No, I Don’t Want To Take Part In Your Stupid Debate. By James Delingpole.
The tyranny of the glib:
The art of rhetoric, after all, is about winning an argument or successfully pushing an agenda regardless of whether or not you have right or justice on your side. And weirdly, instead of being fearful or wary of such tricksiness, our culture encourages it. We celebrate oratory and the power of persuasion everywhere from school and university debating chambers, to parliament to the advertising industry to newspaper op-eds to our courts of law. The people who are good at it we reward with vast riches and almost limitless power; the people who are not so good at it– even if they are the ones who are morally and factually in the right — are expected to take their place, with good grace, as society’s also rans. …
If you ask me who benefits from rhetoric I’d say, in the first instance, the yarn-spinners, the weavers of words, the silver-tongued. But the bigger beneficiaries of rhetoric, of course, are those who employ them to advance their cause. That’s why oligarchs and Saudi princes pay London QCs top dollar to preserve their interests in the courts. It’s why, in a recent Succession, Shiv got so cross when she discovered that her husband Tom had secured the services of ALL New York’s most aggressive divorce lawyers, meaning that she couldn’t use them herself. Implicit in all the above examples is the widely understood notion that truth — or as here, the rights and wrongs of a case — often comes a poor second to presentation. We take this state of affairs for granted but I don’t think we should because it is at the root of so much that is wrong with our civilisation. …
I want to make it clear at this point that I’m most certainly not arguing against eloquence, clarity, wit, structure, variety, rhythm, entertainment value or any of the other tricks used by public speakers to make their case more compelling. On the contrary, I tend to think that people who aren’t good at public speaking shouldn’t be engaging in it because they are doing a disservice both to their audience and their subject.
Truth does NOT necessarily triumph:
What I am saying, though, contra Areopagitica, is that the truth will not always out. It will not automatically defeat falsehood by dint of its essential truthiness, whose radiant integrity will make itself clear in the ears of all those listening.
I know this, inter alia, because of all the debates in which I have participated over the years where — invariably though not always — my team’s cogent arguments against the lunacy of environmentalism have been defeated by the other side’s wailing, often mendacious litany of the damage man has done to the planet and of the urgent need to take expensive, intrusive action to stop him doing any more.
Now we’ve already established, I hope, that the entire foundation of the environmental movement sits on a stagnant swamp of lies. …
But that hasn’t stopped the tenets of sustainability, and so on, becoming the dominant political narrative of our era. One reason for this is the point attributed to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, who in turn probably got it from Le Bon: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
“Debate” hasn’t stopped the many big lies that we live with today:
Our culture abounds with such lies: evolutionary theory; the Moon Landings [not sure about that one!]; the Kennedy assassination ‘lone gunman’ theory; almost everything we think we know about the First and Second World Wars; modern medicine; the benefits of vaccines; and on and on and on. If ‘debate’ is so helpful in enabling us to sift truth from falsehood, how come it has proved so singularly useless at protecting us from these deceptions? On the contrary, I would argue, that our culture of ‘debate’ actually entrenches them.
One reason for this is that ‘debate’ is so easy to rig. I used to experience this often in my mainstream media days: every time I’d go on the BBC to discuss a particular issue, I’d be doughnutted by three people fully on board, in their marginally differing ways, with the dishonest official narrative. What impression would this have given to the viewers and listeners, would you say? That the line I was arguing was a niche, minority position, natch!
Even when it’s one to one, though, and the encounter really is ‘free and open’, I’m still not convinced that truth has the advantage over falsehood. I wonder this every time I go into battle with Toby Young on our podcast London Calling. When I go out into the lists and argue, as above, that almost everything we have taught to believe from both is a lie, I’m not merely arguing against Tobes but against a paradigm which is daily reinforced and promoted by the entire structure of our civilisation: schools, universities, the media, the entertainment industry, the realm of politics, and so on. I’m forced to make my every point ab initio: I can assume no prior knowledge on the part of my sceptical audience. All Tobes has to do, on the other hand, is assume a tone of wry scepticism or even outright ridicule: “So you’re actually saying that…” It’s not a fair fight.
And suppose on that particular day that Tobes’s battery of rhetorical tropes — or the audience’s lifetime biases — mean that he appears to win the argument does it follow therefore that truth has prevailed? Of course not. Truth is an absolute. It exists independently of any and all cases made for or against it.
Debates are better at furthering the interests of the powerful than finding the truth:
Finding the truth of the matter is something that debate seems almost expressly designed NOT to do. It simply pits two sets of ideas against one another and allows the winner to be decided on the basis of the audience’s emotions and the speakers’ eloquence (or charisma, or mendacity or deviousness…).
It’s the equivalent of deciding the truth of something by trial by combat: the honest and just party is by no means the one most likely to prevail.
What debate also often does — and arguably this is even more dangerous — is to embed false notions of what is and isn’t acceptable by imposing arbitrary and loaded parameters (aka ‘the terms of the debate’) on the topic being discussed. Debates about climate change, for example, tend to be couched in terms that take as a given that the problem is real.
Here’s a recent example from the Oxford Union: ‘This house believes that low- and middle-income countries should be allowed to exploit their fossil fuel reserves.’ In fact, the only correct and true response to this motion is that every country in the world should be allowed to exploit their fossil fuel reserves because man-made global warming is a lie. Oh, and that that use of the word ‘allowed’ is both bizarre and sinister, because it presupposes that it is right that the world’s economy should be policed by supranational bodies with the power both to decide and enforce what is and isn’t permissible. But I doubt any of the people proposing the motion would have got that far. No doubt they thought they were being edgy enough merely by daring to suggest that fossil fuels shouldn’t be banned everywhere.