Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.
Throughout politics and beyond, the act of debating is often romanticised as some kind of pillar of civilised democracy, as a cornerstone of our very way of life. It is seen as integral to ideation and the quality and success of ideas themselves; it is the means of establishing truth. This, however, is not the reality in practice; debating brings neither truth nor ideas, nor does it benefit our democratic existence.
At the core of idealised debate is the notion that the “best idea” (if such a thing could notionally exist) will inevitably “win out” and yet, without wishing to rehash old arguments around a free marketplace of ideas, it is blatantly self-evident to all that this does not occur in reality. Indeed, this is true precisely because debating as a practice is one of style over substance. One only has to look to innumerable debating societies and clubs around today to see that, in debate, oratory skill is prized far greater than the ideas themselves, which are treated as mere means to the end of this self-congratulatory parlour performance. To treat debating as an art is to value form over content; its consequence: a generation of people who love to talk but have little to say. Far worse, once in positions of power, it creates a dangerous class of people who desire political power over political change.
Even away from this aestheticised “debate” of the clubs, debating fails to provide utility. The inherent flaw in debating—as a manufactured practice and a means to its own end—is, I think, laid bare in in-class debates. Such debates in my experience invariably fall into two kinds; the first, where the teacher requires the debaters to simply parrot the views of other, usually bygone, thinkers; the second, where participants debate their own, often half- baked, opinions. Whilst the case of the former resembles more of a scripted play than a debate, and the latter descends quickly into impasse, the effect of both is nevertheless identical: nothing.
And yet, this is not a problem within education; indeed, Model United Nations, for example, both embodies and reflects almost perfectly the impotent, farcical nature of United Nations debates. It is a problem within debating itself.
Consequently, political debates—from Prime Minister’s Questions to election debates—serve no tangible use to either the political or public realms. As above, they are entirely performative contests, waged to produce short sound-bites for social media. They are watched almost exclusively by people who have never in their life been undecided on any major political issues, who do not look to be dissuaded of their opinions, and who instead watch for the cheap gladiatorial point-scoring of their chosen side. Never have political debates truly changed people’s minds on anything other than the personalities of those involved.
Indeed, it is the pantomime Oxford Union-esque nature of contemporary political debating that is precisely what is wrong with politics. Debates in modern politics are utilised as a continuation of the Blairite neoliberal form of politics—one that is highly stylised and PR-centric—whereby politicians step out from behind their podiums, removing their jackets, and engage directly with you, the voter, for he is simultaneously just like you and better. Ironically, it is this form of politics—one that is all style over substance—that alienates the voter from the political class, that means they reject those of the metonymic bubble in favour of an outsider, one more substantively like them.
Away from frontline politics, party-political debates between individuals function in a similarly unfruitful manner. It is a result of the usually impromptu and verbal nature of these debates that four tactics are almost always used that ensure the futility of such debating.
The first is whataboutism—a participant will move the debate away from a topic about which they know little to one of their choice: “Yes, but what about when your party did x, y, and z …” This results in the ‘debate’ being more of an alternating list of statements, in which neither participant engages in what the other says.
The second is extremism. Almost every debate I have witnessed between, say, a Labour and a Tory member—even if it began concerning some minor parochial policy-decision—would rapidly devolve into more extreme topics unrelated to the original question, with popular go-to ‘gotchas’ like “120,000 people died from austerity” or “Gordon Brown sold all the gold”. That is certainly not to say that such issues are not vitally important—quite the opposite, in fact—but rather that this defensive rush to extreme responses prevents debating from occurring in the way in which debate is idealised.
The third is closely related: repeating party maxims. When a participant has nothing to say in reply, they will trot out the meaningless slogans or banal aphorisms like a mindless drone; how many times need we hear “long- term economic plan” or “strong and stable” or “Brexit means Brexit”? Do they aid in that rose-tinted ‘quest for truth’?
The fourth is common to all debating: the desperate final resort of ad hominem attacks, needless to say more. These aspects—inherent to debating in practice— go to show that not only does debating not cultivate ideas, but it actively stifles original independent thought, solidifies one’s convictions, and prevents true debate.
Without wishing to romanticise academia, true debate occurs within the Academy in that a) it is largely written and so avoids the desperation and immediate need-for-reply that leads to some of debating’s worst excesses, b) as a result it needs not play to an audience, and c) it is conducted by those operating at the height of their respective fields.
What is the point in, for example, the current public “debate” surrounding Trans Rights both on and off the pages of the broadsheets, if the distinction between sex and gender has been understood since the time of second wave feminism, and the academic consensus has long-since been reached whereby the validity of Trans identities is no longer considered a matter for debate?
I am certainly not arguing that people ought not to debate any matter they see fit, rather I am suggesting that they should come to understand that the true debate on almost all matters has moved far beyond their conception, and the victory of some ideas over others has been and gone and the battlefield is long-since cold. This is not a matter of differing to the superiority of one’s intellectual superiors but rather in acknowledging the limitations of one’s knowledge and the comparative worth of one’s arguments.
Debating as I have criticised it above is not an aberration from debating as it should be performed; it is an inevitable result of it. Debating as an act is futile because it is fruitless, worthless because it is unsubstantive, populist when it ought to be logical; it is, in short, antithetical to true debate.
James Fisher, BSc Politics and International Relations