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Argumentative GenY & the spirit of debate

Students from eight city institutes engaged in a battle of words and wits to live up to the motion — “Young people should be argumentative” — of The Great Debate 2014, presented by the British Deputy High Commission, Calcutta, in association with St. Xavier’s College Students’ Union, Calcutta Debating Circle, The Telegraph and Virgin Atlantic.

The stage for the debate was set by Scott Furssedonn-Wood, the British deputy high commissioner in eastern India, and Kunal Sarkar of the Calcutta Debating Circle.

Furssedonn-Wood went back to 1860, the year St. Xavier’s College, Calcutta, was founded and “the big year for debating”. “Just seven months after Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species there was a debate between several prominent British scientists on one hand and a number of philosophers on the other about the subject of evolution. The debate is best remembered today for the fact that it got quite heated… this was a debate that actually shaped public opinion in United Kingdom and in fact the world at large on the theory of evolution. It all began in the format of a conversation, debate and exchange, an argument between people whose opinions were shared with each other and compared to each other.”

Like any traditional debate, Sarkar began on a note of refutation. “The debate of 1860 was subsequently far outmatched by a debate… in the year 1933… the motion of that historical debate ran ‘This house believes you will not carry arms for your King and Country’. No debate has had as much repercussion on international or national history as the debate of 1933.”

The Great Debate — an inter-college competition that celebrates the UK and India’s shared culture of vibrant intellectual discussion — saw a lively exchange of ideas.

Abhishek Pal of Jadavpur University (JU) opposed the motion by saying that the idea of argumentation is to have a point irrespective of whether it’s followed by action or not, like the youth of Bengal protesting the Vietnam War.

“If the licence of argumentation is given to the youth, I believe the youth will believe that I would rather just speak because that is way easier than to do something correct,” he said, classifying arguments as a war, to prove a point or as a public performance.

When Rudrangshu Mukherjee of The Telegraph, one of the judges, asked him which of the three categories he fell into, Pal replied: “Personally when I argue, I argue to win.”

His teammate Anamika Sen defended the motion, saying the very idea of dividing household chores between the husband and wife, unthinkable 30 years ago, shows how far society has progressed, because some day somewhere someone “stood up and argued against existing social norms”. She cited the example of Galileo who went against everyone, including the Church, with his idea of a heliocentric solar system. “Was he not being argumentative?”

Sanchith Shivakumar of the National University of Juridical Sciences pointed out that his opponents had obfuscated the difference between being argumentative and making an argument.

“Being argumentative is not necessarily a one-off instance of constructive dialogue, but being argumentative is this tendency to be rebellious, to be aggressively stubborn, to question authority, and overplay the value of dissent. This results in subversion of authority structures and we see this manifesting in school and domestic environments.”

What Sanchith saw as subversion of authority, Siddhanth Singh of the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, thought was humility. “It is the ultimate humility to revisit, to reason and to inquire.... Isn’t it the ultimate arrogance, the pretence that all that exists is sacred and infallible merely because it exists. I am therefore I am is hardly an attractive declaration.”

Team JU won the debate and was awarded a week-long trip to the UK.