The Cambridge Union, founded in 1815, is the oldest and largest debating society in the world, and it has hosted great persons like Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt and the Dalai Lama. Today many schools and colleges around the world have their own debating societies and hold competitions. Public debate has an important place in democracy, as it provides a platform for people to think, argue, question and respond about major issues from different perspectives.
Participants in a public debate are usually required to follow preset rules. Good debaters are those who adhere to the rules and yet make strong arguments. They speak forcefully while showing respect to other speakers and the audience, and maintaining decorum and dignity. However, many times, this does not happen. Very recently, the candidates for the U.S. presidency were engaged in a series of three debates that were televised live and watched globally by millions of people. The debates had their high points and low points, but some of the low points were really low.
Even the Bible has advice about how to engage in a good debate. It says, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4:6) To make our point, we do not have to hurt others, or be rude or call them names. St Paul, in another letter of his, says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Ephesians 4:29) In other words, it is not just that we should speak gracefully, but our style, tone, mannerism and body language should all be such that those who hear us also receive grace.
Solomon says in the Bible, “Words from the mouth of the wise are gracious, but fools are consumed by their own lips.” (Ecclesiastes 10:12) In the Book of Proverbs, he likens a speaker’s promises which are boastful and may remain unfulfilled, to “clouds and wind without rain”! (Proverbs 25:14)
In essence, gracious words are like a honeycomb, they bring sweetness to the soul and healing to the body. (Proverbs 16:24)