We Need Discussions, Not Debates

What makes Christopher Hitchens such a capable and persuasive debater is a mixture of his ides, arguments, and charm. But it's also the words he chooses and the way he presents them.
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What makes Christopher Hitchens such a capable and persuasive debater is a mixture of his ides, arguments, and charm. But it's also the words he chooses and the way he presents them. Any debate teacher on any campus will tell you that to successfully win a debate - and to convince others to believe what you do - you must make coherent, fact-based points that bring audience members in. Part of that effort, however, is a strong command of the English language. Hitchens is an expert at that.

I attended a debate last night at the 92nd St. Y where Hitchens argued against the proposition that Islam is a religion of peace. He in fact believes that no religion is built around peace. Both he and his opponent for the evening, Tariq Ramadan, contended that the issue itself was flawed. As moderator Laurie Goodstein explained in her opening remarks, the question of Islam's peaceful mission is both offensive to those who abide by its laws, and absurd to anyone who wants to judge Islam based on recent world news and high-profile spats.

Ramadan argued that not only do Islamist extremists misread the message of the Koran, those who believe that these extremists to be in the mainstream of Islamic culture and thought are also badly misguided. To the debaters' credit, the argument didn't rely entirely on this point, a question of who the "real Muslims" are today. It delved deeper and allowed Ramadan to preach lessons of diversity, resistance, and peace in spite of uproars over current events and heated issues like the so-called "Ground Zero mosque." Ramadan even delivered the line of the night when he argued that Hitchens "has more of a problem with religion than with Islam."

Ramadan did his best to keep up with Hitchens every step of the way; that's really all you can ask for someone up against such a domineering and intimidating force. As usual, though, Hitchens was the one who got the most applause throughout the night. His debating style seems to both ask for and feed off of audience approval. Once he had secured it, he hit his stride and began to outline his talking points more succinctly.

Both men represented their sides well. But it was Hitchens who established his presence better. Ramadan is a fluent English speaker, yet in a debate like this, his brief pauses to find the right word hurt his overall presentation. While his arguments did come across - and I found myself agreeing with him at times - it took a good deal more attention and focus to unpack what he was saying. (I couldn't help but imagine how Hitchens would fare if the debate took place in Ramadan's native tongue.)

I couldn't help but compare this event to one I attended in May at NYU's Skirball Center that brought together four accomplished men to debate Obama's foreign policy, past and future. Bernard Henri-Levy, one of the leading thinkers in the world, tried to illustrate to the other side and the audience how Europeans feel about Obama. He had a gauge on the situation that we did not. It was a welcomed, substantive voice in much the same way Ramadan was last night as a bridge to the actual non-American Muslim world. In fact, it was a necessary voice to make the debate worth having at all. Even if we had to untangle Henri-Levy's words a bit, he offered a perspective that the others couldn't.

At the beginning of last night's panel, Goodstein outlined that this event wasn't about coming to conclusions or declaring a winner; rather, it was intended to get people on either side to at least consider the other one for just a moment. It definitely achieved that goal. Goodstein led a thoughtful, informative, and timely discussion between the two men with divergent opinions. It would have suffered had she chosen to treat it as a debate leading up to declaring a winner at the end.

This piece had been updated.

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