Wither Debate? A Conversation with a Friend

Those among you who know the “deep Em Cariglino lore” (and there should be extremely few of you) know that in high school, I was a very mediocre but very spirited debater. The side effect of all this, of course, is that whenever I hear the word “debate,” I wither a bit, if only because I feel a bit wounded by those years, and I feel a deep and unabating need to absolve myself of certain intellectual sins.

Thus, when my very good friend Wendy Uribe (see her on Instagram @wendyfullofwonder, she’s absolutely brilliant) messages me to ask my thoughts about a screengrab from a TikTok in which the presenter claims “debate culture is a hindrance to progress and a major movement weakness,” I, despite barely having woken up, couldn’t contain myself:

(in reply to Uribe) [My take is] that it’s fundamentally correct and that the mindset of debate, outside of the specific competitve activity we were a part of, is excruciatingly unhelpful. Like, the rise of the “Twitch streamer debate bro” (think for example, Vaush) or Ben Shapiro’s insistence on wanting to publicly debate AOC, it’s all about spectacle, it’s all just gladiatorial combat for people who are afraid to get mauled by lions. Of all the forms of academic inquiry and interaction, debate is the least prepared to unearth deep truths, because it’s predicated on the idea that there is a winner, that truth is a contested ground and not a shared, sacred one toward which we have a duty”

Indeed, I’m reminded of the recent case of Profeessor Kathleen Stock, who sees herself as unjustly pilloried for the dread crime of truth telling about the transsexual menace (that is to say, for being a TERF and a crank about it on a college campus, and this response in particular:

and perhaps more damningly,

It has been a long, long time since I’ve been interested in sounding like a debater, or, for that matter, thinking like one. So much is missed when, in lieu of long-term focus on complex conceptual arguments, we prioritize digestible claims about the world that have the aesthetic trappings of persuasion, but no real capacity to persuade. In our conversation, Wendy and I (rightly, I presume) laid the blame for this aesthetic preference on European, masculine, Enlightenment-era beliefs about rationality and the capacity of the subject to be persuaded rationally.

What Stock, and the other debate bros, only half understand is that people watch debates for the same reason we watch boxing matches or gunfights: there is, on some level, a spectacular element we desire, a thirst for pugilism we seek even in the life of the mind. It doesn’t matter if no minds are changed, but it does matter that somebody leaves the ring bloodied and bruised. Debate, in this sense, is not about exposing claims to one another in the name of finding a truth, but about creating an emotional state on the part of the participants and audience not unlike the feeling of hearing a football player’s femur crack in an echoing stadium.

Stock, like Vaush, like Shapiro, like every other debate bro, wants to score a few punches, and is indignant that Professor Allison Phipps, her once-colleague, won’t consent to enter the ring, allowing the legitimacy conferred by the label “debate” to be placed on all the abuses and misuses of reasoning and rhetoric that so often accompany that label. Brava to Phipps and all those who refuse to play along.

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