Skip to content

Speaking Ills

The quasi-mystical cult of debate-for-debate’s sake

One wonders if the types of people who insist that “sunlight is the best disinfectant” have ever successfully disinfected anything.

It sounds like a bit of homespun folk wisdom, a scientifically unfounded aphorism that, like “walk it off” or “play through the pain,” rings true despite its falsity. Perhaps it’s this insta-truthiness that accounts for the many forums in which the notion of robustly hygienic sunlight has lately gained currency. It comes up a lot, for example, in discussions around the upcoming Munk Debate on “The Rise of Populism”: a fracas between ex-Trump alt-right vizier Steve Bannon and ex-Bush neocon vizier David Frum that’s taking place on November 2 at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto.

In early September of this year, Bannon—whose recital of far-right talking points and connections to various white nationalist and alt-right groups are well-documented—made headlines when he was disinvited from his media-darling perch at the New Yorker Festival. That same month, documentarian Errol Morris fielded another round of outrage when his new Bannon film, American Dharma, screened at the Venice and Toronto film festivals. Bannon, many argued, should not be interrogated. He should not even be afforded the dignity of a platform.

These criticisms, and the subsequent criticisms of these criticisms, played out online in dully predictable fashion. Those who advocated for deplatforming Bannon on the basis that his ideas (such as they are) are reprehensible and de facto not worth hearing out were branded rabid social media mobsters. On the other hand, Morris and New Yorker editor David Remnick were defended by a certain class of centrist liberal—the kind who may not agree with what you say, sir, but damn sure defends to the death your right to say it.

For a certain type of old-school liberal who thrills at this sort of pageantry, Frum vs. Bannon is like Ali vs. Foreman.

The folks at the Munk Debates, savvy free-market speculators that they are, saw an opportunity. If Errol Morris or the New Yorker’s David Remnick was too frail to haul Bannon’s feet to the flames, then surely David Frum could do the job. And if not, then surely the spectacle of Frum flailing helplessly in his attempt to do so could put some plump-walleted asses in the seats. Sure enough, the event sold out.

For a certain type of old-school liberal who thrills at this sort of pageantry, Frum vs. Bannon is like Ali vs. Foreman—a rumble in the impeccably clean glass-and-polished steel jungle of a ho-hum Canadian metropole. Whether David Frum’s vision of a democracy safeguarded by a technocratic neoliberal establishment prevails over Bannon’s violent appeal to the gurgling desire to dismantle that same establishment hardly matters. Both poles are equally, if differently, unpleasant. The very set-up, like other match-ups between two more-or-less false choices, brings to mind the Alien vs. Predator tagline: “Whoever wins . . . we lose.”

And indeed, what matters at these big-ticket talks is not really who wins or loses, but rather the spirit of debate itself—a spirit that, we’re led to believe, can somehow rehabilitate the toxic humors of an ailing body politic.

Orators and Operators

Recently, I emailed a professor at a university, asking him to clarify a few points for an article I am working on about free speech debates on Canadian campuses. The professor, who served on a campus “free expression task force,” declined, but explained that he might reconsider “if there was an opportunity for us to chat in an unedited broadcast format.” Again: I was emailing this guy to hammer out a few factual details, not to initiate some grand philosophical back-and-forth. But nevertheless, the standard battle cry came echoing back from the bulwarks of free liberal inquiry: “Debate me!”

This challenge, it occurred to me, belied a deeper, more curious stance toward the contemporary function of debate. The general notion of public debate (and the very idea of the “pubic sphere” for that matter) resides tacitly on discursive public space as an arena for settling the relative strengths and uses of a set of ideas. Two intellectual frameworks enter, and only the burliest leaves. It’s a kind of egghead octagon. Now, however, debate—and especially the challenge to debate—exists as an end in itself. Debate has become a conservative fetish object.

This mania for the spectacle of debate is especially pronounced in what has been called the “Intellectual Dark Web.” On Louder With Crowder, the failed comedian Steven Crowder facilitates a “devil’s advocate” video series in which he adopts an opposing view to test an argument. That Crowder does so while costumed as a late-model prototype of a “Brooklyn hipster” (complete with handlebar moustache, black-rimmed glasses, and COEXIST tattoo) named “Skyler Turden” suggests that he might be undertaking the project disingenuously. Crowder’s better known publicity stunt, in which he posts up on college campuses and challenges passersby to change his mind on a given issue, is so ludicrous that it has itself become a meme.

In August 2018, conservative talking head Ben Shapiro offered politician and activist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez $10,000 to debate him on the merits of socialism. Ocasio-Cortez, who was after all in the midst of a campaign to represent her home congressional district, rebuffed Shapiro’s bad faith advances. But Shapiro’s stunt proved to be a greater hit than Crowder’s antics: the right took at as an admission of defeat; Ocasio-Cortez may have a career in Congress, but she’s plainly no match for the Intellectual Dark Web. If she cannot defend her ideas, the argument goes, they must not be very good ideas.

Debate has become a conservative fetish object.

In an even more curious instance of debate fetishism, litigious self-help guru Jordan B. Peterson, who consistently claims to want to usher in a new era of debate, recently turned down an invitation to debate some Marxists and, in so doing, simultaneously claimed he won the debate. The mock-heroic challenge of “Debate Me!” was thus inverted: “I won’t debate you—so I win!” It’s like taking your ball and going home—except that it’s not even your ball.

