The Art of Debate

Ah more backlash in the news, this time because Jack Monroe (A Girl Called Jack – single mother who clawed her way out of poverty) dared to suggest that David Cameron uses the death of his son to avoid questions on selling off the NHS.

Cue hundreds of people sending abuse her way about how heartless she is, how karma should have her die, or delightfully, how her child should die because of her tweet. And some say that it’s Americans that don’t understand irony…

At the same time my partner is having a running twitter argument with UKIP supporters who accuse her of being bigoted because she says she’d have trouble being friends with someone who had racist or sexist views. Yes, how dare you be so close-minded that you can’t remain friends with those that think less of you because you’re a woman, or because you were foolish enough to be born a different race. You should respect their beliefs. You don’t have to agree that they’re superior, but you shouldn’t judge them because they think of you so poorly, freedom of speech and all that. Hmm, quite…

This is one of the things I despise about Twitter; the opportunity for debate, is limited to 140 characters and generally just degrades to back-and-forth ad hominem attacks against those with opposing views to oneself and no space for evidential citations. Ad Hominem is latin for ‘to the person’ (actually ‘to the man’ but in our enlightened way we even let women speak their minds now) and is a form of argument generally reserved for those who do not know how to debate the topic, those who have no idea on how to debate any topic, and those who refuse to debate the topic because they know they’re already right and you’re just a cretin anyway so why discuss the issue?

The Debate of Socrates and Aspasia
“I find your views intriguing and I should like to subscribe to your newsletter” [Source: Wikimedia Commons]
Here’s how debate is meant to proceed –

Bob: I think David Cameron is taking advantage of the death of his son to avoid criticism about welfare and NHS reforms.
Cecil: That seems somewhat cynical, as a parent myself I could think of nothing worse than losing a child to illness.
Bob: I completely agree, the pain of the loss must be terrible and I’m not disputing that, but look here’s a video where he avoids criticism of welfare reform by bringing up his tragedy to change the subject. And lo! Here’s another where he refuses to dismiss a Tory lord for saying disabled people should work for £2/hour because “I don’t need lectures from anyone about looking after disabled people, so I don’t want to hear any more of that.”
Cecil: Hmm, I can see where you’re coming from but I would hope that he wouldn’t consciously try to benefit from the tragic loss of his son after the event.
Bob: Perhaps not, but please do not take offence if I maintain my feelings because of the evidence to the contrary. Would you like a slice of cake?
Cecil: That would be lovely, debate does invigorate one so.

Here’s how it actually went:

Bob: I think David Cameron is taking advantage of the death of his son to avoid criticism about welfare and NHS reforms.
Angela: I have no idea who you are, but you are a truly disgusting specimen. You deserve the biggest karmic kick in the face. (Actual tweet from an apparent law student, you know, the job where you’re meant to argue intelligently)

One of the best things I learned at school was how to debate, because it’s a genuinely excellent tool for learning and for empathy. When one debates it is not necessarily going to be arguing the case for something one believes in, but to argue the point purely for the purpose of the debate itself.  But to debate truly effectively one must know both sides of an argument in order to counter any points, in other words; one has to see the opponents point of view, perchance even to empathise with said point of view. Obviously one cannot win a debate by argumentum ad hominem or indeed any other number of logical fallacies.

A debate held in the old Senate House.
“And I put it to the learned chamber that the motion must not pass because the right honourable gentlemen calling for the abolishment of slavery have a distinctly effeminate manner and furthermore smell strongly of poo” [Source: Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons]
And this is one of the things that makes twitter so exhausting/draining; thousands of people arguing with no empathy at all for the other side. Debate is supposed to be invigorating; it can keep you up all night discussing, exploring new points-of-view, arguing, counter-arguing, and when it is over leaving you richer for the experience. In twitter arguments there rarely seem to reach moments of “hmm, that’s an interesting point”, the entire thing is just an extended game of pigeon chess.

Pigeon Chess: A game in which one can make no end of clever moves, but the end result will always be your opponent knocking over the pieces, shitting on the board and strutting around like they’ve won.

Now reading the twitter ‘debate’ on this Jack Monroe thing it seems that large chunks of both sides are playing pigeon chess. From the way I’ve personally seen it, David Cameron has used the death of his son, which I have no doubt he felt as any other human being would, for political manoeuvring; I have seen the videos, and I have read the Hansard transcripts. Looking rationally at this it seems that he does indeed do what Jack Monroe stated, perhaps not as literally, but he does so nonetheless. One may not like the way Jack says this but I don’t think that dismisses the truth behind the statement.

But advocates from either side braying about Tory scum or Labour apologists, let alone death threats, achieves nothing at all except people getting bored and wandering off which isn’t the way to win a proper debate or even an election for that matter.

a pigeon who cannot play chess
All your arguments are invalid because I just ate my body weight in laxatives. Check-mate bitches, see you at number 10. [Source: Wikimedia Commons]
Sadly though, the ‘proper’ way to win doesn’t even matter these days, just that one can walk off proudly knowing that nobody can be bothered listening to anybody any more and feeling better now they’ve taken that massive great dump.

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I am a geek, photographer, historian, cook, craftsman, film maker, writer, modeller, video & board gamer, reader, lover, gardener, politico, traveller and eater of foods. I only do one of these things for a living (hint: it's not being a lover. Not saying that I couldn't, just, well, you know).

2 thoughts on “The Art of Debate”

  1. Reblogged this on uaccmsph2303 and commented:
    A very interesting and appropriate discussion on debate. This is, sadly, one of the things I see most frequently ill-utilized in our culture. Either a lack of information, or a lack of care frequently seem to be at the heart of the matter. Empathy and critical listening skills are essential for this to work.


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