India needs a Debating Culture (Part 9)

Verbal Duels

“Time spent arguing is, oddly enough, almost never wasted.” – Christopher Hitchens

I watched Hamilton shortly after its release on the Disney app a few months ago. It is an amazing experience – even on TV. It grips you from start to finish, telling the story of Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the US. And what a story it is! Set as a rap musical, I was a bit wary of whether I would understand the words. I shouldn’t have – the subtitles help and the diction is also very clear.

The one thing that struck me was the “duel”. Both Hamilton and his eldest son are killed in duels. The duel was a contest between two people with guns to settle a matter of honour. Even as I was watching it on a TV screen, I was gripped by the drama. Two people standing face to face with guns – having to decide whether to shoot directly at the other person or let it pass. A moment of life and death.

When I was thinking about debates, my mind went back to the duel. Could the debate be the verbal duel? Instead of shying away from views different to our own, could we engage in a public debate (duel) with the other person – where the force of ideas and the power of reason would decide who carried the day? And these would be broadcast live via mobile apps, much like video games are now streamed to an enthusiastic audience on platforms like Twitch.

Tiktok created stars out of ordinary people via song and dance. Could a new debating culture create celebrities out of people who could wield the power of ideas and words? Could schools and colleges be a good starting point?

Tomorrow: Part 10

India needs a Debating Culture (Part 8)


“The key to holding a logical argument or debate is to allow oneself to understand the other person’s argument no matter how divergent their views may seem.” – Auliq Ice

It was then that I started thinking about how to make the debate format better. There were times when an idea or thought would strike me as someone was speaking. Could I make a quick interjection and get an immediate response? Or would this be considered as a rude thing to do? As I explored debating formats, I came across a format practiced in UK schools called Mace. Julian Bell explains how it works:

  • There are two speakers on each side.
  • It is long prep; speakers are usually given the motion several days in advance to prepare.
  • They speak for seven minutes each, alternating between proposition and opposition.
  • The first and last minute in each speech is ‘protected’ (meaning no one is allowed to make points of information during that time).
  • When all four debaters have spoken, speeches from the floor (i.e. short points from the audience) are heard.
  • One debater from each side then gives a summary speech, lasting four minutes, with the opposition speaking first. In this speech, they should not introduce any new material, but should instead respond to speeches from the floor, rebut their opponents’ case, and summarise their own case.
  • Marks are awarded for both content of speeches and speaking style.

(As an aside: Julian Bell also discussed an alternative format – one used in the British Parliament.)

In the non-protected time that a person is speaking, the other side can interrupt with what are called “points of information.”  Here is an explanation from DebateHQ: “A point of information (POI) is a question or a statement that is raised while a speaker of the opposing team is speaking. You are allowed to raise a POI at any time in the speech, but not during the protected time. Protected are the first and the last minute of the speech…The speaker has to decide if she is taking your point or not. If yes, the speaker is going to allow you to state your point. If not, she is going to say “no”, “no thanks” or similar, and you will see that some speakers will just sit you down with a hand motion. If you got an OK, now you have 15 seconds, not more, to raise one point.”

I liked the Mace format. The “points of information” addition could serve to make the debate more interactive and engaging.

And then I started thinking: Could debates be just the format for a discussion for a wide variety of topics that we are afraid to discuss on Whatsapp groups and social media because of the fear of being trolled? Could this be a format for something bigger – creating a debating culture across India? How would debating work in a world where all of us had mobile phones? Could debates become a public spectacle – like the rise of e-sports? Could debates transform India?

Tomorrow: Part 9

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

India needs a Debating Culture (Part 6)

Debate Format

“It is reason, and not passion, which must guide our deliberations, guide our debate, and guide our decision.” – Barbara Jordan

The format I decided for our Saturday debates was a simple one. We decided the motion or question a few days in advance. Each of us would first speak for five minutes in round-robin format, and then for three minutes. The first round could be used to make prepared comments, and the second round for rebuttals, answers to questions asked by others and clarifications. In just over half an hour, we would have enriched each of us with our views in a structured manner. The rest of our hour could then be for unstructured conversation.

