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Should Donald Trump be banned from entering the UK?

January 20, 2016

What this debate was about
After a petition to ban Donald Trump from the UK received over 500,000 signatures in the aftermath of his comments on banning Muslims from the US, Members of Parliament agreed to debate the proposal on the 18th January, although it was not voted on. A candidate who openly courts controversy,Trump has already talked of building a wall on the Mexican border and been accused of verbally abusing a female debate host and a disabled journalist. However, it is most recent call to ban Muslims from entering the US, that prompted the debate on banning him from the UK. The government's official position is to treat Trump the same as any other foreign dignitary and grant him entry if and when he comes to the UK. However, it has previously banned foreign nationals accused of inciting violence or hatred from entering the country. So, the question we set out to answer was: which category did 'The Donald' fall into and why? 
We asked four members of our training programme, the Great Debaters Club, to help a room full of Londoners - 67 to be precise - make up their minds on a debate that has divided the country by making the case for and against.
The speakers
The four speakers who volunteered for this debate included two relative beginners, each ably supported by experienced debaters, Shaughan Dolan - a trainer at Debate Camp Rwanda 2014 - and Paul Carroll, President and Founder of our good friends, the London Debaters Toastmasters club.
As per the club's Chatham House rule, we don't disclose which side the speakers were on or attribute any of their comments directly to them, but their collective expertise in the fields of politics, law, finance, and entrepreneurship made for some fascinating insights. More importantly, the challenge of defending positions which they themselves did not hold on such a controversial subject forced them to closely examine their own perspectives as well as those of their opponents. 
The arguments
"The UK should ban Donald Trump from entering the UK"
The results
After hearing the arguments, we put it to a vote to see where the audience stood, and because we care far more about how many people changed their minds than who won, we also took a vote before the debate and compared the results. 
Let's get the two most obvious conclusions out of the way first:
  • The proposition team (speaking in favour of the motion) near tripled their support, which, though impressive, would have been better news if they hadn't started the debate with just five votes.
  • More people arrived during the debate, skewering the vote ever so slightly, but unfortunately there isn't all too much we can do about that one.
Free speech v national security
At the heart of this debate was a conflict between two basic principles: freedom of speech, on the one hand, and national security on the other. What the two sides ultimately had to prove to the audience was which of these two principles should take priority over the other; and whether Donald Trump's comments even required them to make a choice in the first place. You can tell from some of the contributions the audience made to the debate during the Q&A how much they had been swayed by the arguments.
The questions and comments above reveal how the audience struggled to reconcile what they saw as inconsistency in government policy between taking a strict line on hate speech - itself hard to define - while having no objection to receiving foreign leaders with views they consider to be obviously objectionable. 
The proposition team tried to make the case that the reason to ban Trump, but not others, had less to do with the specific views he held than their effect on the different communities in the UK liable to carry out acts of violence as a result. Had they been successful, you would have expected the audience to find it easier to understand why the presence of Donald Trump was more of a threat than that of a Saudi Prince.
However, the message clearly didn't get through and this can partially be attributed to the opposition team challenging them to provide evidence of a direct connection between supposed hate speech and acts of violence, leading them to conclude that banning Trump from the UK would amount only to passing judgement on his views.
The danger of hidden assumptions
Both sides fell prey to this during the debate and were dutifully exposed by the audience with two excellent questions.
First, the proposition team asserted that banning Trump from the UK would damage his chances of winning the Presidential election, their hidden assumption being that it was justifiable for one country to alter the outcome of an election in one of its closest allies, even though most governments normally go out of their way to avoid this in recognition that they will have to work with whoever wins.
While you could sympathise with anyone who didn't want Donald Trump to be President, that didn't stop this one intrepid audience member from calling out the mistake.
The opposition fell into exactly the same trap when responding to this very point by claiming that banning Trump would be "disastrous" for the 'special relationship' between the US and the UK should he be elected President, which prompted another guest to ask:
Using rhetoric to mislead audiences and misrepresent opponents
You may be wandering at this point how the proposition team managed to win as many votes as they did. I think one of the ways they did it was by employing rhetoric to actively mislead their audience and misrepresent their opponents.
A great example of this was their response to a fairly straightforward and completely understandable question on the details of the proposed ban:
While the opposition replied in an equally straightforward way by referring directly to the legislation around the policy, the proposition team took the opportunity to manipulate the question to their own ends with a rousing soundbyte about not allowing Trump anywhere near the UK until he apologises for all the hate he has spread. They were greeted with loud applause and rousing cheers even though only one side had actually answered the question.
They displayed the same opportunism moments later in response to one Latin American audience member who had been deeply offended by Trump's comments about Mexican immigrants.
The opposition took the brave, but perhaps ill-advised approach of trying to explain what Donald Trump really meant when he referred to Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals. They explained how the Trump was actually accusing the Mexican government of pursuing a similar policy to that of the Cuban government who they claimed had historically 'exiled' known criminals to the US in order to wash their hands of them.
This nuanced view of Trump's comments (as distasteful as they were) was ignored by the proposition team who promptly accused them of joining Trump in writing off the entire Mexican population as criminals and rapists. Say what you like about Donald Trump or the opposition team's efforts to defend him, but that was not what either of them said. Yet this made little difference at the time and again the proposition was greeted with cheers and applause.
In competitive debating, such a wilful misrepresentation of an opponents' argument in order to make it easier to beat is known as a 'straw man' fallacy.
Who changed their mind and why?
We randomly selected five volunteers from the audience to tell us how they voted in the debate and explain why in a little more detail. We can tell you who they are, but have anonymised their feedback.
  • Sandra: IT project manager 
  • Bettina: Digital marketing professional 
  • Vebz : Technology architect
  • Ben: Infrastructure project manager 
  • Aoife: NHS marketing manager
How they voted
Three of our focus group volunteers went from being initially undecided to being favour, while the remaining two voted the same way both times, one of them in favour of the motion, and the other against.
How they summarised the core arguments of both sides
  • The proposition team explained why principles were more important than the 'Special Relationship' because of our unique national identity, but the opposition had nothing much to say about this.
  • The first proposition speaker explained the process of how to ban someone and his partner then explained why Donald Trump specifically should be banned. The other side simply tried to ridicule the idea, but failed to make an actual argument.
  • The team in favour told us what Trump would do if elected and why this was harmful, while the team compared the petition to ban Donald Trump with the next most popular petition (to close the UK's borders to all foreigners) in order to explain why acting on petitions was a bad idea.
  • The proposition team focused on the importance of human rights and spoke with eloquence under pressure. I don't remember much about the other side's argument.
  • The case in favour was based on the threat of ISIS using Donald Trump's comments to recruit new volunteers, while the case against was why we should stand up for free speech.
What influenced their vote the most
  • Undecided to in favour: Two eloquent speakers who had clearly researched their topic and worked well as a team.
  • Stayed against: The principle of free speech is very important to me - it was always going to be hard for them to win.
  • Stayed in favour: The research I did before the debate made up my mind and the arguments made during the debate just reinforced it.
  • Undecided to in favour: I changed my mind a few times. I was in favour after the opening speeches and against during the Q&A, but the proposition team won me over with their final speech because they were more emotive.
  • Undecided to in favour: The national identity argument convinced me and the opposition never engaged with this.
Next debate
February's public debates will be on the Junior Doctors' Strike (February 3rd) and the Oscars boycott (February 17th). We will be taking a look at how to debate both topics in a one day practice workshop taking place on Saturday, 30th January, details of which can be found here.
by Tony Koutsoumbos, founder of Debating London
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