Student Life

The Geneva Debate: The Student-Led Revival of a Civic Tradition

By Jhilam Gangopadhyay

The Graduate Press interviewed three members of the Lafayette Society to learn more about the initiative, as well as its biggest event of the year: the Geneva Debate, scheduled for this upcoming May. Below is our conversation with one of the co-founders, Jarrod Suda, who is in his second year of pursuing a Master’s degree in Trade and International Finance; together with Alex Maaza and Kyle De Klerk, who are both first-year students in Trade and International Finance.

How did the Lafayette Society come to be established?

Jarrod: The Lafayette Society was born out of Covid-19. Miguel Carricas and I were roommates in Picciotto and we would talk about political philosophy. We would just sit on the kitchen floor, debating issues until late into the morning. We were having so much fun with these conversations and we wanted to share that platform with other people. So, we decided to create a student initiative that would provide a space for students to engage in issues that people care about deeply, like talking about Covid-19, Twitter, Charlie Hebdo, or Brexit. 

Because everyone at the Institute talks about these things in the hallways, in the cafeteria, in their apartments, why not bring them forward into the public and give students a formal and central voice? I didn’t see that happening in any initiative. We saw a gap and we wanted to address that.

What is the history behind the name of the Lafayette Society?

Jarrod: The society is named after Marquis de Lafayette, a French revolutionary. He was born and raised as a French aristocrat. He fought in the American Revolutionary War on the side of the American colonies. He was very successful as a military leader and was celebrated in the United States. He went back to France and also fought during the French Revolution against the king. And then during the turmoil of the revolution, he was offered to become a major member of Napoleon’s government, but he refused. He helped write the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen with Thomas Jefferson. 

He is a founding figure in two of the world’s major liberal democracies, France and the United States. And we thought that was a perfect symbol because Miguel is from Spain and I am from the United States. The Graduate Institute itself is a very international place and Geneva has people from all over the world. We thought that Lafayette represented this sort of international idea. 

What would you say is the core principle that the Lafayette Society is based on?

Jarrod: Well, it’s definitely based on debate. There is a prevalent idea that you don’t live in a vacuum. You live in a society and you may have some ideas and it’s natural that your ideas may conflict with mine. So, if you want to come to a consensus and move forward, you have to discuss to say, “Okay, I will offer you this if you offer me this. Or, here is what I am willing to sacrifice.” It’s a give and take. We have to communicate, communication is key. It’s kind of cliche, but it’s so true. Communication maintains peace in many cases. And so, I think that’s the core principle – having an open mind, coming to the table to have a conversation in good faith. 

Having humility, I’d say, is another synonym. I have my worldview, but I don’t actually know everything. So, I’m going to come to the table and talk to you. And maybe I’ll learn something from you. Because I shouldn’t be arrogant enough to think I know everything. And I think that’s why the Geneva Debate is so great. People will be able to practice that virtue in real-time.

Kyle de Klerk and Alex Maaza, Geneva Debate executive team members

What kind of events and activities do you engage in as a Society?

Kyle: The Society began with weekly meet-ups where we would grab coffee or drinks and debate on different issues. They are not really debates, they are more forum discussions where people exchange ideas. ‘Debate’ sounds a bit intimidating. We don’t want anyone to think that they have to prepare for anything. It’s super casual. There are drinks and free coffee, which is nice. We ran a special US election prediction challenge, which was quite fun, where everyone can predict, you know, who was going to win what state, and then whoever came closest won a bottle of wine or something.  We went on a couple of hikes as a society, which was cool.

Alex: But then we shifted online and at this point, we’re focusing on the Geneva Debate because it would be an organizational challenge to do the kind of regular weekly meetups that we used to have.

How does one become a member of the Society?

Kyle: There’s a regular newsletter that goes out and you can sign up for that. There’s also a Facebook and Instagram page. You can just contact one and get added to the newsletter. And there’s a WhatsApp group you can get added to. You just need to reach out.

