How debate can help create a better world
From the beginning of human civilisation, people have loved to argue and debate. They argue on topics, trivial or important, and they debate on issues which affect them personally or collectively. Sometimes, they just argue for argument's sake, but that is not a debate. A debate is a constructive way of substantive interaction, where people argue and counter-argue, using reasoning, objectivity, rational analysis, and facts. The idea is that through such processes, a society would have a better understanding of issues that affect it and possibly will find ways to encounter them. The ultimate objective of debate is to create sharpened, logical, and creative minds. Debating provides a platform for having discussions on critical issues facing the world and is thus an important means of creating a better world.
What constitutes a better world? In my view, a world that is equal, stable and sustainable is a better world. An equal world stands for human rights, human dignity, equal rights. A series of corollaries emerge from all these—being sensitive to other human beings, respect for other beliefs and views, tolerance, equal treatment of all citizens, remaining secular, and so on. The notion of an equal world is neither a utopia nor a rhetoric, rather a goal which we all can aspire to achieve. Equality implies the equality of capabilities as well as the equality of opportunities. Equality should be seen on different planes—between men and women, along the rural-urban divide, between various geographical regions and among different socio-economic groups. Equality also refers to inter-generational equality—the current generation should be sensitive to the needs and opportunities of future generations and, in that context, should be mindful of the use of natural resources and their consequences. With equality, there needs to be equity as well. Equality is an absolute concept, whereas equity is a relative or proportional one. For example, everyone should be treated equally before the eyes of the law, but should be treated equitably in terms of taxes, where the tax burden should be proportional to the income of the person concerned.
A better world would mean a stable world—a world without wars and conflicts, without human oppression, without social unrest and communal riots, and last but not the least, without terrorism. Today, our world is beset with wars and conflicts, characterised by unrest and human oppressions, and human security all around is threatened by terrorist activities here and there. In order to settle differences of opinions or any other conflict, people often resort to force or weapons. There has been an increasing radicalisation or weaponisation of society of late, and reasoning and tolerance have taken a back seat as a result. The world would be stable when we can overcome these obstacles.
A better world would also imply a sustainable world, where there is peaceful and respectful coexistence of humans and nature. The present generation should not degrade the environment as that would shrink the opportunities and potential of the future generations and would hurt inter-generational equity. As Homo sapiens, we must realise that we can exist and prosper when we are respectful and sensitive to our environment and nature.
Debates provide a critical means for the youth to better equip themselves for meaningfully participating in the creation of a better world. For such meaningful participation, debates prepare young people in five distinct ways:
First, debates provide a broader picture by exposing the pros and cons of the topic. As a result, the participants get a holistic view of concerns—a view which is needed for a constructive and balanced change in the world. For a changed world, such a broader vision is much-needed.
Second, since debaters are trained to approach issues in a logical manner, they can identify the priorities of societies in a logical manner. Identification of priorities and setting them in a logical manner is needed for any kind of change. Debates also equip young people to be focused and clear in their thoughts and approaches. Again, without a clear and focused approach, changes cannot be brought in. Furthermore, while making their arguments and counter-arguments, debaters depend on evidence. Their deliberations are fact-based. Evidence is also critical while making a case for a change and without facts, a blueprint for change cannot be formulated. Since they know how to use evidence in an objective manner, debaters can also effectively participate in the process of changing the world.
Third, debates teach people to be more sensitive to others, more respectful of others and more tolerant of opposing viewpoints. In a world bedevilled by wars, conflicts and terrorism, one needs sensitivity, tolerance, and mutual respect to end conflicts and to stop terrorism. Such traits would also breed equality, communal harmony, and stability—all critical elements of a better world.
Fourth, debates give debaters confidence—confidence to speak out, to raise their concerns and to demand and seek solutions. All these are needed for effective participation in the process of changing the world. Furthermore, through debates, a sense of collaboration and cooperation develops among the team members. So, the debaters do not go for individual celebration, rather a collective approach to get their desired goal. Such a sense of collaboration and cooperation help young people understand the importance of collective actions, which are needed for changing the world.
Finally, changing the world is not a static process, rather a dynamic one. In such a process, priorities change, focus is redefined, strategies are revised. The change-makers must adjust to such shifts. Debating is also a dynamic process, which teaches the debaters to shift grounds as arguments and counter-arguments evolve.
I think at present, debates can contribute to changing the scenario in at least three specific areas—first, in areas of intolerance and conflict by bringing in reasoning, respect for others, and the desire to settle differences; second, by having deliberations on emerging challenges like environmental degradation, migration, and refugees; and third, helping the issue of mental health because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Selim Jahan is former Director, Human Development Report Office and Poverty Division, UNDP.