Let’s debate, not just argue

June 11, 2016 - 13:27

When people with different ideas come together and argue, it benefits not just the individual participants, but society as a whole, because the merits and demerits of an idea or project get highlighted, helping the public (and the Government) make informed choices.

By Thu Vân

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress.”

A great site for generating such honest disagreements are public debates and discussions. Such events, facilitated by the media, can be seen as a catalyst for progress and development.

When people with different ideas come together and argue, it benefits not just the individual participants, but society as a whole, because the merits and demerits of an idea or project get highlighted, helping the public (and the Government) make informed choices.

However, such benefits can only be realized when the debates are fair and square, and when both the moderator and the participants are well prepared, sincere and do not engage in one-upmanship. 

Which brings me to a television show called 60 Open Minutes that debuted last month. Produced by the Viet Nam Television (VTV), it’s an obvious twist of 60 minutes, the internationally popular talk show aired by the CBS network.

After watching the first two episodes, I have to say I am underwhelmed, and this feeling gets worse when the inevitable comparison with the original 60 minutes comes up.

Maybe a comparison at this point is unfair, given that the format for the CBS show is one where the host interviews one person, typically a world famous leader, politician, artist or athlete.

A lot of research is done beforehand, clippings readied to question the person on statements he or she has made earlier, and the interviewee is prepared to be put through the wringer. Things get tense often, but the show has unearthed some startling truths, and I have enjoyed watching it.

Don’t get me wrong. I think a talk show where people with different points of view can freely argue and defend their arguments has great potential to generate something meaningful.

But, thus far, VTV’s 60 Open Minutes has not shown much promise. The format for this show is for the host to invite a group of people with different opinions on a chosen topic, and let a debate ensue.

The first episode focused on “Why do we share on social networks?” The second looked at “For whom do we engage in charity: those in need or for ourselves?”

The topics were contemporary, relevant and worthy of discussion. If the discussions threw light on some disturbing aspects of these topics and prompted people to think and act more wisely, they would have been received well and the producers congratulated on a job well done.

However, both the episodes came in for heavy criticism from the public.

I think this happened because the moderator and some of the participants failed to lift the quality of discourse. There were times it seemed that the aim was to argue for the sake of arguing, or asking leading questions merely to provoke people into saying something.

Questions like “What was your motive for sharing the clip?”, or “How long after the clip was first uploaded did you share it?” were asked in a way that made me feel that the questioner was pushing an agenda of her own.

The comments did not fare much better.

People said things like, “It seems that you are trying to show the world they were doing something marvelous, rather than just a good deed” or “If children in mountainous areas keep receiving gifts, they will stop going to school and spend the whole day doing nothing but waiting for the next charity trip.”

While these can be valid points of view, they were stated in the manner of firm, unchangeable conclusions that brooked no argument. Missing in action was the open-mindedness needed on all sides for any debate to be constructive.

Instead of a serious debate, I felt people where just talking over the heads of each other, intent on stating and pushing their own points of view without listening to others, and at times, even to themselves.

I understand the host was playing the Devil’s Advocate, which is a very useful thing. I have heard that when the Catholic Church decides whether or not to canonize someone, it appoints a Devil’s Advocate to mount serious opposition, so that the final decision is taken only after considering and questioning all the evidence.

In a journalistic setting, the Devil’s Advocate can help expose, if not root out, prejudice and bias by pushing participants to elaborate on their statements and arguments in revealing ways. This requires the host or moderator to be transparently fair and objective.

In VTV’s case, the host could have succeeded in having the participants explore the issue further, but the impression she left in me, and in many others, as can be seen in the responses on social media, is that she failed.

She and two other participants seemed to victimize the first interviewee, and, in the second show, there was some contempt shown for the kindness and generosity of those doing charity work.

Public outrage has in fact pushed VTV to remove their clip of the first show from Youtube.

Get it right, and soon

I hope the production team learns its lessons and cleans up it’s act, because the idea of the show has merit. It can foster democratic values and be a forum where controversial issues can be openly discussed.

With all the social networking forms available in Viet Nam, people have a lot more space and means to communicate and to share their opinions on certain issue. Facebook, for instance, provides a huge forum for debates to take place.

I find it very encouraging that many people have participated in these debates with grace, knowledge and a constructive attitude.

The opinion and commentary columns of Tuoi Tre (Youth) and Thanh Nien (Young People) newspapers, or the opinion page on Vnexpress.net are other sites where quality debates have happened.

For VTV’s 60 Open Minutes to fulfill its potential, it can learn from other shows like CBS’s 60 Minutes. In the interests of debating, I would venture to say that there is more to learn from the failures of such shows.

Host Mile Wallace of 60 Minutes achieved almost legendary fame as a tough, persistent, fearless journalist. His fame allowed him to lecture Putin on corruption, press Yasser Arafat on violence and even tell Ayatollah Khomeini that the leader of another country had called him a lunatic. To his credit, the Iranian leader responded coolly, with restraint.

Wallace’s “impressive” accomplishments have been criticized on several counts. Instead of asking questions, he would state things; his programme deployed what was known as “checkbook journalism,” paying people to appear on TV; and so on.

Despite this, he got people to appear on his show, and the audience to like it.

But we should remember that during Wallace’s heydays, there were no online social forums that would provide feedback, good and bad, in an instant.

We should also realize that there is much more at stake when public debates and discussions are held on important issues. The way they are held can make a huge difference in the lives of others.

For instance, the Vietnamese Government typically invites public feedback on its policies and plans. This has had mixed results. If conducted well, shows like 60 Open Minutes can give public feedback much sharper teeth needed to exert greater influence on policy making.

Will this happen? We’ll wait and see. -- VNS