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On Debate

Osita Nwanevu
4 min read
A man speaking before a crowd in a lecture hall, mic in hand, someone sitting next to him mostly out of frame.
Photo by Miguel Henriques on Unsplash

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I’ve only loosely followed the Peter Hotez saga over the last few days; from what I understand, he’s refused to debate RFK Jr. about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines on Joe Rogan’s podcast and has been taunted and harassed by Rogan, Elon Musk, and their lemmings for it. I don’t think there’s much that’s novel left to say about Rogan, Musk, or RFK Jr., as individuals, but this episode’s offered up yet another opportunity for discourse masochists to debate the merits of debate.

I should say as a matter of disclosure here that I have the debate disease. I did an unseemly amount of it and related activities in high school and college. I do take some moral comfort in the fact that I was never especially good at it, at least in its most hoity-toity, well-reviled forms. But I did and do mostly enjoy it, which gives me a selfish inclination to defend it, I suppose.

There are valid reasons for skepticism about formal debate as a discursive mode, of course. It will lead audiences away from the truth as often as it’ll lead them towards it⁠— and this is good reason, in Hotez’s case, to avoid them as means of communicating vital scientific information. The idea that charlatans might be broken by exposure to facts and figures alone is obviously silly, and there’s no reason for institutions to commit themselves to engagement with the likes of Rogan or, say, Steve Bannon with that end in mind. “Legitimization” isn’t really the concern for me there. We might have moral reasons to refuse engaging with certain people and ideas, but most are considered for the debate stage because they have a cachet with or have captured the interest of a segment of the potential viewing public to begin with; preexisting “legitimacy” of a kind is why these invitations are made. “Platforming,” an adjacent concern, is a more fruitful thing to think about ⁠as a practical matter— it's less about the ethical queasiness of letting certain people into certain rooms in principle than about how useful they’d find the mic if they were given it. The evidence suggests that denying Richard Spencer venues to speak in is, in fact, a phenomenal way to curb his influence.

The above questions have more to do with whether institutions should provide venues for certain debates, though, than with how individuals who find themselves challenged to debates should respond. In general, I think they can be valuable political opportunities provided those who choose to participate know what they’re getting into and prepare well. A formal, on-stage debate, in perhaps most cases, is a game and a performance. It’s not a lecture; most don’t go to be taught or to learn anything in particular. It’s sport. People want their team to win. There’s a shallow superficiality to it all, yes. But we can say the same about the campaign ad, the stump speech, and the 30 second soundbite. We can say the same, really, about politics in general. We don’t swear off those other mediums because they aren’t ideal ways of communicating truth. We work to defeat our opponents with the tools of the trade we’re in. Formal debates, as far as I’m concerned, are just another part of the political arena ⁠— and distinctive, in fact, for how much of substance they might allow you to say by comparison to all the rest, even if most debates aren’t all that illuminating in practice.

They’re also distinctive in that they allow us to test our ideas and arguments out in real time against hostile parties. We learn, under pressure, what angles work best for us and poorly for them; we give ourselves the chance to sharpen everything to a point. We might, horror of horrors, even discover we’re wrong about certain things; the best among us might move from that to an honest reexamination of their priors.

Lastly, I don’t think we should dismiss the value of debate as pure catharsis either. Knowing that there’s an arena in which those arrayed against us, for as much power as they might wield outside of it, might be narrowly defeated and perhaps humiliated ⁠— I think this is good for the spirit, frankly. It might help us keep going emotionally; provided we understand that debate in itself does little of substance, a successful debate might motivate our engagement with the real work of politics in much the same way as hearing a rousing speech can.

Anyone who doubts debate’s power and potential should probably give James Baldwin’s famous 1965 exchange with William F. Buckley Jr. on race in America at Cambridge a watch. I think we hear mostly legible and plausible arguments against what Baldwin did ⁠— take the stage against a white supremacist to actively contest the humanity of African-Americans and all that’s been done to them in a forum that framed those things as open questions ⁠— all the time now. But it’s just very hard for me to listen to Baldwin’s words and come away feeling like he shouldn’t have done it; there are lessons even in Buckley’s oily evasions about how the rhetoric of racist denial works. I don’t know that we should really mind this kind of thing, but I’m open to disagreement.

A Song

“Wah-Wah” ⁠— George Harrison (1970)