Perhaps I’m misreading Greg, but here’s what I take him to mean: there is a performative aspect for debates. “Performative,” in the sense that debate is for the benefit of others, “onlookers.” You’re not truly expecting to convince your opponent. Instead, you’re trying to influence the audience.
I don’t find this notion bizarre. It’s pretty much how all public debates work. Clinton isn’t hoping to sway Trump; Baldwin was speaking to the Cambridge students, not to Buckley. So all of that is fine.
Debate as a public performance is something I see a lot on twitter, and not just from advocates of traditionalism in education. It reminds me most strongly of the political left’s call-out culture, and I think a lot of what you might say about how traditionalist activists carry themselves on twitter has already been said about this brand of leftist activism.
The other thing about call-out activism — traiditional or not, in or out of education — is that it is absolutely exhausting. There is always someone wrong on the internet, the arguments are always the same, the sins are never new. I wonder if many of the gains in the last few years in face to this form of activism — again, in or out of education — are somewhat superficial, in that they aren’t much more than the mainstream trying to avoid this sort of exhausting, relentless critique.
But what’s the alternative?
Communities are more powerful than individuals, and can have more of an influence. This is a true truism. Beware activists that identify their struggle too closely with their movement’s. Not everyone has to be an activist, and not everyone has to be an advocate in precisely the same way, but if you’re saying that big changes are needed and all you can come up with is publicly critiquing people? Come on, build something.
The other alternative is to give up on online activism altogether. Not everyone must be an activist for what they believe. To be an activist is to adopt certain presentations and frames — among other things, advocacy demands presenting yourself as an expert.
Social media has had a lot of effects on our discourse, among them an enormous increase in the number of experts we have on any given topic.
I sometimes say something that is really easy to mock, which is that we should spend less time arguing and more time investigating. I don’t have much to say when people tell me that this is dumb, because it’s something that is a little bit ahead of what I’m able to clearly articulate. (That’s why I have a blog, though!)
Here’s why I think inquiry-over-activism is important. First, because it seems to me that honest, public inquiry’s stock is currently undervalued. Publicly critiquing ideas that you know to be obviously and badly wrong is a mode that’s being covered just fine, thanks. Second, because I think that publicly investigating and sharing an interest does far more to impact “onlookers” than yelling/calling-out. It’s engaging in a way that “debating for the benefit of onlookers” can’t ever hope to be. Third, because I think that there are moral risks to appointing oneself as a critic, or on activism that isn’t grounded in community. These risks are familiar, but real.
Thinking in this way has given me a simple test for deciding whether something is worth writing: Am I sharing something new that I discovered? If yes, then write and publish. If not, keep looking for something new to learn.
That’s the same standard I’ve found useful in deciding how to engage on twitter. Are we learning something new, right now? Am I understanding anything better through this debate? If so, engage. If not, attempt to change the course, but then punt or mute.
Update: My original title “Against (Most) Public Debates” was pretty bad, so I revised it.
There were two other things knocking around in my head as I wrote this post, and I wished I had shared them. Here they are.
From philosopher Mary Midgley:
What is wrong is a particular style of philosophising that results from encouraging a lot of clever young men to compete in winning arguments. These people then quickly build up a set of games out of simple oppositions and elaborate them until, in the end, nobody else can see what they are talking about. All this can go on until somebody from outside the circle finally explodes it by moving the conversation on to a quite different topic, after which the games are forgotten. Hobbes did this in the 1640s. Moore and Russell did it in the 1890s. And actually I think the time is about ripe for somebody to do it today. By contrast, in those wartime classes – which were small – men (conscientious objectors etc) were present as well as women, but they weren’t keen on arguing.
It was clear that we were all more interested in understanding this deeply puzzling world than in putting each other down.
I was also thinking of Lakoff’s explication of the “argument as war” metaphor: