The process of debate is one of the founding principles of democracy. The notion of ‘debate’ rests upon the fact that bad ideas and toxic points of view can be weeded out using a mixture of logic, evidence, and critical thinking. Debating culture, however, has often been marred by the stereotypical ‘devil’s advocate’ player.
A ‘devil’s advocate’ is someone who doesn’t want to really own up to their own ‘problematic’ views, yet will argue for them regardless. They’re annoying to come across, but their importance tends to get blown out of proportion. I can’t even begin telling you how many boring, ill-informed white men I’ve seen play ‘devil’s advocate’ on race issues or gender discussions. However, they tend to naturally make asses of themselves without much outside help.
When taken seriously, the ‘devil’s advocate’ can be easily dismantled. Their ideas are usually nothing more than half-baked, edgy phrases that they saw on Reddit with no real research or empirical evidence to back them up. Problems then begin to arise when they are immediately shouted down as ‘racists’ or ‘transphobes.’
Don’t get me wrong, they may very well be those things. Therefore, calling them out for being so seems like the right thing to do, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it’s been made clear that this approach, no matter how right or direct it may seem to be, is only used as ammunition towards the people they argue against.
It allows them to behave as if they are martyrs for the ‘intellectual dark web’. Their ideas are so radical and true that they can’t be debated against because they’re supposedly so superior. They endure the cries of ‘Racist!’ and ‘Transphobe!’ in the name of some twisted idea that they’re the only advocates of truly free intellectual debate.
Their sick delusions of martyrdom are only exacerbated by the predominantly left-wing pundits who re-enforce the idea that their points of view aren’t worth debating. Nadia Whittome, a Labour MP for Nottingham East recently tweeted:
‘We must not fetishise debate as though debate is itself an innocuous, neutral act.’
Nadia, whose literal job it is to debate political, economic, and social policy within the realms of western democracy, thinks that sometimes debate is not necessary.
How does Nadia propose the way in which we decide what is wrong and what is right? Do we just all accept that whatever she says is invariably the correct train of thought? Are we expected to just bow down to our new ‘1984’-style overlords?
It doesn’t matter how heinous or out-of-date someone’s views are, they must be debated because that is exactly what debate is for. The more disgusting someone’s ideology, the easier it is to systematically dismantle within the realms of debate. By embarrassing and taking down obviously wrong ideas, we can dissuade others from rallying around those same, awful viewpoints. However, if we continue refusing to engage in debate with these people, we are only giving them some kind of sacred ‘non-debatable’ status which serves to only attract more people to their cause.
Debate can be challenging. I can only imagine how awful it feels to have to argue against someone who denies that your race should be allowed civil rights, or that people of your sexuality shouldn’t be allowed to adopt children. But if we don’t engage with these people, how will we ever show others who are on the fence about an issue just how wrong and awful the other side of the argument really is?
Martin Luther King JR. once said:
“A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.”
No-one currently embodies this advice more than Daryl Davies. A former professional musician, Davies has dedicated his time to curing the American racism epidemic through education and debate. As a black man, he has convinced over 200 members of the KKK to hand in their robes and change their minds on race relations. Davies didn’t achieve this by shouting down their disgusting ideas or by refusing to argue with them, he did it by engaging in conversation and debate with people who not even a week previously would rather have seen him dead.
Another perfect example of healthy debating culture lies with James O’Brien and his LBC show. O’Brien takes calls from anyone and everyone and conducts short debates with them on topics from Brexit to breakfast. It doesn’t matter how backwards or progressive his callers’ views may be, he will probe and dissect them with the same ferocity regardless of political agenda.
By using your voice, you can make a difference. By engaging with awful people, you are able to dismantle and dissuade their awful ideas. We should stop villainizing and ostracizing those who choose to defend progressive ideas by engaging in conversation with people we disagree with. The act of debate itself is not an omission that our adversaries have a point worth discussing, it is a battle where we can defeat their regressive ideology.
To advance as a society, we must once again embrace open debate. That is how progress is made; not by silencing our enemies, but by exposing their ideas for what they truly are.
Words by Olly Singleton