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World debating champion Bo Seo believes in the power of disagreement — and good arguments

In the months after Bo Seo moved from South Korea to Australia at the age of eight, learning to agree with those around him wasn’t just an inclination — it became a survival mechanism.

He spoke no English, and an agreeable disposition felt like the easy option, even if it didn’t sit easily with the budding debater within.

“The hardest conversations to adjust to were disagreements — when people tend to talk over one another, and passions start to run and the rhythms of speech tend to break down,” he said.

“That made me resolve to be really very agreeable, to smile and keep most of my thoughts to myself.

“The thing that broke me out of that was my Year 5 teacher telling me that, in debating, when one person speaks, no-one else does — and to someone who had been spoken over and spun out of conversation and interrupted, that sounded like an irresistible promise.”

Through debating, Mr Seo discovered “a community that allowed me to be heard”.

Mr Seo at the grand final of the World Universities Debating Championship in Thessaloniki, Greece.(Supplied: WUDC Thessaloniki)

He didn’t merely find his voice but used it to scale the highest rhetorical peaks and was part of the Harvard team that won the World Universities Debating Championship in 2016.

His prowess as a school debater took him across Australia, and he recently returned to Adelaide for a discussion of his book Good Arguments at UniSA’s Hawke Centre.

Disagreement doesn’t have to be disagreeable

The word ‘”debater” can conjure incongruous associations — on the one hand, there is the confident student politician, with rounded vowels and supercilious manner, dreaming of the parliamentary frontbench.

World debating champion Bo Seo.
Mr Seo is a two-time World Universities Debating Championship winner and the author of Good Arguments.(Supplied: Jonah Hahn)

But that portrait is offset by another.

“If you kind of think about the kids who were debaters in school, you might remember there were some oddballs in there,” Mr Seo recently told ABC Radio Adelaide’s Deb Tribe.

“They learn to read a room, often as a matter of self-preservation.

Good Arguments explores the consequences of that epiphany.

One of its insights is that the art of disagreement shouldn’t itself be disagreeable – debate and petty dispute aren’t different expressions of the same impulse, but deeply at odds.

The point is illustrated by the Monty Python sketch in which one character pays for an argument.

After opening exchanges of “yes I did” and “no you didn’t”, he becomes exasperated.

“An argument’s a collective series of statements to establish a definite proposition,” he tells his interlocutor.

“Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says.”


The distinction is endorsed by Seo.

“Coming to some agreement about the kind of conversation we want to have, and being very deliberate about that, can be helpful,” he said.

“Are we going to interrupt each other or not, are we going to give each other equal time in which to speak?

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