The first thing I realised was that I had to actually prepare for the debate. Previously, I could just show up on the Skype call and talk whatever came to mind. All I had to do was to make some reasonable interjections – most of which would be short and sharp. If I had to speak for long, I realised that I rambled – because I had not done any homework and research. So, I would speak quite randomly – trying to convey an impression of participation but without eloquence.

In the case of the debate, I had to speak initially for five minutes. That meant about 750 words. I would not be able to do that without investing time before the call in thinking through what I was going to talk about. This automatically changed my mindset. I started doing some research, planning out my talking points, and also doing a mental dry run to make sure I would not overshoot my time. This preparation made all the difference when I spoke.

When the others spoke, I had to stay alert because I also needed to identify points that I could address in my second and shorter speech. I had to stay fully focused – no distractions, no wandering mind. Those 30 minutes were an amazing experience – it was like being in a zone of complete concentration.

I loved the first debate. And we then repeated it for our next call with a different topic. It became even better. Everyone was prepared. There was a richness to the conversation that used to be missing in our free-flowing banter. Each of us could make our points clearly without the worry of being interrupted or cut-off and therefore losing one’s train of thought. More importantly, each of us was an equal participant with the same speaking time. I got a better understanding of each person’s position and mental models – which is sometimes difficult to get when there is a steady stream of short sentences from different voices. More importantly, many new ideas emerged from the debate which otherwise perhaps may never have been said.

A quarter century after my IIT experience, I was starting to re-discover the joy of debating!

Tomorrow: Part 7

India needs a Debating Culture (Part 5)

Debate in Ancient India

“Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument.” – Nelson Mandela

Wikipedia has this to say about debating in ancient India:

There was, for a considerable period of time, a very lively and extensively practiced tradition of formal debates in ancient India. These debates were conducted, sometimes with royal patronage, to examine various religious, philosophical, moral and doctrinal issues. The corpus of knowledge on conducting a successful debate was referred to as vādavidyā and several manuals dealing with this discipline had been produced. It was from these debates that the Indian tradition of logic and allied investigations were evolved and developed. The antiquity of this tradition can be traced even to pre-Buddhist period. For example, Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, a pre-Buddhist text, has references to King Janaka as not only organizing and patronizing debates between the sages and priests but also as participating in such debates. Women also used to participate in these debates. Gargi was a woman scholar who used to participate in the debates in King Janaka’s court.

Though debate was popular at the time of the Upanishads, there was no theory of debates during that period. Such a theory evolved along with the spread of the teachings of Buddha, Mahavira, and other ascetics or religious reformers. By the third and second century BCE, monks and priests were required to have training in the art of conducting a successful debate. Several debate manuals were written in different sectarian schools. But these early manuals written in Sanskrit have all been lost. However, the nature of these manuals could be glimpsed from Buddhist Chinese sources as well as from Pali sources like the Kathavatthu.

Indic Today has an excellent summary of public discourse and debate in ancient India:

Basically, the people of ancient India believed that Truth was sacred. So the word was to be used to utter the truth, and to take us closer to the truth. Intellectual integrity was given the highest importance.

In our quest from ignorance to the truth, we start out with bias. Each of us has our biases and stereotypes; these are often based on flimsy evidence. The next stage of refinement is opinion. Having thought about the subject at hand, we form our views and impressions; this doesn’t require deep study, only cursory analysis and logic.

Further, refinement leads to perspective. When we examine the available facts and look at the different sides of the argument, we take an informed stance on the subject; after much toiling we construct our worldview.

The final stage before we reach the truth is vision. Not only do we examine all the facts from different sides but we also internalise the various ideas, thus developing a holistic vision. We become clear about what our assumptions are, what the facts are, what constitutes our analyses, and finally, what the purpose of the study is.

Reading all this made me more convinced that we needed to make a culture of debating central to our lives. In a world being polarised by all media, it was up to the people to step up and create their spaces where they could discuss, argue, persuade and change minds. How could we do this?

