Sunday, July 22, 2018

Debating beyond force and foes

Not every talker is a debater and not every debater is a talker, I've noticed. Talk is cheap. Debating, on the other hand, is a completely different kettle of fish. While the one and the other do meet in and enter everyday conversations and tournaments, they are not the same, because debating is a craft, an art in fact, which requires tremendous reserves of concentration, creativity, and energy. That, plus the fact that while anyone can butt in and give their two cents on a given topic, a debate entails something much more: a seasoned encounter between two camps opposed to one another based on a given subject. This is true for English debating and it is also true for Tamil and Sinhala debating because the latter two have more or less evolved via the history of the former. This article, incidentally, is about Sinhala debating.

Pasindu Madhusanka, Mino Gallawatta, Ridma Raveen, and Navod Nethma are four active debaters attached to the society of their school, Royal College. The Sinhala Debating and Oratory Society, as it's known there, evolved as an appendage of sorts to the Sinhala Literary Association and broke away to venture on its own path, as an independent entity, in 2001. Among its most active participants and chairmen in the past, I can name Nalin de Silva (yes, THAT Nalin de Silva), the late A. V. Suraweera, and Prathiba Mahanama Hewa, who all happen to come from different fields. Such details, interesting as they are to me, nevertheless pale away when considering the trajectory it and various other school clubs around the country are following and how it has unearthed the true nature of Sinhala debating as a craft. This is therefore not a detailed recounting of the society, rather a delineation of those active in the society.

Pasindu, this year's Captain, spoke first. "There are some erroneous views regarding this field which we've tried to get rid of. For instance, the view that Sinhala debating is all hot air and depends more on force than facts. That is not true. Speaking for our society, we privilege facts over force and have come to realise that shouting for the sake of winning over judges will get you nowhere." Ridma interjected here: "The biggest lesson you can draw from being a debater, in whatever language, is that there's a time to shout and a time to sober down." I got their point immediately: if we are to talk about this topic, controversial as it is, we have to talk about how debaters evolve and graduate and what they learn about wielding rhetoric.

A typical Sinhala debate includes four debaters. Marks are allocated on two criteria, the way you present and the way you break your contender's points. "The Captain is allocated 60 marks for only his presentation, while the split between the two criteria for the second speaker is 40-20, the 3rd speaker is 30-30, and the fourth speaker is 20-40. The rest of the marks come from the style of your delivery, or vaag vilashaya, and your body language, or anga chalanaya," Pasindu informed me, adding that having counted in more than 340 debates (a whopping portfolio) he has ascertained that there's no easy way for a debater to evolve. This brings him, and me, to how he and his colleagues managed to break away those myths regarding what they are doing.

Before that though, how they got to the Society is pertinent. In Pasindu, Ridma, and Navod, I infer three routes through which one enters the Club. With Pasindu, it was a teacher who recognised his voice for its persuasive, stentorian qualities (she happened to be his class teacher and was also attached to the society); with Ridma it was Pasindu's friendship; and with Navod it was a notice for a workshop conducted by the Society which he attended. "When we are young, we want to try everything out. We want to indulge in every extracurricular activity," Pasindu told me. Over the years, and not surprisingly, the procedure for attracting new recruits to the club has not diverged from what it used to be before, though by now, the drive towards getting new and potential debaters in has accelerated: "We organise projects every month, bring in experts for workshops, and conduct massive recruitment campaigns thrice a year."

The 'learning curve' they undergo is formal as well: "Starting from practice debates, we move the better students to inter house debates, and from them we pick out the best to represent the team at inter school debates. Even with this process, however, we have hiccups. Those hiccups materialise as limitations of individual debaters." Such limitations, Pasindu explained, can dog them for months if not years, but they go away eventually. "Navod, for instance, had a problem pronouncing the letter 'ka'. When he began, he used to be hassled off a tournament after the semi finals. But with practice over time, he has, while not eradicating this issue completely, resolved it. Ridma on the other hand was afraid of 'opening up' in front of an audience. He resolved it by concentrating on facts in his speech. These are personal problems inherited from childhood, and they have a big say in how a debate is conducted. Language matters as much as delivery, and if problems affect either of them, you need to address them."

