This week, an organization calling itself the “Munk Debates” hosted an event in Toronto. Even knowing that much, I would have rolled my eyes — these public debate shows, whether it’s Munk or Pangburn or whatever otherwise tedious troll has decided to stake their reputation on hosting assholes arguing with each other — are a waste of time. This one in particular was a debate between David “Cheerleader for Bush & the Slaughter of Muslims” Frum and Steve “Proud Racist” Bannon on the subject of “Be it resolved, the future of western politics is populist not liberal”.
This was rather like inviting Ken Ham and Kent Hovind to debate on whether the future of science is creationism or evolution. That, too, could be presented as a “public service” by allowing ideas to be “vigorously contested,” but it would be a lie. Debates never accomplish anything. I very much like this summary of the process by Tabatha Southey:
The truth is that while debates can be fun to watch and some people are very skilled at doing them, debates very seldom change anything, especially minds. In fact, in the real-life debates, the audience vote found that “opinions remain entrenched—neither side wins,” as the Munk Debates tweeted, after announcing that Bannon had won. It’s fitting that the Munk masquerade ball ended with fake news. These kinds of things are mostly advertisements for the people involved. Debates are the exhibition basketball of academia and politics.
Regardless of whom public opinion deemed the “winner” of our all-too-real Bannon vs. Frum debate, merely placing Steve “Camp of the Saints” Bannon up on that stage only boosted his rightly flagging mainstream influence. People like to endlessly chide that “Sunlight is the best disinfectant”—but the truth is, no one ever chased off a desperate showman with a spotlight.
Yeah, it was a ridiculous conclusion: the Munk Debates announced that, on the basis of a comparison of pre- and post-debate surveys, Bannon had swayed the most attendees. It turned out that they’d counted wrong, and no one had changed their minds in the debate. No one should be surprised, especially when it’s a couple of conservatives differing only in degree debating liberalism.
I have a suggestion for all the debaters out there, happily riding the gravy train provided by impresarios selling tickets to on-stage conflicts between opposing views (it’s great! They get to milk both sides for money!): just tell them no. That’s hard when they’re waving big money at you, but we’ve got to kill this debate culture, which is really just a pretense masking reactionaries finding excuses to present the illusion that their ideas are equally credible with their opponents. Tell them no, but give them an alternative: you’ll give them a talk or discussion with the audience on their stage, but you’re just not going share a platform with racists or religious lunatics.