When I wrote about debate as a poor tool for building knowledge a couple of months ago, I left one issue implicit rather than explicit. I did this because it would have derailed discussion around the main point. Why? Because there are issues of parity in debate as well as almost anywhere else.
I argue very well in text. When I set my sights on demolishing what I consider to be an unfounded position (as opposed to discussing, say, what we do and don’t know about a topic), I frequently get comments from people who say they don’t want to get on my bad side. I hear from friends that they don’t want to get on my bad side.
People who don’t like me call it propaganda. They don’t say I’m bad at it. They don’t engage with my arguments. They just suggest that I don’t “play fair”. You know, they lost the argument, but not because they were wrong.
On top of being able to construct convincing, even devastating arguments, I have speech and theater training. I understand how speech, appearance, and body language are projected and read. I’ve rehearsed all of those until they’re largely under my conscious control. As long as I have a microphone to overcome the fact that my voice doesn’t carry, I do well on a stage.
Despite all that, I never get asked to debate.
The closest I’ve come to being asked to debate was hosting a friendly radio debate between atheists and a liberal Christian radio host/pastor with the understanding that I could chime in if I wanted to. I did. I raised issues with the pastor that he hadn’t thought about before.
That was two years ago. No one has suggested I repeat the experience. No one has put my name forward for other debates.
That isn’t a complaint. It is, however, an observation that underlined some of the observations I previously made about debate.
When we debate, we do all we can to be viewed as authoritative. Nearly everything I listed in my last post as having an effect on success in a debate relates to persuading debate audiences to view us as inherently authoritative, lending more credence to our assertions.
Not remotely coincidentally, they also nudge audiences to view us as being as much like affluent white men as possible. Lower voices, business attire, standard diction are all standard fore debate because they’re useful. They’re useful in debate because they mimic those people who are already considered authoritative–affluent white men.
However well I argue, I don’t and typically won’t get asked to represent a group or a position in a debate as long as the outcome of that debate is considered important. When you want to make sure you win, you don’t put a woman behind the podium if you can help it.
We’re just not considered authoritative. It doesn’t matter how expert we are in reality, though it may matter that our opponents are grossly unqualified. It doesn’t matter how well-dressed we are, though it may matter that our opponents look unkempt. It doesn’t matter how poised and practiced we are, though it may matter if our opponents mumble and shuffle.
Though it is possible for a male opponent to lose to a female debater by failing to pay attention to what an audience looks for as signals of authority, but with all else equal, a woman is simply at a disadvantage in persuading a general audience that she carries as much authority as the man next to her.
This isn’t the only place this view of women causes problems, of course. There is the phenomenon Rebecca Solnit described a few years ago, which has since come to be known as “mansplaining”. When a woman starts talking about a topic in which she has interest and knowledge, all too often, a man to whom she is speaking will acknowledge her interest but not her knowledge and start explaining her topic to her.
Nor is this denial of expertise always going to be a net negative in a debate. Women’s competence is sometimes alienating to an audience. In a debate that ultimately hinges on emotion rather than facts, the way abortion debates are often run, a woman may be at an advantage. We are, after all, stereotyped as experts in emotion.
But these represent a small fraction of debates. When you’re debating whether gods exist or debating the politics around the separation of church and state, being perceived as authoritative counts–well beyond expertise itself.
In case you haven’t been paying attention, there is nothing I can do to persuade some people that I have any expertise at all. And it’s not for lack of putting out authoritative work.
So you won’t be seeing me on stage for a debate anytime soon. As I mentioned above, this isn’t a complaint. I understand why.
I’d just like us all to look the reasons in the face and understand what it tells us about the validity of debate as a proxy for being right or wrong.