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How Debates Can Teach Us Empathy

By Terence Aaron

In the face of Hillary Clinton’s defeat, in the United States, a war of words has emerged on the liberal bench. Everyone around the world, even non-Americans were looking for cracks in the Clinton campaign to see what broke the bone.

On one side, we have a group of people calling Clinton’s campaign strategy; cold. According to this camp, the presidential candidate failed to address the economic anxieties of white rural working class voters. This has led them to turn to a candidate they hated and found questionable but offered what Michael Moore in July 2016 described “a legal hand grenade to the establishment.

In their eyes, not all Trump voters are racist. These were the same voters that voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012. Now, there are problems with this argument. But what leftists like Michael Moore are saying is that urban liberals, especially the economic-elite should empathise with people whose economic fears are taking a higher priority over a candidate’s bigotry. (Whether those fears needed are legitimate or not is a different story).

On the flip side, Clinton’s supporters condemned white rural voters (including many who were not working class, were college educated and came from affluent neighbourhoods) for being myopic. These white voters like many times in history decided to be on the side lines. They decided to stay out of the tough battles and voted for their own interests (especially one that had no guarantee). To quote Charles Gaba’s tweet, “Not all Trump supporters are racist, but all of them decided that racism isn’t a deal-breaker. End of story.”

The sentiment that Gaba had was that these rural white working class voters thought their anxiety was more important than the legitimate fears of the LGBT community on what VP-elect Pence would do. The spike in hate-crimes ever since Trump announced his Mexican hating platform and Trump’s association with white supremacist and former Goldman Sachs banker, Stephen Bannon. To the minorities and victims of social injustices, white rural voters were the ones who needed to have empathy for minorities who have been left behind by white America.

This was an introspective battle on who should be the one doing soul searching and choose to empathize with the other. It ranged from Brexit, the Colombian-FARC peace referendum and to elections in Malaysia (especially the Sarawak state elections). The US Presidential election is just another manifestation of this issue.

Regardless of where you stand on this finger pointing war, the underlying theme here was empathy

Slaves of the Algorithm

The question is can we teach empathy and if yes, how do you do it?

To answer that, we have to see what exactly causes people to not understand “the other side.” Most of the time, blame is placed on the lack of exposure to the lives of others. Contradicting information also rarely cross path with people’s fantasies. Facebook at one point was to be blamed for segregating news where people’s newsfeeds became so contrastingly different.

So a person who reads the Economist will never cross paths with information from the National Review, Fox, Reason or other conservative and libertarian talking points. Even worse (for the lack of a better phrase), they get pushed even further in the political scale that The Economist, Vox and Slate reading crowd starts to exclusively read Jacobin and the right leaning readers will start to exclusively read Breitbart.

We became what the Verge and the Awl called “slaves of the algorithm.”

The internet used to be a gateway for people to transfer knowledge that others wouldn’t come across in real life but instead we all get stuck in our echo chambers. We get reinforced with our values over and over again by some obscure talk show across the globe.

So that means the internet of today is reinforcing the segregation, intentional or otherwise that exists in your immediate surrounding today.

Considering that as debaters, how do we free ourselves from the shackles of algorithms and learn about the “other side?”

Trappings of a Middle Class Sport

Like I said in my previous post, debating is a middle class sport. It is very contingent on privilege in more ways than one. While there are people from working class backgrounds, there are also other people from rural areas joining the sport. However to say the marginalized dominate the sport would be a very far stretch. The reality is that that same group of people with privilege will be the same group of people who rise to the top and rewrite the rules of the game in their perspective.

This could come in the form of literally writing the rules or even expressing the way debates are adjudicated. Their most powerful tool however is the ability to craft motions or topics that lead to what other people would read. Considering that most people get exposed to debating in their formative years, this would heavily inform their future political leanings and how they view the world.

Most important of all, debating forces you into positions where you have to immerse yourself in the imaginary role given to you. Most debates have been expressed through the eyes of western liberal democracies because these were the countries that were active from the beginning of the game. To what extent are they liberal is arguable though, and it seems that the scale has been moving closer to the left.

Debating fortunately has evolved to a point where motions have also been crafted to take into account the position of a character you need to empathise. Now, debates are slowly incorporating ideas where you have to understand the lives of people you don’t normally relate with. This goes for both crowds on the right and the left.

