I bet you didn’t know that rostrum, nowadays just another fancy word for any speaker’s platform, used to mean the battering ram in the prow of an ancient warship. It’s true: 2300-odd years ago some Romans figured it would be a neat idea to decorate the platform on their city square with the spoils of a particularly nice military victory, which happened to include a bunch of rams. They hauled the rams over to their forum, and the rest is what I would for the sake of clichés like to call history but what we boring people actually know as etymology. Gradually, ‘naval ram’ and ‘speaker’s platform’ became synonymous with each other. And this is not relevant in any way. Well, let me make it relevant for you: this has got to be one of the best examples of how keen even our language is to equate public speaking and argumentation with the old-timey sort of military prowess. As though the person with most right to exercise their freedom of speech, most worthy of occupying the rostrum, would always be the manly man with a commanding stage presence and an endless supply of self-confidence.
This notion made me shy away from debating for a long time. I just figured that as a tiny person with a tiny voice and an equally tiny amount of confidence in my abilities I’d not feel welcome in the debating sphere. Yet, in a moment of folly, encouraged by a teacher, I signed up for FinEst 100, as I was reassuringly told it wouldn’t be a big or classy event at all. But when I arrived on the Aalto University campus, I realised I’d been misled: FinEst was big, with 56 debaters, and classy, with the debater body consisting mostly of university students. And there I was, a run-of-the-mill IB2 and a complete novice to boot.
When I say ‘novice’, I really mean it. Before this tournament, I’d participated in exactly one and a half practice debates at school, and that was at least a year ago. I had no idea what ‘British Parliamentary’ (probably the most common debating style) meant; when I showed up in the morning and asked somebody, somebody please to explain what this whole system was about, debating slang, which I was thereafter constantly bombarded with, might as well have been an alien language. Whips, knives, breaking. It all sounded, in line with the bellicose origin of rostrum, so very violent to me. Yet by the end of the day, I’d realised that being successful in this intellectual sport doesn’t require you to be aggressive. You can be, but that’s it: as long as you manage to project your argument to the judges, you have every chance of success no matter if you’re a reserved, soft-spoken type or a crowd-rallying demagogue in the making.
If you’re still not convinced that debating is meant for all, I’m also happy to say that there are as many ways to argue for or against a motion (debating slang for the statement your team either believes or doesn’t believe in) as there are people. Although I initially thought only economics-based arguments would go through, I ended up doing just fine with my arts-and-humanities stuff, focusing around cultural and social significance rather than money matters. So if you have misconceptions about needing to be a math or business genius in order to succeed, find the nearest trash can, throw them there, toss in a freshly lit match and run. To wherever your local debating society has its headquarters.
For the record, I’m still not really a fan of debating as a way to spend weekends. The schedule wasn’t even close to humane and the coffee tasted weird. But as an exercise in free speech, debating has, over the course of two days, given me a big confidence boost. If we all go out there and debate a few rounds, maybe we’ll come to appreciate ourselves as precious individuals rather than reflections of some old-fashioned public speaker stereotype. Maybe we’ll not stop there, but we’ll go and make our voices heard in other contexts as well. And if that won’t lead to a more democratic and generally nicer world, I don’t know what will. With that in mind, I’d like to challenge everyone reading this article to go out and at least try a debate. Rest assured: the whips and knives those spooky debating people keep talking about won’t hurt you.