Ambassador’s Polemic Challenge
14th Inter-School Debating Competition for Indian Schools in Muscat
Indian School Ghubra
August 30, 2022
Remarks by Ambassador Amit Narang
Members of Board of Directors of Indian Schools in Oman,
Members of Management Committees, Principals, Teachers, Parents, Students
Esteemed panel of judges
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am very happy to be able to participate in the 14th Edition of Ambassador’s Polemic Challenge-2022, the Inter-School Debate Competition organized by the Board of Directors. I thank the Management of Indian School, Al Ghubra for hosting this year’s function.
Ambassador’s Polemic Challenge Trophy was instituted in 2009 to commemorate the International Day of Peace and it is evident from the enthusiastic participation of students from 16 Indian schools this year, that this event has proved to be a popular forum as part of development of extra-curricular talents of Indian students.
At the outset, therefore, allow me to extend my congratulations to all the 32 students who have participated in this year’s edition.
I have fond memories of participating in debating competitions from my schooling years and found this to be a deeply enriching even if a challenging exercise.
Since we are in a debating competition today, let me start by a debating point myself.
I found the topic chosen for debate i.e. “Social media has brought people closer than ever before” to be interesting.
The importance of social media is quite self-evident. It will not challenge the intellectual acumen of any student here to speak about how social media has changed the way we communicate with each other and how our present era is defined by how we live and interact on the social media.
In this context, to be honest, I found the chosen topic to a little too straight forward, even unimaginative. From a debating perspective, I would much rather have heard these bright children debate how social media, instead of bringing us together, has made us socially distant and far apart.
Yes, social media has brought us closer than at any other time in human history.
You can not just reach out to practically anyone in the world instantly, you can also receive news and views of people that matter to you in real time. One is also connected by way of common interests and simple social interactions like birthdays and anniversaries can not only be remembered but wishes and feelings can be exchange instantaneously.
You cannot just follow news and happenings in the world, you also have a channel to transmit your own emotions, feelings and opinions on each of these issues directly and without intermediaries. This level and scale of social interaction is unprecedented and would sound like science fiction even a few decades ago.
But the question really is, has all this brought all of us closer together?
My two-cents worth, or perhaps more aptly, my two-baisas worth is that the answer to the question would depend on how you define ‘closeness’.
In terms of speed and reach of communication and as a global network of people, yes, we are closer than ever before. However, if you define closeness as knowing each other, being real friends, being kind to each other, caring about each other and sharing our empathy and feelings, then I would argue that social media has perhaps taken us further apart.
In other words, if you define friendship by the number of likes you have received to your posts or photographs on social media then the answer to you is a yes. But if you define friendship as truly knowing and caring about your friends then the answer is a bit more nuanced.
I would argue, for example, that with the advent of social media we have in fact lost some of our social skills.
Children are more comfortable chatting with friends sitting in front of a computer or phone screen but rarely have time to look up from these screens and talk to their friends in a play ground or class room.
Many people who are constantly busy on social media platforms struggle to have a face-to-face dialogue with their friends even for a few minutes.
Social media has also made us more distracted and attention spans for real human relationships – things that often take investment of time and effort – have suffered greatly.
Social empathy is a vanishing trait and fake news and misinformation have over-powered our wider social and political beliefs.
We are better connected yes, but are really close?
This is not to argue against social media but just a debater’s perspective on how the converse of what is being debated is perhaps as true.
My hope is that if we are aware of how social media is causing us to drift apart rather than bringing us closer, then we will perhaps be more consciously focused on harnessing it’s true potential while avoiding many of it’s setbacks.
Ladies, Gentlemen and Children,
As I was mulling over my participation in its event, the title of today’s competition caught my attention.
It is called “Ambassador’s Polemic Challenge”.
I am sure there were good reasons to choose this title; perhaps also because ‘polemic’ sounds like ‘debate’.
However, if one tries to understand it clearly, the two words are not exactly the same. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ‘polemic’ as “an aggressive attack on or refutation of the opinion or principles of another”. It is also defined as the “art or practice of disputation or controversy”. The word ‘polemic’ comes from the Greek ‘polemikos’ which means ‘war-like’ or ‘hostile’.
I found the title to be therefore a bit unusual.
The intention of debating in schools is clearly not to aggressively attack the other person’s opinion but rather to learn to put across one’s own views and ideas in a cogent, well-argued and a reasoned if not reasonable manner. It is also a platform to promote public speaking skills among students. and with that in mind, I think it is important that we bear in mind the core principles of debating, argumentation as also dialogue.In many ways to debate is to interchange formal argumentation in favour or against a presented question; to argue is to present one’s reasoning and explanation for a certain view point; while to discuss or to engage in a dialogue is to present and interchange varied opinion and views with a view to finding a solution.
A constructive exchange of any idea is possible only with a healthy combination of the above 3.
A lack of the 3 on the other hand threatens to convert every human conversation to the level of the TV debates that we have to confront, which leave us anxious, angry and aggravated, but rarely help in resolution of any issue or convincing us to one viewpoint or the other.
A polemical debate assumes that there is only one right answer and you are the one who has it. A dialogue based debate assumes that the other person can also have pieces of an answer which are worth listening to.
A polemical debate simply seeks to critique the other person’s views without challenging your own. A constructive debate on the other hand is open enough to acknowledge the shortfalls of your own opinion and instead of only searching for differences enables the quest for common ground.
Since it is the spirit of polemics, i.e. attacking the other person’s views and opinion, that is the dominant form of communication rather than dialogue, we often find in our public debates that people are talking at each other rather than talking with each other.
It is also no coincidence therefore that the social media and public policy arena in today’s world is full of polemics and argumentation and lacks the spirit of dialogue. This also in a way explains our earlier question of why social media, instead of bringing us together, is making us more and more apart.
Platforms such as this debating competition are important to develop skills of critical thinking, reasoning and balanced argumentation. This exercise has to be based on the principle of presenting one’s views while not discarding the other person’s opinion.
Ladies, Gentlemen, Students,
The need of today’s world, a world that is underwritten by social media, is for our public debate to be less underpinned by polemic attacks and more driven by the spirit of constructive dialogue.I have no doubt that despite the interesting title, this Ambassador’s Cup will continue to foster critical reasoning, assessment and presentation skills among young Indian students and train them to be good public speakers.
More than that I hope it will also continue to inculcate in them a broader spirit of discussion and dialogue and ingrain in them the innate quest to find common ground to any problem.
It is these skills, that is –more वाद and less विवाद- that will ensure that social media instead of taking us apart will help us come closer as humanity.
As Desmond Tutu said, let us not raise our voices, let us improve our arguments.