The backlash against debate is in full throttle


Good. Here’s another article exposing the facile shallowness of the “debate me” crowd.

A famous linguist once said that of all the phrases in the English language — of all the endless combinations of words in all of history — “debate me” is the most badass.

Or that’s what a cohort of online dudes appear to believe. The way a drunk roughneck might square up to you for a fight in a seedy roadhouse, the “debate me” dude pops into your Twitter mentions to demand a formal argument. Ignoring that people debate shit on the internet as automatically as one might breathe or blink, he is oddly constrained by the notion that disagreement has rules, or at least a chivalrous code of honor befitting a pistol duel in the countryside. Simply tussling over this or that question is beneath him. Debate, meanwhile, is a gentleman’s contract, holy ground, a noble anachronism.

I also appreciate the categorization of two kinds of debates: the ones where it’s solely an appeal to emotion (ironically, most of the online objective reality gang’s outcomes rely entirely on emotion — see Ben Shapiro for on-point examples), and the ones that rely on formal technicalities.

Besides, it’s not as if the lad insistent on a volley of conflicting ideas is willing to be convinced by his rival. He wouldn’t be doing this if he weren’t assured a victory, and so the provocation signals the egoist’s pride — as well as the almost charmingly naive certainty that competing ideologies can be vanquished by scoring enough points in a virtual joust. Of the two main models for American debate — political and extracurricular — he favors the airless academicism of the high school debate club, where he first learned some of his favorite fallacies: straw man, ad hominem, the appeal to authority. Whereas a presidential debate is decided on the intangibles, with voters swayed by gut reaction, the after-school debates play out in the technicalities, with naturally quarrelsome young men learning to fetishize what they consider their powers of logic and deduction. If they do well, they may conclude that others lack such faculties. Indeed, the “debate me” dude often behaves as if he’s the last “rational” person on Earth.

Ultimately, that’s the problem with debate: it turns discussion into a contest that requires some method of tallying up “points” to determine who “wins”, and the methods never rest on substance. Shouldn’t there be the equivalent of a TKO when someone lies or misinterprets a source, or doesn’t provide verifiable evidence, or just yells a conclusion? There are an awful lot of creationists and Republicans who’d be lying flat on the mat immediately after the opening bell, so no, those will never be criteria for success.

Comments

  1. robert79 says

    I’d say the problem lies in a very shallow interpretation of the word ‘debate’. it does not necesarily mean two people on a podium in front of an audience.

    If you write a blogpost and someone replies “debate me” you coud simply answer “I just did, now write a blogpost in response!”

    In fact, most forms of academic debate are carried out in the form or articles putting forth one’s position and arguments in a scientific journal. The other party then may write an article rebutting a few of those points. Peer review acts as the arbiter, a badly argued paper does not accepted, leaving one side uncontested and the ‘winner’.

  2. consciousness razor says

    Ultimately, that’s the problem with debate: it turns discussion into a contest that requires some method of tallying up “points” to determine who “wins”, and the methods never rest on substance. Shouldn’t there be the equivalent of a TKO when someone lies or misinterprets a source, or doesn’t provide verifiable evidence, or just yells a conclusion? There are an awful lot of creationists and Republicans who’d be lying flat on the mat immediately after the opening bell, so no, those will never be criteria for success.

    Well, I guess you were on the right track near the beginning here: arguments are treated as a form of competition, not as a cooperative enterprise. You go off the rails when you start worrying about how to decide the winner, but it doesn’t need to be like that at all. It doesn’t matter how Argument-Olympics ought to be refereed, nor does it matter which contestants you think should somehow “lose” (while you rather predictably assume the status of winner/referee).

    What matters is people working together to arrive at the truth, and the kind of success you should be interested in is people making good choices which are based on reality. So, if you think someone is wrong (about whatever), and it’s something that’s worth correcting, you should be helping each other through that. There’s no prize for showing another person why they’re wrong and being “victorious.” That’s really okay: they won’t win anything either, if it turns out that you’re the one who’s wrong. But you can both succeed (or fail) at coming to a shared understanding about the world. And yes, if you’re stuck living in a world in which there are fascist, Trump-supporting assholes, you did lose something (even if not your “argument,” which doesn’t matter) compared to a world in which you don’t have to put up with shit like that. That’s not to put the blame on you, liberals generally, etc. — assholes of all stripes are for whatever reason not seeing the value in engaging cooperatively, which may not be under your control at all.

    Anyway, if formal, public debates were like that, I doubt most people would even consider them “debates.” They would be formal, public “conversations” or “interviews” or some such thing. We do already have those, obviously, and they can be productive (although not at producing purported winners or losers).

  3. says

    2 consciousness razor
    That’s what they taught us in rhetoric: The western world went with the ‘competitive’ model for rhetoric, based on the Greeks. There have been alternatives, though. Back in the day, the Egyptians are said to have done something more like what you may be suggesting—a series of speakers who don’t try to top each other, but who attempt to arrive at an answer (rather than picking an answer and plumping vigorously for it). There were other examples, but the classes I’ve taken since then have largely wiped them out of my brain’s holding area.

