Combat of Opinion

Vienna Students Challenge Their Counterparts in St. Louis: Is a Strong Dictatorship Better Than a Weak Democracy?

News | Bond Benton | December 2007 / January 2008

There is only one true international language, and it’s not Esperanto.  It’s argument.  There’s a saying that if you ask two Austrians a question, you’ll get three opinions.  The same is true around a world that increasingly proves that familiar truths are familiar only from a certain perspective.

On Nov. 27, four students from Webster University Vienna explored how truths change depending on your perspectives in a debate via teleconference with the top debaters from Webster University St. Louis.

The topic: "Resolved: A strong dictatorship is better than a weak democracy."  Webster Vienna students Ju Eun Shin, Branko Zivkovic, Mihai Alexandru Opriscan, and Federico von Bary argued for "weak democracy," with Webster-St. Louis advocating "a strong dictatorship."

The contest was a draw, with the two judges split over which side had the stronger arguments.  And although competition is at the heart of debate, the process of discovering truth from a variety of perspectives is the true goal.

The debate itself hinged on several key arguments: Specifically, the debaters in the U.S. argued that dictatorships provide a solid foundation from which a stable society can emerge.  As an example, they claimed that several dictatorships in Asia laid the foundation for modernization, market economies, and functioning democracies.  The Vienna students countered that dictatorships can never be strong, because they lack a public mandate, and the people are ultimately slaves to the whims of the dictator.

"Weak democracies are less likely to fall into armed civil conflict," Ju Eun argued. Branko continued the argument: "A country with a strong dictatorship is often barred from entering free trade agreements with other countries." The Vienna team went on to reason that a weak democracy has the opportunity to gain the support of the world community and move towards stability, while a dictatorship breeds the sort of isolation and poverty that fuels terrorism and global instability.

I’ve coached speech and debate for the last fifteen years.  As an instructor, it is my passion as I believe that coursework can, for lack of better word, be faked.  In the crucible of competition, having to stand up and present thoughts, feelings, emotions, and arguments, there is no comfortable place for just doing enough to get by.  In debate, you are trapped into a predicament that requires you to find your own voice, whether you know it or not.

As such, the most stirring moment in the contest for me occurred during cross-examination, when the students in Vienna were permitted to ask questions of the students in the U.S.

"Have you ever lived in a dictatorship?" one student asked.

While some might argue the current administration in the U.S. comes awfully close, the only reasonable answer available to the American students was "No."  For students from nations that have seen war, division, destitution, and tyranny (like many of the students here at Webster Vienna), the answer is a great deal more complex. Coming from countries such as South Korea, Serbia and Israel, the Vienna debaters had been exposed to the hardships dictatorships spawn.

Hearing that question reminded me that the stuff of debates is real.

The bulk of my years coaching speech and debate have been with American students.  While insightful, prepared, informed, and enthusiastic, the events of the world were always far away, kept at arm’s length in the debate competition. Somehow in the process of research and exploration, the horrors of world conflict became an abstraction of events, rather than the events in and of themselves.

Ju Eun agreed: "What struck me was that the other team primarily used Indonesia as an example for a weak democracy that was not helping the country prosper economically. Most of their arguments centered around why weak democracies are worse, rather than on why strong dictatorships were better."

Their examples for strong dictatorships were also surprising: Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Castro’s Cuba.

"Yeah, we didn’t have too many problems invalidating those arguments," Ju Eun said.

So students engaged the world, and quite effectively, speaking the true international language of argument.  And in that engagement, a bit of reality was shared and truth was discovered on all sides.  Although the result was judged a tie, the building of global connections was surely a victory for understanding.

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