The Art of Debate & Why It’s So Important

Is Islam a Peaceful Religion?

This question may incite thoughts and feelings that you don’t want to think about right now. That’s ok.  I don’t mind if you don’t feel like confronting this question at this moment. But shortly after the beheading of a British soldier in London on May 22, 2013 by individuals justifying their actions in the name of Allah, the Oxford Union society held a debate on this very question. They decided that they felt compelled to talk about it their feelings.

Oxford Union Debate: Is Islam a Peaceful Religion?More than 450 Oxford University scholars and community members gathered for a debate, with arguments presented by six speakers- three that propose that Islam is in fact a peaceful religion, and three that do not. The speakers would have their time, to speak their piece on the subject. These people came with the most noble of democratic intentions – to hear reasoned arguments for and against something, to determine their position from the arguments poised and their own experiences, and to vote for or against the motion as they saw fit.

I am inspired by the individuals who had the courage to defend their beliefs, the individuals with the courage to question, and by the people that found it worth their time to spend an evening engaging in serious self reflection.  Most of all, I am thankful for the Oxford Union for discussing topics that cause us to question our beliefs and actions, for keeping the masterful art of debate alive.   

What is the Oxford Union?

oxford-unionThe Union claims to be the world’s most prestigious debating society, with an unparalleled reputation for bringing international guests and speakers to Oxford University. It has been established for 189 years, aiming to promote debate and discussion not just in Oxford University, but across the globe. The Union is steeped in history. It was founded in 1823 as a forum for discussion and debate, at a time when the free exchange of ideas was a notion foreign to the restrictive University authorities. It soon became the only place for students to discuss political topics whilst at Oxford.

Unlike other student unions, the Oxford Union claims to hold no political views. Instead, the Union is a forum for debate and the discussion of controversial issues. For example; in the 1960s, Malcolm X came to the Union and demanded black empowerment “by any means necessary”. In the 1970s, Richard Nixon in his first public speech after Watergate admitted, “I screwed up – and I paid the price. In the 1980s, Gerry Adams, still under his television ban, addressed the Union’s members. In Michaelmas 1996, O. J. Simpson made his only public speech in Britain after the controversial “not guilty” verdict in his criminal trial. The Oxford Union believes first and foremost in freedom of speech: nothing more, nothing less.

The Life Skills Found Within Debate

I believe that the art of debate is an essential skill.  It has so many facets, so many desirable skills to master, in order to be successful in it.  To engage in debate, you start with a question- with no easy answer. So you have to learn: you must sift through a river of information, evaluate and categorize, search and question yourself, and arrive at a seasoned, dense belief or opinion. This is not a fleeting thought, but the summation of multiple related thoughts and conclusions that slowly but surely angle a person to their answer to the question.  This is all done before the debate can even happen!

The greatest honesty within the art of debate, and why it is worthy of pursuit, is that there is no value in understanding anything if that singularly-divined truth cannot be shared.  You must be able to condense all of the reasoning, all of the learning and understanding that allowed you to arrive at your conclusion, in other words, all of the work, into a brief, compelling narrative designed to persuade, compel, and align other people, who have not done the work, to agree with the conclusion you have drawn.

This is not as easy as doing the work.  Ten people could look at the same ten facts and reach as many different conclusions.  The unique human experience is the varying element – it colors all of our thoughts. So in addition to the ever-valuable ability to reason, learn and participate in the democratic process of self (the right to reach your own conclusion), you must also have the ethos, the charisma, and the argument to direct the democratic process of the masses. To guide there opinions, and in doing so, educate the world. Wow.

And in discussing alternative conclusions with other individuals who reached different conclusions, our full term ideas conceived in private continue to grow and mature. At a minimum, engaging in debate encourages self reflection, learning and analysis skills, fosters capabilities of influence and persuasion, and critical listening.

The skills present in debate are the necessary components of any education, and cornerstones of an informed and educated public.

 Why Debate is Important

There are 7.1 billion people in the world, and over half of the population is under 25. Our next generation of leaders, more than ever before, will need to possess these essential skills. They need to assess the challenges that lie ahead on a planet with few remaining natural resources and increased strain from human overpopulation and hardship.  They must possess the ability to unite so many disparate minds and ideas into a cohesive, sustainable forward momentum of sustainable progress. They need to be able to listen critically, more than ever, to the masses if democracy is expected to continue to function at scale.

Debate in the Real World

NJ TransitLast year I was returning home from New York with four friends on a NJ Transit train to New Brunswick.  During casual conversation, we started an impromptu, but serious debate on whether the government should forgive student loan debt, a mainstream issue at the time, when we realized that within the group we had drastically different opinions. For almost an entire hour, we went back and forth, respectfully listening to arguments and reasoning on both sides of the issue. Again, I am not going to share which side I was on, not the point of this story.  Instead, I would like to focus on a deeper level to what happened on that train.

About 45 minutes into the conversation, I looked around the train out of habit.  I suddenly found myself looking in the eyes of every other passenger in the sparsely populated rail car – some 25 individuals of all races, genders, and creeds – all listening intently to our discussion. Genuine interest was there, opinions were forming, and suddenly, as if taking the queue, a gentleman walked up to us on his way out of the car. He said, “This is my stop, but I just wanted to interject that this discussion has been fascinating. Have you considered this fact yet?” He briefly joined our discourse, and went on his way.

During the next 15 minutes, we had several people walk up to us, just to say that they were so impressed, so energized by us, the passionate unknown youths. Some stated that we had restored their faith in Education in general, while others wanted to know where we went to school and where we worked.

This moment, poignantly in between some rather disappointingly lackluster presidential debates, illustrated to me the all too present need for these moments of authenticity, for real, informed public discourse.


Think and self reflect on the question: Is Islam a Religion of peace?  Draw from any experience you have. Answer the question in your heart. Then watch the following Oxford Debate. Listen, challenge, and critically consider both sides:

Did the arguments presented change your opinion?  Did they make you ask more questions? Did you learn something?  Who moved you? Who persuaded you? Who did you disagree with?

The results of the debate can be found here.  I know that the debate is considerably lengthy, and may take more than one sitting.  I know that I came away with a profound feeling that whichever side you fall on is irrelevant.  As long as we as people continue to strive towards higher understanding, drawing from personal and shared reflection, for the individual and the masses, that we have the capacity to tackle the challenges that lie ahead of us.

Feel strongly about something? Start a discussion at the dinner table, or on the next long drive. I hope you find it a rewarding mental exercise and that you enjoy the discussion that ensues.


Posted in Art, Life Lessons, Shifting Perspectives. Tagged with , , , .

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