Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Skype debate: We don't normally see students like you

“Good morning, and good evening,” began debater Faisal from Kabul University. He spoke to a room of Afghan students but also via Skype to a room of debaters in the United States.

It was our first Afghan-American Skype debate of the year, between students from Carroll College in the US and students from three universities in Kabul. I organized two of these last year (http://news.yahoo.com/linfield-college-afghan-students-debate-human-rights-via-072534428.html), and it was thrilling to hear these two groups of students share their opinions in everything from negotiation with the Taliban to stereotypes each had about the other country.

It was even more thrilling this time, to be on the other side of the world and on the other side of the screen, to witness the same interest in their voices and passion in their eyes.

We used the BP debate format- four debaters on each side, two Afghan and two American. The topic was "The 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops should be extended." The American students admitted later that they were worried about saying the wrong thing, saying something that is accepted as fact in the US but that the Afghans considered offensive or knew was false.

That happened a few times in the debate. We heard students disagree; "Hasn't security has improved over the last ten years?" asked one American student, and the Afghan debater emphatically answered, "No, exactly the opposite!" We heard students agree; yes, some progress in Afghanistan has been made. During the eight 4-minute speeches, we wandered from the problems with leaving early, to the Taliban's insistence that they will not negotiate while foreigners are here, to the importance of security in maintaining civil liberties, to the ways that foreign troops have violated Islamic values and made tensions worse. One side upheld the usefulness of a big brother in guiding a newly formed democracy, and one of the Afghan debaters responded, “What about big brother's aunts and cousins and sisters; do we need them too?”

In the second half of the debate, both American and Afghan debaters began to wax poetic on ideas about self governance, the U.S. image, and the precedent it sets. “If the U.S. leaves, will achievements continue?” asked the Afghan speaker on the government/affirmative side “Will the Taliban come back?” The final American speaker responded with “Should the US keep its word?” and “Does big brother ever move out?”

One of the beautiful parts of the debate was the fact that we had two Afghan speakers on affirmative and two on negative, and we had two American speakers on affirmative and two on negative. None of the groups got to choose which side they took, but we still got a little glimpse into the mindsets of both sides. It is so natural for us to speak and think and debate through the lens that we grow up with, but it's good for us to listen and learn about the lens that others use. It's also good for us to understand the other side's arguments; I was really proud when one of our debaters spoke so passionately about why the US troops should leave but told us afterward that he passionately believes they should stay.

After the debate, we had a question and answer session, free-style and open to anyone who was debating or watching. It started slow, with both sides hesitant to ask questions, but when the questions began, they came fast. What stereotypes did you have before the debate? What do you think will happen in 2014? What will be the impact on education? What's it like to be a woman in Afghanistan? Do Americans want the troops to leave? If you were an Afghan woman, what would you do? What do young people in the States think of Afghans? If we were to write a letter to Obama on behalf of our Afghan friends, what would you want us to say?

The students at the Q and A

Of all the parts of my job here, I think these Skype debates are my favorite. They bring together my two favorite countries, and they bring together some of the best these countries have to offer. They feature young people who are informed about the world, interested in using their words to make a difference, and curious enough to confront stereotypes and learn from each other, even when their mistakes mean a whole room chuckles at their expense. They are pure and uncensored in a way that media can seldom be.

At the end of the event, one of the American debaters said something that, to me, is the summation of the importance of these debates.

“I want to thank you all for this. Here, normally, we don't see this side. It's really great that you are showing that you don't hate us. We see the flags burned in the media, but we don't see students like you.”