How to win a debate

In a previous weblog we discussed, very articulately I might add, how to win a conversation.

The hyperlink is here but I will recap for those of you who made an arbitrary rule never to click on hyperlinks when using the internet.  I know I did, back in 1997, and while it makes using the internet hard I have never caught a Trojan virus from the world wide web and neither has my computer.

But I digress.

You win a conversation by scoring points based on glib retorts and insults.  When the conversation is ended, the person who got the most ‘zingers’ in, wins. We all know that this works for day to day tete-a-tete but what of a more high-brow discourse?

A ‘debate’ is different to a conversation. For a start, it is usually on an important and serious subject like politics, economics, whaling, or which Smiths record is the best. You will be talking in a different voice too; probably a concerned voice or a put-on British accent. Even if you are British you will probably put on a better British accent.

The principles of winning a debate are different too: the aim of a debate is to win by forcing the other person to agree with you or to make them stop talking.  When you win a debate you are correct,  the other person is wrong, and there can be no further debates on the subject ever.

Winning a debate then, is more important that winning a conversation with your friends where the only real prize is the knowledge that you insulted them more than they insulted you. Like anything in life that is worth winning however, a debate is hard.

However, like anything hard, I can tell you in approximately five bullet points how to wriggle around it without putting in any real effort.


Until 1995, if you had statistical evidence to back up your argument in a debate you automatically won.  This was because all statistics came from the one book and there were no variations.  The problem back then was the book was seldom on-hand when you were having a debate; no bars, restaurants, bus-stops, or student unions had a copy, so there was always a possibility that the person quoting the statistics had got them wrong and there was no way of checking.

Nowadays statistics are on the internet and because the internet is available all the time from your phone, tablet computer, lap-top and even some cuts of meat, you can find statistics any time.  The problem now is that, rather than there being one big book with all the statistics in it, there are now lots of websites and Tweets with DIFFERENT statistics in them.

In a lot of ways, statistics are pointless unless you frame them in such a way as they are vague enough they can’t be refuted:

“The number of whales maimed, killed or cyber-bullied by the Japanese increased over 20% according to the most recent figures.”

That statement firstly uses a non-specific figure: “over 20%”. That could be pretty much anything not LESS than 20%.  Secondly, the reference to “most recent figures” means, even if someone has different statistics, you can argue yours are the newest ones.

The key to statistics debates then is never be specific.

Anecdotal evidence

Research is hard and dorky.  It is also totally unnecessary for formulating a debate argument. Why bother finding specific and referable examples to support your arguments when you can just use anecdotal examples waffly and fuzzy enough never to be really refutable and based on experiences you can’t really qualify?

The three main types of anecdotal evidence are: the ‘general example from your own life’, the ‘overseas experience example’, and the ‘amputation’.   I will explain with examples:

General example from your own life

“I run a business and employ 12 people…” Okay, this only works if the person doesn’t actually know you very well, I forgot to mention this… “so I know that most of my employees actually PREFER not to have paid sick days.”

Perfect for the internet-based debate, this statement first sets up your vague, unverifiable qualification, then makes a vague reference to a numerical preference.  We all know it is UNLIKELY this statement is true: what if one of the employees gets diarrhea or breaks their foot? However, we don’t know who these employes are either, so we can’t really refute the statement.  Debate gold!

Overseas experience example

“I lived in Britain for 10 years and I never saw any crime. People in this country have no respect.”

Okay, we’ve all seen Kidulthood so we know that this statement probably isn’t true but the person saying it lived there. Lived experience is anecdotal gold because, lets face it, the person may not have seen any crime. We don’t know, were we there with them?


Also, the crime statement sets up the vaguely drawn conclusion: I never saw any crime there people here (where presumably there is crime) have no respect (which is a bad thing, and crime is, apparently an indicator of that.) Boom.

The “I lived in Britain…” line does not work for culinary-themed arguments.


The Other Person: “A flat income tax rate would encourage investment and stop the wealthy fleeing overseas.”

YOU: “I had my leg amputated.”

On the surface of it, your leg, amputated or otherwise, has nothing to do with ‘flat-tax policy’. However, if you have no leg, you automatically win the debate. Even with the most heartless of people. Even, in fact, with people who argue for a flat income-tax policy.

Note: If the person is in the room with you when you use the Old Amputee Slam-dunk you may have to pretend your leg is a prosthetic. Unless you have, in fact, had your leg amputated.*

Make out the other person is angry

Winning a debate is not like ordering photocopying paper over the phone: losing your temper will mean that far from getting what you want, you will lose. This is why smug, emotionally disconnected and privileged people usually win debates: unless the debate is about the price of cravats or how to get port wine out of tweed they have nothing to get wound up about so they seldom do.

The problem is, most people know this and will keep their cool even when debating a subject they are quite hot about.  To win a debate quite often you will have to imply that your opponent is losing their temper when they are not. This is easy to do, and an easy way to win a debate when there is an audience you can appeal to:

Your scarf-wearing opponent: “‘The Queen is Dead’ is a far superior album to ‘Meat is Murder’ which is full of dinky little novelty tunes.”

YOU: “Woah, woah, buddy, calm down. Shit, I was just expressing an opinion, no need to get angry” *looks at other people at the table smugly* “What’s with this guy? Is he crazy?”

Your scarf-wearing opponent: “I was only expressing an opinion too but…”

You: “Hey, hey, don’t hit me!”

You win because you implied the other person had lost their temper, even if the measure of temper-lose-age was entirely established by you.

Get personal

While a debate is generally considered to be a high-brow exchange of reasoned arguments there is, in fact, some room for a well targeted jab of white-hot spite.  The key is you get one shot and it has to be a surprise. If you just keep lobbing insults at the other person like they are potatoes you are going to look like you are lowering the tone, and if it is expected it may be parried away like a rusty, sword in a duel.

If, like me, you are a generally spiteful person, people will be expecting you to use aspects of their personal life against them to win any argument regardless of how important it is so they’ll be ready for you.  What you must do then, is make something up.

The other person. They have a stupid pony-tail: “But what is ‘fascism’ really? It is just a well-ordered state that defends its people against outside invaders and parasitic internal forces.”

YOU: “I had sexual intercourse with your wife last night.”

The other person. They have a stupid pony-tail: “Sorry, what?”

YOU: “You heard me. By the way your pony-tail makes you look like a snake is eating your head from behind.”

Pony-tail there, was making a point about fascism and you cold knocked him off his stride with the ‘wife sex’ call. That’s how its done!

So now you know how to debate, and whats-more, you know how to win, and what’smore-more you know how to do it with the ease of a stroll in the park and a warm shower afterwards.



*Never get your leg amputated to win a debate


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