It’s like looking at a history of my past misdeeds — I was that dude. My friends were all those dudes. You know, that culture that thinks we can resolve massive social conflicts with just the right debate.
Anyone who regularly expresses ideas on the Internet — especially women who express ideas critical of men — has encountered that bane of online discourse, the man who appears seemingly out of nowhere to insist on a debate. He disagrees with the sentiment expressed and is certain he can overpower the author with his superior logic and knowledge. So he takes out his metaphorical white glove and offers a slap, showing up in Twitter mentions and issuing an invitation to his YouTube channel or podcast. If you refuse, the “‘debate me’ dude,” as the journalist Miles Klee memorably dubbed him, spends the next week tweeting about how terrified you are of his massive intellect.
It’s not just women and feminists. The entire creation vs. evolution struggle has often been sidetracked by the notion that we can resolve it all with debate. So we get Bill Nye going up against Ken Ham in a massively advertised, televised debate, and afterwards we argue among ourselves about who “won”. We should have stopped ourselves before the debate, and asked ourselves who wants this debate? Because I’ll tell you who loves getting scientists to debate: it’s the creationists. Getting a godless science advocate into an uncomfortable space like a church or the Creation “Museum”, where the audience is unqualified to judge but has a prior bias against them, and then to engage them in a contest of speechifyin’ oratory? Perfect.
Cultivating a whole generation of science advocates who believe that the rhetorical skills of debate are an expression of the scientific method? Heavenly. Now it can be turned against every expert in every field that defies the podunk wisdom of what ought to be, from climate science to politics to feminism, and suddenly “evidence-based” isn’t our platform anymore. And we willingly embraced this move. I was doing it for decades.
We were Br’er Fox to the creationists Br’er Rabbit, and debate is the briar patch. Every nitwit unschooled nobody now knows they can get on YouTube, utter some tempting idiocy, and whisper “debate me”…and the people who know better will stamped over to engage them and give them a brief credibility boost, while spreading their name far and wide.
It works both ways. There are hordes of people on YouTube who have no better education than the creationists they battle, who know little about the science except the bits they skim out of pop sci magazines and books, who build reputations solely on their debating skills and praising Logic & Reason & Enlightnment Values*. “Yeah, sure, I’m the hero who argued with Kent Hovind!” As if Hovind is some fierce creature out of myth, like Humbaba the Terrible, when he’s actually just Humbug the convicted Bumblefuck, a know-nothing nobody with a cranium full of stupid ideas, and a following of gullible hicks who’ll accomplish nothing but the corruption of the country, if you give them a chance.
I’ve been there. I’ve done the debate nonsense.
We need to stop.
This stuff has derailed the atheism and skepticism movements. We’ve been distracted by the valuation of who makes the most rational argument or who can most entertainingly dismantle random callers on a phone-in show, rather than who is the best activist, who gets things done, who focuses best on engaging effectively with real issues, rather than who is ready to hare off to tangle with Dinesh D’Souza or Ben Shapiro or whoever the latest stooge elevated by the Religious Right might be. Don’t think to impress me by telling me who you’ve “destroyed” in a debate, that just leaves me cold. Those people don’t deserve a debate stage, they ought to be dealt with by pies in the face.
I know, because I’m guilty as charged.
After all, a debate isn’t a conversation — an exercise in which people generously try to understand each other’s point of view. A real conversation doesn’t have a “winner.” Debates are about scoring points and subjugating your opponent. Which means that, no matter what their opponents say, debaters have every reason to spin a confrontation as a victory. If I got angry or flustered in a debate, then I would lose by virtue of being emotional and irrational. If I used jokes or sarcasm, I’d lose by virtue of seeming unserious and smug. If I did take the debate seriously and even briefly entertained the points made by my opponent, I would seem conciliatory and weak. And no matter what, my opponent will have gotten my attention and sucked up my time. The only winning move is not to play.
Also…some people aren’t worth having a conversation with.
*Reminder: the Enlightenment Era was a complex mess of discordant ideas that may have included David Hume, but also the slave trade, colonialism, racist rationalizations for oppressing non-Europeans, and even within Europe sheltered a villainous hive of misogyny and classism. It’s not the universal praise you think it is.