I spend a lot of time telling students the reasons we debate. It's not hard, because, just as my dad told me almost ten years ago, there are lots of reasons. It teaches skills- listening, respect for one another's ideas, public speaking, the ability to b.s. your way through practically any situation (yes, brother, that was directed at you.) It gives you knowledge- about your country, about the world, about random countries in Africa, even about yourself. It makes you think critically, question everything, see flaws in logic everywhere.
It's easy for me to tell students these things, because all of them are true and I've seen all of them manifested in my life. But until I moved to Afghanistan, I didn't know that debate also offered cultural exchange, or what an important option this could be.
My organization, Afghans for Progressive Thinking, recently ran an entire tournament completely over Skype. Sixteen universities competed, sixteen universities from three countries, nine cities, six time zones. I walked to work in Kabul as the sun was rising, but by the time the tournament began, the sun had long since set on our teams in the U.S. The last rays of the sunset disappeared from Kabul's skies during our final round, just as the first hints of light were shyly peeking through the Oregon team's windows.
It's so easy to think that debate doesn't offer real cultural exchange. In our final round, 'tournaments are the best future for debate', one team even argued this. Debaters are told which side to defend and which topic to discuss, which means that their arguments may not, probably don't, represent their actual opinions. How can you learn about someone's culture when you never get to hear what they truly think?
But as I watched and listened to the round of this tournament, I realized that isn't necessarily true. All of us are raised seeing the world through a certain lens. It is a lens created by our family, our town, our religion, our politics, our culture. It's a lens that even the most open-minded of us possess, because no matter how willing we are to see other opinions, the mere fact that they are 'other' opinions means that we have something to compare them to and to measure them against. Good or bad, we grow up looking at the world in a certain way.
It isn't until we have conversations or debates with other people that we realize what our lens is like. Japanese internment camps from World War II work as an example when your opponents and your judge know what they are, but when they are a part of US history that Afghans have never heard of, they suddenly become useless in a debate. When a debate about women traveling alone is relevant, or when a topic about media altering the shape of models talks more about Big Macs than body image, or when trying to use 'Titanic' as an example in a debate class is a bad idea because it could potentially seem like I'm trying to make my students think about falling in love, I realize how different my lens is.
One of the things I love about my job here is seeing people become aware of their lens. I love talking to students about life here and about life in America, swapping stories of a childhood on a family farm with stories about a childhood as a refugee in Iran or under the Taliban. Both sides latch onto the tiniest things- they are fascinated by the fact that I've raised pigs, that I don't live with my father any more, that I can type so rapidly. I am awed by the way Afghan families live entirely in shared spaces, by the way they sometimes sleep in their head scarf because they forget it's there, by graceful dance of their fingers as they swoop and swirl their way through written Dari. When we comment on these little things that are interesting, these little pieces of life that seem so unremarkable to one side and like such novelties to the other, we learn about both cultures at once.
When I first arrived in 2011, I was told firmly that the people of Afghanistan are 'Afghans. The currency is the Afghani. They were very intense about this; any time I said it wrong, I was quickly corrected. When I returned to the States, I mentioned that to a lot of people, including the American debaters I worked with, one of whom competed in the Skype debate last week. At the end of the round, while the judges were deliberating, the final teams from Oregon and from Kabul continued to chat over Skype. I heard one of the Oregon debaters say 'the Afghani people,' and then I heard the quiet correction- 'Afghan.' But the correction didn't come from any of the ten Afghans in the room. It was his teammate. How's that for cultural exchange?
Students during the final round at Debate Without Borders.