Photo: Tin speaking in the final with a Croatians’national scarf. Not an unusual picture

In January 2019, Tin Puljić with his partner Lovro Sprem (University of Zagreb) became the first English as a Second Language team who progressed to the open final of World Universities Debating Championship. This week, Tin was announced a member of Chief Adjudicators team for 2020 European Universities Debating Championship in Astana. Very soon, he will attend European Round Robin in Warsaw and he agreed to open our series of interviews with the participants of European Round Robin @College of Europe in Natolin.

“Actually, we are like footballers. We all care about our teams winning titles, beating rivals in derbies and so on. Yet, we still enjoy all the other beautiful moments of respect, sportsmanship and enjoyment that football can bring,” he says to Przemek Stolarski in a chat on a range of topics: from seeing debating as a sport to the role of debating in the reconciliation processes in the Balkans.  

Tin, I know you follow football. Did you watch Liverpool – Barcelona semifinal? (on the 7th of May Barcelona lost 0:4 to Liverpool who recovered from 3:0 loss in the first match, we talked straight after that)

Yeah, I was very happy after that one.

Lots of fascination?

Quite. I didn’t expect it to go that way.

I think this is not an overstatement to say that this is exactly what many debaters felt when you made it to the open final of Worlds (World Universities Debating Championship) as the first ESL (English as a Second Language) team in history…

That is beautiful to hear! And this is also how we felt as well, we never expected to make it that far.

Neither did Liverpool fans (laugh). You know, I am using this football analogy for a reason. All of us have training, competitions, championships. Some of us have supporters. Does it make competitive debating a sport?

To an extent! Although it does not involve the physical aspect (well, one can get quite tired and out of breath from jumping around and waving their arms angrily during a speech!), it is still quite strenuous with a very developed competitive aspect. Having a wide community in which debaters can get recognition and become “debate famous” (e.g. all the Bo Seo memes ever made) certainly adds to that.

It is very visible in your own case. You became much more “debate famous” in the recent months. How did you make it to the “Champions League of debaters”?

I think very often people think it is a special ingredient. Like that one thing you discover about your prep time or whatever. But most often it is really not – it is mostly about realising what you are doing wrong, which is the easier part, and then just practicing the hell out of it. Also – this might be unpopular answer – but it is also about luck, such as knowing a lot about a particular motion or feeling good on the day three of a tournament.

There is no silver bullet, just two things I would say specifically directed at people who are not so lucky and privileged in terms of having functional institutions and top notch debate training. One would be that you can still do a lot on your own. Record yourself doing PM speeches and then watch debates on youtube, see how the best debaters do it, just watch debates and write down good arguments you hear, watch workshops, read a lot of times. It takes time but there are always avenues you can exploit. Secondly, never be afraid to ask more experienced debaters for advice. Literally, if there is someone you look up to – just hit them up on FB and drop them a message. I can guarantee they will be very honored to have been asked for advice and will very gladly answer. Most debaters are, maybe contrary to popular belief, good and normal people.

And also have friends! Just like anything else in life, debating can be very stressful, it can be tiring, you can start doubting yourself, you have better days and worse days and you cannot do it alone. This makes a world of difference. My best friend Olja has been with me through thick and thin and honestly, if it were not for those pep talks, I would not have achieved even half of what I have.

How do you feel with these achievements? Is it any different?

Warm and fuzzy (laugh). It is not so much about the recognition in and of itself. Well, it is very fulfilling to see my hard work paying off and it is quite heartwarming to hear all of these sincere compliments about something I have invested so much in. Getting acknowledgement from people I deeply respect – and whose level I thought I could never hope to reach – this means a lot o me.

It motivates many debaters?

At least, to an extent. This is what generally motivates people to do stuff in life. The feeling that your work has paid off and that you have deserved the acknowledgement that you get.

Well, this would suggest that even our motivation is very similar to that of other sportsmen and sportswomen.

Absolutely. I imagine that the thrill of finally achieving your goals and dreams is quite similar.

Should it look like this? One might argue that debating is way more important than its competitive aspect…

It is true but I do not think this is mutually exclusive. I guess it is perfectly fine for you to have goals and care deeply about achieving them. People do that in all spheres of life. Personally, I quite enjoy the intellectual aspect of debating as well as the opportunity to meet new friends and spend time with old ones, while still being quite competitive.

The football analogy can be made very well here. Actually, we are like footballers. We all care about our teams winning titles, beating rivals in derbies and so on. Yet, we still enjoy all the other beautiful moments of respect, sportsmanship and enjoyment that football can bring.

There are many wonderful ideas that we share with sports but what do you think is specific to debating?

