Debate Is Not Pointless.

Debate Is Not Pointless. August 10, 2012

I am answering objections to my comments moderation policy that asks for no insulting language and for slowness to make personal attacks. Familiarity with previous posts should not be necessary for new readers to understand the discussion below.

Objection 4: It is pointless to debate with religious people and non-progressives since they never change their minds anyway. So why bother being nice to them or creating a hospitable environment for them?

Reply 4: First of all, this is a counter-productive attitude because if we want our ideas and values to be adequately effectual in the world we need to persuade those who presently do not share them. However obstinate they may be, we need to bring them over to our side. Period. While not every forum has to be committed to that purpose, we need some to be. This is one of them. I hope my writings can appeal to open-minded people across all spectrums and to help open the minds of those presently closed.

Secondly, we do not need to debate our opponents only to win them to our side. We need to debate them in order to moderate their positions. When people are isolated into non-communicating groups, their differences grow, rather than diminish. Dialogue forces concessions. If religious people or non-progressives only talk to each other, they will only ever reinforce their commonalities and their prejudices and radicalize. Same goes for us.

Therefore, while it is good for groups to have some spaces for talking amongst themselves and breaking new ground within their paradigms, it is also valuable for them to have outside influences that sharpen them through conflict and that check their excesses. We need to do that for our opponents and they need to do it for us. And this happens all the time.

We cannot underestimate how valuable it is when in the middle of an argument you say, “surely you cannot mean x” and someone who has not actually ever clarified their view on x decides that “no of course not!” whereas had they only talked to likeminded people, some day someone else would have said, “surely x is true” and they would have said “of course!” That’s how we moderate each other. In part it is by being there helping influence people as they work out distinctions they had never thought about before. They may not come away having conceded our main arguments but lots of other concessions with inestimable possible future benefits may have been achieved.

Thirdly, in public forums lots of people are watching. Debating with a hardheaded person is worth it for that reason. It allows the fence sitters to observe. It allows numerous standard objections to be refuted, maybe for the first time for some people. It is so very worth the effort to have these public debates. And staying civil during them counts for a lot of moral high ground among people in the middle and prevents people who are frustrated with your logic from gaining a legitimate excuse (your inability to act decently towards fair and sincere opponents) to write you off.

Fourthly, even where you think someone is being stubborn because they will not simply concede your point that you find obvious, you have no idea the long-term effects of any given argument. People will inevitably entrench and dig in their heels during an argument and seem closedminded and intractable. You never know what they will wind up saying in their next argument or what conversions or deconversions lay ahead. I have changed my mind so many times and about so many things, and all primarily through rational debate, that I know this happens, even (or especially!) with as tenacious a debater as I am, who holds as strong opinions as I do. In fact, it is precisely because I spare no idea the most intense scrutiny I am capable of that it has every chance of convincing me, if only it holds up. I never stop listening. I never stop debating. I never stop learning.

Fifthly, an argument that seems like it should be obvious is new to others. They are often not hearing it for the millionth time even though you are saying it for the millionth time. They are often not being just obtuse but trying to thoroughly interrogate an idea before believing it.

I get it that there are also people who don’t want to get it. But even they will inevitably be forced into more concessions if you argue with them than if you ignore them.

I get that is hard to feel like you have to individually explain the same thing to a million different people and still have to start all over again everyday. I am a professional teacher, that’s what my job is like. I also constantly deal, as an atheist, with Christians too lazy to understand even the basics of what irreligious people think before criticizing us and advocating for incoherent ideas.

I also get it that if you belong to any of a number of marginalized groups you have the frustrating task of answering ignorant questions or correcting ignorant statements as a never-ending curse in life. I also totally understand it if you don’t want the job of educator, whether online or in person, and personally abstain from these debates for a hiatus or forever. Such debates should not have to run your life or your blog if they exhaust you or make you miserable or hold you back from living positively and unfettered by others’ bigotries.

But don’t disparage the value of debate for those willing to engage. Do not be so discouraged by the seeming obtuseness of your opponents. People’s minds are changing all the time. It does work. While the relative lack of moral respect and recognition that gays (for just one example) still get is appalling, the polls tracking change of public opinion over the span of just a couple of decades is frankly staggering. The relentless efforts to counter dehumanization of gays has drastically turned the tide. There is a huge amount left to do. Any given day, any given social justice or truth cause can seem impossible and futile. It can always feel like you are talking to an unresponsive wall. But beliefs and values are changing everyday and while you cannot fix the world in a single conversation you can be part of the team tugging towards justice and rationality and making sure the only ones tugging are not the unjust and the irrational.

The other side is tugging hard as they can, don’t ever forget that. Last winter, Joe Scarborough said something that struck me and stuck with me. He said that Ronald Reagan gave the same speech for thirty years. In its essentials it was the same speech from the beginning to the end of his political career. He just drummed his message in until now we live in a world where his platitudes are unquestionable dogmas to a sizable, closed-minded, religiously regressive portion of the country that is a huge drag on the country as it makes the gutting of the government and the raiding of the treasury by oligarchs matters of dogmatic, unshakeable principle.

We need to be as resolute in repeating ourselves as Reagan was if we are to counter that influence. Every week, countless churches commit to tirelessly miseducating children and to telling the adult parishioners the same false stories and inculcating all of them with the same dubious values. Over and over, week after week, they are relentless about getting their ideas out. They use every psychological means at their disposal to make their influence over as many people as possible as resilient as it can be. They will travel the world over for converts, they will give up their time, their money, and their interpersonal comfort zones for a single soul. They also outnumber us by quite a margin–in places like America at least.

So, we need to find the energy and the doggedness to keep fighting as best we can and the openness to engage as many educable people on as many fronts, including rigorously abstract philosophical ones, as we can.

Camels With Hammers is a blog for those indefatiguable idealists willing to keep debating even those who others write off as lost causes, as long as they will be civil and heed warnings against creating a hostile environment for others. If that does not sound fun or healthy for you to be involved with personally, I get that. Take care of yourself. But when you’re here, just don’t lose your temper when a constructive debate is possible and might educate (or at least moderate) someone who is now an enemy but need not be in the future.

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