Cut & Thrust: the delicate demands of debating

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When debating, it’s always a neat idea to namedrop Chomsky, even if you can’t quite recall or even pronounce his first name*:

 ‘The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.’

Unfortunately the audience at NGV’s Art & Activism Debate last week were not that passive, nor that obedient, but my, were they lively! Armed with green and red voting cards, they had to decide which of the two teams made the best case. The topic: should artists have a social responsibility? I’d been cajoled into being on the ‘against’ side, which was not an easy gig. But we took to the task with gusto, and slugged it out in front of an attentive crowd of 100 potential voters.

Perhaps we should debate more often at RMIT – I mean serious debate – not just ‘we need to correct this semi-colon in Minute 2.3.’. Academic Board is livelier now than it’s ever been, even in the acoustically challenged debating Chamber, and I’ve had the mixed fortune of participating in some rather animated Town Hall meetings of late, including one address to 270 careers officers from across the state. I was sandwiched between two extraordinary students: a prize-winning bio-health scientist who when he didn’t have the crowd in uproar, had them in stitches, and a youthful games technologist who’d created his own company at about the age of 7. I was the rather (unful)filling meat in the sandwich.

A few hours later I was on another panel for a very special Golden Key Gathering of RMIT alumnus, talking about the keys of success. Drawing on my vast reservoir of brainiac one-liners, I was glad to remind the very large crowd that the only place you’d find ‘success’ before ‘work’ was in the dictionary. Boom Boom. How they laughed.

Meanwhile back at the NGV, I eschewed Chomsky and quoted Theodor W. Adorno, for slightly more kudos. I admonished my debating adversaries for being hand-wringing pinko liberals, or something equally rude, which was a tad unfair even if one of them was a lawyer. Ever a lover of alliteration I opened by declaring that, ‘the proposition is preposterous – it would reduce artists to lackeys of the state, handmaidens of mediocrity, and vassals to venality,’ and so forth.

However, according to the venerable Desmond Tutu, the art of debating relies on this dictum: ‘Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument.’ It’ll be broadcast on ABC at some point, so you can hear for yourself whether I achieved either. All you really need to know is that when the votes were cast, the ballot boxes opened, and the hanging chads discarded, the reds won hands down. Be magnanimous in victory, said Napoleon, and we were just that, if slightly embarrassed by having to argue a case we weren’t quite convinced by. What would Noam or Theodor make of it?

* Noam, pronounced as in ‘Gnome’. Perhaps readers can remind me what the W in Theodor W. Adorno stands for?




2 thoughts on “Cut & Thrust: the delicate demands of debating

  1. V for victory or vendetta.

    And now your citing Chomsky! This is too much for an anti establishment die hard to bare.

    Debates of substance at RMIT would be nice to see, even to take part in (if I could keep my voice down). But certainly not if the topics were limited as Chomsky observes in almost all venerable institutions of politics. Perhaps a way around this trap is to open a public, online forum that takes and displays suggestions for topics, and speakers for that matter, to which the recorded debate was subsequently posted, and the noisy riff raff allowed to continue it infinitely in text.

    But I wouldn’t bother if that online forum system was anything like ShapeRMIT or Sillystuff, that would be exactly what Chomsky meant. (suggestions for better systems were posted to SillyStuff but a reply was never made).


  2. Adorno’s surname was originally Wiesengrund which he dropped and took his mother’s maiden name as his surname when he took up US citizenship – and Wiesengrund became his middle initial “W” ( …. in the true style of postmodern enlightenment!)


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