Sunday, February 24, 2008

Smart idea

I came across this article by Stephen Brunt in the Globe and Mail and it has led me down the path toward a new obsession. Intelligence Squared U.S. is a spin off of the original Intelligence Squared, started in the United Kingdom, also home to the Oxford Union, the historical debating society at the university by the same name. The purpose of IQ2, as it is known, is to bring together intellectuals and have them publicly debate a controversial issue, like whether aid to Africa does more harm than good or whether America should be the world's policeman. While this is not new, both the format of the debate and the marketing of it are welcome.

First of all, the format: it is roughly based on the original Oxford debating style. At the beginning the moderator presents the resolution to be debated and introduces those arguing for and against the motion. The audience is given the opportunity to vote on the motion before hearing any arguments. Then each individual, alternating between each side, is given a chance to summarize their arguments. The brilliance is that they are the ONLY ones allowed to speak and do have their time limited and are cut off if they go over. After all presenters have spoken, the audience is able to ask questions which the moderator well, um, moderates, but the back and forth is fairly open. Finally the presenters are then allowed to close their arguments, once again time limited and on their own. At the end the audience again votes and the debaters get to see which side wins the day.

The marketing is great for us intellenerds too. You can download the podcasts from the National Public Radio website which is great. I listen to the bloody things while I run on my elliptical. My wife does not understand how I can have enough adrenalin to run for 30 minutes while listening to intellectual debates but it helps me keep both my mind and body healthy. Ah, what can I say...I'm a hopeless nerd?

Anyways, the real reason I love this stuff is that it gives me hope that debate can actually be civil and effective. Have you seen any leaders debates in Canada over the last 5 years? They are a disgrace to the art of debate. All that happens is the leaders shout at each other and dodge questions. It accomplishes nothing, changes no ones minds, and diminishes public trust in politicians and therefore public involvement in the democratic process. Can you imagine if they used the Oxford format for a leaders debate? The leaders would all shiver in their boots because they would actually have to formulate intellectual, effectual, and articulate arguments for their policy platforms and effective rebuttals to questions raised about their positions.

Of course, the TV networks host the debates, and intellectual discourse doesn't draw viewers. Or does it? The live debates of IQ2 U.S. sell out well in advance. Maybe there is more demand for this sort of thing than we think. I hope so.

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