Tuesday, September 18, 2012

When is a debate not a debate?

Here are some examples of subjects which are up for debate at the moment
  • Should we bring back capital punishment for the worst sorts of criminals?
  • Should the UK enter the European Single Currency?
  • Should the civil union between people of the same gender be called marriage?
  • Should Scotland leave the United Kingdom?
  • Should it be legal to help a terminally ill person to end their life if they wish it?
Some of these subjects are more pressing than others. It is unlikely that the UK should reintroduce capital punishment, but I think it's going to be a while until people stop talking about the possibility.

Here are some examples of subjects which are not up for debate at the moment:
  • Should people be able to own other people as slaves?
  • Should we burn people who dabble in witchcraft?
  • Should people of different skin colours be treated differently under the law?
  • Should parents decide who and when their children should marry? 
  • Should we start to rebuild the British Empire by invading impoverished countries?
When I was younger, I'd often encounter an amateur philosopher who would derail a discussion by taking the whole thing back to first principles, as if it were clever to say, "Yes, but are we really here? Might I not be a figment of your imagination?"  Philosophers have to look at these questions, but then they have to move on before they can walk across the room (Is there really a room?) and make a cup of tea (What do you mean by make? What do you mean by tea? Isn't that a mug, anyway?). You have to put faith in the world as you see it in order to operate within it. Similarly, if we had to debate whether slavery is a bad thing every time we discussed workers' rights or modern day racism, we'd never get anywhere. 

This is about three very different things I've read lately, which seem connected by this issue.  The first may be - judging from what happens to other opinion pieces on the BBC News website by good and sensible writers - an example of sensationalist editing rather than the author's intention. Anyway, in Does the sex debate exclude men?, Sarah Dunant writes
[The idea men think differently about sexual ethics] will not necessarily be politically correct. Sex often isn't. It doesn't help that when men do open their mouths on the larger stage, they are firmly shot down. Both George Galloway and our now ex-Justice Secretary Ken Clarke might have been ill advised in their remarks about sexual behaviour and the law, but like it or not, they thought something needed saying, only to be met by a storm of female outrage that effectively stifled all debate.
Clarke got into trouble for blundering with words while participating in a real debate about how the criminal law is applied to rape, how to increase convictions and sentence appropriately. That discussion is ongoing, and hasn't been stifled one jot. But any questions raised by Clarke or Galloway's offensive statements take us back to first principles, a stage or two above "Should men be allowed to do whatever they like to women and their bodies?"  Not everything someone thinks needs saying ,needs saying, and certainly no everything someone says is part of a debate. Even if it is said by a man.

The idea of "female outrage" and variations on that theme (hysteria, pearl-clutching, the feminist thought police) are frequently used to discredit women with an opinion on anything. And thankfully, there has been no shortage of men feeling outraged about things said about rape in recent months (two examples from my modest blog roll and two more I happen to remember - if I actually went looking, I'm sure I'd find loads). If there really was a male/ female divide about the issue of consent, heterosexuality would be a lost cause.

Talking of which, Nick Clegg.  Like Clarke, Clegg has got into trouble for the words he (or his speech-writers) have used while talking about an actual, very current debate, when he (or his speech-writers) referred to those who oppose marriage equality as bigots. That is an example of someone stifling a debate. Let's call it male outrage!  Okay, so we won't.

Nobody who has ever been subject to actual bigotry could imagine that the plain old social conservatism which causes many people to object to marriage equality is bigotry. There are bigots about, for sure, but most people who have reservations against marriage equality aren't like that. They're wrong, of course, but the arguments are quite straight forward; they have a concern, we address that concern, they think about it and realise there's nothing to worry about. Remember all those folk who initially objected to civil partnerships but have since got completely used to the idea?  It's them. We can sort all this out together and everyone will be fine. So long as we don't call one another names!

However, as the subject of marriage equality continues to be debated, there are bigots thumping the table who wish to reduce the argument back to first principles such as "Is homosexuality a dark and dangerous force that threatens to destroy the world?"  They're not having a debate - certainly not the same debate the rest of us are having.  And I would argue that it is perfectly okay to call them bigots and duly ignore them. Or preferably just ignore them.

