Hart of the Matter
I went along to a debate in Haverhill yesterday, but it wasn’t between politicians opposed to or defending the new coalition, it was between schoolchildren about something very important to them – and very impressive it was, too.
Pupils from Parkway and Chalkstone middle schools and Samuel Ward college held a traditional-style debate – the sort you will still find staged by university students’ unions.
Debate is very much a diminishing art form, sadly, partly because television rarely has time for it, contenting itself with a two or three-minute slugfest between a journalist and a couple of politicians, which rarely seems to scratch the surface of the issues involved.
Even news magazine programmes like Newsnight or (I confess it) my favourite This Week, discuss items for less than ten minutes.
We had the leaders’ political debates in the run-up to the election, which lasted 45 minutes, and I heard many people saying they had not been able to watch all of one because they were too long.
Regular readers of this column will remember that I have sometimes bemoaned the poor level of debate within local councils.
When people complain about the number of senior politicians who come from Eton and Oxbridge, they should remember that those institutions still teach the formal elements of debating skills, handed down to us from ancient times, mostly with Greek names.
Argument is a skill, and a positive way of resolving issues as long as it is carried out in a reasoned and constructive fashion. In pubs you will often hear arguments, and in many cases they will epitomise exactly how not to go about any form of debate, however much those involved may think they are being very clever and persuasive.
Instead, the fringe listener just hears a boring repetition of the same points of view, heavily interlaced with unpleasant words of emphasis, ending up with some vacuous question which the participant smugly considers unanswerable.
So it was delightful to hear proper debate carried out intelligently by 12 and 13-year-olds, on a subject which could be very controversial.
The proposition was that ‘This house believes there should be a curfew in Haverhill from 9pm to 7am for all those aged 16 and under’.
It’s a pretty Draconian idea. Talk about the state interfering in people’s lives. If there were such a byelaw, Mr Clegg might be even more inundated than he is already going to be with suggestions from people about laws which should be repealed.
However, the issues which featured in the debate are fundamental ones about civil liberties and individual rights. After all, the most basic question at stake here is who has the more important right – the teenager who wants to hang about in an intimidating group while not committing any misdemeanour, or the resident who does not want to be intimidated by a group of teenagers?
Almost any issue of this kind worth debating usually comes down to a decision about whose rights are more important, because there are almost always conflicting ones.
Recently we have had the potential terrorist who could not be deported in case someone tortured him in his home country. Are his rights more important than ours to be protected from his bombs?
Then there was the Christian owner of a bed and breakfast who wanted to prevent gay couples sleeping together under his roof. Are his rights to religious freedom more important than gay people’s rights to sexual practice?
Someone is always going to be the loser in such clashes, which is what makes the debate so interesting.
At the school debate I heard pupils stand up for the police being allowed to get on with their more important work rather than having to enforce a curfew on teenagers – but also for the police to have their job made easier by not having to deal with anti-social behaviour at night from teenagers.
I heard such well-rehearsed issues as the majority being made to suffer for the minority, strengthening the bonds of family relationships, inactivity leading to poor health and repetitive lifestyle causing aggression and conflict.
These are all the sorts of philosophical arguments which have teased some of the great thinkers down the years, and one might hope some, at least, of the participants in the debate may go on to read Plato, Aquinas, Payne, Marx, and the rest, about the tensions between personal freedom and interventionism.
One of the students proposed that, as most of any trouble that was caused at night in town centres was down to adults, it should be adults who were put under curfew.
While I wouldn’t go that far, I would suggest that such debates should not only be the province of schools, but that adults, too, should hold, and participate in, intelligent debate, perhaps in front of an audience in the town, rather than everyone relying on their televisions.
Here’s a starting point: This house believes the centre of Haverhill should be completely pedestrianised 24/7 however inconvenient it may be for anyone.