An Informal Education Program for Talking to “Racists”

After the election of Victor Orban in 2010, Hungary saw a sharp turn towards nationalism. For many people there was a distinct sense of fear as nationalists routinely marched through the streets, espousing anti-roma and anti-semitic rhetoric. This atmosphere echoed the notion that “wars do not start with bullets – they start with words.” Rather than retreat, there were those who started to reach out to talk to people with very different views from her own, asking them questions and striking up conversations. These conversations provided the foundation for what Maja Nenadović calls the Applied Debate program, an informal education workshop she developed, which aims to fight discrimination and depolarize communication.


A Method for Talking to “Racists”

These initial experiments began with a flexible approach, but broadly followed three basic aims. First, Applied Debate seeks to find a “lowest common denominator” between people engaged in a dialogue. Doing so allows them to see each other’s humanity. Second, the dialogue aims to confuse, to create some uncertainty in thinking, though not as a way to “win” or assert one’s own certainty. Instead, uncertainty acts as a productive point of engagement. Third, Applied Debate looks to understand, to see where people with such different views are coming from. Understanding does not mean accepting or compromising. Applied Debate views understanding as a way to both humanize and alleviate fear.

The program was first publically presented at the Qatar International Conference on Argumentation, Rhetoric, Debate and the Pedagogy of Empowerment. It was here that Nenadović outlined Applied Debate’s basic plan. From here, it grew into wider conversations and a more specifically structured program. It has so far been taught with NGO’s, student organizations, and at universities across over 20 countries.


Inside the Workshops

Though Applied Debate differs from place to place, in general, participants engage in a 3-day seminar that explores rhetorical self-defense, demystifies hate speech, exercises sharing definitions (many misunderstandings come about from simply having different ideas of what things mean). Throughout, the activities and discussion address the polarization that permeates so much of life and work today, including education. Applied Debate’s informal setting opens a unique space to depolarize discussions and confront issues like hate speech, which is rarely addressed in schools. At the same time, these programs are not educational workshops on how to win arguments or gain “rhetorical supremacy.” If understanding is an ultimate aim, one cannot enter with a goal of winning. Yet, depolarizing is not the same thing as neutralizing. Building on that idea, instead of teaching a method for “beating the opposition,” Applied Debate develops strategies for listening. In a similar vein, the workshops offer activities that interrogate stereotypes. Where common approaches to teaching about stereotypes is to shame or deny one’s thinking, the Applied Debate program suggests that we can educate by identifying and engaging these ideas. While talking with participants from international education foundations in Hungary, for example, many wanted to examine their own biases but admitted that they were afraid of fueling the fires of polarization. They wanted to spend the seminar distancing themselves from hate speech and rhetoric. Yet, this tension is exactly the point. Applied Debate offers the opportunity to productively move out of one’s echo chamber.


Talking to School Systems

In many of the places where the workshop has occurred (from Colombia to Bosnia and Herzegovina), Applied Debate could easily fit into a school’s curriculum. Yet, the program exclusively remains in informal education spaces. At issue is a broad conception that school is supposed to remain an apolitical, neutral space. Even in divisive political contexts, many people want to maintain the view school as a neutral space (often as a way of maintaining the current order). Meanwhile, Applied Debate directly takes on and brings up political beliefs. Of course, school is already a political space, and, what’s more, students constantly encounter divisive political issues around the globe, whether it be online and somewhere else.

At the same time that it focuses directly on issues often avoided in schools, the content of Applied Debate directly relates to the skills and knowledge teachers aim for in classrooms. Critical thinking and analysis as just two of the skills central to Applied Debate. In sessions, for instance, participants practice these skills by examining Facebook posts. Nenadović notes that “as they scratch below the surface of a post, they not only dismantle certain assumptions, they also develop new skills in critical engagement.”


Going Forward

As more take note of it, the Applied Debate program continues expanding. Its developers and practitioners keep introducing workshops and developing the concept with those who practice discriminatory behavior and those impacted by discrimination.  However, there have been a number of requests to expand the program or at least offer a manual so that others can run their own workshop. Although there are now plans to develop such a manual, this development raises the challenge of keeping the design highly localized. Education systems adhere to and reflect larger political structures, making it difficult to drop in this highly contextualized program. As a result, Applied Debate is intended to remain open and flexible, both to avoid creating a “script” that others have to follow and to encourage adaptions in both local languages and content. But, the enduring goal remains to create the conditions that support a renewed sense of agency in polarizing and isolating times.



Maja Nenadović developed the Applied Debate program. Nenadović is an experienced debate coach, public speaker, political consultant, researcher, human rights and advocacy trainer and identity de/construction educator. She holds a special affinity for challenging and transforming societal stereotypes through applied debate, “radical” empathy and dialogue as means of resolving miscommunication and conflicts – particularly amongst vulnerable and marginalized groups in society.  As a global trainer and consultant with 18years experience, she has taught in more than 40 countries worldwide.  Her recent work throughout Europe focuses on dealing with the rise of populism and extremism.  Maja is one of the initiators of the Model International Criminal Court Western Balkans (MICC WeB), the project that brings together high school students and teachers from all over Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia to simulate war crime trials and learn about human rights and their violations, throughout history as well as in the 1990s breakup of Yugoslavia. She is currently also working as the Anne Frank House coordinator of the EU-funded project ‘Historija, Istorija, Povijest – Lessons for Today.’ She holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Amsterdam.

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