Against (a Certain Kind of) Public Debate


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:

Screenshot 2016-10-09 at 9.08.59 AM.png


3 thoughts on “Against (a Certain Kind of) Public Debate

    1. To publicly debate the right of others to publicly debate…

      Who said anything about the “right” of others to debate? Of course they have this right. If I told you that I thought most superhero movies are garbage, would you take that as an attempt to deny the rights of moviegoers? I hope not.

      The charge of hypocrisy is interesting to me. At my first glance, whether I’m a hypocrite or not seems to me to have nothing to do with what I’ve written at all. After all, either I’m a hypocrite who did the right thing (but wrote a wrong post) or I’m a hypocrite who did the wrong thing by stirring up a debate.

      I think I my view could be that I did the wrong thing and am a hypocrite, but let me make the case that I’m not.

      I feel as if I perhaps conflated a particular type of debate with “debate” in general in this post. There is a style of debate that is essentially performative that doesn’t help anyone much. It’s what some people have told me rather explicitly — these are people on US’s social justice left and people who are educational traditionalists — they see as the point of debate, which is for the sake of onlookers.

      It’s not that you don’t have the right to debate in this way. It’s that I think it’s value is low. It feels productive (all those likes and RTs!) but I wonder how persuasive to onlookers it really is. And since it exposes the debaters to a host of pretty clear confirmation biases, since it’s inherently repetitive, since it encourages point-scoring and zingers over inquiry and understanding, I rate it low.

      Now, about “call out culture”: I don’t think the problem with calling people out isn’t that it’s mean to critique people and say that they’re wrong. It’s something more specific: it’s the use of people and their wrong views to perform your debate for an audience, when the views are ones you already know and are just plugging in to a public spat. That’s the sort of thing that I, at least personally, want to avoid.

      Now, due to my many sins, I have sometimes (often) engaged in this sort of debate, and that makes me a hypocrite. Hopefully a past one, but surely a future hypocrite too, as this sort of debate is deeply tempting.

      But I don’t think this post is essentially an attempt to punch up Greg Ashman for his views on debate. I don’t think that I’m essentially performing my views for the sake of others in this piece. Instead, I sat down to try to articulate something that I (clearly!) struggle to understand: How should I characterize the thing that frustrates me? Why exactly does this style of debate rubs me wrong, and what exactly are the alternatives? It’s an attempt to learn something, while in public view.

      If you see this conversation continuing, either here or on twitter, I hope that you continue to see me operating in this vein. I hope that I’m asking lots of questions, trying to better understand views that I don’t yet. I also hope that I’m trying my best to resist the public-facing nature of twitter and to instead try, as best I can, to focus on the people I’m directly talking to instead of performing for others. (I wish twitter wasn’t so public, but what can you do.)

      Anyway, I’m not at all sure that I’m right. I’m certainly charting territory that is genuinely new and confusing to me, which often results in errors. I am not an expert, and I hope that nobody treats me like one. I write to explore and to encourage others to as well, not with any dreams of imposing my views on others.

      Some people think that all writing is an attempt to impose your views on others. But I don’t think so, and that’s why I wrote this post.


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