  4. davebot says

    I don’t know about other people’s experience with high school debate, but my experience was that. We were taught not to use logical fallicies, fancy “lawyer” tricks or cheap shots. While it was up to your opponent to point out logical fallicies, the judges at the debates I participated in would stop and correct you if you broke the rules or engage in tricks or cheap shots. You also had to debate both sides of a clearly defined proposition, so your own fallicies became evident quickly. At the end of our debates the judges pointed out any fallicies we engaged in that our opponents missed.
    My issues with the “debate” that brobaters engage in is that it isn’t formal, or well judged, or scored by neutral arbitrators well schooled in logic and rhetoric. But maybe my high school debate experience is more rare.

  5. lotharloo says

    Ultimately, that’s the problem with debate: it turns discussion into a contest that requires some method of tallying up “points” to determine who “wins”, and the methods never rest on substance.

    You are making a fallacy. A “debate” does not necessitates “tallying up” and “scoring”. Just because that is the more common way of implementing a debate does not mean that it has to be that way.

    I personally think debates are great and they are an essential tool in getting your points and ideas across to a crowd who does not normally listen to you.

  6. JoeBuddha says

    Debates are only valuable if you’re not talking past each other. I’m always at a disadvantage when it comes to debate because I have to understand and think about the points the other person has made. I agree that debates on reality should be by competing articles rather than one-on-one blather.

  7. nomdeplume says

    “Debate” implies that there are at least two equally plausible answers to some question and the debate can be won by showing which answer is the most plausible. But for most big issues in science at least there is only one plausible answer. Sure there are debates in the literature all the time – does this mechanism or that one best explain this observation. But the outcome of such a debate isn’t, as the media would have it, say, the “rewriting of evolution”, merely a change to our understanding of, say, the relationships of a particular fossil. The people demanding “debate” don’t mean this at all.They mean d
    “debating” whether evolution happened, whether the Earth is 6000 years or 4 billion years old, and so on. Debating such people is merely to give their crackpot ideas validation as “alternative theories”, which is what they want.

  8. says

    5 colinday
    I have to say I don’t know. I don’t believe we covered it in enough detail. Analogy was made to the Olympic competitions, but I think those were after the fact, and not a record of any contemporary Greek opinion.

  9. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    You are making a fallacy. A “debate” does not necessitates “tallying up” and “scoring”. Just because that is the more common way of implementing a debate does not mean that it has to be that way.

    So which do you think the “Debate me!” bros are proposing?

  10. anchor says

    @#6 — Of course it doesn’t have to be that way, but it commonly is that way. Another behavioral motive besides ‘winning’ (on whatever dubious grounds) is the opportunity for ‘posing’ or ‘exhibitionism’. A lot of people get off on that kind of thing.

  11. anchor says

    Oops – final line got lopped of. Meant to conclude: “That isn’t ‘debate’ either.”

  12. says

    Whenever I hear “debate me” I imagine it being said in the voice of the aether in that Dr. Who episode with the tv sets and Lizzie’s coronation.

  13. robro says

    Collegiate debate in 1970 when I briefly participated was essentially a game with points scored by judges. Each team would take each side of the topic…pro or con…which was in the form a policy statement: We should’s. However, there were so called “off the wall” approaches where the team would essentially redirect the topic to something they were prepared for. This was allowed apparently but I stopped after two debate team trips and never looked back.

  14. DanDare says

    The ultimate problem is this idea that there are two known answers and you must decide which is right ( or most right ). The world isn’t structured that way. Before you can start distinguishing between the two best answers there is a whole lot of exploration needs to be done.
    A creation/evolution debate bypasses all the foundational exploration. How to descendants change? What patterns are there? Is there a way for species to mix? Etc etc. Same for human induced climate change.
    A competition to reveal the best answer of two has to assume you found two best answers already. Usually only one is much good in online debates.
    I prefer exploratory tools like six hat thinking, provocation, analysis, synthesis, alternative scan, abstraction and so on.

  15. says

    Really, I know it doesn’t have to be about scoring and winning points. The problem is that it is, at least as practiced now. And if you had a “debate” with no scoring and no announcement of a winner, most people wouldn’t recognize it as a debate.

  16. chrislawson says

    If we use an inclusive definition of debating, then the debatebros have nothing to demand. As robert79 and consciousness razor point out, debate is what has already been happening. When someone demands a debate, what that means is “I am not happy with arguing my points in our current freeform discussion with an emphasis on presenting evidence and interpretation; instead I want to argue my points in a performative environment with limited time (as if you can cover much of any important topic in 30-60 minutes) and rigid rules (especially about equal speaking time) where most of the audience will not be able to fact-check and, in fact, enticing your opponent into fact-checking all your erroneous statements is considered a smart tactic because it forces them to either let a lot of your fallacies go uncorrected or to waste a lot of their allotted speaking time correcting you.”