There are, at least, two things to emphasize. One is the opportunity to explore intellectually challenging topics and square off against amazing speakers on these topics. It is very often an opportunity for intellectual development that formal education does not provide. The other is the fact that debating gives you the chance to meet a lot of people with similar interests, and it very often leads to friendships you cherish and would do everything to keep until the end of your life. I can definitely say this is true for me!

This is a lot of benefits for us – individuals “playing the game”. Do you think some of these benefits translate to our communities?

Definitely, a lot of skills you get from debating can be carried over into whatever your profession will…

Let me stop you here. You say “can be” and it is impossible to disagree that we have lots of transferable skills. Do you think this is what really happens, though? One might have the impression that there are not that many debaters using their potential as true leaders in places where their skills are very much needed.

This happens even if you do not become a “leader” in any sense. Whatever job you do, being a better communicator and more efficient at coming up with creative ideas means you are more likely to be useful to your colleagues and whoever benefits off of your services.

I also think that there are many benefits to be seen on the daily basis. Being a debate coach and opening the world of debating to other people or simply being a better listener and being better at giving constructive advice – all of this can not only help but also change the lives of people around you.

I think this way as well and, in no sense, I want to diminish the importance of this. But when I think that the best people – intelligent, open-minded, well-meaning – I have ever met are debaters, it makes me wonder. Why not that many of us are leading social movements or engaged in politics?

The simplest answer would be that it is hard.

We can talk the talk but can we walk the walk?

It takes a lot of sacrifice and it requires you to accept immense burdens to be carried on your shoulders. It also means you have to be ready to take responsibility for others’ lives and wellbeing. It is very noble but it also takes an incredibly strong personality. What I would add is that debaters are just humans at the end of the day. The idea of taking such responsibility upon yourself is simply very overwhelming.

Moreover, in many places there is quite a lot of structural barriers to accessing positions of influence – favouritism, corruption and so on and so forth. I think we – Eastern Europeans – understand this very well. We should applaud people who do decide to try and make a difference in this way, but that given all the barriers is not something we can or should expect.

At the same time, this is also the place when our engagement can matter a lot. I have to admit it is really touching to see how Croats and Serbs are very supportive to each other in the debating community.

But it is also sad to see what a small bubble it is. Quite a lot of people in our countries would consider that to be nothing short of treason.

I imagine that the conflict experience impacted you as well.

Well, yes and no. I was not born back then and I have not experienced the conflict firsthand. This also means I can never completely understand people who have.

On the other hand, I simply see the war and conflict as something infinitely sad. We speak incredibly similar languages and understand each other perfectly. Our cultures are intertwined in so many ways, we listen to the same music and read the same books. It simply comes natural to me to feel as much at home in Belgrade as I do in Zagreb. I wish it was true for everyone.

But it is not, even among people who have not experienced the war. How much the public discourse across the Balkans contributes to this lack of reconciliation?

Quite a lot. Unfortunately, a lot of media outlets and speeches of public figures and politicians are filled with the nationalist and revanchist rhetorics. And, obviously, parental upbringing means a lot too. If you were raised to see Serbs or Croats as the eternal enemy, it is hard to confront your biases later in life.

How does debating fit into this, rather sad, picture?

It breaks barriers. A lot of people started off as quite narrow-minded in terms of accepting differences in others. But debating means you will have to meet a lot of people and speak to them, face to face. When Croatian debaters go to tournaments in Serbia, or vice versa, people debate against each other, they talk and simply find they are comfortable in each other’s company. That the differences do not matter.

Also, debating means you are forced to support your arguments with reason and logic. Sometimes, you have to confront the irrationality of your prejudice.

Some of your views on the region issues stopped to make any sense when you started debating?

Not particularly in my case. I would say that debating reinforced my views. I was raised in a liberal family and was always strongly left-wing ever since I have started forming my political stances. This means that I have always rejected nationalism and exclusionary rhetorics. Debating has helped me to confirm that rejecting it makes quite a lot of sense.

Do you think debating generally formed your identity in any meaningful way?

Absolutely. I am a better person all in all. It helped me to be less socially anxious and awkward, made me a better listener and more open-minded person. It helped me decide that political science was my passion in life (although my faculty in and of itself can be disappointing at times…). Who I am today was greatly influenced by debating.

Lastly, we talk here about a lot of wonderful benefits of debating. Some of them can be experienced only after spending some time in our community. What can be experienced during this year’s European Round Robin @College of Europe in Natolin?

You will be able to see some of the best speakers in the world in action! This means learning a lot of things and, definitely, loads of interesting chats with some very bright minds!

Thank you very much, good luck in Warsaw!

Thank you!.

You can meet Tin and other international debaters at the European Round Robin @College of Europe in Natolin.