Debating in Jamaica: Style Over Substance?

October 11th, 2016

OK, so there are two sides to a debate. Can you really set down rules for an argument between two people? What, really is a “win”? Don’t we each decide who won for ourselves?

I pondered over this while sitting on the rooftop of Phoenix Central – the smart, angular building on Phoenix Avenue that now houses Jean Lowrie-Chin’s ProComm Communications in Kingston. A cool evening breeze blew intermittently, and lights twinkled on the hills of St. Andrew and all the way round – 360 degrees – going right down towards the harbor.

What a delightful setting for a rather extraordinary night. The occasion was a viewing, with an invited Jamaican audience, of the second televised U.S. Presidential Debate. The Kingston rooftop session was organized by Panos Caribbean, a member of the 51% Coalition, in partnership with the U.S. Embassy in Jamaica. The Coalition’s Nadeen Spence and Indi McLymont Lafayette brought thoughtful comments and firmly moderated the proceedings.

Acting Public Affairs Officer Bion Bliss speaks at the debate viewing. (My photo)

Acting Public Affairs Officer Bion Bliss speaks at the debate viewing. (My photo)

This was a very strange event, coming right after the release of the deeply disturbing tape of Republican candidate Donald Trump’s bragging and disgraceful comments about his right to sexually molest women. The audience – like many watching all over the United States, too, one suspects – appeared a little uncomfortable. The atmosphere was edgy and expectant. The debate began under a cloud of misogyny and ill will.

Of course, this is unusual; normally such U.S. Embassy election events are easy-going enough. There is a reassuring procedure that is followed, and the audience looks forward to a (more or less) enlightening discussion of the issues by the candidates. The audience would have its own biases, of course. Many Jamaicans, some more than others, do take note of U.S. election campaigns. We take a healthy, or sometimes unhealthy interest in politics in general; this can often include the politics of elsewhere, besides our own country. Yet, there was some trepidation. Were there going to be fireworks? Was everything going to fall apart?

As it turned out, Donald Trump was his usual self, and Hillary Clinton perhaps unexpectedly muted. Was she holding back, letting Trump show himself up some more? Did the horrible tape speak for itself – and for Trump? Perhaps she did not need to be as incisive and cutting as she was in the first debate. She certainly tried to address issues, while Trump – after a particularly unpleasant first half an hour or so – resorted to ramblings (at times unfathomable, to me). His sentences went something like, “It was locker room talk, but I am worried about ISIS, I’m worried about ISIS, and Obamacare is a disaster” (that’s not a direct quote, but non sequiturs and endless repetition were the order of the day).

I'm going to lock you up… Donald Trump glowers in the background as Hillary Clinton speaks at the second debate. (Photo: Reuters)

I’m going to lock you up… Donald Trump glowers in the background as Hillary Clinton speaks at the second debate. (Photo: Reuters)

On the basis of all this, I failed to see how anyone could suggest that Donald Trump actually won the second debate. He was fairly incoherent at times, argued with the moderators, complained that he had been given less time than his opponent (when the reverse appeared to be true) and stomped around behind Hillary Clinton, looming over her – large, irritable, vengeful. Ms. Clinton, by contrast, was polite, obeyed the rules and tried to steer the discussion towards the issues. At times she looked a little strained and even slightly offended, but she kept her composure throughout.

To my surprise, however, some (young male) members of the Jamaican audience suggested that Donald Trump had won the debate; he had somehow scored more points. Other audience members (especially the women) protested. Well, he had indeed asserted himself and seemed to have put the outrage over the “kissing and grabbing” tape to one side. But in what way could one suggest he had won? Ms. Clinton was “flustered,” one said; well, Mr. Trump appeared to be in a permanent state of flusterment…but then, he is a man, so he can get upset whenever he feels like it.

One audience member explained why he was quite convinced that Mr. Trump had won. He pointed out that he had himself considerable experience in judging many debates in Jamaica, thus establishing himself as an expert. Trump had scored points – he had created “sound bytes.” So debates are about sound bytes? I had, naïvely perhaps, thought debates were something more. The seasoned debate judge told me, however, that debates are little more than performances. If so, I still found the debate oddly depressing. The former head of the United Kingdom Independence Party, Nigel Farage (a Trump supporter) called it “electrifying television.” I did not find a large man physically intimidating and insulting a small woman particularly electrifying, myself.

Right-wing UK politician Nigel Farage described Trump as a "silver-backed gorilla" in the debate, adding: "He dominated her." How charming.

Right-wing UK politician Nigel Farage described Trump as a “silver-backed gorilla” in the second debate, adding: “He dominated her.” How charming.

What about substance? I asked the judge of many debates. Surely you can’t say virtually nothing for long periods and still win a debate? I was told that a debate is not an intellectual exercise. It’s not a lecture. It’s not serious, in other words.

Somehow this bothers me, but thinking back to several debates that I have attended in Jamaica, I realize this is probably true. One debate I attended at the University of the West Indies was, in a sense, very stiff and formal. Yet it seemed the entire audience was not so much engaged with the issue under discussion; it was watching and waiting for a “punchline.” Whenever one came, there were loud cheers, raucous laughter, jeering etc. I have attended high school debates where the speakers (especially the boys) used elaborate body language and exaggerated speech – so distracting from the subject that  I found myself laughing at the act they were putting on. But is a debater supposed to do a comedy routine?

So, debates may be considered entertainment in Jamaica. Do they serve a useful purpose, or are they just a temporary amusement, like a boxing match? It matters not what the “moot” is, or what conclusions were drawn, or what one can learn from it. It’s simply a kind of instant gratification event, like so many others, and we move on. This makes me wonder whether, at least in the United States, debates really have much of an impact on the overall campaign, let alone the result of an election. Perhaps they are overrated. Probably my interlocutor was right: it’s just a performance. Whether Trump uses the words “disaster” or “ISIS” ten times in the space of ten minutes is neither here nor there.

Of course, eloquence is essential – and it’s something always held in high regard. This means skillful use of language and argument. Wit is also a wonderful thing – especially if the topic is relatively light-hearted. But nowadays it’s considered fine to go a bit overboard, and stretch the argument, for the sake of a few cheap laughs. Wouldn’t a little bit of seriousness be good, for once?

Perhaps though, we are all “sound byte” people these days. We cannot manage anything heavier than a small bite at a time, hashtag-size.

Sometimes I think life is just one big reality show. So lightweight.




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2 Responses to “Debating in Jamaica: Style Over Substance?”

  1. Dennis Jones says:

    As footballers know, constant strikes on goal, no matter how spectacular, that don’t get over the line aren’t scores. The one shot that scores is better than every thing else. (No, not Confucius…) :)

  2. EmmaLewis says:

    Hmm. Maybe you’ve got a point. Keeping that analogy in mind, when watching Arsenal matches I am always waiting and hoping for a goal to be scored…