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Story | Community
17 February 2020

Op-ed: Sparking creative conflict for TV is Doha Debates’ challenge


Dr. Govinda Clayton, the QF production’s “connector” on how he hopes its focus on building bridges will help to improve the global standard of debate

Conflict is a part of life, and part of what makes us human. People will always have differences of opinion, and seemingly incompatible goals. But this isn’t always a bad thing: We can often learn the most from those with whom we disagree, and this can become a creative process that promotes progress, deeper understanding and more meaningful consensus.

Yet creating positive forms of conflict has its own challenges, as it requires a certain level of mutual respect among parties, and a curiosity and openness to new ways of understanding. Unfortunately, we live in a world in which people now seem to increasingly shy away from hard conversations on the issues that matter, instead preferring to interact only with those who share their views. This creates the classic echo-chamber problem that makes it hard for anyone to learn about other understandings, and ultimately leads groups to fall further apart.

Doha Debates has sought to create a debate style built around finding consensus.

The television news industry plays a role in this process. Partisan coverage entrenches people in their positions, while balanced coverage often gives a platform to marginal and widely discredited positions on issues from the environment to the economy, without any genuine attempt to highlight scientific consensus or areas of common ground. In short, TV shows more often feed our lust for self-reinforcing information, or for entertaining arguments, without really providing a space for us to engage with and understand each other. 

Doha Debates, a newly reimagined live show, has attempted to do something different. Moving away from the standard TV formats, the show has sought to build a new debate style based around finding consensus and bridging divides. Each debate has focused on one of humanity’s greatest contemporary challenges, including the refugee crisis, water scarcity, and trust in institutions. Rather than adopt Oxford-style debating in which participants compete to “win” the discussion, Doha Debates instead builds its debates around the majlis, a traditional Arab form of debating and consensus-building. In the majlis, there is space for disagreement and creative conflict, but always in the spirit of mutual respect and curiosity. In another innovation, the debates feature a connector, a conflict resolution expert whose role it was to help the moderator and speakers identify points of consensus and common ground. 

Last year, Doha Debates approached me about taking on the role of connector. I have spent most of my life trying to understand and promote peaceful ways of resolving conflict and building peace. I have experience helping to develop conflict resolution skills in groups ranging from refugee communities in the Middle East to Western government officials and United Nations staff. Rarely, though, do I get the chance to demonstrate these skills to the general public, and show how they might be used in everyday contexts.

Huge conflict and disagreement are often seen to be entertaining, but very much against the bridge-building ethos that Doha Debates proposed to create.

Dr. Govinda Clayton

I was therefore excited at the prospect of sharing conflict resolution skills with the millions of Doha Debates viewers, and helping to create a consensus-oriented form of debate. Like many people, I have grown frustrated with the quality of other debate shows, in particular their inability to facilitate creative conflict, and was keen to contribute to this timely initiative. At the same time, I was curious – and, honestly, a little skeptical – to see how the show would manage the challenges associated with marrying consensus-building and entertainment.

Huge conflict and disagreement are often seen to be entertaining, but very much against the bridge-building ethos that Doha Debates proposed to create. Yet consensus-building often takes time, and while a panel of speakers with generally agreeable positions might help clearly highlight an issue, too much consensus is unlikely to be sufficiently entertaining for the predominantly millennial audience. 

So far, Doha Debates has consistently succeeded in finding creative forms of conflict. Of course, given the difficulty of the task, at points the pendulum has swung in both directions. On occasion, conflict among the speakers has led to relatively entertaining conflict, which ultimately did not help to highlight the commonalities across the speakers. At the other end of the spectrum, some debates have witnessed a lot of consensus among the speakers. Yet across all episodes, Doha Debates has often succeeded in locating the sweet spot in the continuum, creating a majlis that allowed for the exact form of creative conflict that made for both entertaining and educational consensus-building.

Doha Debates has shown that live bridge-building shows are indeed possible, and that there exists a significant global audience hungry for a more collaborative style of debate.

Dr. Govinda Clayton

Our debate titled Capitalism: Can we prosper without growth? offered an excellent example of this. The debate focused on whether economic growth is necessary for humans to thrive. The show perfectly wedded diverse and informed views, with creative conflict and, eventually, some clear points of consensus. This really exemplified the potential that this format contains, and offered the best illustration of how creative conflict and consensus building can make for entertaining viewing. 

Ultimately, creating creative conflict for television is challenging. It is far easier to create some superficial squabble between speakers with extreme positions and no interest in learning or getting along. Success requires a nuanced and focused topic, skilled speakers and a unique majlis-style container. Doha Debates has shown that live bridge-building shows are indeed possible, and that there exists a significant global audience hungry for a more collaborative style of debate.

I hope that the bridge-building ethos of the majlis developed by Doha Debates will serve as a model for other shows, and more generally help to promote better discussion, debate and creative conversations around the challenging issues that the debates seek to address. 

Each Doha Debates event has focused on one of the most pressing issues facing humanity – from water scarcity to trust in institutions.

Dr. Govinda Clayton is a senior researcher in peace processes within the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich. He has published work in a number of leading international peer-reviewed journals and is the deputy editor of International Peacekeeping. Beyond academia, he is actively involved in the development and practical use of conflict resolution methods, and has run negotiation capacity-building workshops and peacebuilding projects in cities including Rome, Istanbul, Beirut, and Seoul, while he also consults with businesses and international organizations on conflict resolution methods. Dr. Clayton is Doha Debates’ connector, a role which sees him search for common ground during its debates.

The next Doha Debates live events will take place on March 9 and 11 in Doha, with the first debate focusing on gender equality, and the second on the future of genetics.

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