’ve agreed with you, Alison, that we could be respectful in church discussions, but after last Sunday’s Relief Society lesson I’ve been wondering. The lesson was on prayer, and the teacher (her first lesson; I don’t know her well) read an agonizingly long list of things we should be praying for — it reminded me of a dedicatory prayer where the roofing nails and the electrical outlets are blessed. One section of her list was on praying for government leaders — and she didn’t advocate praying for generic blessings that we all could agree on (“bless them with wisdom” or “protect them from harm”); she told us that we needed to pray that political leaders would take certain specific actions and avoid certain other specific decisions. It doesn’t matter which party she was championing; what matters is that her list was straight out of the talking points of a specific party, and that she assumed that everyone would of course agree with her, and that she assumed it was appropriate to interject partisan politics into a gospel lesson. Vocal responses from the class supported her brand of politics and we returned to that political bit twice more during the lesson. I don’t know if anyone else was disturbed — I was — but if so, none of us said anything.

    I’d like to think that there were others like me, and that we didn’t speak up because we were all taking the high road of not derailing a lesson by amping up the political content — but I fear that in my case at least the silence was because I didn’t think I could speak diplomatically without having the time to plan out and edit my remarks, and because I wasn’t sure, no matter how diplomatic I might be, that I wouldn’t be treated disrespectfully by those who shared the teacher’s politics.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 21, 2010 @ 10:45 am

  5. It is very interesting to review the debate questions. I got a feel of what were the issues of the day and what has changed since 1923. Many of the questions have evolved into issues of our day. I remember Debate Club in school with all the rules and procedures, etc. When I watch debates today we aren’t even close to any rules or procedures. In fact we mostly debate the merits or demerits of the speaker(debater). Very interesting OP, loved it.

    Comment by Mex Davis — April 21, 2010 @ 11:02 am

  6. Excellent stuff, Ardis. You’ll hear no debate on that.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 21, 2010 @ 11:16 am

  7. Fun stuff. I debated in both high school and college, so this invokes some good memories. The rules are remarkably similar to what I recall, and even the jerks we hated from the snooty high school in our conference always referred to us as “gentlemen and ladies”, and we afforded them the same courtesy. We had a general topic each year that we did research into, and had to be ready to argue either the affirmative or the negative without any warning when we walked into a debate, so we really had to understand and be able to articulate both the strengths and weaknesses of each position.

    It’s a very useful skill, much lacking in most of today’s discourse. No one seems to be interested in engaging on a level playing field, and giving opposing viewpoints equal opportunity. Ultimately, it left me poorly prepared for real life, where seeing that there really are two sides to every argument is now looked upon as a moral failing.

    Comment by kevinf — April 21, 2010 @ 11:35 am

  8. J., can I grin and groan at the same time?

    Mex, thanks. I think you’re right that when we watch what passes for debate today, we’re generally evaluating the speaker (was his smile sincere? did he look at his watch too often?) than really listening to or being willing to be persuaded by the content.

    And isn’t it amazing how many of the 1923 debate questions are still debatable today?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 21, 2010 @ 11:40 am

  9. kevinf, I didn’t realize that school debaters didn’t know which side they would argue until they showed up. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful way to make decisions if we could discipline ourselves to look that thoroughly at both sides of a question!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 21, 2010 @ 11:43 am

  10. Excellent. I appreciate your continued promotion of courtesy and levelheadedness. Ardis for bloggernacle president!

    Comment by Moniker Challenged — April 21, 2010 @ 11:46 am

  11. If only I could follow Keepa’s rules when I comment elsewhere. I think one reason I can’t/don’t is because in most places there doesn’t seem to be a debate moderator. I’d be more courteous elsewhere if I didn’t feel it just made me an easy target to be eaten alive.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 21, 2010 @ 12:14 pm

  12. i wouldn’t try to eat you. No offense, but I’m afraid you might taste a little archivey ;-)

    Comment by Moniker Challenged — April 21, 2010 @ 12:18 pm

  13. One question: the rules refer to “the man” or “gentlemen.” Weren’t the young women in the MIA also participating in the debates in 1923?

    It’s been a while since I read them, but it is instructive to read the full text of the Lincoln-Douglas debates from summer 1858. They have become the Bible of American political discourse–we all honor them as being from a higher place, but we surely don’t read them–but even those demigods, even Lincoln!–was not above making cheap debating points, or making his opponent an offender for a word.

    Still, the format was an hour for the first speaker, then an hour and a half for the second, with a half-hour rebuttal by the first. That was a long-enough time to develop some real argument, and the applause (or laugh) lines took up less of the alloted time than nowadays.

    Comment by Mark B. — April 21, 2010 @ 1:11 pm

  14. Interesting, as always.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — April 21, 2010 @ 1:28 pm

  15. My first YM/YW activity (in 1982, if you must know) was a debate on evolution. Because it was in Los Alamos, and virtually all of us were the progeny of scientists, it was hard to get anyone to argue the creationist stance–I think a few people ended up being assigned to it against their will. It was a long time before I realized that this is a somewhat atypical church experience among my peers :)

    Comment by Kristine — April 21, 2010 @ 1:50 pm

  16. This is fascinating. Thanks, Ardis.

    Comment by Cynthia L. — April 21, 2010 @ 3:03 pm

  17. Gee, and I thought it odd when one of the judges in an MIA speech contest (before August 1971, if you must know–you get no credit here, Kristine, for being old and decrepit) told me that he’d never before heard a speech at MIA in favor of civil disobedience.

    Comment by Mark B. — April 21, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

  18. Maybe I should be a post on each of the above topic using the said rules. Hmmmm. This is great, Ardis. You rock.

    Comment by Chris Henrichsen — April 21, 2010 @ 5:32 pm

  19. It might be fun to have a Bloggernacle debate using exactly these rules (well, substituting a word count, perhaps, in place of a time limit). I wonder if we could actually be civil long enough to complete it.

    Moniker, I’m trying to image what I’d taste like, all archivey and all — cobwebs? bookworms? a sprinkling of dust?

    Thank you all who have commented since I last caught up.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 21, 2010 @ 6:46 pm

  20. Speaking of not letting political differences carry over into daily life, I will confess to having broken this rule. There are members of my ward to whom I should be better friends, but because of their particular political views, I have distanced myself. It’s wrong, I know.

    I think I needed this “civics” lesson. Thanks.

    Comment by Hunter — April 21, 2010 @ 11:58 pm

  21. The Mormon Church is great at teaching absolutes. “There’s a right and a wrong to ev’ry question” goes the hymn. I wonder if our collective difficulty in being civil comes from our inability to recognize there are many legitimate topic where it’s OKAY to disagree.

    Comment by Clark — April 23, 2010 @ 11:34 am

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