No Debate

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.

Screen capture of Obama-McCain debate with McCain's tongue out and him gesturing widely while off-balance.
I imagine the debate would have looked something like this. “Debate” by David Poe, CC BY-ND 2.0

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” is racist.Which seems 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.

{advertisement}
No Debate
{advertisement}
The Orbit is still fighting a SLAPP suit! Help defend freedom of speech, click here to find out more and donate!

19 thoughts on “No Debate

  1. 1

    How discouraging to hear about fellow atheists in the Slymepit, and just the whole attitude on display by these folks in general. I mean, I know it’s unfortunately common, but still. And especially the Oklahoma Atheists. My wife – the woman who had taught me more about feminism and beinga good ally than any ten people – helped found that group. Got on the news for it. So talk about forgetting your roots – OA was founded by a solid feminist, social-justice-warrior atheist. Sigh.

  2. 2

    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.

    Also, some people aren’t good at debates. I don’t do debates, since it’s not a form in which I express myself clearly or well. It’s perfectly valid to choose not to debate, and “I don’t want to” is a perfectly good reason. But offering to debate — no, aggressively challenging someone to debate — and then backing out when someone calls your bluff? That’s a sure sign that you didn’t actually want to hash out your differences. You just wanted to puff yourself up and look big.

  3. 3

    Some of the hardcore haters would disagree, and say they’re perfectly fine with a debate. They have a very peculiar definition of “debate” in mind, though, where both sides shout slogans into the night without critically appraising their merits. It’s an extension of what I’ve called the “treadmill of lies.”

    By endlessly cycling from myth to lie, they avoid having to consider any one in detail and thus can convince themselves they’re just a bunch of skeptical satirists.

    When this actually happens during a debate, we call it a “Gish Gallop.” This technique is a big problem with traditional, in-person debates, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that TJ Kirk was pushing for this format instead of a more leisurely exchange of blog posts. He knew he had nothing but slogans against Hughes’ arguments, and he knew those wouldn’t convince anyone but those already convinced. Unless there was some sort of reward involved, like cash or a raised profile, there was no point in “debating” Hughes. So he chickened out.

  4. 4

    “I’d seen representatives from Seattle Atheists and Oklahoma Atheists in the Slymepit.”

    I’m not sure how you intended that, but from the context, it looks to me like you’re treating participation in the Slymepit as an offense in itself, regardless of what a person is doing there. Is that really what you think?

  5. 5

    Incidentally, I agree with this:

    “… debate is bad both for getting at the truth and because framing every disagreement as a debate is bad for communication.”

  6. 6

    Oh, for fuck’s sake. Some pitter wants to debate me about their “satire”, cause it’s totes not harassment, you see.

    We’ve been having that debate in public for years, child. You’ve lost. That’s why you can’t command a venue with any respectability to lay out your “side” anymore. You were so bad that you tarnished them. See:

  7. 9

    Ms Svan, I’m not writing this to be published in the comments, unless you want it to. I just wanted to clarify my question, because “offense” wasn’t really the right word. I meant, do you see participation in the Slymepit as incriminating, in itself, regardless of what a person is doing there?

  8. 10

    Earlier this year I did a YouTube debate with Carl Benjamin (aka Sargon of Akkad) on the topic “Is Feminism Good for the World?” While I explained the good work of feminists worldwide, Carl decided to use his time to attack the social sciences. What, you may well ask, does that have to do with feminism? Nothing. However, since I am a political scientist he tried to attack me and science in order to avoid explaining his opposition to feminism.

    This shows these bloviating men are incapable of formulating coherent arguments when they are deprived of strawmen to knock down. When they can’t talk over someone, when they have to make one point, defend it with evidence and reasoning, and stay on topic they crumble like a tissue. Debates expose this, in the same way it exposes creationist lies and propaganda. No wonder TJ refuses to defend his own BS. He’s afraid of being exposed as the fraud he is.

  9. 11

    Ooh, revisionist history time. A different slymepitter is trying to say the dialogue ended because Ophelia Benson “doxed” Skeptickle–by using her first name in a comment. That comment? Published on May 27, 2013. The last responses in the dialogue? Mine, published April 15. *golf clap*

  10. 12

    I meant, do you see participation in the Slymepit as incriminating, in itself, regardless of what a person is doing there?

    What is a person doing there? What are you doing there? This isn’t just some place on the internet where people randomly find themselves trapped. “Gosh. How did I get here? How do I get out? Guess I’d better make the best of it.” You can follow those links in my comment above to find out what this place where you’re hanging out is there to do. You can read all the comments there about destroying FtB, The Orbit, Skepchick, Atheism+.

    The Slymepit didn’t just happen into existence. It has a purpose. That purpose isn’t subtle. The means aren’t subtle or ethical. You can’t just hang out there and not know any of that. You can’t be comfortable there without being comfortable with that. So, yes, your participation in the Slymepit is incriminating. It’s hardly as though you have nowhere else on the internet to go.

  11. 14

    …do you see participation in the Slymepit as incriminating, in itself, regardless of what a person is doing there?

    Do you see participation in a KKK rally as incriminating, in itself, regardless of what a person is doing there?

    Do you see participation in a neo-Nazi march as incriminating, in itself, regardless of what a person is doing there?

    Obviously somebody could be at a KKK rally or a Nazi march to try to argue against the other participants. But that’s really not very likely.

  12. 15

    Will do! I figure the reason is a mix of link-heavy comments and technical weirdness on my side; I occasionally get brick-walled at FtB, as well, so I’ve learned to shrug at it and move on.

  13. 16

    I’ve had a similar sort of problem with mainstream “skeptics”. They claim I’m wrong because I don’t buy into the official story but generally refuse to debate me when I can prove decisively that they are not on the side of science and rationality.

  14. 17

    Michael, you seem to be laboring under the same misapprehension that many of the people commenting here or on Twitter have about this post. I’m not saying anyone should debate. I’ve included several links about why debate isn’t a great means of getting at the truth. What I’m saying here is that people who don’t actually want to debate like to wave around “They won’t debate me!” as an ad hominem. That’s basically what you’re doing here. Links to the trutherism in your comment deleted, because this is not your advertising site.

  15. 18

    No that’s absolutely not what I am doing. I am saying I definitely do want to debate. “Skeptics” generally refuse to debate me. When they do debate, they do not deal with the issues.

    At one time these “skeptics” used the same tactic you are describing. They claimed no one could present rational science-based counterarguments. When people like myself presented these arguments, they ignored them (ran away). When they realized they could not deal with the serious problems with their crackpot beliefs they ran away from such debates.

    Speaking of ad hominem. You don’t deal with my arguments and just label them as “trutherism”. IOW you attack me instead of my arguments.

  16. 19

    Yes, Michael, this:

    I am saying I definitely do want to debate. “Skeptics” generally refuse to debate me.

    is exactly the kind of bullshit posturing I’m complaining about.

Comments are closed.