Which leads me to Do Marginalised People Need To Be Insulting In Order To Be Empowered? by a chap called Daniel Finke, who discusses the ethics of debate and implores marginalised people to adopt a civil tone when conversing with people they disagree with. There's a good (if rather sweary) discussion about this over at Feministe, where many people speak of the legitimate anger of marginalised people and this idea that marginalised people somehow have to win the world over, to demonstrate over and over that we are good enough for - better even - than the people who want to shut us out.

I strongly believe in being courteous and patient and trying to understand where people's prejudices come from, in order to give them the kind of information which might help them straighten that out. But honestly, there are some circumstances where anger is the only possible or useful response. But this is not a debate either. And it's okay not to have a debate.

It's okay to say "That was a horrendously offensive thing to say." without addressing any point someone made.  It's okay for Nick Clegg (or his speech-writers) to say, "There are some bigots and some reasonable people who object to equal marriage and we're not going to bother talking to the bigots." and it's okay for marginalised people to call our enemies names, safe in the knowledge that far worse names are given to us, just for existing.

But we can't call any of those things debate


Matthew Smith said...

With particular regard to Daniel Fincke's blog and the Feministe entry in response, I find that some people purportedly representing marginalised groups (women and women of colour in particular) often use their status to justify wholly uncivil behaviour and means of arguing when the person they are arguing with has not been uncivil to them at all. They will then accuse their opponents of using "tone" when called out for their bullying behaviour. I came across this a couple of years ago when a blogger called Renee Martin (she maintains a blog called Womanist Musings) accused various disabled bloggers (mostly women) of being racist by running a blogging event related to Helen Keller on 19th June which is also a fairly obscure African-American celebration related to the end of slavery. Renee made a fuss about that despite not having bothered to mark the occasion the previous two years she'd had a blog, and left hostile comments on both the original blog (FWD/Forward) and on participants' blogs. She also sent out lots of emails and got angry when people did not respond immediately, despite being in a different time zone (like Korea!), and in bed. I posted an entry accusing her of fabricating a controversy out of nothing and harassing sick women without any good reason (she even left a comment saying "what you don't have the spoons to dealt with your f***ing racism?", so she knew they were ill). She basically pulled the "tone" card out on me even though the tone was only one thing that was wrong with her emails and comments. The other was, the accusation she was making was baseless.

I'm not sure what debates Fincke was referring to in his blog (the standard of debate on some of the "sceptic" blogs and Reddits is shockingly bad, and if they regard scepticism as a more highly evolved form of thinking than religion, well, I've never come across anything like it on any religious blog, Muslim or otherwise - people are generally polite and certainly don't use sexualised insults or threaten to rape 15-year-old girls who disagree with them), but I have noticed that some people think that insulting suggestions and negative assumptions are acceptable when used against a "privileged" person, or privileged group (and the individual is considered less important than the group, so it's not necessary to consider individual factors other than their "oppression points"), that wouldn't be if used the other way round. I once argued with a feminist who accused me of taking it personally (a no-no) when I objected to Susan Brownmiller's suggestion that rape was how all men keep all women under control, and she could not understand that the use of "all men" (not "the patriarchy", "the system" or just "men") meant just that, and was insulting. I also remember the attitude of some of the Welsh-speaking students while I was at college (they have their own hall at Aberystwyth), who had a reputation for bigotry that nobody really questioned because they were "oppressed". While I can understand people who are traumatised being hostile to those who share the characteristics of whoever caused their trauma, I don't believe there is any group in modern British society whose "oppression" is such that it justifies bigotry or incivility on its own.

The Goldfish said...

Thanks Matthew,

I'm very torn about the issue of tone and civility. I really can't stand verbal aggression. This is partly because of having been abused in that way, but it's not just that I'm sensitive to it. Sometimes tone really does matter when you are addressing another human being. It can be, as Daniel Finke says, an question of ethics, as well as how effective an argument may be. Bullying is bullying, wherever it is.

At the same time, I've been criticised for the way I've expressed myself, I've been told that I state opinions as if they are facts. And I have certainly seen others - especially but not exclusively women - who have put things strongly, (e.g. "This is unfair and it has to stop!" as opposed to "I feel that maybe this is a subject that needs looking into, please.") - being treated as if they put a brick through someone's window. It's a fairly standard trick to attribute someone's entire argument to their emotions; "You're just angry/ bitter/ jealous/ frustrated etc.."

And sometimes, I do think it is entirely appropriate to be angry and that marginalised people are often taught that our anger is unacceptable, that we should be quiet and grateful.

