Talking over the issues

To believe in debate for the sake of debate is less a manifestation of “rationality” than a stubborn commitment to a degraded idea of it, in which rational procedures are held to yield objective “correct answers” or provide sanction to ideas that have proved socially unacceptable. The idea that debate itself is inherently a social good that could align attitudes and thus change behavior or policy is evidence of a taste for debating itself, more than an assessment of its benefits. Commissioning an op-ed contrary to, for example, scientific consensus is not an effort to broaden people’s minds but — to put it very generously — to stage a debate. A debate has obvious commercial appeal: clear sides, rooting interests.

Debate is a competitive sport — as Linda Besner writes, it imposes a competitive framework onto the exchange of ideas — and, as in baseball or basketball, the ball is not the point. The pleasure of playing or spectating is partly in affiliation; debates are not meant to forge consensus but rather to reaffirm the positions of opposing teams. Rob Horning argues that “the trappings of rational debate tend to appear precisely the places where we experience the most anxiety about the possibility of being socially influenced without our conscious assent, where the limits of our agency are most exposed.” Debate provides the sense of intellectual self-determination.

There is an escapist joy, too, in projecting stakes onto a simulation of conflict, but it’s easy to take comfort in the idea that resolving a debate also resolves the problem being debated, as if the world’s problems merely awaited reasonable or persuasive answers and weren’t the product of opposed political interests or incompatible beliefs. Staging debates stages the illusion that the parties in a conflict mean to play fair and respect an overarching set of rules governing the field of play, when in fact there is no game, no clear sides, and no final outcome, only ongoing struggle on terrain that is always shifting and expanding.

Debate fetishism is related to logic fetishism, a displaced God-longing that insists that truth can be discoverable through a once-and-for-all process that doesn’t require renegotiation or acknowledgment of constant change. As Besner writes, logic serves as a judge or referee for reality — a “moral framework beyond human perceptions.” Logic, in this sense, is self-defeating: It requires a self-effacement that means no one can claim to have used it correctly. At the end of any chain of logic is a person using logic.

Logic is important and useful and insufficient, the same way that empathy is important and useful and insufficient. To engage with social conditions requires both and more. If debate logic only adheres in the abstract as an essence extracted from circumstances and rinsed of particulars, it functions mainly to distract attention from these circumstances and these particulars.

“People love to argue on social media,” Besner writes, but “really the valuable opportunity for changing minds that it offers is in the circulation of world views in a way that is not about arguing — it’s more about being; having more people with differing world views and experiences in a space means more subconscious absorption of alternatives. It proposes identification rather than argumentation, or maybe even identification as a form of argumentation, in the way that novels propose moral arguments through characters.”

A social platform can feel like a giant city, and to quote Sarah Schulman’s definition of urbanity, “the daily affirmation that people from other experiences are real makes innovative solutions and experiments possible.” Connectivity is politically potent not because it opens up new lines of debate, but at least in part because it puts people in touch. You can’t logically maintain a position premised on the denial of people unlike yourself.


“Faulty Logic,” by Linda Besner

“Anxiety of Influence,” by Rob Horning


Thank you for your consideration. Visit us next week for Real Life’s upcoming installment, FAKES.