I remember the first time I ever saw a live debate. I was in my seventh grade at the time. I was fascinated by the rhetoric of my seniors. They were opinionated and eloquent, and they looked super ‘cool’ to a shy seventh grader like me.
The topic of the debate was “Legalization of prostitution!” It was considered inappropriate for young students of my age. The minute I heard the topic, thoughts started buzzing in my head. I was not mature enough to think about things from a different perspective. I did not have too much knowledge about why such women did what they were doing. I did not have too much knowledge about the topic. Period.
But I had well defined opinions and thought I had the necessary expertise to judge people based on my limited knowledge and strong one-sided opinions. So the topic was a no brainer to me. Prostitutes were women who did ‘bad’ things for money.
Therefore any government, institution or individual who endorsed them or spoke on their behalf or highlighted their predicament or their woes simply had to be ignored. They were morally incorrect. So there was no need to think further about it.
But I was watching a live debate. And, on that memorable day in April, I was fascinated to hear what the three boys in the opposition were trying to say. They were struggling to voice their arguments to their opponents who were already the clear winners of the debate. The audience had already tuned out. I mean, how can anyone even imagine supporting prostitutes, let alone legitimizing their ‘bad’ acts?
But they had a debate to engage in and they argued their case to the best of their ability. They wanted the government to redefine the phrase “wrong practices!” They said that people resorted to abuse, rape and extortion when they were deprived of satiating their sexual needs within a legal framework. Because prostitution was considered illegal, it had created a breeding ground for such criminal behaviour. Legitimization of prostitution could at least curb such rampant activities to some degree.
They then cited examples and unearthed forgotten facts. I listened to the argument in rapt attention. Somewhere down the line, I could sense my moral boundaries breaking down. Fact and logic replaced my preconceived notions and I realized that there was no room for emotions in such scenarios.
I subconsciously learned the skill of arguing my case well while watching this debate. Even though I was just a part of the audience, I could feel the rush of high strung emotions that were associated with thinking on our feet. Alacrity - presence of mind needed to be backed up by an in-depth knowledge about the subject that was being discussed. A set of well researched facts and figures could tip the balance scales in our favour.
Most people would obviously come to these inferences after attending such a highly interactive debate about such a sensitive topic. ‘Fact’, ‘Logic’ and ‘Morality’ needed to be presented using the right words, the right tone, the right pitch at the right time. But I honestly think my biggest take away from this entire debate was a virtue that I did not even realize existed within me.
Unlike the other members of the audience, I was willing to ‘listen’ to the side that I did not agree with.
Sadly, oh so sadly, I notice that…… though we belong to a modern world where communication is almost instantaneous, we find ourselves lacking when it comes to the virtue of listening!
A few years later I was eligible to participate in a debate. I was eager to explore my potential and develop my skills. I brushed up on my knowledge and hoped that my presence of mind did not desert me at the crucial juncture. My well meaning senior advised me and gave me a crucial tip that moulded my thinking for a long while.
The only points you need to register and think about are the ones that you can use against your opponent. If you are able to do that, victory was only a matter of time. And he was right! I won the debate and the tip became ingrained in my mind.
So much so, that it became my personal mantra that I applied in my real life too. My opinion was of the highest importance and I somehow became adept at the art of listening only to retort.
All was fine for a while….because I was the ‘winner’ in all arguments and debates…….on the dais and even off it. My apathy towards the feelings and sentiments of others earned me the label of a ‘rebel’. It became my prime character defining trait and I was happy to note that everybody wanted to be on my side!
And then I grew up. I saw my first (and thankfully only) communal riot when I was sixteen.
I was returning home from school with a friend when I saw the crowd appear in the distance. This wasn’t a staged march protesting against something. There were no students holding banners and shouting slogans. This was a mob of fanatics, bent on destroying everything that came on their path. This sea of white broke windows, smashed cars and beat scurrying bystanders to pulp. Some carried swords and knives. Others made do with thick bamboo sticks.
I was urging my friend (who had literally frozen with fear) to run back to the school gates when the mob descended upon us. The next five minutes were a blur. I remember the sound of their sticks swishing through the air. My friend, who had been jolted out of his trance, was screaming in pain. Somewhere afar I could hear shots being fired.
The police had arrived at the scene. The chaos that followed was unprecedented. Everyone around us was running in different directions. The two of us just lay on the pavement in fear and pain. The story was covered in great detail in the news that day.
The mob had gathered because they believed that their ethics and morality were being trampled upon and they felt threatened by it.
Throughout the day academics, researchers and scholars put forth their points of view. Some religious scholars argued that morality was the glue that held a society together and when their code of conduct was at risk, they were bound to resort to such extreme measures.
They quoted the scriptures and holy books, and narrated instances when God too had taken such extreme measures to retaliate against sinners.
Newsreaders doled out reams and reams of statistics, facts and figures. They repeatedly used certain words and phrases to drive home their one sided points of view. The debates were interesting to watch and continued for hours with various reputed people contributing their opinions and thoughts. And as I watched these debates, I began to notice the pattern and the tricks I myself had followed for so long.
But this time, the tables were turned and I was at the receiving end of apathy. I felt helpless and frustrated when the argument became lively, interesting and extremely one sided……….it never occurred to anyone to even think about the people who had borne the brunt of the communal riot.
Debates, arguments, verbal duels, cold stoic wars are all appreciated and applauded in today’s world. A word like discussion is hardly used or believed in!
The room for any kind of healthy discussion shrinks automatically when the loudest opinion becomes the most important one.
The constant need to prove ourselves right and the other wrong takes centre stage …………on stage and sadly in real life too! As a result we all become entrapped in self created bubbles of our own and choose to ignore and turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the harsh reality that we simply do not wish to see.
Why? Is it because the reality is harsh and we know we will not be able to digest it? Do we fear that our fragile ego may shatter?
When our sole aim is to ‘win’ the argument, we resort to using blind statements and become ‘topic blind’……..a phrase that I coined to portray our blindness to the real issue at hand. And that is an extremely selfish and scary self created world to live in!