When is a debate not a debate?
|Here are some examples of subjects which are up for debate at the moment|
Here are some examples of subjects which are not up for debate at the moment:
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.