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Two Sides To Every One

Truth and faith - the gap in-between is where too many of our public servants huddle against legitimate inquiry

Thursday, February 8, 2024
3 mins

by Les Bertrand

Worse Than Death

Is there anything more terrifying than the prospect of having to speak in front of a crowd?

We are reminded of an opinion poll, published many years ago, which found that the fear of public speaking is greater than the fear of Death itself.

It's tough enough having to deliver a best man's speech or address a room full of colleagues when you retire or shift jobs but it can, on occasion, be even worse.

The main speakers in our school debating team (decades ago) were always volunteers. No-one was forced to participate. But the set-piece debates (based on the WM model, with no debate allowed until a small wooden 'mace' was in place and other formalities had been observed) were popular and well-attended by pupils and teachers after normal school hours.

Term-time debates (fortnightly, perhaps) often addressed controversial issues such as abortion, euthanasia, nuclear disarmament etc. Pupils were free to choose which side of the debate they supported after seeing a motion which always followed the formula 'This house believes that...'.

We don't recall Scottish independence ever being the subject of a motion (although it almost certainly was, this being the early 80s) but we know which side of the debate we would have been on, even then.

The teacher in charge of organising the debates was always mindful of upcoming competitions. Our school had a strong tradition of doing well in such contests and the teacher responsible took her task very seriously. Although the allotted time for each speaker was very short, say, three minutes or thereabouts, it is surprising how difficult it can be to fill those minutes with meaningful argument. You need to have a clear message, effectively delivered, a strong structure:

'Tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them that you've told them.'

With the formal speeches over (usually two speakers on each team and a third member to sum-up the case) the chair would then invite audience questions which could be addressed to any of the speakers.

We recall preparing for a specific debate. The motion was 'This House believes that capital punishment should be legalised.' A good turnout was expected. We were reading over our speeches in a classroom beside the library. These pre-debate meetings gave us time to decide the order or speakers, who would sum-up, the main line of argument etc. Mrs MacDonald popped in to see us, check that we were all present, then, almost as an aside, said 'We're trying something a wee bit different today, so you (meaning our team) will now be speaking for the motion and you (the other team) will be speaking against.'

It is difficult to convey the consternation this caused. 'O whit a panic's in thy breastie!' doesn't begin to cover it. Our memory of what ensued is hazy but what we do recall is the raw fear. Both sides were flummoxed and every speaker struggled to fill their three minutes with anything intelligible. Worse again was trying to answer questions, both from the opposing speakers and the audience.

As an intellectual exercise it was, of course, worthwhile, and helped us in ways which we could not appreciate at the time. But it was a painful learning experience - one we would neither wish to repeat nor inflict on others.

So, we sympathise with politicians who are members of parties operating a whip system. They are often required to champion manifesto ideas and/or the enactment of legislation which they do not truly support. This leads to questions about trust, accountability etc. Ultimately, it is possible for someone to swear an oath that what they are about to say is 'the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth', but whether or not they should be required to aver that what they are about to say is what they truly believe is another matter.

Truth and faith: the gap in-between is where too many of our public servants huddle against legitimate inquiry. In a democracy, that is a serious problem -one which merits a debate of its own.

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