You aim to discuss key issues in liberal democracies and their application in the 21st century. We know that many students at the Institute come from different nationalities and political backgrounds. Not all of them think liberal democracies suit their society or nation. Such diversity is the core strength of our campus. How do you try to be inclusive in your activities and engage these students?

Kyle: I’m glad you brought that up. Just from my background, studying political philosophy, I’m definitely not in the full liberal camp. When I joined the Society, I asked, just to check, are we departing from a perspective where liberal democracy is the given or are we going to be maybe a bit more reflective and critique it a bit more? And luckily, that’s what happened. So there is definitely a space to critique and be more reflective, bring in alternative perspectives that you have not considered before.

Alex: And I think liberal democracy is a starting point, because it’s an assumption in general, for example, in Switzerland, that this is the best system that exists, but it’s very much something that should be critiqued. And honestly, the more students that do not believe in these values come to these kinds of discussions with the Lafayette Society, the better. We don’t want an echo chamber, we want people to be able to voice these opinions and really kind of challenge the source. Because otherwise, if we’re just, you know, agreeing and nodding about what each other’s saying, then we’re not doing much intellectual work.

Tell us more about the Geneva Debate. 

Kyle: Fifty or sixty years ago, there used to be an annual tradition at the Institute of a big institutional-wide debate that involved students. But for some reasons, this tradition just kind of stopped happening. And so, we thought, as a Society, we were perfectly positioned to revive the tradition and put both Institute and Geneva on the map as a location that discusses these big controversial, fascinating questions. There are many big institutional debates around the world already, like the Doha Debates, the Munk Debates, and the Oxford Union Debates. And we thought, why is there not a Geneva Debate? I mean, this is one of the global governance centres of the world. 

What kind of participation are you looking for?

Kyle: We want two teams of three, so there will be six students debating. So, we are going to start reaching out to see who is interested. And then, we also want to attract people who would be interested in organizing the debate, such as those interested in communications and event management. We are going to have a judgment panel, which is going to be made up of some professors and also some relevant professionals in international organizations. So, it’s going to be a multi-stakeholder event, not just some small student event within the walls of the Institute.

How do you see the student body at the Graduate Institute contributing to the Lafayette Society and the Geneva Debate?

Jarrod: I am very impressed with the student body at the Graduate Institute. They are the core of everything. The Geneva Debate will be student-run. It will, of course, be in partnership with major stakeholders like the Director, professors, the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy, and the Lafayette Society. But the Geneva Debate is student-led. We operate and plan it. We are the show, the spotlight is on students because we will recruit them to become participants in the debate.

Do you have any messages for our readers?

Kyle: What we can do is tease two of the motions that we were brainstorming. They are not going to be the motion of the debate. But this will give your readers a sense of the kinds of things we will be debating. So, the first motion is “globalization has failed liberal democracies”. And the second motion which we were looking at is “the digital revolution will slave, rather than liberate us”.

Alex: But the topic that we are thinking about is an emerging debate on public health and individual liberty. And whether one should trump the other, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the lockdown. So, we are not going to talk about ‘Oh, yes, we’re going to go back to this or that.’

Kyle: Yeah, it’s forward-looking, not backward-looking.

Kyle de Klerk and Alex Maaza, Geneva Debate executive team members

About the Lafayette Society and the Geneva Debate:

If you are interested in participating in the operational side of the Geneva Debate, please join the info session on Tuesday, March 23rd at 6pm on the steps of Villa Moynier in Parc Perle du Lac. Drinks and pizza will be served!

The Geneva Debate was founded in 2020 by students at the Graduate Institute to serve as a platform for pressing debates on global issues in relation to liberal democratic values and their application to policy in the 21st century.

We are reigniting an old Institute tradition: public student-led debate.

The Geneva Debate aims to become Geneva’s preeminent student debate on current affairs and global development and an annual forum for Institute students, faculty, alumni and the broader International Geneva community to critically engage on the pressing issues of today and tomorrow. 

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Photos by Lafayette Society

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