  17. Snarki, child of Loki says

    GOP nominating debates should be decided by gunfire, the way Second Amendment Jeezus has decreed.

  18. mcfrank0 says

    I’m chuckling at the “no true Scotsman” points being made that only illustrate just what is wrong with the concept of debate at this time in this country.

    BTW: I’ve been maintaining for quite some time that high school debate clubs have been a net negative factor in our public discourse. Lawyers in popular culture and public relations in general are another. “Debate” is currently about winning an argument, not discerning the truth.

  19. says

    Competitive debate is like a football match, the supporters will still be supporters even if their team loses. It achieves nothing other than random reinforcement

  20. chrislawson says

    diskgrinder@21–

    That’s how it should be. If anyone uses a well-known falsehood in a televised debate, say that Republicans are better at reducing the deficit than Democrats, then the moderator should step in and say “Our live judges have just indicated that the candidate has violated the terms of the debate. As penalty, they will now have their mic cut and their unused time will be distributed to the remaining candidates.” Can’t see any sign of it happening, though.

  21. says

    Been watching the youtube videos on “the alt-tight playbook”, which, as the poster points out, just means that they have taken every one of the methods he gives and made them core strategy, not that other people don’t end up using them. One of his comments is that we, on the left, “tend” to think of debate as a either a) putting a fool in their place, or b) a formal means to get to the truth. Everyone else, and sadly, sometimes a few of those who are ostensibly our own, a) use the “winning” strategy of, “Appearing to be winning, even if you are losing.” I.e., when the dust settles, and no one really remembers the details, who was the one making all the agressive attacks, which the lizard brain says is a position of power, and who is the one doing all the defending. The other “strategy” is, b) “Keep changing the subject.” I.e., don’t even care who is right, just what the emotional impact you can deliver, to shock, stress, confuse, etc. your opponent, and/or audience, while never actually addressing the original questions – make it about your points, not theirs, and don’t even have a point of your own. Its not about getting at a truth position at all, and the advice the guy gives is, “Try, try, try, as hard as possible, to only address the audience, and talk past the opponent that is doing this, so you do not engage them directly at all, or let them derail things into other things, like dragging the argument from, say sexual harassment, to free speech.

    But, yeah, one rather doubts that either a) 99% of the people doing public debates, or b) really any of the ones that do school debates, where both sides agree to abide by rules, have any training in how to halt this sort of BS, and neither, apparently, do moderators (or they are scared to do so, for some reason). So, instead we get a whiny teenager screaming at someone trying desperately to be adult about the whole thing, and nothing is accomplished (except that, this is actually a winning strategy for the whiny teen).

  22. astro says

    the “debate me” troll isn’t looking for a debate, he’s looking for an audience. the actual rules, procedures, and formalities don’t matter, so long as he gets his public soapbox.

  23. microraptor says

    And on top of what’s already been said, “debate me” bros think that debating means shouting your position then demanding that your opponent disprove it. They don’t even make a pretense of offering actual evidence for their positions.

  24. snuffcurry says

    chrislawson @17

    As robert79 and consciousness razor point out, debate is what has already been happening.

    Indeed, that was a point largely central to Klee’s thesis,* as PZ helpfully demonstrated through quoting and which I’ll embolden for further emphasis:

    [T]he “debate me” dude pops into your Twitter mentions to demand a formal argument. Ignoring that people debate shit on the internet as automatically as one might breathe or blink, he is oddly constrained by the notion that disagreement has rules[.]

    *which you essentially re-state: “If we use an inclusive definition of debating, then the debatebros have nothing to demand.” Yep. That’s the point. These dudes want a status-raising pissing contest (preferably one that can eventually be massaged into a grift that relieves credulous bigots of their money, the endgame of all right-wing thinky-thought endeavors, including the low-rent marketing of cheeseball MAGA-style propaganda, like Shapiro trying and failing to launch a new and pithy hashtag every other week) constrained by public-school, authoritarian thigh-rubbing rules that protect their egos and allow them to drink deeply of the pool of pedantry as necessary to skirt the pesky logic, experience, and evidence that fails to support their Deeply-Held Beliefs.

  25. Porivil Sorrens says

    Not a single one of the right wing “Change my mind/Debate me!” types actually give a shit about having an actual debate on the facts, they’re interested on either parasitically using more popular people to get a platform and change minds to their side via dishonest gish gallop tactics, or they’re just trying to go on stage, get people riled up, and hopefully snap a 10 sec clip for their ~LMFAO SJW CUCK TRIGGERED~ compilations.

    I went to one of the universities that got the TPUSA “There are only two genders, change my mind” style stands, and guess what they did? They just get people worked up and record them, so that Crowder or whoeverthefuck can then go online and talk about how they were ~rudely accosted~ in public.

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