For the past few months, a single advertisement has been relentlessly popping up in my Twitter feed. “Tired of the internet shouting factory?” it asks. “Welcome to Kialo.” The name is Esperanto for “reason,” and the site is a collaborative debating platform where you can host or join discussions and contribute to arguments on both sides. The promise is of a certain kind of orderly hush, a philosophers’ glade where — through quiet, structured dialogue — initiates can cleanse themselves of intellectual impurities and dress their thoughts in the plainest, most honest garments. I decided to start a debate on a topic that had become a pressing concern in my world, and which I felt genuinely conflicted about: Should art made by artists accused of abuse be removed from cultural institutions? The site is built so that each argument branches into a tree, with each statement being broken down into further pro and con discussion. As the debate’s administrator, I had the primary responsibility for assessing where other contributors’ statements should fit, and for helping them break down their initial entries into concise propositions.
Within a few days of beginning the discussion, I noticed some dirty footprints starting to muddy up my glade. Even though everyone had the freedom to argue on both sides of the debate, vanishingly few of my fellow symposiasts were interested in building the argument for excluding the work of abusive artists. While the site’s users are anonymous, most of the usernames were male, and I was fielding a lot of entries like, “Are you suggesting abusers should be psychologically abused by being told what they produce is worthless?” The other noticeable, and related, problem was just how much trouble people had in following the structural rule meant to guide us to building coherent arguments: that each entry should be a concise claim. As a microphone at a Q&A after a film screening seems to have magical properties that make audience members forget what questions are, here was the opposite effect — would-be debaters seemed to forget what statements were.
Laying out coherent arguments is harder than it looks
Laying out coherent arguments is harder than it looks. In the course of a debate against Stephen Douglas in 1858 (the famous series of debates on slavery, for which the Lincoln-Douglas debate style was named) Lincoln accused his opponent of using “a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horse-chestnut to be a chestnut horse.” As audience members, we are easily fooled by this kind of semantic juggling. When we try to formulate arguments of our own, we are likely to mix up the chestnut and the horse purely by accident.
In effect, it turned out that having a civilized, carefully managed, and logically coherent debate online did something I wouldn’t have expected — it made arguing boring and unsticky. I started neglecting my administrative duties and receiving notes from the site saying they understood that responding to suggested claims could be time-consuming, but that contributors “really make an effort” and it wasn’t nice to ignore them. Neither had the debate done much to advance my thinking on the topic I’d proposed. I started to wonder: Was logic an inappropriate tool with which to approach this question? When it was suggested that at issue might be how victims of abuse felt rather than what rights artists had, this avenue of discussion seemed to be a dead end — if this was about feelings, what was there to talk about?
Debate sites tend to advertise themselves as civilized upgrades to the fractiousness of online discourse. Idiots argue. Intellectuals debate, reads a banner on QallOut, where users can videoconference each other to debate topics like “The biggest problem facing the world is the federal reserve,” “The narrative of Christianity is unproven,” or “It is always wrong to deliberately kill a toddler.” These sites espouse the hope that online debate will demolish echo chambers, embolden truth-seekers, and shame the purveyors of bullshit, broadly defined. But the perceived value of debate online relies on a somewhat regressive notion: that logic has a purity that cuts across cultural and other identities. The fixation on logic as an ideal vehicle for human progress is less a reflection of the practicality of this means of resolving our shared issues than it is a longing for a moral framework beyond human perceptions.
Perhaps it’s that users aren’t being rigorous enough in their application of logic to contemporary questions. But more likely, the answer isn’t in a stricter adherence to the rules of formal debating, either in dedicated spaces or on social media. The utopic vision of human perfectibility through reason obscures what online spaces can actually offer: a broadening of our conception of what it is to be human.
Moderation of debate sites differs widely, as does the quality of discussion. I saw a debate on QallOut with the topic “A person’s clothing is not a cause of rape”; on debate.org I saw “Vote yes if you want to kill feminist as a sport,” and on createdebate.com I saw “The average Jew would kill you over a penny.” Of their position on hate speech, QallOut’s founders write, “If someone says something awful on QallOut, they need to step up and defend that” since “True hate speech can’t stand up to this kind of scrutiny, leaving the speaker looking foolish and discredited.” People talking through their disagreements one-on-one is seen as a grand project in which clashing viewpoints can be subdued by logical argumentation — and not just subdued, but actually resolved. Debate is presented as a good in and of itself, regardless of what exactly is being debated.
