Twice a week, students across faculties, experience levels, and walks of life gather in the basement of Tory to argue with each other.
These students belong to the University of Alberta Debate Society (UADS), the oldest club at the U of A and the longest standing debating society in Western Canada — dating back to 1908. Each Wednesday and Thursday, members get up to the podium and wage war with their words, practicing different debating styles and impromptu speaking.
You might be wondering what students are willing spend their free time yelling about policy decisions? Well, Pia Co, a second year sociology student and active member of UADS, says that while most people expect it to be exclusively poli sci students, that’s not the case at all.
“(UADS) has everything from comp sci majors to molecular biology majors. Everyone’s different,” Co says. “If there’s one thing we all are, it’s meme lords,” referencing the UADS’ much-loved, debate-themed meme page.
A typical debate meeting kicks off with announcements. Although these are usually administrative chores, they’ve been known to include “Beyoncé is having twins!!!” or “No democracy for you fuckers,” when Justin Trudeau kiboshed his promise to implement electoral reform.
Afterwards, debaters split into teams to do exercises, discuss strategy, or run mock debates. Topics range from systematic racism, to the Oscars, to feminist issues, to whether the wizards of Harry Potter should reveal themselves to Muggles. Debaters are divided up into “pros,” who have been involved in debate at the U of A for some time, and “novices,” who are just starting out.
Even with topics ranging from the provocative to the purely entertaining, members enjoy the simple thrill of a good discussion, but also where discussion can take them.
“I used to argue with my friends’ conservative parents, and wanted to be part of a community that was passionate about issues and politics, and willing to talk about it,” says current group president Moira Kelly.
“(Through UADS) I’ve had the opportunity to travel across Canada and to Greece to debate, and have made some of my best friends. You get the opportunity to meet exceptionally passionate people, and spend a whole weekend with them, arguing, laughing, drinking, all while talking about things that are important.”
Beyond the travel and fun, there are practical skills to be learned. Co explains how debate has helped her consider different perspectives, engage in more effective arguments, and even have cleaner breakups.
“In high school, you develop critical thinking skills and ideas about who you want to be and how you think the world works, but you don’t really know how to argue it against other people,” Co says. “(Debate’s) a practical skill you can bring into basically anything you do in life. If you want to break up with someone and they ask you why, (with your debating skills) you can come up with so many good reasons!”
Unlike a messy breakup, debate allows you to experience both sides of an argument. In most debates, a resolution will be given — anything from “This House would break up the big banks” to “This House regrets Taylor Swift” — and debaters will be assigned either the proposition side, in favour of, or the opposition side, against the resolution. Then they have 15 minutes to prepare arguments and each deliver one eight-minute speech.
“Often you’re forced to argue a side that you don’t believe in at all, and you have to pull something random out of your ass,” says member Alan Chan.
Despite its long history, there’s still much about UADS that surprises people, including its playful topics, accessibility, and make up of its members. But if there’s one thing group president Moira Kelly wants people to know, it’s that at its core debate is about addressing important matters in the world. “We’re a club that cares deeply about social justice,” she says. “I think that will surprise people who assume all our debates are about politics and policy.”
When it comes to debate, however, always know there’s never just one perspective. As another member offered a very different but equally profound response: “(People) would be surprised how close-knit we are. But also how often we go to the bar.”