India needs a Debating Culture (Part 7)

Intelligence Squared

“You don’t do new things and try to change the system without generating debate.” – Anne Wojcicki

A friend pointed me to Intelligence Squared (IQ2), which has “has established itself as the leading forum for live, agenda-setting debates, talks and discussions around the world.” Its aim “is to promote a global conversation that enables people to make informed decisions about the issues that matter, in the company of the world’s greatest minds and orators.”  The winner is the side which changes the most opinions, not the one with the most votes. (You can watch their debates on Youtube.)

The Guardian wrote in 2004, shortly after their launch in the UK:

In their mission statement, they offered ‘to meet the pent-up demand for participating in the intellectual struggles of the day… the hunger of the British public to be involved in such intellectual tournaments is undeniable’. They promised not only ‘intellectual heavyweights… accomplished in the verbal martial arts’ but audience participation.

…Novelist Deborah Moggach, who goes to a lot of local debates, thinks that, paradoxically, computers had helped their users back into real contact with each other. ‘Email cuts you off, in one way, and yet it also links us all up. People are separated as they sit in front of their screen, but they are also much more quickly alerted to what’s happening out there.’ Public debates had become more attractive because the old places for meeting, like pubs, had grown too noisy.

…But frustration is the common element, if you talk to audience members. As one grey-haired Londoner put it: ‘There isn’t anywhere in the media or politics where people talk about the world in intelligent terms. The media are only in it for the cockfights and they airbrush out what they consider boring. Parliament is just MPs talking to themselves and hoping to get reselected.’

New York Times had this to say about IQ2 in 2009: “Polarizing political talk, overwrought in the extreme, is making for big headlines these days, so it is somewhat counterintuitive (or maybe just smart counterprogramming) that a program based on civilized, formal debate has chosen this moment to try to raise its profile…The premise, said Robert Rosenkranz, Rosenkranz Foundation’s founder, is to present an evening where the audience “is not exposed to pure punditry and sound bites, where they can hear the flesh of an argument in an interesting venue with a good moderator and make their own decisions.””

As I read through the material, I started thinking: would it not be a good idea to have the equivalent of an IQ2 in India? Our TV media has sunk to new lows in recent times – just when the country faces its biggest crises. There needs to be an alternate platform where we can discuss issues without raising our voices. Could the world of mobile phones coalesce with the world of debates to create new formats to engage and entertain us? And in so doing, can they help us understand the multiple dimensions to an issue and help us make informed decisions?

Tomorrow: Part 8

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.