But first, I had a more basic problem at hand – to evolve a simple format for the Saturday night conversations with my three friends.

Tomorrow: Part 6

India needs a Debating Culture (Part 4)

The Importance of Debate

“It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.” – Joseph Joubert

Why is a debate important? Here is an excellent introduction from University of Washington’s Department of Communication:

Debate is the activity that brings the art of reading, thinking and speaking together in one place. When medieval scholars set out to establish the curriculum of the world’s first universities, they considered three liberal arts essential for leadership and promotion of the best ideas: grammar, logic, and rhetoric (reading, thinking, speaking). When they sought to test the depth to which these skills had sunk in, medieval faculty demanded students participate not in exams or papers, but in disputations—in other words, debates. Although much has changed in the world since the 19th century, scholars laid out these basic elements of the artium baccalaureus degree. The ability to conceive, articulate, and evaluate arguments remains not only the lifeblood of democracy and society, but essential to the development of an engaged and ethical individual living in contemporary technological democratic society.

More from Stanford’s National Forensic Institute:

Debate is a valuable activity for students of all skill levels.  Debate teaches useful skills for other academic pursuits and life more generally.   Most obviously, debaters build confidence speaking in public and expressing their ideas eloquently.  That comfort speaking in front of others is useful in so many areas of life, from interviews to school presentations to discussions in college seminars.

But the benefits of debating are not limited to the skills built while students are speaking—the preparation for competition teaches critical thinking and research skills, as well.  As F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”  Debate tests and builds that ability by forcing students to see both sides of issues.  Debaters flex their analytical muscles, learning to find the weak points in opponent’s arguments.  They learn to explain their own ideas and assess different viewpoints, whether in a debate round, a political discussion, a classroom, or a written essay.  And debate requires students to research their ideas and support them with evidence, teaching them to conduct research and assess sources.  According to Arne Duncan, then-Secretary of Education, debate is “uniquely suited” to build skills required of a modern citizen, including critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity.

Debating is clearly a very powerful skill to have. The ability to put one’s ideas across succinctly, rebut the opponent’s points in near real-time and do so in front of an audience – these are what makes debates critical in schools, colleges and civil society. And yet, in today’s India, it was a lost art form. But that was not always so.

Tomorrow: Part 5

India needs a Debating Culture (Part 3)

London’s Debating Societies

“In all debates, let truth be thy aim, not victory, or an unjust interest.” – William Penn

I had heard about London’s debating societies. That is where I began my journey. This is what I learnt from Wikipedia on the origins:

Debating societies emerged in London in the early eighteenth century, and were a prominent feature of society until the end of the century. The origins of the debating societies are not certain, but by the mid-18th century, London fostered an active debating culture. Topics ranged from current events and governmental policy, to love and marriage, and the societies welcomed participants from both genders and all social backgrounds, exemplifying the enlarged public sphere of the Age of Enlightenment.

At the end of the century, the political environment created by the French Revolution led to the tightening of governmental restrictions. The debating societies declined, and they virtually disappeared by the beginning of the nineteenth century. However, a select few societies survived to the present day, and new societies formed in recent years have been boosted by promotion via the internet and social media, giving debating in London a new lease on life.

It was the late 18th century that saw debating societies rise in popularity:

[D]ebating societies…were firmly established in London society by the 1770s. At this time, many of the societies began to move out of the pubs and taverns in which they had initially met, and into larger and more sophisticated rooms and halls. Tea, coffee, and sometimes sweets and ice cream replaced the alcohol of the taverns, and the admission fee also increased. The new setting and atmosphere contributed to an overall more respectable audience in line with the Enlightened ideal of politeness. Mary Thale notes that, while the usual admission of a sixpence was not insubstantial, it was considerably less than the price of attending a lecture or the theatre. The debating societies were therefore more accessible to members of the working, middle, and lower classes, truly bringing the “rational entertainment” so favoured during the Enlightenment into the public sphere. Questions and topics for debate, as well as the outcomes of the debates, were advertised in the many London newspapers that flourished during the time, again linking the debating societies with the public sphere.

