Welcome to the DAV Website
The DAV is a non-profit association which exists to promote debate. It
is the peak debating body in Victoria and runs large competitions for
adults and for schools across Victoria. It provides training and
resources for debaters, teachers and adjudicators.
Whilst you may think it obvious what your topic is about, it is important that the issue be clarified so that both teams agree what the debate is about. Even the simplest and most straightforward topic needs a definition.
How to come up with your definition
During preparation, both teams should think about the definition. The first affirmative speaker must define the topic, and the negative team should be thinking about how they would define the topic if they were the affirmative team. This is so the negative team will be prepared for any defintional issues that might arise in the debate.
The definition should not be taken out of the dictionary! You should think about the definition by asking the question “What is the debate about?” Look at the key words in the topic and ask yourselves what they mean. Here are a few examples.
That smoking in public places should be banned
What is a “public place?”. What does “should be banned” mean? What does “smoking” mean? Hopefully this will not be a debate about smoking bacon!
That languages other than English should be compulsory at school
We all know what a school is! But is the topic suggesting that it should be compulsory in all schools, or just secondary ones? What does “compulsory” mean? You should be thinking about how you would define this topic in terms of precisely how students will be made to study another language.
The defintional rule: the "most reasonable" definition prevails
Definitions often cause debaters quite a few headaches. Sometimes teams disagree as to what the definition should be. The rule for resolving such disputes is that the definition that prevails is the most reasonable definition. A reasonable definition is almost always the most obvious one. Teams usually get into definitional troubles when they have tried something obscure or clever with the definition, usually to give their team an easier argument. The reasonableness of a definition is assessed from the viewpoint of an average reasonable person – so ask yourself what the person in the street would think the debate was about if you gave him or her the topic. If you definition looks to be a little obscure, then it may be seen as unreasonable.
For example, on the topic “That Australia should accept more refugees”, and the affirmative team defined “more refugees” as being one more person than the previous year’s intake, then that would be unreasonable. Most people would expect the debate to be about a significant increase – otherwise it isn’t worthwhile debating at all! On the other hand, the negative team might want to have “more” defined as ”one million more”, and argue that such large increases are a bad thing. However this definition would also be unreasonable because it is designed to give the negative and easy argument and the affirmative an almost impossible one.
Other definitions to be avioded
Certain other types of definitions are not allowed:
Truisms: This is when the topic is defined in such a manner as to make it a proposition that is absolutely true, one which cannot be argued against. For example, if the topic was “That tomorrow is another day” and “tomorrow” was defined as being literally the day after today, then that definition is a truism – it not being possible to argue against that statement of fact. Truisms can easily be avoided by making sure that your definition sets out something that can be argued against.
Time or Place Set: You cannot “set” the debate in a particular time , eg the 1920s. This does not mean that you cannot use historical examples; only you cannot define a whole debate so that it takes place in the past. You also cannot unreasonably place-set a definition, eg defining a debate to be about what the Latvian government should do about smoking in public places would be unreasonable. But there is nothing to stop you from setting a debate in terms of what the Australian, or Victorian government should do.
Challenging the definition
If you are a negative team and you wish to challenge the definition, then there are a few steps that the 1st speaker from the negative team must follow when doing so. It isn’t good enough to stand up and say “We disagree with your definition, so there!”
1) State what the affirmative’s definition was, and why you think it is unreasonable
2) Give your alternative definition
3) Justify your new defintion – give arguments to show why yours is more reasonable. Why would the average reasonable person think that your definition was more reasonable?
4) Do an “even if”. You must still deal with the arguments of the opposing team! Hence you must say “even if we accept the definition of the other team, their arguments are still wrong". Challenging the definition does not release you from having to deal with the arguments of the other side! The adjudicator might disgree with your definitinos!
Avoiding definitional debates
You should seek to avoid definitional debates as much as possible. They tend to be quite frustrating for all involved because the teams spend most of their time arguing over what the debate should be about without addressing the real issues in the debate. Affirmative teams can prevent definitional debates from happening by taking a straightforward approach to the topic. Negative teams should challenge the definition with caution – be a little bit flexible if the definition is slightly different to the one you had come up with in prep. Often the different definition will make little difference to your arguments anyway.