The Western consideration of rhetoric as an art begins with the Sophists, a philosophical movement that arose in Athens in the fifth century BCE. The Sophists believed there was no “truth,” only perception. Everyone lives inside their own all-enveloping universe in which the physical properties of reality, to say the least of its moral qualities, are entirely individual and can in no way be measured against a common yardstick. “Man is the measure of all things,” Protagoras wrote. If Protagoras thinks the water at the gymnasium is cold and Hippocrates thinks it is warm, then it is cold for Protagoras and warm for Hippocrates.
In private spheres of our lives, this relativism is (relatively) easy to work around — Protagoras can choose not to swim. But in the political sphere, when we are required to act together, how can we bridge the distance between our separate realities? The Sophists say that the best we can do under the circumstances is concede to the orator who is able to convince the largest number of people. Divorced from any objectively true vision of reality, the art of persuasion is all there is. If the majority decided to put Socrates to death, then Socrates’ death was, for all intents and purposes, the right thing.
The problem of relativism is one of Western philosophy’s Weebles; it tends to be knocked down only to pop back up again. Is it possible for us to know the truth about anything, and if so, how would we achieve this knowledge — also, how would we know if we had achieved it? Aristotle believed the evidence of our senses could help us describe and classify what was true about an octopus; relativism, in which one opinion was as good as another, he easily dismissed. He also set out a system of syllogisms by which we could judge whether an argument was consistent. In his seminal work, Rhetoric, he introduced the rhetorical terminology of ethos, logos, and pathos — the personal trustworthiness of the speaker, the logical coherence of the speech, and the appeal to the audience’s sensibilities.
Underlying much of the enthusiasm for debate is faith in a universal mode of reasoning which not only cuts through differences in experience, but renders them irrelevant
For Aristotle, rhetoric wasn’t simply batting arguments about without expecting to advance shared knowledge. This is where we get the idea of “sophistry” as a pejorative, meaning to disguise a bad argument as a good argument — systematizing logical deduction as a form of reasoning was meant to eliminate the possibility of being deceived by verbal tricks. Aristotle saw the possibility of misuse in laying out his theory of rhetorical tactics; in the wrong hands, persuasion could be used for ill. But he generally agreed with the site administrators of QallOut — that it would be easier to convince people of things that were just and good than of things that were not. So “the average Jew would kill you over a penny” should be easy to argue against, and your audience should find arguments against this thesis more persuasive.
Contemporary debate culture seems to be a cross-breed of Sophist and Aristotelian beliefs. Ethos, logos, and pathos, or related terms, sometimes appear on judges’ scoring sheets in contemporary high school or university debates — in Australia, debaters are judged on manner, matter, and method. Debates are a gamification of thinking in which the winner is the debater or debate team that manages to convince the judges — a good debater should be able to argue either side of the same question and win. This suggests that truth is relative and persuasion is all. However, debate is also lauded as a pro-social act, one in which people can improve their thinking and perhaps build greater consensus.
Today, the fundamental orientation of online debate culture is toward universals, which are more likely to spark a reaction. There is a heavy reliance on words like “always” and “never,” as well as a tendency towards extreme responses to perceived social ills: “That music glorifying violence against women should be banned,” “Schools should block YouTube,” “Affirmative action should be abolished.” It’s an indulgence in a fantasy of control — if I ran the world, I would make all prospective parents attend parenting classes, or abolish progressive taxation, or fund a space mission to Mars, and the rest of you, with your individual needs and experiences, would be subsumed under the wisdom of my one rule. The fact that the high schoolers in crookedly knotted ties or Redditors killing time are not in any position to see their proposals enacted differentiates this kind of academic debate from, for instance, parliamentary debate, in which there is a risk of actual consequences. Most of us engaging in academic debates have the luxury of taking ourselves very seriously, while also being protected from urgently needing to determine where truth or justice might lie.
