A position I can agree with: debate is stupid

Yep, we don’t need to argue, it’s patently true.

After all, these days we are constantly being told that one of the top threats to society is not climate change or fascism but people stifling debate. Some claim that by “no-platforming” controversial speakers, or calling pundits mean names on Twitter after they say something racist on Bill Maher’s show, we are facilitating a dangerous slide into illiberalism. If those pearl-clutchers are to be believed, the key to becoming a society of informed and sophisticated intellectuals is to hook ourselves up to an IV of pure debate, and let the heated repartee course through our veins until it leads us to fact-based solutions.

The article also has some positive suggestions.

Do not be tempted by the promise of easy satisfaction. Watching a debate can make you actively worse at understanding the nuances of a topic. If you want to really know about a subject, here’s my advice: read widely and extensively (and not just the books your favorite YouTuber recommends). Talk to people, patiently and fairly, rejecting your instinctual desire to win. And perhaps most importantly — take this from a veteran — do not reward former debate team kids with your attention. They are the worst type of nerds and they never share their snacks.

I’ve been trying to get people to do this for years. I get a call requesting a debate, and I say, I’d be happy to host a discussion with an audience, why are you making everyone waste half the time allotted with that other blithering fool? And then they hang up, because usually the people asking for a debate aren’t looking for an informed discussion, they’re looking for a foil to make the other guy look magnanimous and open-minded, and they’re bringing in an audience with a bias, anyway.


  1. Sastra says

    From what I can tell, though, the fear of “stifling debate” isn’t limited to actual formal debates, but would include the very thing both you and the writer put forth as the better alternative: constructive dialogues and informed discussions where both sides are fairly represented.

    When that option is increasingly thrown out as a worthless waste of time for more and more controversies, there’s a problem. For one thing, It’s too easy for us to form our views of what “they” believe by reading only what “we” think they believe. Not a good idea.

  2. doubtthat says

    Debate (in the context we’re discussing) is a stupid sport for those uninterested in athletics and not smart enough to follow chess.
    It has exactly the same importance to relevant policy issues as bowling games on ESPN 8, the Ocho.

  3. says

    “do not reward former debate team kids with your attention”

    As a former debate club kid I can tell you we are not these people. These are generally the people who just wanted to randomly yell at you and had no concept of what we really did or why we did it in formal debate. We had to research arguments, we had to take proper turns, we had to address the specific arguments made against us, we had to make our arguments understandably and factually and were judged on all of this. We were learning very useful skills. The debate guys do none of this and just want the chance to shout people into submission and call it victory.

  4. consciousness razor says

    Are we talking about debate or rhetoric?

    You’re the first to use the word “rhetoric” here.

    Is there a difference?


  5. barbaz says

    I can agree with (formal) debate is stupid, but I think no-platforming is stupid, too. I also don’t see how the arguments against the former speak in favor of the latter.

  6. kevinv says

    “Sure we can have a debate in the style of the founding fathers. You write a lengthy paper on your views. And I’ll write one with mine. Then we can have them distributed far and wide with the latest technology – the printing press internet.”

  7. chrislawson says


    I can’t speak to your experiences, but I can tell you that I once tuned in to a televised World Debating Championships, and the winning team’s (successful) strategy was to yell all the time, interrupting their opponents with a constant stream of technical procedural challenges. There was not a shred of wit or well-constructed argument. It was pure obstructionism. And it won the day.

  8. chrislawson says


    Letting Milo Y or the Proud Boys hold meetings at universities is a direct threat to Jewish and leftist students on campus. Letting AiG hold “education sessions” at the Smithsonian is a misuse of public spaces to fraudulently imply scientific respect for creationism. Letting Sam Harris talk about nuking Muslim countries (to get a head start in a religious war) at a college is asking Muslim students to respectfully allow themselves to be demonised and threatened with mass murder. And we’re not just talking vague intimations of violence, we’re talking about existing cases of assault and murder at alt-right events.

    Remember that in this day and age, anyone can print flyers or put up a website. It’s not like deplatforming means they cannot speak out just because they can’t hire a deliberately provocative meeting space. Did you ever wonder why Milo Y and his ilk are so keen to talk on campuses? It’s not to spread knowledge and it’s certainly not fertile recruiting ground; no, it’s a premeditated decision to antagonise students, foment anger, and play the “freeze peach” card all at the same time.

    Deplatforming just means that incendiary hatemongers are not given the opportunity to attack vulnerable people in spaces that should be safe. There will, of course, be boundary examples where we can respectfully disagree about whether a particular deplatforming campaign is warranted.

    (And if you still think deplatforming is absolutely wrong, then you should also agree that, say, black southern churches should not be allowed to refuse KKK meetings. See the problem?)

  9. says

    Well, look at the presidential ‘debates.’ Trump interrupted constantly, barfed out unchallenged lies, drifted around the stage like an unmoored blimp, and afterwards was given high marks for not pulling Little Donald out and watering the plants with it.

  10. DanDare says

    The alternate to debate is deliberation. A subject is explored. Ideas and concepts put forward. Facts are proposed as being relevant, are checked, and their relevance and implication considered. Multiple perspectives can be raised and examined for merit. Provocations given and used for conceptual movement.
    Deliberation does not have “both sides”., or even “sides”. The only way to “win” is to participate in good faith. Utter nonsense gets ejected.

  11. elysof says

    Kip T.W. @11 / #11:

    … and afterwards [Trump] was given high marks for not pulling Little Donald out and watering the plants with it.

    To be fair, that remains the noblest decision of his political career.