Prime-time slugfest

Prime-time slugfest

The art of debating was highly evolved in ancient India. Today’s TV debates come from the ‘stone age’ of debating

Discourses on our media are invariably adversarial, as if one party is the sworn enemy of the other. Credit: iStock Photo

Watching and listening to “debates”, discourses and interviews on Indian television media today – especially in contrast to their counterparts in the Western media (say, BBC, CNN, or even Al Jazeera) – one can hardly believe that the art of debating was probably founded in ancient India, as early as the 3rd century BCE. Debating, or Vaada-Vivaada, was a highly evolved area of training and education.

Vaada-vidhi established the “method of debating.” Debates were even formally categorised into anuloma sambhasha (peaceful debate) and vigrihya sambhasha (hostile debate). But even the latter followed strict rules of process and protocol. In this tradition, including in Buddhism and Jainism, four formats of debates and declamations were outlined, namely, Samvada, Vaada, Jalpa and Vitandaa. Charaka- Samhita of 2nd century BCE deals with these topics at length.

Samvada dealt with imparting knowledge through discourse. Vaada involved philosophical discourse with the objective of ascertaining the true position of an issue by adopting mutually accepted principles of logic and premise (Pramana), and not with the idea of winning over an opponent. In contrast, Jalpa was conducted with the sole objective of scoring one’s own victory by refuting the opponents’ arguments. In Vitandaa, on the other hand, the idea was solely to refute the opponent, without having to establish one’s own position on a subject. Vitandaa could be either Vitaraaga Vitandaa, which was discourse undertaken without passion for the purpose of a just cause, or Vijigisu Vitandaa, which aimed at the sole purpose of refuting the opponents’ views, with passion. The discourse was evaluated by the principles of aptopadesa (reliable assertion), pratyaksa (perception), anumana ( inference) and yukti (reasoning).

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Charaka-Samhita was further consolidated into Nyayasutra by 2nd century BCE. The art of debating continued to develop in India and, by the 17th century CE, we had Taraka Shastra – the Sanskrit term for the philosophy of dialectics, logic, and reasoning for a hypothetical argument, which through the process of questioning and counter-questioning, leads to a conclusion.

Well, to cut a long story short, we had more than a head start in the art and science of debating, even if today’s TV debates and discourses seem to have taken us back to the stone ages of debating, for all the civility, decorum or rules that are followed in the free-for-all cacophony which passes for declamation or interviews on prime-time TV.

If you have watched Indian and Western news on prime-time TV, the following contrasts between the two should strike you immediately:

Indian discourses are typically high-decibel, aggressive (mostly thanks to the anchors), and a cacophony of noise and rudeness, with several invited members of the panel speaking simultaneously at top pitch; one member eating into the time of another, especially when the aggressive member happens to be a politician. The Western debates and declamations on the media, on the other hand, are usually civil, one person speaking at a time, at an even pitch of voice, and the discourse is intelligible. 

Listening is entirely absent in our discourses. We forget that listening is not just a courtesy in debates; it is the very way a discourse develops and builds into something that educates and enlightens the audience and participants further.

Discourses on our media are invariably adversarial, as if one party is the sworn enemy of the other. The exchanges are vituperative, deprecating and worse. They also tend to be invariably accusatory, as if one side is in the role of a prosecution lawyer with a mandate to bully the defence. The Western declamations are usually a study in contrast.

On Indian media, on an average— about 65% of the time (based on my random and limited timing experiments)— the face and voice visible and audible on the screen is that of the anchor or the party favoured by the anchor. In Western media, one sees or hears the interviewer less than about 15% of the time.

On Indian channels, there is a shameless attempt by the anchors or interviewers, who are typically senior editors of the news channels concerned, to project themselves as the chief protagonists of the evening, as if they and not the person being interviewed were the subject expert. In Western media, the star is clearly the invited party.

On Indian channels, the anchor or the interviewer tries to browbeat the interviewee into submission, unless the person being interviewed is a top political personage, in which case the same rapacious anchors turn into obsequious putty. In the Western media, all invited persons are treated more or less alike. Anchors in the West get a lot more information out of the interviewee – through research, homework and smart questioning.

Interviewers and anchors on Indian TV often play judge, pronouncing the invited experts or panelists guilty of anything imaginable. And finally, Indian anchors, even those wet behind their ears, call even highly accomplished professionals (except when the need for obsequiousness is paramount) by first name, instead of employing appropriate honorifics which Western press always deploys except when they may be on informal chats, where the guest may be treated as a friend.

We have apparently reduced all public discourse to vigrihya sambhasha or hostile debates, and even that, without any rules or adherence to norms of decency or civility. Considering, in a shrunken world, we are all on international display, perhaps greater decorum on our television media is called for. Practically every single anchor calls his or her slot on the television channel a “show,” and not a debate or a discourse or an interview. This, in itself, sets the tone for how the “shows” are conducted.

It may be that research by some anchor-editor reveals that hostility gets more eyeballs for their prime-time, than genteel and civilised debate. But then, isn’t the fourth pillar also supposed to help keep up the standards of our conduct and perception worldwide? Besides, there is something called the middle path. We can be aggressive in our debates, as provided by vigrihya sambhasha, but remember that it does circumscribe some limits of etiquette leading to the broader objective of widening minds, perspectives and ideas.

(The writer is an academic and author of several books)