…As the more respectable locales became a firmly entrenched element of the societies, the size of the audiences grew considerably. The move away from pubs and taverns likely contributed to an increased presence of women in the societies, and they were formally invited to take part in debate. In 1780, 35 differently named societies advertised and hosted debates for anywhere between 650 and 1200 people. The question for debate was introduced by a president or moderator who proceeded to regulate the discussion. Speakers were given set amounts of time to argue their point of view, and, at the end of the debate, a vote was taken to determine a decision or adjourn the question for further debate. Speakers were not permitted to slander or insult other speakers, or diverge from the topic at hand, again illustrating the value placed on politeness.

…Overall, the London debating societies represent how British society of the eighteenth century fostered open political, social, and democratic discussion, and exemplify the public sphere.

Eventually, the debating societies declined as the British government cracked down. But in the few years of their popularity, they left a mark on English society. From Wikipedia: “Debating societies were an important fixture of the London social landscape for the better part of the eighteenth century. Shaped by the initial tolerance of British politics of the time, and demonstrating a progressive, democratic, and equality-minded attitude, the debating societies are perhaps the best example of truly Enlightened ideals and the rise of the public sphere.”

As I read this, I realised that debating societies (or clubs) were exactly what India also needed – to foster open discussion and enrich the public discourse. Traditional and digital media had failed; we needed an alternative.

Tomorrow: Part 4

India needs a Debating Culture (Part 2)

What is a Debate?

“It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.” –  Joseph Joubert

From Wikipedia:

Debate is a process that involves formal discussion on a particular topic. In a debate, opposing arguments are put forward to argue for opposing viewpoints. Debate occurs in public meetings, academic institutions, and legislative assemblies. It is a formal type of discussion, often with a moderator and an audience, in addition to the debate participants.

Logical consistency, factual accuracy and some degree of emotional appeal to the audience are elements in debating, where one side often prevails over the other party by presenting a superior “context” or framework of the issue. In a formal debating contest, there are rules for participants to discuss and decide on differences, within a framework defining how they will do it.

Debating is carried out in debating chambers and assemblies of various types to discuss matters and to make resolutions about action to be taken, often by voting.[citation needed] Deliberative bodies such as parliaments, legislative assemblies, and meetings of all sorts engage in debates. In particular, in parliamentary democracies a legislature debates and decides on new laws. Formal debates between candidates for elected office, such as the leaders debates, are sometimes held in democracies. Debating is also carried out for educational and recreational purposes, usually associated with educational establishments and debating societies.

Debating in various forms has a long history and can be traced back to the philosophical and political debates of Ancient Greece, such as Athenian democracy, Shastrartha in Ancient India. Modern forms of debating and the establishment of debating societies occurred during the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century.

A colleague pointed me to the ancient Indian (Jain) concept of Anekantavada. “In the classical Indian world Jains, Buddhists, and Hindus fiercely debated the nature of reality. The Jain position argues for a broad view called anekantavada (“no-one-perspective-ism”), resisting philosophical dogmatism and recognizing the good qualities of many different points of view… By this, Jains meant that in many cases the arguments espoused by the various participants in a debate all held some validity. Because the Jain position was able to overcome the apparent inconsistencies between the other views, however, it came closer to fully grasping the one underlying truth, satya.”

That is what a good debate does – bring out the multiple sides of an issue. Else, in today’s polarised world, we end up in an echo chamber – treating those with views different from ours as enemies.  A good debate can just be the tonic to open one’s mind and even be persuaded to change it.

Tomorrow: Part 3

India needs a Debating Culture (Part 1)

Among Friends

“We seldom learn much from someone with whom we agree.” – Mokokoma Mokhonoana

Four of us friends talk every Saturday night on Skype for an hour. We used to do this in 2018-19, primarily discussing how to transform India. We re-started our conversations in April as the coronavirus spread. We shared inputs each of us got and the impact on the economy. As time passed, the virus discussion receded into the background and the chats moved back to the topic of what we can do to make India free and prosperous. The discussions were free flowing – as was to be expected among friends who have known each other for many years. We even started a book club for a month.

