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Friday 15 December 2017
Commentary

Clash of the bright inmates

Debbie Jacob writes a weekly column for the Newsday.

I expect to be both surprised and shocked at my annual Port of Spain Prison debate, and this, the third year of the debate, proved once again that I should always expect the unexpected.

By now, I realise that the bright young inmates from my class have become experts at choosing a challenging topic that at first glance seems like it could be only a one-sided debate. They are experts in formulating questions that will require an opposing side to present a view most people would not even be able to recognise.

The first debate asked the question: Should parents use corporal punishment as a form of discipline? For the second debate they chose the question: Should people be judged by their religion? This debate they proposed the topic: Are absentee fathers a major reason for boys joining gangs.

My class decided to graciously give the opposing team, made up of inmates from other prison programmes, the first choice for what side of the topic to support, and that team, led by Mark, argued the affirmative side. My class had to argue that absentee fathers were not a major factor in whether or not boys join gangs. Good luck with that, I thought, but when I heard both sides separately, I realised my class had done an admirable job of formulating an opinion for a most difficult position.

On the night of the debate, it seemed my class was doomed when the audience, for the first time ever, broke into a rousing applause at the eloquence of the statistic-driven arguments that Mark delivered with passion and conviction for the affirmative team.

Daryl opened the negative side with a subtle argument that questioned the definition of a gang. A gang, he said, has been defined as two or more people hanging out together. The question then was how can we determine if absentee fathers are a decisive factor in boys joining gangs if we can’t even agree on what a gang is?

This is a Lincoln/Douglas-style debate that includes questions and answers before the rebuttal phase. In the first year of our debate, Darrem, who served as a judge for the third debate, won the argument for the team advocating corporal punishment with his brilliant answers for the opposing teams’ questions. But the questions on both sides were rather weak this year. Still, the dramatic and often humorous answers delivered by the affirmative team earned points.

The rebuttal stage was a toss-up with equally strong arguments from the affirmative side when Shervon delivered a touching story about how growing up without a father led him to join a gang. But Akili countered on the negative side with a story about having a hands-on father. Methodically, he chipped away at the affirmative side’s argument.

Then it came down to the closing remarks. For the affirmative side, Ronnie offered a solid summary. For me, the affirmative side seemed to have the edge at this point. I couldn’t read Netfa’s face. He seemed calm, almost distant for most of the debate.

Now, he stood silently for some agonising seconds, took a deep breath and then delivered one crushing blow after the next accusing the affirmative team of extracting one point out of many for determining the reason young men to join gangs. He blamed poverty, peer pressure, low self-esteem and media messages glorifying gangs for the problem. “You haven’t made a case that absentee fathers are the major cause for boys joining gangs,” he bellowed.

In the end, the judges, who included music teacher Aaron LowChew Tung; former master debater Darrem, who won the first debate for my class’s team; entertainer and media personality Errol Fabien, and journalist Ira Mathur, recognised both team’s stellar research, compelling and passionate arguments. They declared a tie – the first in the history of our debates.

There’s no way to describe how rewarding it is to see young men who could once express nothing but rage now challenge themselves to articulate a persuasive argument and present it in front of family and strangers.

On the other hand, the judges and everyone else noted how much the debaters had to rely on foreign statistics for their data.

Out of the two teams, we have now formed a Port of Spain Prison debate team to challenge Maximum Security Prison in April. Through these debates, we know that true power stems from expressing ideas and formulating arguments. We have proved that in the Port of Spain Prison.

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