For example, in the last Asia-Pacific ABP (Malaysia), a motion that struck me and I think played a vital role in how Malaysian debaters think about debates was “As a socially liberal and fiscally conservative voter, THW vote for the Democrat Party.” (Correct me if the wording was wrong.) For the first time in such a long time, I heard debaters arguing the dilemma of a libertarian debater and how this affected their decision making process.

More recently, from the IMUDO (International Medical University Debate Open) the quarter finals motion was “As a Republican, THW not embrace the Alt-Right.” (Again, correct my wording for the motion.) Rarely do you hear arguments being made by left leaning crowds about the struggle that people who honestly have an evangelical spine and are fiscally conservative going through a mental dilemma in this American election cycle. So now debaters have to reassess whether everyone on the right are as evil or as alien to them as most varsity debate goes. It goes so deep that even this essay started off with the most liberal dilemma ever in this political climate.

On the other hand, I’ve ran motions that challenge the minds of people who would probably not be exposed to left leaning or progressive ideas. During a training session, I got debaters I was helping out for a tournament to debate “As a female voter, THW vote for female candidates regardless of political leaning, until at least half of the legislature comprise of women.” To these 14-15 year olds, Malay-Muslim boys in a boarding school in Malaysia, these ideas may not be intuitive to them. Wouldn’t a voter pick a candidate with a positive track record and has a great public image? It might be confusing and alien for them. But at least at one point in their lives, they have to put themselves in the shoes of another gender that they wouldn’t have done if no one pushed them to do so.

So while they may not live the experience of white rural working class America, the lives of women in patriarchal Saudi Arabia or even the lives of Black Lives Matter protestors, they are told to vividly describe and argue from that view point as if it were their interest. To teach people to be in uncomfortable positions and understand why people go through that decision making process to me is as beautiful as winning a tournament.

No Empathy for Old Men

So regardless of where your political leaning is, we can all agree that there is some level of benefit to get people to ponder what the anxieties of other people are. Sure, debating isn’t the only way for us to do so but now, it is one of the most accessible paths available.

The debating scene in Malaysia is in a unique position. Again, while privilege plays a role and the privileged are more interested in it; participation is at an all-time high. Malaysian debaters have been doing well abroad overseas; both on varsity and world school level. Not often we see debaters grace the covers of magazines. There used to be a time where debaters would only be in the back pages of a school’s magazine. Now they’re on national TV appearing on talk shows. This has generated huge interest and created this new drive for people back home. We have tournaments running almost every week.

December is the last month of the year. In other countries, schools are prepping for their semester’s final exams and the festive season. Yet in its first week, we have three tournaments clashing; a WUDC High Impact Training, the Petaling Jaya Debate Open and the Borneo-British Parliamentary Championship. It’s an amazing number of events for a niche interest in a country only shy of 5 million more than the population of Australia.

This meant debating in Malaysia has the easiest point of entry for everyone regardless of background. That’s where I urge those who have long been in the scene and have the privilege to shape the future of the scene to push for more motions that force people to argue from a diverse background. With the diverse scene described above, we have the tools at our disposal. Do not just let debating become another mirror image of yourself. Don’t make it another echo chamber.

We can no longer afford to have people trapped and we must do our best to have people  understand what’s going in the mind of others. So that’s why I would urge and encourage more people to run motions that go beyond the perspective of the upper middle class or those just in western liberal democracies. We are entering a world where even the latter stands on shaky foundations.

If we can’t get the previous generation to change theirs, and influence their decision at the ballot box or how they campaign then at the very least we do our very best for those who we talk to, we teach and we debate with.

And Justice For All

Every few years, citizens seek to rework their country in their image. It could be due to their sense of social justice. Or it could be their economic anxieties. Whatever it is, democracies cannot work when only one interest group is understood.

For Malaysia, that time is around the corner. However you want to use your inalienable rights is up to you. But it is only meaningful if we can learn stories from all perspectives. Before we wonder why things don’t go our way, we need to burst our bubbles first.

Debating is an excellent avenue and Nationals is the most inclusive varsity-level tournament in Malaysia so far. The topics may or may not be explicit to the country but the principles apply.

So whether, you are debating at Nationals to find a new niche in life or to find make a mark for yourself in the scene, absorb the lessons available. Question why would people you oppose come to those conclusions? Ask how do you convince people who also have other anxieties to deal with aside from yours? And if you’re adjudicating, will you take into consideration views that at first glance seem to be at odds with yours?

If you can ask those questions throughout Nationals, then debating is already on the path teaching us about empathy.

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