This House Believes All Ideas Matter

This House Believes All Ideas Matter
The newly established SIPA Debate & Diplomacy Club launches a forum for the structured exchange of ideas on campus.   The SIPA Debate and Diplomacy society has organized a series of debates on both everyday current events and long impact global issues. By Priyanka Johnson    I t was late on a weeknight a couple of days before the Macro Economics final when I met with the pi­oneers of the SIPA Debate and Diplomacy Club (DnD). Barely a semester old, the Club was conceptualized by Samir Bhatnagar, a first year IFEP student, who felt SIPA lacked a forum for the structured exchange of ideas. “Debating issues should be the raison d’être of a policy school,” declares the soft-spoken Bhatnagar. He quickly managed to get a bunch of like-minded students on board to help him bridge this glaringly ob­vious gap in SIPA’s curriculum. Kumar Pandey, one of the club’s vice-presidents has a simple way of putting it: “There’s a lot of informal discussion in the corridors, a lot if it is interesting but some of it is obnoxious, bordering on absurd.” The whole team believed there was a need for SIPA to develop better oratory and rhetoric skills. I was already in their regular meeting room, when they started trooping in for a brief late evening chat. Most of the faces were familiar to me from the “Clash of the Concentra­tions” series the club co-hosted with The Morningside Post. Yet this was the first time I was around when they were all together and I was looking forward to seeing them interact as a team. Their woes were no different than their peers at SIPA-mostly concerning the amount of economics homework and the challenges of keeping up with crazy class and so­cial schedules. But they have other decisions to focus on, including how to better engage the Carnegie Foundation that offered to co-host one of their events. Bhatnagar had mentioned Carn­egie’s offer to me earlier, when we were chatting over coffee. The of­fer seemed to have surprised him initially. Carnegie noticed the club immediately after their very first debate, on the motion: This House is Charlie, a debate on free speech in reference to attack on the French periodical Charlie Hebdo. The group is far from overwhelmed with their success. “We should have an­ticipated it ourselves,” he stated very matter-of-factly. “But we’ve learnt from our oversight and cre­ated a marketing team that will actively identify and reach out to sponsors in the future.” Yet not all the attention they get is positive. There have been scath­ing remarks on Facebook about the motions at their debates being too simplistic and their assignment of proposition and opposition being too stereotypical in the Clash of Concen­trations series. They’ve also come un­der fire for not consulting certain stu­dent groups when creating a motion. The team stands by their deci­sion to leave motions for the debates broad because you obviously cannot debate facts. Further, if the nuances are already fleshed out in the motion, there is really not much left to debate about. This broad approach gives participants the leeway to structure their arguments based on their skill, training, creativity and understand­ing of the issues encompassed by the motion. They’re also firm on never allow­ing the participants to choose their sides in the competition. Some­times it’s arbitrary, they flip a coin, because the point is to debate- not pontificate on your beliefs. The con­testants are meant to tease out the nuances of the viewpoint they’re al­located and that is supposed to be an intellectual exercise. “Even in real life, you won’t always be de­bating your conviction,” says Satbir Chowdry, the team’s Weekly De­bate chair. Also “That gives the par­ticipants some deniability,” argues Sarah Darwiche, the team’s Work­shops Chair. Sarah had taken the lead on addressing the comments on Facebook by drafting a consoli­dated response. Interestingly, amid all the online noise, no one had di­rectly replied to the team’s post ex­plaining the Club’s position. It follows that they would apply the flip-a-coin logic to the Clash of the Concentrations series. The motions were created in a way that two sepa­rate concentrations could use their expertise to build logical arguments and the proponent and opponent al­location was probably not meant to reflect anyone’s convictions. And it definitely didn’t seem that anyone in the room presumed to identify those convictions in the first place, defi­nitely not from an academic concen­tration. Having personally sat through most of those debates, the relative advantages of the allocation seemed to be evident. The ISPers drew on their theoretical knowledge to iden­tify the nuances in support of the motion: This House Believes that in War, End Justifies Means; and the Human Rights concentrators had apt and vivid examples, which I’m sure was in no small part due to their training and their interest in global humanitarian concerns. Most of the other debates were of the same cali­ber as the first. I was curious if any backlash they faced had got to them. “We always consider every critical comment that comes our way,” claims Sai Siddharth Janapareddy, the other Weekly Debate Chair on the board. But of course, not all of it is credible. Sometimes they have differing ideas on how to address the critique. Con­sidering that they’re all very strong personalities and very vocal about their ideas, I would think that might be an issue. They don’t reveal any major points of contention but their conflict resolution mechanism seems to be deliberations and voting. I’m also interested in what they think of their detractors. “A lot of times in life, particularly on social media, the loudest, most dramatic voice gets heard,” declares Chow­dry, but you can’t really shout your way through a debate; “everybody gets an set amount of time on the floor”. That’s when it all comes down to skill- no gimmicks, no tactics. He wishes he could get some of those passionate people to the debating floor. Actually, the team would be happy to get those people to even attend a debate. “It’s true- most of the nay sayers haven’t even been to one of our events.” Often times, those who pass judgment without actually examining the facts are the people who wouldn’t stand a chance in a nuanced argument. Which is why, in an ode to whimsy, I wish they would take him up on that offer. Priyanka Johnson is a second-year Masters of International Affairs student. This story first ran in the print edition of The Morningside Post on April 20, 2015.

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