Reflections on the 2019 Weidenfeld Hoffmann Trust scholar debate.
“A good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end he and the other side must be closer, and thus emerge stronger. You don’t have that idea when you are arrogant, superficial, and uninformed.” – Nelson Mandela
To debate one must put to the test three liberal arts essentials for leadership and for putting forth ideas: grammar, logic and rhetoric. However, as Mandela points out, the motive for debating must be more profound than merely winning. In engaging in a debate, the aim is to challenge your assumptions and to critically assess the arguments of your opponent. The goal is not only to be understood, but to understand, and at the end to emerge more united with your opponent.
The Weidenfeld-Hoffmann Trust debate gave the scholars an incredible opportunity. We could leave the ivory tower and take our thoughts and ideas to the streets. The debate took place in a public forum, the Oxford Town Hall, and allowed us to engage with the people of the wonderful town we get to call home for one magical year.
From the beginning we set out to make the most of this unique opportunity. As we began to plan the event, it was critical that the topic of discussion was something that truly mattered to the people of Oxford. A topic that people were divided on. One where it was important to understand and engage with the arguments of the opposing side, so that both parties could become closer and emerge stronger.
Naturally, our minds turned to the decision made in the UK on the 23rd of June 2016 that has not stopped making headlines world-wide since. Britain voted to leave the European Union (EU). One key factor that influenced that decision was the high rate of immigration from an enlarged EU. Alexandra Henderson, Director of WHT, aptly pointed out that it would be helpful to connect two key issues of the EU debate, national culture and immigration. This led to the choice of topic: “This house believes that countries should restrict immigration to preserve national culture.”
The scholars distributed all the tasks and took on the roles necessary to make the event a success, including marketing, PR, debating, IT and logistics. I won’t mention all the names, as it will eat into my word count. However, I must say that Zuzana Hlavkova’s impeccable leadership meant that we arrived at the day of the debate with trained and effective speakers, technology that facilitated participation from the crowd and, most importantly, a full house.
“I really enjoyed that we set a really challenging proposition for ourselves. I loved the questions and provocations we got from the audience — it showed they were engaged and eager to participate.” – Claudio Gonzalez, WHT Scholar
I was excited to have the opportunity to participate as a debater. However, it is important to note that I seldom speak in public because it terrifies me. In the past I have even become physically ill and not been able to sleep for several nights before a speech. Yet, a strong conviction drove me to participate. Let me explain. I wish to improve the condition of the most vulnerable in urban areas. Several examples come to mind such as making water, hygiene and sanitation accessible and improving air quality. I know that systemic change is necessary and that having a position of influence will allow me to reach my goal. But having a position of influence comes with a responsibility – I must speak on behalf of those who have no voice. This year at Oxford, I am seeking out opportunities to get better at public speaking and at defending my ideals. What better forum then a debate at Oxford Town Hall!
WHT provided the resources for incredibly useful training sessions that were run by two former world debating champions. The rest was up to us. Six scholars volunteered to participate as debaters and we were randomly assigned to the proposition and opposition of the motion. I wish I could take you into the backroom conversations where we thoroughly enjoyed the critical discussion as friends on a topic that mattered to us. It was a privilege to spend those preciously thought-provoking hours with my fellow scholars. What I can do, however, is give you a glimpse of the outcome.
Here are a few of our favorite quotes from the speeches:
“It is important to note that we are operating under the premise that all national cultures are equally valuable and that not one national culture is better than another.” – Francisco Obando
“Complete adaptation to the local culture rarely happens and to cope, links are maintained with their homeland through family, friends, and social and cultural networks that reach across borders.” – Lizaveta Trakhalina
“Be proud of your language, your scientific achievements, literature, food but be equally ashamed of your failures as a culture, as a nation. Have a sober appreciation of your culture then be intoxicated with it.” – Kapil Yadav
“However, culture is never enough reason for government to prevent individuals from pursuing their better lives.” – Simonetta Spavieri
“We can take a narrow and ethnic-based view of national culture which is inherently unstable or we can take an inclusive and civic-based view of national culture that expounds common values and traditions.” – Claudio Gonzalez
“As long as there is any interaction with the outside world, directly, or through the media, culture will change.” – Grace Mzumara
Our mission was accomplished. Based on the results of the poll taken at the beginning and the end of the debate, the proposition was able to change the minds of about 10% of the audience. I was told that was a technical victory for the proposition. I think we were all winners that day. We put ourselves in the shoes of another person. It was uncomfortable but necessary to reach an understanding. One thing we have some control over in this chaotic world is striving to understand each other and we did just that.
I will leave you with a few comments from the audience. Maybe you have your own. Go ahead and discuss them with somebody who disagrees!
“How is limiting migration different from racial segregation?” – anonymous member of the crowd.
“What about countries which base their national identity on immigration and multiple identities (ie. Canada)?” – anonymous member of the crowd