Debate Guide: Starting a debate

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Whilst Debate Guide maintains advice sections dealing with responses to arguments, the following advice page deals with starting debates and asserting arguments. Although you will eventually have to respond to the arguments of others, this is not usually the best way of starting a discussion. Here, we will explain how to go about proposing a debate, making your argument heard.

Consider the impact of your advocacy before starting a debate on the web. Your aim in doing this should be to make clear and striking facts available to curious and open minded readers, giving them the opportunity to undertake their own balanced research on the issues at hand. So ask yourself if what you are doing is going to lead to a considerable overall net gain in public knowledge and the accuracy thereof.

Also remember that simply being "right" isn't good enough!


Links (Fora) lists past and potential venues.
Be prepared...
With today's evolved internet, you have a veritable banquet of options open to you. Whilst Debate Guide is primarily oriented towards the discussion board format, as embraced by the Internet's largest resource for said system. There are still some other options that we will briefly run through:
  • Question and answer sites.
  • Open dictionaries or phrase definition sites, for example UD.
  • Open Wikis, some of which allow debate and creative writing.
  • Video sharing sites such as YouTube, characterised by comment threads and ratings systems.
  • Blogging, Social Networking, Podcasting and various other individualistic methods of content management.
  • News comment threads on network and local media sites.
  • Make-your-own-news sites such as Slashdot and Indymedia.
  • Commercial review sites such as Amazon.
  • Email.

Deciding whether or not any of these venues are viable, is not a simple task. It involves a case-by-case assessment and often incorporates (albeit limited) concerns about security. You might like to discuss individual cases on our forum.


The web is a highly subdivided medium. People flock to areas dedicated to their interests and beliefs, meaning that the effects of certain arguments will differ, depending on the site and audience. For example, "child sexuality" is a widely accepted concept among scientists and mental health professionals, but denied by most religious fundamentalists. At the same time, regarding sexual contact between adults and minors, there is a shared "zero tolerance" orthodoxy between these groups. You should understand these similarities and differences, considering whether you are better equipped to refute arguments based on age (scientific-victimological) or immorality (religious-moralist) for example. You should also consider how receptive different groups are to any kind of dissenting message and the number of people participating in and viewing a debate. Remember that your opponent is not the primary audience for your arguments, so much so that (for example) a cleverly subverted book review on a website not known for debate may be just as effective. Also take into account the age of those viewing your arguments. As we are selling the future, not funeral-assurance products, the youth and open-mindedness of our audience is an important factor.

After numerous experiences involving Debate Guide contributors, it can be tentatively concluded that the following audience factors tend to contribute towards an open, engaging and worthwhile debate:

  • A skeptical or at least knowledge-oriented community.

Whilst is is virtually worthless to argue against an audience who is already considerably sympathetic, inquisitive and skeptical minds are always more likely to take on new ideas. The Atheist, Rationalist, Alternative, Libertarian, Anarchist, Science, Technology and Anime communities have all shown relatively high degrees of receptivity to our arguments.

  • A reasonable degree of formality.

Your discussion medium should have as its purpose, the discussion of serious issues in a formal and logical manner. People should be best-equipped to expect these arguments, thus not leading to the perception of an imposition.

  • An ethos of openness to newcomers.

Some communities are highly clique-y and self-referential. Assuming that you have no established identity on the website in question, you should generally avoid communities that are built around special interests and schisms with other communities. For example, one of our contributors was given death threats after signing up for what looked like a relatively innocuous freethought board. Sometimes admins may ban subversive accounts on sight. Do not engage with these people.

  • A high turnover of contributions and viewers.

This makes selecting debate opponents, avoiding censorship, achieving decent coverage and completing debates a lot more easier.

Questions and debating points

Don't bite off more than you can chew. Drafting narrow parameters for debate, single issues and a "message oriented" approach will tend to moderate the discussion and keep it within manageable limits. This allows you to call an opponent whenever they stray off topic. Even if you do decide to discuss fundamental issues such as concepts of sexuality, childhood and consent, the debate should be set within fixed parameters. State from the very beginning what your position is and what you are willing to debate and argue for. And if you are going for the broadest possible coverage of topics, make sure that you are equipped with the knowledge and ability to argue your way out of numerous situations and refute numerous misrepresentations of your argument.

Although any discussion of "pedophilia" is likely to arouse a great deal of interest, an ideal opening post should start with a question, not the imposition of a preconceived opinion. Questions are less offensive, more open and make people challenge their deepest held beliefs. The question should reflect your interests, and strengths in knowledge. Exert as much subtle control over the debate as you possibly can. For example, if you have first hand experience of a sexual relationship between an Adult and a Child, do not phrase your question "Pedophilia - Right or Wrong?". Instead of damaging your argument from the outset, ask an open question that engages people's moral and ethical relationships with the real world, not concepts or stereotypes. For example, your question and thread title may read:

"The Sexual Predator who I loved: would you deny us?"

In this case, you would already be fairly well set-up to win any argument that followed, as long as you do not reach undue, set-in-stone conclusions on the simple basis of your own experiences.

Another question to really get people thinking may be:

"Adult-minor sensual touching. When does it become "sex"? When does it become "wrong"?"

Such a question should be extended in your message to specifically ask what constitutes "sex". Is it petting, caressing, fondling, kissing, oral or only penetration of the anus or vagina? When confronted with the idea that what they are doing to their own child may be seen as "sexual abuse", a parent's ability to reason may kick in.

Another tip is to pre - empt the arguments of others, when proposing a debate. This shows that you know the arguments you are about to face "all too well", and immediately puts the proponents of irrational dogma where they should be, on the "back foot". To further demonstrate your knowledge and wisdom, the pre - empted arguments should be accompanied with a counter argument. You can find these counterarguments elsewhere in the guide, and hopefully in the spontaneous thoughts that it inspires.

You should take care not to cast yourself in too serious a light. Don't kill yourself off by getting angry with accusations, generally "trying" too hard or effecting the general perception that you are hiding a covert agenda. Arguments that sound overly apologetic are likely to lead others to believe that you are taking responsibility for child abusers, or are one yourself. Ideally, your agenda should be one of general intellectual curiosity and freethinking, unspoken because it shines through in an argument that is confident but not overly insistent and condemnatory of dissent. Make philosophical objections and not personal or moral ones unless for example, you intend to defend yourself as a non-offending pedophile. At the same time, it is conceivable that ridicule (of arguments, not opponents) could form an important and tension-easing part of your argument. There really is a lot to ridicule in the world of misguided "protect the children" slogans, but the validity of this as a tactic obviously depends on your audience.


Noncommittal can be a very powerful debating tool, if used correctly. The idea here is to cast doubt upon an opponent's argument by taking the inquisitive position of "undecided" as opposed to advocating your own hypothesis. A fundamental principle of arguing from a noncommittal standpoint is that you should not be expected to provide proof for simply failing to accept a hypothesis. The tactic can - in this sense, be used to put an opponent on the backfoot, as the burden of proof is on the advocate of said hypothesis. This tactic is however largely pointless if you can not or do not present contrarian arguments in a direct and pertinent style, or are not willing to tacitly defend them on multiple occasions, if they continue to cast doubt upon insufficient opposition arguments.

Responding to others

Defending your point of view from others and using faulty arguments as a basis for counter-attacks is an art in itself. For more information on this, please proceed to the responding advice section.