They don’t actually want to debate us.
These people–mostly men, mostly white–claiming that we’re destroying the world by shutting down debate? These people claiming that blocking someone instead of hashing out their issues (personal or political) is damaging public discourse? These people claiming that telling them to “get bent” is abridging their freedom of speech?
Yeah, that’s as far as they really want things to go. Complaining bolsters their reputations, at least among the people who don’t think things through. It generates easy content. It garners cheap outrage. It requires neither work nor accountability. Smears and insinuations are much, much simpler.
That’s a big reason there aren’t many of these debates. Sure, plenty of people aren’t willing to directly debate racism and sexism any more than they’re willing to share a stage or their spotlight with creationists. Some people refuse to be harassed into a debate. Some people know debate is bad both for getting at the truth and because framing every disagreement as a debate is bad for communication. But when the smear merchants come up against someone who is willing to engage them directly, they tend to get a bit scarce.
Take, for example, “The Amazing Atheist” (aka a number of names, but we’ll call him “Kirk” here, since that’s the last name he’s currently using publicly) deciding not to debate Martin Hughes. If you want the full backstory on this one, you’ve got some catching up to do. Niki’s got an entertaining post that gets us up through a week ago. Hughes kept on writing, so you can start here and move forward. If you want the piece that will make you feel better, try this one.
Note particularly, however, this post where Hughes sees Kirk complain about someone else blocking people on Twitter and challenges him to debate and this post, wherein Kirk declines after agreeing. His reason for declining?
He stated that he would not defend the idea that he wasn’t racist in a debate. To be exact, though, the debate is not about whether HE is racist; it’s about whether the blanket statement “black culture is a victim cult” isseems strange to me, as he defended it as not racist on his show without me there. But the moment I proposed answering back…he backed down.
This refusal seems strange to me, as he defended the concept that this statement wasn’t racist several times on his show without me there. The moment I proposed answering back, and jumped through all the hoops he set up…he backed down.
Maybe you buy this, but he’d already spent several hours, publicly and privately, on the proposition that his statement wasn’t racist. He had already focused, to the exhaustion of several people following the situation. Now he didn’t want to when the time came to debate directly.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen free-speechifying, anti-echo-chamber, intellectual-rigor-defending atheists clamor for people to be willing to debate them only to clam up when they get what they say they want. Take that ridiculous “dialogue” I participated in three years ago.
We were a year into the debate over codes of conduct at secular movement events. I’d seen an episode of “Ask an Atheist” set up to talk about me being “dogmatic”, called in to discover they meant I wasn’t polite and accommodating, then had them set up another show so they could make their point again without me there to argue. I’d been seen D.J. Grothe accuse me on no evidence of scaring women away from atheist and skeptic conferences. I’d seen Russell Blackford call me “Talibanesque” and say he was cool with me being harassed. I’d seen representatives from Seattle Atheists and Oklahoma Atheists in the Slymepit.
I was being harassed by pitters, but even more annoyingly, I was being simultaneously ignored and smeared by people with influence in the movement. This group wasn’t willing to engage with the realities of what I was saying and doing (though plenty of others were, which is why codes of conduct are basically standard now and we’re talking about improving implementation instead), but they were still talking about me.
Then along came Mick Nugent and his insistence on dialogue as a path to resolution. He wasn’t the first person to insist we should all get along. He was the first I thought knew he had something to lose by hosting a dialogue that wasn’t well-controlled. He was the first who ought to have enough clout to get the people who wouldn’t engage with me to engage.
So I said I’d do it. I gave him a list of names of leaders who ought to be engaging in discussion over this if they wanted a united movement. None of them participated. For all I’m supposed to hate and avoid debate, I was the only person of any standing willing.
That left me with Slymepitters. It didn’t reduce the pressure on me from third parties to make everything better by talking it all out. It just meant the only people supposedly prepared to engage me on the issues were the same people who’d been harassing or encouraging harassment of me and my colleagues. I didn’t really think they knew what they were getting into, but I agreed.
I was right. They stopped participating when they couldn’t cut things I said that they didn’t like. Not much of a debate when that happens.
This was not a surprise. That only pitters participated was not a surprise. That they stopped once they saw what was happening was no surprise. That Kirk backed out of debating Hughes was not a surprise. It wasn’t a surprise when Milo Yiannapoulos backed out of debating Ben Shapiro.
None of these people wanted debate. They wanted control. Saying we won’t debate them/are shutting down dialogue/censor, censor, censor is about controlling how people view us and our ideas. It’s one big ad hominem argument, usually against change.
If they wanted debate, they’d turn down the volume a little bit. They’d certainly put the brakes on harassment, from them or from their fans. They’d find spaces and formats that put people on even footing and make sure people could be heard.
Instead they shout. Spittle-flecked rants at dinner, multiple videos in desperate need of edits, novellas of repetitive grievances, name-calling and slur-filled comments wherever they can find someone to host them, association of holding certain positions with slurs, complaints when we’re given a stage, encouraged or even coordinated pile-ons–this is what they offer while they claim to want debate. None of them are exactly conducive to even the combative exchange of ideas.
It is, however, conducive to making sure no one pays much attention to anyone engaging on the issues. It’s already hard enough to get people to pay attention to the issues. Yelling, time-wasting, and harassment don’t make it any easier for people to think. The ad hominems make them less likely to want to.
That’s the real function of “You don’t want to debate” in this context. It isn’t to get you to debate. It’s there to say there’s something wrong with you. That’s why the offer disappears once you drag the argument into the reality of terms and conditions and making sure no one profits from the debate. It wasn’t real to begin with.
Remember that the next time you hear it. If it’s aimed at someone else, take it with all the salt. If it’s aimed at you, consider saying, “A week from Wednesday, neutral territory. Let’s talk format.” I expect the response will be enlightening.