Winning a debate is like winning a game of tennis in the sense that afterwards, tennis is essentially unchanged. You can’t solve tennis’ underlying tensions by playing it, and you do not lay a question to rest by debating it. The conventionally hopeful formulation that begins the exercise — “be it resolved” — is the first misdirection, as the chance of coming to a final answer, such that no one will ever need to discuss the question again, hovers around zero.
Sites that teach debating know this. ProCon.org offers students what would, in another context, seem like an invitation to plagiarism: lists of popular debate topics along with a rundown of common arguments on both sides, pithy quotes from experts, and rundowns of the history behind the pro and con sides. In the same way that you might study the French Defence or Alekhine’s gun in chess, there are recognizable gambits that lead to well-worn counter-moves. The game is to trap your opponent in a logical corner, and the first to contradict themselves loses. It’s a game that teaches us to pit the white and black positions against each other; at the same time, a utopic hope persists that at the end of the game, black and white could find themselves on the same side — the side of truth. They would get there, presumably, by way of logic. Underlying much of the enthusiasm for debate is faith in a universal mode of reasoning which could not only cut through differences in experience and vantage point, but render them irrelevant — if everyone could get onside of logic, they would reach a consensus.
The ostensible divorce of reasoning from identity becomes a meta-argument for universal truths and solutions. It works to shore up the idea that a logical truth will stand on its own no matter who is delivering it. Some users defend logic as if it were a personal friend under attack: Reddit hosts a subreddit called “a place for bad logic,” where users post examples of logical gaffes they’ve spotted on other subreddits — it’s fashionable for Redditors to perceive themselves as lone philosophers in a sea of undeveloped minds. A subreddit for “open debate” starts with a question about where to find a debate about gun control in which people use “actual arguments” rather than acting “like five-year-olds.” On Twitter, a search for the hashtag #logic is full of posts that extol, with cult-like fervor, the power of “objectivity” and “intellectual honesty” rather than feelings or experiences as the true tools of cognition. These calls are used to elevate status by aligning oneself with the purity of reason, which, if only those with false beliefs would listen, would bring them into an apprehension of truth. Declaring oneself on the side of logic sets up an implicit divide between the rational self and the irrational others — it requires at least a notional opponent.
The spirit of sites like Kialo and Qallout is one of reformist zeal, like the temperance movement: where most online arguing is rude and undisciplined, and easily veers into abuse and hate speech, the sites offering debate rather than argument promise to advance the human race through etiquette and rigorous logic, which will eliminate wrong or harmful beliefs through informed dialogue. But logical argumentation rarely makes people change their minds; neither does exposure to facts. In a 2016 article, researchers at Cornell analyzed data from Reddit’s ChangeMyView community, where users propose a thesis and invite others to debate. While the results showed that some tactics are better than others — using different words from those used by the original poster in order to shift the frame of the discussion; using specific examples; using more tentative phrasing rather than speaking with a show of certainty — the instances of the original poster actually changing their view were discouragingly few.
In the behavior of social media users posting under their real names, identity — contrary to logic-proponents’ assumptions — may be among the strongest persuasive tools
Because Twitter is a public space, there is a perception that any statement made there should be open to challenge. Not being “open to debate” is an accusation that can exhaust members of marginalized groups, who are disproportionately called upon to defend statements about their experience. I live in Canada, where we are still struggling with the “truth” step in efforts to bring truth and reconciliation into relations between settlers and Indigenous peoples. Debates between Indigenous activists and settlers reluctant to revise the status quo haven’t felt like avenues to truth, because they tend to waste time on the premise that we live in a post-racial society — racism has been fixed, so boil water advisories on reserves, substandard housing and health care, crushing suicide rates, and an ongoing epidemic of apprehension of Indigenous children by the foster care system either aren’t real, or aren’t the consequence of racism. “Logic” is often invoked as an argument for discounting differences in experience in favor of an abstract notion of equality.
