Events Student Life

The Power of Ideas: the Geneva Debate

By Dario De Quarti

Miguel and Jarrod, on the floor of their kitchen, flat 301, debated for the hundredth time, “the state has the legal legitimacy to trigger emergency powers and mandate a public health lockdown!” 

During the first lockdown, we could see similar debates happening everywhere around the Picciotto Residence regarding politics, society, human rights, economy or even why eating avocado and quinoa might not be ecological. Our student community never started debating, it was always there. The two students did not know at that point that they were on their road to make history.

One year and a half later, in the Maison de la Paix Auditorium, former President of Switzerland, Ruth Dreifuss, addressed the student community, “I am delighted that our national institution continues to embrace new ideas of discussion, by guiding students to pursuing truth. In a spirit of consensus and understanding, Que la Discussion commence”.

Between these two moments, only passionate hard work combined with the intimate powerful conviction that was a daily chit-chat while drinking a beer could become a unique tradition. Since its inception, the Geneva Debate has come to ally the power of an international institution, a centuries-old debating art, and an incredibly talented student body. Miguel Carricas and Jarrod Suda came up with the project, joined by Rebecca Mikova, Alexandre Maaza and Kyle de Klerk in the co-founding team of the Geneva Debate. Alisa Gessler and Mathilde Pasta then joined to constitute the Executive Team. 

“Challenges could leave us hopeless. But in the middle of everything, we have to reinvent ourselves, find opportunities to continue our growth : this is exactly the role of the Geneva Debate. […] Nobody has a monopoly on truth. Tonight, you will all be winners for opening up our internal black boxes” quoted Marie-Laure Salles, at the end of her first year of directorship of the Graduate Institute.

Jarrod and Miguel told us what their goal was. “We wanted to provide a civic platform where students could debate. […] We felt that the discussions we were having were being held elsewhere by other students. There is so much talent within our Institute that was just not made visible, we really felt this need for a debate platform. […] We started our journey last August, reaching out to professors. We wanted to channel that energy into something that reinforces the image of the Institute but also fulfills us as students. That was precisely the modus operandi of the Geneva Debate. We always discussed values like justice, equality, freedom, solidarity, but what does that really mean? The question of the debate grasps all those internal tensions of what we do with sovereignty, freedom, restrictions and so on. ”

On May 26, seven debaters organized in two teams – Proposition led by Vanina Meyer, Nicolle Renion and Sarthak Roy and Opposition, led by Ryan Mitra, Nivedita Mantha, Clara Danbakli and Zhen Lee – debated on the topic “La Maison estime que: the state should make vaccination against COVID-19 a legal requirement for its residents.” The format is an adapted version of the World Schools Debating Championship: the three first speakers of each team have eight minutes to deliver their arguments in turn, and the two final speakers have four minutes to provide a general answer to the other team. If during a speech a member of the other team wants to ask a question, they will raise their hand and hope to be given the floor by the speaker who should never be interrupted. 

What was strikingly impressive was the professionalism adopted by the debaters. Each intervention was based on verified facts, never frontally attacking or disrespecting the other views, giving equal weights to all voices regardless of their opinion. This is the first lesson the Geneva Debate gave to our daily chit-chats to become fruitful paths towards growth, that discussion should really be discussion. Cutting off speech is never an option, imposing a view without verified facts is baseless,  using frontal attacks are not part of any respectful debate. 

Marcel Mione, famous RTS journalist and moderator of the debate, stressed the importance of such a format, “In television, a debate is a show. I think this scenarized format would not be possible. Today, the exercise was different : participants were trained, their speeches being the result of incredible preparation, and in an academic context this format is essential. I do not think this is exportable for television, but I really think at IHEID the Geneva Debate brought an essential platform to form the future change makers of the world, to cope with challenges efficiently, such as the ongoing pandemic.”  He never thought moderating this debate would require that much preparation for him, an expert presenter, but he was impressed by the final result and hopes this debate will become a tradition at the institute. 

Nicolle and Nivedita, two debaters, also shared some insights of their preparation. “We trained for three months, very intensely in the last weeks. For us, our main default was our voice speed. […] Also, the discourse should be respectful, making sure not to attack the others. The modules really emphasized on how to structure a persuasive argument. […] Being able to build complex thoughts is what we enjoyed the most. Coming with two layers of analysis is too easy, too intuitive, it is inevitable, but what debate does is to push you towards a third or fourth layer.” 

On the same line of thought, Vanina, another debater, found that The Geneva Debate was an interesting, enriching, and respectful debate, where listening to the opposing team was key to have a constructive debate. Facts, data, and research prevailed over the misinformation we see daily on social media. “I am proud to have participated in the first edition,” she said.

Nicolle concludes by underlining, “even if we lost, the polls clearly showed we made people change their mind. This shows we achieved our goal”. In fact, the Opposition team was indeed declared winners by the Jury by three votes against two, a close call according to Professor Mohamedou in the final deliberation. They were awarded the prestigious Lafayette Cup, which aimed to become part of the heritage of our prestigious Institution. 

While the initial poll in the audience showed 59% Against and 41% For Mandatory vaccine, the final proportions narrowed to 52%-48%, a notable shift according to Marcel Mione. 

The medal for Best Debater was given to Sarthak Roy, thanks to his ability to combine touches of humor and convincing body language, on top of structured argumentation that all debaters had. We witnessed seven speeches of high quality in their structure and in their form. Afterwards, a reconciliation followed where both teams discussed their arguments in a friendly atmosphere. 

Jarrod and Miguel said the goal was “to show that in tough questions there can be dialogue, and this is what we need for our institution. We hope the Geneva Debate will be an annual tradition, with this central spirit of discussion that should always be conserved. This is our sort of gift, of service for our community, because we believe in the power of ideas”.

The power of ideas, the urgency of constructive debate. One edition, two major lessons, Geneva Debate, see you next year.

Photo by Geneva Debate Team

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