The book club format turned out to be an interesting change. In regular conversation, we have the habit of interrupting other people or deviating from the thread to bring up an idea of our own. The book discussion kept us all on-point, and gave the person speaking an uninterrupted 30-minute window. The conversations started to have much more depth. A person could take an idea and explain it in detail without worrying about someone else breaking the flow of thought. For the listener, it gave a much better insight into the speaker’s mind.

In one of our conversations, a contentious topic came up in the flow. The interruptions grew as each one of us had strong opinions to air. I realised I was more keen to speak rather than listen. It was then that I decided we needed a new format for structuring our talks.

My mind went back to IIT-Bombay 1984. It was my first month. As a freshie, there were many competitions that were held to get the new batch to know each other. One of them was a debate. In  typical irreverent style, the topic was – “Should rubber slippers be made the cultural symbol of IIT?” I prepared my short talk – and won the debate! As I realised later, debates were a very popular format as part of the cultural scene at IIT.

In recent years, we have seen the raucous TV debates which have now become more about the anchors ranting rather than giving participants time and space to rationally put forward their reasoned views. On social media too, trolling takes away from sensible discussion. And we as a people have retreated into the safe space of not listening or wanting to be persuaded by the other side – we prefer the comfort of the echo chamber.

My mind also went back to the days of watching Vajpayee debate in Parliament. The words came out like poetry in his mellifluous office – cajoling, mesmerising, convincing, winning.

And that set me thinking: could a debate format work in our group to better structure our conversations so that each of us got the time to make our points, and then also rebut others? That set me off on a journey to understand the world of debating.

Tomorrow: Part 2

My Proficorn Way (Part 50)

Inflection Points

What a year 2020 is turning out to be! Coronavirus crept up on us and took over our lives in a way none could have imagined. Businesses have been upended – some have flourished while others have floundered. The health scare has changed buying behaviour of consumers. The switch to online has done in a few months what would otherwise have taken many years. In India, the banning of Chinese apps by the government transformed the fortunes of some overnight. 2020 will be seen as a year of inflection points.

Investopedia defines an inflection point thus: “[It] is an event that results in a significant change in the progress of a company, industry, sector, economy, or geopolitical situation and can be considered a turning point after which a dramatic change, with either positive or negative results, is expected to result. Companies, industries, sectors, and economies are dynamic and constantly evolving. Inflection points are more significant than the small day-to-day progress typically made, and the effects of the change are often well known and widespread.”

Rita McGrath, writing in Fortune in January 2020, says:

Strategic inflection points—changes that alter the taken-for-granted assumptions underlying a business model—can feel sudden. In reality, however, they tend to build up slowly, gathering momentum until a transformative shift becomes clear. Andy Grove, who coined the term, said it referred to change that was 10 times more significant than a typical change encountered by a business.

When these shifts occur, companies tend to fall into three categories. The first are those that have missed the inflection point entirely. These firms often shrink or disappear…The second group comprises those that realize an inflection point is underway and place a huge, last-minute bet on catching the wave…The third set of companies are ones that have placed a number of small bets over time to position themselves to take advantage of shifts when they happen. These investments are in effect options companies can exercise once the new landscape is more clearly in view.

The challenge for senior leaders is: How do they prepare to see an inflection point coming—so they don’t need to make a last-second turn? And how do they bring the organization along into the post-inflection point world?

The Internet in 1995, Apple’s iPhone in 2007, the launch of Jio in 2016 can all be seen as inflection points which led to a 10X change in our lives. And 2020 perhaps upends them all. As entrepreneurs, these are moments of great disruption and opportunity. The impact of inflection points plays out over time, but entrepreneurs who have made the small bets, created options and invested in tomorrow will have a disproportionate advantage over others.

Will be continued soon.