Debaters have their preferred topics and these three are not, it must be said, exceptions to that rule. Preferences of that sort are conditioned by what one studies. Ridma, who did his A Levels in the arts stream, prefers topics delving into social theory, which incidentally makes up the majority of debating topics in the country. On the other end, Pasindu prefers topics revolving around science, which happens to be in the minority among national debate topics. "Economics, law, sociology, and diplomacy attract more confrontation, so they are in the majority. Nonetheless, I feel there should be more topics based on science." Whatever the theme, however, they are adamant that facts should come before force: the latter must be a corollary, or should grow out of, the former. I asked Pasindu, Ridma, and Navod that given that one must balance the one with the other, what of students who by nature tilt towards one OVER the other?

It's a challenge, but as all three inform me, it can be resolved. "There are students who have never uttered a filthy word in their lives. There are also students who by nature are assertive and tend to be forceful in what they say and how they act. In both cases, you have got to understand that a language, any language, is based on formal lexicons and on slang. They carry equal weight. To this end, we need to teach students how to be aggressive at a given moment and how to be sober and calm as well." Pasindu, by nature aggressive in how he speaks, is at the other end of Ridma, who is more collected. It's a veritable mishmash, and given that this is debating and not a literary association, it is to be expected. This, however, brings me to another persistent issue: that of language. More pertinently, how flexible language can get.

Obviously, judges, being the human beings they are, bring with them their notions of grammar and rhetoric, so it's to be expected that language and delivery depend on how these human beings take to them. Debates about religion, for instance, can get testy when judged by the clergy, but as Pasindu and Ridma tell me, they have faced tournaments where such awkward confrontations have occurred. This extends to the use of the language: "There are no hard and fast rules about what kind of Sinhala we should use. We teach our students to use as much Sinhala as possible, to be very resourceful when resorting to English, except in the case of technical terms with no vernacular equivalent. Our biggest challenge is with students steeped in neither Sinhala nor English. They are, for the lack of a better term, gandabba."

In fact it is interesting to know that while there are several dialects of Sinhala spread right throughout the country, from Kurunegala to Matara, in debating circles such dialects, at least among experienced societies, disappear and give way to a distinct dialect that only debaters conjure up. "This dialect is ridden with inconsistencies in grammar which would infuriate some. As an example, one term we always use, which actually traces its origins to the Royal team from 2011 and 2012, is 'athishaya avasthawa.' Those two words cannot, strictly speaking, be used together. But over time and through constant use, it has become a word on its own right. We do concur that grammar must figure in a language, but in this field, we are not rigid."

As a final point, Pasindu and Ridma dwell on the most important project that debating team at Royal are engaged in, Samprapthi. Each year, the project is formed with the intention of promoting unorthodox debating, and to this end it is planned to raise the camaraderie between debating societies in Sri Lanka. As these two inform me, in 2011 they brought together schools weak in Sinhala, in 2012 they brought together schools slightly less weak in Sinhala, in 2013 they conducted workshops in peripheral schools throughout the Western Province, in 2016 they trained societies from schools which had not made that many strides in the field, such as Carey College, while in 2017, they attempted (rather successfully) to tone down the confrontational thrust of Sinhala debating by inviting junior members and by deliberately 'mixing up' teams from different schools so that instructors from one school would be heading another school team. I was there at the last Samprapthi, and I saw how all those debates, all that confrontation, ended in an awards ceremony where there were no winners, only boxes of chocolates distributed among contending teams to (what else?) promote harmony.

So what's in it for the team? "Probably the most important thing we've learnt in debating is to not be ruffled by praise or blame, by victory or defeat. When we win, we don't flaunt. When we lose, we don't sour. Moreover, debating has taught us a lot about people, their preferences and their prejudices. I won't say that it has taught us everything that we need to know about those people we come into contact with in our tournaments, but it's gone a long way in helping us understand other perspectives. This in turn has helped us understand that this is a field which is not exclusively reliant on confrontations and fights. There's more, much more to debating, especially Sinhala debating, than shouting and hollering and bringing your competitor down. I suppose we are all united in saying that we've learnt to be immune to pressure, and by being immune to pressure that way, we've learnt to comprehend this field better."

And in the end, what debaters pick up and learn, what they discard and unlearn, what they perpetuate in the name of what they do, helps us understand what debating is and is not. Especially in Sinhala. In that sense, the stories Pasindu and the team can say speak a lot. Louder than their voices, certainly.

Written for: The Island YOUth, July 22 2018