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On Debating

NCH London | January 29, 2019

Debate comes in all shapes and sizes. It includes both the petty squabbles of the domestic sphere and more high-minded disagreements about the existence of god, the ideal society, the correct theory about the origin and the end of the universe, and so on. In both cases, what characterizes debate is disagreement, be it petty or profound. Something we all have to deal with is how to handle that disagreement: is there a right way? And does it change from situation to situation?

One of the truisms of higher education is that it fosters a certain kind of debate. What we are after – in the humanities in particular – is the truth, and a particular kind of truth at that: in philosophy we talk about necessary and eternal truth. And having settled on that as our objective, we search for a means of attaining it. We will have succeeded when we have adopted a way of looking at the world which allows us to grasp the truth of things. We must acquire a particular perspective. And to do that we can either sit in a darkened room or cave (à la Zarathustra) and attain an enlightened state of being (hard), or we can be convinced by others of the right way of understanding the world (hard, but perhaps a little easier).

Wherever philosophy is taught, teachers and students subscribe to some form of the second view. And wherever one person strives to convince another that their perspective is the one that allows access to the truth, they must use arguments. And in response to the arguments of others, we must find some means of distinguishing between good arguments and bad arguments. And where we find bad arguments, we must find a way of helping our interlocutor come to see the error of her ways. Hence we develop proofs and counter-arguments. But if our friend is not convinced that her argument is a bad one, then we find ourselves in a state of intractable disagreement: neither side is convinced of the arguments or counter-arguments of the other.

Philosophers have had long experience of these kinds of disagreements. Philosophers have been disagreeing about topics like the fundamental structure of reality, the existence of universals and the nature of justice for thousands of years. At their best, they have remained friends despite their differences. This is because if truth is the goal, then we always have a motivation to help others reach it. In other words, if another person finds the truth, then the person who taught them the means of finding it does not lose anything; in fact, they gain something. Gaining the agreement of someone else puts us into a new kind of relation with them: we become part of a community based on a mutual belief in the truth of a certain way of viewing the world. This bond is all the more powerful when the agreement that unites us concerns the fundamental nature of reality, or the best way to live, or any other important philosophical question. The bond is sacred. It gives us the deep sense of peace found in sharing in the eternal truth of things, attested to in the size and longevity of religious communities, political parties, associations, and philosophical schools.

But there is another kind of disagreement which brings with it another kind of debate. The driver of this kind of debate is not truth. It is power. These are cases where the debaters are in it to win it. The benefits of winning a debate can be considerable. For example a person who knows they are guilty of a crime may convince a jury otherwise, thus winning freedom from incarceration. In a dictatorship, arguing falsely for the policies of the ruling party or the leader may grant power and privileges: so too in absolute monarchies, some corporations and other kinds of hierarchical power structure. Or, the benefit of winning a debate could be the advancement of your group or sect in some larger community. One thing unites this kind of debate: an attitude which is zero-sum. My winning the debate is someone else’s loss. And therefore we can win by any means necessary.

This kind of debate is common in large communities where the members of that community have been fragmented into smaller groups that are in competition with one another. We reach such a state when we move from a society which is homogenous to one which is based on group membership or the advancement of the individual over all else. This is not always a bad thing: since the 1950’s we have seen a tremendous shift from a relatively homogenous society to one which is not. This has brought many advantages because the homogeneity in the 50’s was not sustainable: it relied on the repression of certain groups to create a false and dangerous ‘order’. Women, LGBT people, ethnic minorities, immigrants and many others have been the losers in such a scenario. But the liberation of these groups has been swiftest when it was not zero-sum: it relied on a world view which says, for example, that white people don’t lose when ethnic minorities are given rights and opportunities. Racism and other kinds of discrimination are based on the opposite calculus: the gain of other groups is always negative for my group. What these people fear is a loss of power and status.

The challenge for those of us who believe in the advancement of groups that have faced discrimination is to convince those that hold power in society that the liberation of these groups does not come at the expense of others. That means when we debate these issues, we must be aware that the power calculus and zero-sum thinking are everywhere. Our tone must be cooperative, our actions measured. We must preserve that which ties the entire community together: we must hold on to universal ideas of truth and justice. We must shun those who speak exclusively of historical grievance and instead look to those who are willing to find compromise and healing.

The alternative is a power-game stripped of all pretensions of equality or common humanity. We are only the groups we have membership of. We must fight for the advancement of these groups even if it means the destruction of the bonds that tie us all together. We must never equate those who hold this view while holding all the power in society with those who, in despair at their lot, have turned to violence. But both must be rejected all the same while there is still hope for the kind of change which is emancipatory and universal.

Unfortunately, this school of thought is waning and the impact on our public discourse is plain to see. We are in a dangerous and unstable moment politically. A perfect case study is the interview between Cathy Newman, a Channel 4 newscaster, and Jordan Peterson, a Canadian psychology professor (link). Peterson presents arguments which, although I disagree with many of them, ought to be treated (as we do in philosophy) as misguided attempts at reaching the truth. Or, if people who think like me are wrong, then the proponents of such a view must convince us otherwise. What we found instead was Newman forcing the debate towards the zero-sum, towards grievance and the dismissal of Peterson’s view based on a characterisation of him as a bigot.

The advancement of causes like feminism and gay rights has been advanced historically not only by the observation that these groups have been subordinated and repressed, but on the strength of the argument that they should not be. They should not be in such a state because our best political traditions tell us otherwise: for example in the Declaration of Independence, ‘that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness’. When we talk solely of redressing power imbalances without such a rationale, and if the means that we use to do so are at odds with our traditions of universalism, then don’t be surprised when progress comes to a screeching halt.

The first and most important step in resisting this tendency is fighting for our best traditions of public debate as a means of attaining the truth, and to never lose sight of that as an end.