Jonny Scaramanga makes some excellent points about debates. He’s talking about his appearance on the BBC’s The Big Question, but it’s the same thing: what makes for drama is to have two sides battle it out, and you get even more dramatic drama if one side is a collection of extremists who are committed to a set of demented views.
Every time I’ve been on the show, the nutters have spoken first. This means they get to frame the terms of the debate, leaving the opposition on the back foot. The limited time allowed for each debate means that much of what they say goes unchallenged. It also means that, as a guest, the best way to get your message across is to go in knowing what you plan to say and wait for an opportunity to shoehorn in your point. It almost guarantees the panelists are not listening to each other.
Further, balancing the number of people does not guarantee that each side gets an equal hearing. Apart from getting the opportunity to speak first, the loud men opposite me on Sunday were not blessed with self-awareness. One of them, John Bird, was a man for whom the term ‘blowhard’ might have been invented. He can hold forth with equal unsubtlety on any subject, his voice never once suggesting he has ever even considered he could be wrong. He sat in the middle, both physically and rhetorically occupying the centre. When he shouted “We need to stop listening to the left and to the right,” both his location and his refusal to shut up finished the sentence for him, and listen to me.
So I get invited to debate creationist wackaloons who are so far out there in crazyland that they normally only talk to each other, and they see the debate as a way to get perspectives so ludicrous that they’re otherwise laughed off the stage on to television or youtube or a room full of people, and in situations where they are given a fixed amount of time to make their points, in an environment where they typically bus in a crowd of supporters, while framing it as a battle of equals when it’s really a distracted expert swatting annoyedly at a swarm of gnats.
I go back and forth on this issue. It really is doing a favor to a group of clowns…but then, there are also few opportunities for rational ideas to be presented to clowns. It’s not as if Fox News is giving them useful information.
Scaramanga adds another argument, though. It’s not fair to the believers.
I left feeling that The Big Questions exploits deeply religious people the same way The X Factor exploits talentless singers with delusions of genius. It serves up politics in a way that seems doomed to cloud the waters, and it gives a platform to voices which deserve to be dismissed.
I’ve felt that first bit, too: I’ve been at debates where I smack the other guy around hard, and afterwards the Christians in the audience apologize to me, partly to make excuses for the bum they had in the ring, but also because they’d been rocked back a few times, and they’re actually questioning whether the other guy had any good points to make at all. There are also moderate Christians at these events who are exasperated that their religion is always getting represented by a flaming crackpot, and they want to reassure me that they’re not all that bad.
But then shouldn’t someone expose the cranks? Aaargh, I hate debating debates, because there is no good answer.