Just as anonymity allows users to try out opinions they’re not comfortable voicing in their offline worlds — ideas can be more extreme because repercussions for socially unacceptable opinions are limited — the invocation of open debate in service of truth lets users attempt to cover their prejudices and bad faith with a veneer of dispassion. Further, we know that logic has little to do with how people actually process information, especially when it comes to the kinds of beliefs we would describe as “debatable.” The topic I raised on Kialo, for instance — about whether the work of artists accused of abuse should be removed from cultural institutions — would have made much more sense with emotional context from the #MeToo movement.
Under the right circumstances, debate is fun. The very word calls up an image of a hazy dorm room at three in the morning, when every high undergraduate thinks they’re on the cusp of finally solving the big questions. It’s exciting to encounter ideas you’ve never heard before, and to imagine what it feels like to be from another family or another part of the country, where the things you take for granted seem outlandish. The quest for self-definition requires some trial and error, and other people can help us test our beliefs by pushing us to formalize the arguments that underwrite them. Or we might be persuaded into a new camp, adopting beliefs on topics we hadn’t even thought about before.
For all the talk of universality, it’s the poddish nature of these discussions that makes them feel vital — making some progress towards elucidating what we think, and therefore who we are, in small groups of people who can become our friends. Debate in this sense is about intimacy rather than persuasion, a demonstration of trust: It’s easy to take mutual respect for granted when there’s nothing to disagree about, but a genuinely respectful relationship can accommodate disagreement. By respecting one another as debate partners, we become colleagues and collaborators in the pursuit of truth. We also inflate each others’ egos by conferring the status of philosopher on one another; two 18-year-olds who’ve read a chapter apiece of Plato’s Republic can make each other feel like cutting-edge intellectuals.
Inhabiting the platforms we share online can feel like walking down a dorm-room hall — some people are debating, but others are working, playing, talking, or flirting, and the intimacy we feel can be more persuasive than argument. At its best, social media allows us to see what other people care about. The consensual eavesdropping that Twitter or Instagram allow isn’t about testing one’s beliefs through logic, but it can offer a window onto other people’s worlds. Watching the clash of opinions can be much less instructive than listening to people who share a similar worldview and set of experiences talk freely to each other.
In his 2010 book The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah shows that arguments are not what change people’s minds on moral questions — honor is. The end of dueling, or Chinese foot-binding, or the Atlantic slave trade, did not come about, Appiah writes, because of new or more convincing arguments — the arguments against these practices had been in place, sometimes for centuries, before most people were turned against them. What changed was the “honor world” — the group of people who understand and acknowledge the same codes of behavior. Dueling was illegal before it came to seem dishonorable, in part because a newly created popular press brought the aristocracy’s honor code into discussion in lower class circles. This exposure to ridicule or mimicry put a new complexion on a practice that had persisted despite all logical argument against it.
If debate doesn’t actually change minds, the rhetorical power of social media networks may work best as a way to insist on a broadening of our honor worlds. In the behavior of social media users posting under their real names, identity — contrary to logic-proponents’ assumptions — may be among the strongest persuasive tools. If an honor world is about acknowledging the same codes of behavior, an expanding sense of one’s world can bring unquestioned values or practices into sharp relief. Most Canadians, for instance, would not consider it honorable to rob someone of their land or to break a treaty.
Debate, in its formal and informal manifestations, is generally conceived as a force for good — indeed, as one of the great hallmarks of civilization. This is partly because it is viewed as the alternative to physical violence as a way of solving disputes. But argument as an intellectual contest may also have the effect of favoring a contestant who does not necessarily have right on their side. Winning an argument may mean bringing forward a true and good thesis, but it may also mean persuading one’s judges of something untrue through force of personality or canny rhetorical stratagems. If a consensus view emerges, it may have everything to do with who is participating, who is judged trustworthy, and how much skin is in the game. But debate or physical violence aren’t the only options for finding a way to live together despite our differences, or for finding out who we are and what we believe.
It’s possible for digital interactions to enlarge our honor worlds by bringing us into closer contact with one another. As novels propose moral arguments through character development, digital spaces are best designed not for debating universals, but for developing our capacity to identify through difference. Interacting with a wide range of people with differing worldviews and experiences in digital spaces means more subconscious absorption of alternatives to the life we know. The idea of “debate” imposes an adversarial framework on online interactions, as well as privileging logic as a tool of discovery.