But, bullying is bullying, whenever, and there's absolutely no rule that says that marginalised people are allowed to do it when others are not.

Librarian.Mobile said...

This concept of needing to be polite, and nice, and not angry or "bitchy" when expressing subjugation is something I've been thinking about a lot, especially around two diagnoses: "Pain Disorder" and "Somatiziation Disorder". I've been going around calling what I have a pain disorder, not knowing that there's a thing called Pain Disorder in American medicine, and it's a subset of Somaticization Disorder in which the major feature is pain. For anyone not up on Freud, somatic symptoms are a way that your body communicates with you. You are stressed, upset, scared or angry, and your body gives you symptoms. We've all seen something like it in our lives, and it's not total bullshit. When you're nervous and your heart pounds loudly, or your stomach hurts, or you faint, or you get so angry your head hurts, all of these are somatic responses. The problem is when the definition of the disorder is all about the difference between "real" symptoms, symptoms produced by physical damage, and "false" symptoms, symptoms produced by your emotions or brain. This is a shitty, sexist, stupid system. Over half the people who live in chronic pain are dealing with pain that has exceeded tissue damage, but only the difficult ones get labeled with this diagnosis. The major feature of the diagnosis is that the doctor who diagnoses you thinks you are "overly anxious about physical symptoms" or "belligerent about finding answers or a cure". If your doctor, who stand in a position of power above you thinks you're too angry, and not calm and polite enough (another "disease" feature is being uncooperative or rude to doctors or staff), then you get slapped with this diagnosis, and your medical care gets pulled out from under you, because "false" pain can't be fixed with painkillers or surgeries. "False" pain can only be fixed when you, the patient, stop being so broken in the head. I see this as an obvious mechanism of control. This is also a protective measure, that stops doctors from needing to confront the fact that they don't know everything, can't cure everything, and that people get sick and stay sick not just to spite them. Until there is, as they say in the feministing article, a "justly and ethically" carried out medical system, I continue to reserve the right to be angry about the illness in my body, and the disability in my society that means I have to use gatekeepers like doctors to kill my pain and keep me whole-ish. Until that day, no one has the right to say how angry I can be about my marginalization, and how angry and downright rude others can be about theirs.

The Goldfish said...

Hi Librarian Mobile, thanks for your comment.

I sympathise - such a diagnosis must suck and I agree, the label is more about gatekeeping that medicine or psychology.

This is quite harrowing stuff, but this young lady got a different diagnosis after many years of the somatization one, during which she was, among other things, criticised by doctors for having disabled friends! Here: Enough.

Honestly, if somatization is a valid diagnosis (and it may be), the second criteria after unexplained physical symptoms should be that there is evidence of severe psychological distress. In other mental illnesses which manifest in physical symptoms like pain, that only tends to happen when someone is very ill - severely depressed or anxious or during psychosis. And the symptoms are still real, whatever their cause.

The idea that the absence of a physical explanation plus a patient who isn't a picture of calm in their suffering means not only a mental illness, but one that deserves no proper care... well that is, I agree, something to be angry about.

Alasdair said...

I think you got things spot on with your original post here. When I disagree with someone, but they're willing to have a reasonable debate about it, I try not to call them insulting names and take their point of view seriously. (Though, yes, I do recognise the right of marginalised groups to use offensive language when they want to.) But if someone won't agree on what I consider pretty fundamental points of consensus - or if it becomes obvious they're just a troll - then I'm not going to debate with them.

On the specific subject of gay marriage, I support it myself, but accept that there are some reasonable arguments against it held by decent people. (There are even a small number of gay people who oppose gay marriage, though clearly the vast majority support it.) For that reason, I agree that Nick Clegg's 'bigot' comments were wrong - not all opponents of gay marriage are bigots, unless you define 'bigot' extremely broadly. Those comments were not helpful to his side of the debate, since it just dismisses the other side's arguments as prejudiced and gives up any hope of winning them over. Essentially, they treated the issue as a moral war rather than a debate - which is doubtless how some on both sides see it, but there's enough nuance and complexity to the issue that we don't have to agree with them.

(I guess what this all comes down to is: some people talking about an issue are fighting a war, and others are having a debate, and it's worth recognising the difference. And choosing which issues you're prepared to debate over, and which you aren't.)