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“The time is ripe for a new culture of debate”

interview with Sara Sibai, member of the Lebanon Debating Society

The Lebanon Debating Society is one of the initiatives forumZFD has supported with funds donated after the Beirut Blast. The donations helped local civil society to deal with the aftermath of the blast, and promote long-term change in Lebanon. Sara Sibai is a member of the Lebanon Debating Society and met with Jenny Munro, Project Manager at forumZFD, to talk about the initiative, the situation in Lebanon, and how debating might make a difference.
Lebanon Debating Society
© Lebanon Debating Society

Sara, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. To begin with, why don’t you tell us what the Lebanon Debating Society is about?

With the Lebanon Debating Society, we want to create a unifying, transparent and neutral platform, where we encourage people to discuss and debate things that are important and relevant to people’s lives today. We want to offer them the opportunity to learn how to unpack these challenges, to really break them down. We will draw on policy ideas that already exist for these challenges, and debate them not just from one side, but understand possible solutions from all sides as well as the hidden assumptions and narratives behind these policies. We hope this will promote a new political culture. The time is ripe for a shift in how we conduct political discourse, and how politics is done in this country. And one of the ways we can get there is through the art of debate.

When you say “the time is ripe”, does this mean that you already see changes happening in Lebanon?

Yes, definitely! We’re seeing debates pop up everywhere, so clearly there is something magical, that the time is nigh for a movement to start and create this radical shift. And we are excited because our initiative is a national one: The goal is to host a national debating competition. The call for applications is now live, and we are looking for 16 coaches and 32 debaters from different areas, backgrounds, thinking and mindsets. They will come together and undergo a process of training, of working together, learning the essential skills of debating, actively listening to different perspectives, objections even, and changing their argument to incorporate new ideas.

Doing this in a framework of a competition is to get people excited, those participating but also those watching. It’s a bit like “Arab’s got talent” [editor’s note: casting show] when you follow one person through a number of shows. Like a talent show for debate, where everyone is able to watch and also vote on what should be debated, and whether the debaters were able to change people’s mind. We hope to bring the whole community together around this event, and we think a national live(streamed) competition will do so more than a publication, or a round table, or a conference.

Before we dive deeper into the Lebanon Debating Society’s initiative, let's first take a look at the bigger picture and speak about what is happening in Lebanon at the moment. What’s the situation in the country, and from your point of view, how did we get here?

I think, since the end of the Civil War, so for the past 30 years, Lebanon has been stuck – stuck in this mindset of “us versus them”. And this fear of the other is the driving force behind a lot of political decisions. We are now witnessing where that is taking us, which is a pretty low and dark place. We are in the middle of a devastating financial crisis, unlike anything we've seen, even after the Civil War. And there was the explosion last year that completely marred the face of Beirut like it was. It was traumatizing to all of us.

And now there are electricity shortages, water shortages, fuel shortages, and medical shortages. It's really mayhem. It's a devastating situation. It's difficult to be here, to experience and to witness what is happening. The energy in the country is full of desperation, anger, frustration and a lot of pain. Something needs to change.  And it is scary to be in the midst of this process. But the truth is, we're not going to break – we as human beings are capable of going through these processes of change. In a sense, we are all part of the status quo, we have all sustained it, we have all kept it alive. And we have to recognize that. So a lot has to change, outside and inside of us, and that is why it has to be slow. If it's quick, it's not real; if it's quick, it doesn't last.

A central goal of the Lebanon Debating Society is to cultivate a new culture of political discourse. Seeing what is currently going on in Lebanon, what is the importance and relevance of debating right now?

Since the revolution I have seen a lot of hate, hateful language, things that I know existed before, but I have never been privy to before in public. I couldn’t believe people were saying these kinds of things to each other. Everyone trying to prove who is bigger, smarter, better, and who is right, by putting each other down. I felt this was not going to get us very far. This is not the future that I want to build or be a part of.

People are angry, and everyone has the right to be. Anger is great to wake a community, to bring people down to the streets, but I believe it’s not going to take us much further. If we want long term change to happen, we need to shift tools. What is our goal and how can we get there, and what is the most useful strategy? We need to find a way to bring the conversation to everyone and stop demonizing each other – we need to stop thinking that if we just remove any particular group and kick them out of the country, everything will be great. I don’t think that is true at all.

I believe we need to start shifting the way we talk to each other, and actually listen to what the other is saying. Currently, political discourse is the art of insult or the art of evasion. We want to shift that to become the art of tackling the issue, the art of problem solving.

During the debating competitions you will also address controversial political topics. Are you not worried that the discussion might get heated and set people up against each other?

Debating as a concept is a competitive format that can be dividing. It is our job to keep this delicate balance between the competition and the dialogue process. When you watch some university debating competitions online, you see that it can become quite aggressive. This is not what we are looking for. Part of the judging criteria is how well contestants listen and incorporate the concerns of their opponents into their arguments and address them meaningfully. Not just downplay them, ignore them – that is easy – but really address them. So, it is about winning the competition, but doing so by bringing the arguments of the other side into your thinking and creating a new idea, an idea that might actually be part of an inclusive solution.

And showing this idea in a public and fun debate, we hope the idea will spread. We have spent more than 30 years watching politicians shout on television. How would we have learned to do it differently? We hope that showing people what a political debate can look like will shift the way we all talk to the other side eventually. To engage in a discussion not to prove a point, but to really hear what the other person is thinking, and how we ended up on opposite sides of the argument. Once we understand the why, everything shifts and we can begin to find the common ground that connects us and allows us to rethink our shared future.

How did you get involved with the Lebanon Debating Society?

I worked in education and worked there for six years. Unfortunately, I burnt out while I was working in the field, as I know many, many teachers do. After that, I decided to return to my ongoing curiosity about conflict, and the different ways in which you resolve it constructively. I attended workshops, such as the Lewis method of Deep Democracy and on Nonviolent Communication, and learned how to facilitate groups in conflict, and how important conflict is for personal and relationship growth. I started a company called L3b, which means “to play” in Arabic. Leveraging the art and science of play, we look at team dynamics and how teams can fulfill their potential, how to give and receive feedback, identify tension in the group, unleash creativity and innovation, and articulate values by walking the talk.

I also do a lot of volunteer work with the aim of building community and bringing people together by creating ‘living room’ moments. I hosted a lot of TEDx events, and smaller, more regular salons. At a TEDx Salon, we pick a different topic each time and get people engaged in conversation around that theme. So I have always been interested in holding space, giving people a platform to talk and explore new ways of thinking and being in the world, while engaging with each other.

When I was approached to join the Lebanon Debating Society, I initially thought to say no. Having experienced a burn out a few years back, I’ve become more aware of how much I can take on. And then the explosion happened, just a few days after I heard about the initiative. I felt traumatized, confused, and it took me weeks to recover. It was a hard phase, but the initiative was still on my mind. I was interested in the big stuff, thinking about the values and the way we could innovate a platform to be relevant and real, to create a culture of debating that works for us. To be able to be involved in that was really important to me, and I am grateful for that.

Thank you very much for this interview, Sara!


Here you find more information on the Lebanon Debating Society:

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