It’s all spectacle: the call-out, the rebuff, the calling-out-of-the-rebuff. And it never amounts to an actual, productive back-and-forth, in which ideas are tested and revised, and ideological conflicts are resolved. “Public debate,” as Baffler contributor Laurie Penny, who refused to speak at The Economist’s Open Future Festival after Steve Bannon was added to the lineup, writes, “is not about the free exchange of ideas at all. You only listen to the other guy so you can work out how to beat him, and ideally, humiliate him.”

Does any thinking person actually expect that, if presented with a water-tight argument on the benefits of state socialism, Ben Shapiro would ditch his slavish commitment to laissez-faire capitalism? Can anyone really believe that Steven Crowder wants his mind changed? To return to the boxing analogy, it’s not as if anyone watching the historic Ali-Foreman bout would reasonably expect George Foreman to think, “Hey, maybe Muhammad is the better fighter,” and start uppercutting himself in the face.

But the fetish for debate runs deeper than its status as a spectator sport for unrepentant high-school debate nerds. It’s culturally embedded in the way we think about language itself, or at least spoken language.

All Talk

This thinking dates as far back as Socrates who, famously, wasn’t much for writing stuff down. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates cites an old Egyptian god named Thamus, who chides another old Egyptian god named Theuth for having created letters. As Thamus warns: “This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.”

Written language, to Plato and to Socrates (and, it follows, to the Egyptian god Thamus), was inferior to spoken language, bearing a merely indexical relationship to actual thought, as a photograph does to its subject. Writing is subservient to speech, a pale imitation, a “show of wisdom without the reality,” in Socrates’s words. In linguistics and philosophy, this privileging of the spoken over the written word is called phonocentrism. Likely the most hardline phonocentrist was Enlightenment philosophe Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who parroted the Socratic notion that writing is like a mediated Xerox of a pure language.

A peculiar form of magical thinking animates the phonocentric bias. Speech is believed to be not only more intimate, but more immanent, so far as meaning is concerned. As the Bible puts it, “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” Speech is (or at least can seem) spontaneous. To phonocentrists, it bears a closer relationship to the truth precisely because it is not arbitrated via the signs and strictures of the written word. Or rather, the only arbitrating force is the speaker himself, who becomes a conduit for some absolute truth. Just think of the cliches that attach to the charismatic speaker versus the sad-sack wordsmith: one strides onto a debate stage and seducing an audience with forceful rhetoric while the other hunches over a messy desktop, struggling to make sense of an idea and convey that sense to a reader, all tortured and anguished and half-drunk.

An event like the Bannon vs. Frum Munk Debate is pretty much the Comic Con of phonocentrism. Consider the modern master debater’s putative skillset: he is sharp and witty, able to deflect criticism and swiftly rebut arguments with a well-turned zinger. Ben Shapiro, for one, is great at this. He can quickly rebuff measured statements with snappy little clap-backs. (Indeed, shortly after his call-out to Ocasio-Cortez she stumbled over a series of questions in a TV interview, the sort of slip-up that is invariably perceived by the “Debate Me!” set as a form of intellectual frailty.) But being able to capably and slickly express a set of rickety premises does not justify the premises themselves. As Laurie Penny writes, “Being better at debating does not make you right. It just makes you better at debating.”

Jacques Derrida, a fierce critic of phonocentrism, was leery of the “metaphysics of presence” that swirled around our valuation of speech. He believed writing—tortured, anguished writing—was a more perfect form of expression because it necessitates (and even allegorizes) the construction of truth and meaning. And for Derrida, all truth and meaning was constructed. There’s a political dimension here at play, too.

In his Essay on the Origin of Languages, Rousseau stumps for phonocentrism’s political appeal. Writing creates the modern-age division between the unlearned and the literate, and further, between the literate and those fluent in more rarefied jargon. Writing, for Rousseau, marks (as author Arthur Bradley puts it), “humanity’s decline and fall from the state of nature to the decadence of modern civil society.” The ideal society is one in which a general can directly address his troops and in which all free men are within earshot.

The fetish for debate runs deeper than its status as a spectator sport for unrepentant high-school debate nerds.

The modern forms of public debate—the network TV broadcast, the YouTube talk show, the Twitter spat—may effectively bring everyone within earshot. But they’re a far cry from the spontaneous, primordial, romanticized, and likely entirely imaginary state of affairs valued by Rousseau. Instead of a phonocentric megaphone addressing one great expanding public sphere, the public sphere is itself balkanizing into micro-spheres whose denizens only chatter among themselves. And in the case of big-ticket public debate events, the community is already closed off, marked by distinctions of class and hierarchy that (as Rousseau would lament) are the markers of written, literate culture.

Questions of invidious phonocentric distinction aside, the very form of structured, public debate feels slightly regressive. It appeals not only to the loopy, esoteric belief in the unmediated primacy of the spoken word, but also to potentially uncomfortable ideas of authority itself. Debate proceeds not from the model of a community in dialogue, but rather from the general addressing his troops. It’s a bizarre trick that the contemporary right (from “classical liberals” to alt-right and Intellectual Dark Web figures) attempts to lay unique claim to the very ideas of reason and rationality. “Facts don’t care about your feelings,” bray Ben Shapiro’s followers. But rhetoric has always relied on affect and feeling, not just the calculated rousing of the audience’s emotions, but the deeper feeling that speech itself is somehow privileged, truer.

It’s ironic, perhaps, that the self-styled champions of reason, rationality, and facts-over-feelings argue not only from positions of bad faith, but also from a fetishized belief in the preternatural power of speech itself. The phonocentric reflex betrays a form of quasi-mystical thinking, a regressive nostalgia for some bygone state of nature—a faith that’s about as delusory as believing that the healing powers of the Earth’s sun can sufficiently disinfect something spoiled.