A certain type of thinking seems benign but is, in fact, dangerous. Having shed the yoke of this perspective, and observed how many people believe in this underlying theory, I feel it is important to speak out about this now. It’s not a malicious or insidious thought, nor actively violent nor prejudiced, but it has played a hand in the proliferation of these problems.
I am referring to the notion that everything is up for debate, that discourse will inevitably solve all of the world’s problems.
As an American citizen raised in American schools, I was taught about the virtues of debating anything and everything, through mock debates and through the knowledge of our history. After all, our two-party system is supposedly fueled by two opposing viewpoints coming together to learn more about each other and finding a compromise. Compromise is apparently always the proper solution when two sides go head to head. Debate, be it legal, educational, governmental, is the foundation of countless fictional and historical stories. A good argument or discussion is fun to watch and, for many, fun to take part in. This permeates every part of our culture: the concept that, if you are right, facts and arguments will always bring your opponent into the proverbial light, and if you are wrong, you will change your stance. This is a noble and naïve ideal, and one that I don’t intend to snuff out entirely.
Debate and discourse are wonderful things. Communicating who you are and what you believe are part of being alive. Arguments and intellectual disputes can be crucial to building your identity, and debates sharpen and define policies. I am not against debate and discourse themselves; if no one ever expressed themselves, nothing could ever be understood. However, I do not believe that the practice of debate is universally, indiscriminately applicable. It is not only untrue, it is actively harmful. Unfortunately, not everything is up for debate.
In their ideal form, discursive conversations exist to give everyone involved a voice and a platform, time to express what they know and believe, and the chance to be challenged by someone whose knowledge and beliefs are in some way opposed. Through this, everyone involved becomes empathetic towards the opposition, and ultimately, everyone is changed for the better, having compared their insight to someone else’s. It’s a nice idea, and it even happens sometimes! But, conceptually, this only works in a setting in which platforms are equal and everyone has something valuable to bring to the table.
As much as all of us want this to be true, it isn’t. It just isn’t. There are generally two categories of people involved in these debates: people who have been historically and systemically suppressed and oppressed who are more often argued about than argued with, and those whose entire discursive identity is either contrarian or violent, doing nothing but harm those who cannot speak with them on equal terms within these public systems.
For me, this idea began to crystallize almost two years ago, during The Argus controversy that still hangs over this section. My loyalty to the paper and how much it has done for me as a person, a writer, and a student, led me to take a stance I am now diametrically opposed to: that all opinions should be put into daylight, and that toxic beliefs will wither when exposed to the sun. To that end, I began to try and discuss this notion with others, but it wasn’t helpful. It was silencing to the many that were hurt, and it was ranking an ideal and an ideology over the well-being of people.
Prioritizing ideology over people is one of the most blindingly stupid and parasitic qualities of modern discourse. And I supported it, with the clear-eyed, liberal belief in the power of debate. I was part of the problem, and I will do everything I can to not be part of that problem again.
This being said, what I didn’t even realize at the time was something that I’d addressed in previous opinion pieces: the ideology-over-people methodology does not wither when applied. It actually thrives. The alt-right was a fringe group until it was dragged out, until someone decided that overt white supremacy should be given a platform. If you are debating bigotry, intelligent bigotry, it’s designed to be debatable. Facts, figures, and arguments can be disputed, and the doubt sown by that dispute delegitimizes them. The most salient example is the recent travel ban, which is a vile, evil piece of legislation. During its first enactment, I saw well-meaning people use statistics and information to supposedly refute this bill, to prove it to be the overt, grossly nativist piece of legislature it is. But logic can always be re-refuted. While the lives of refugees are displaced, ruined, and lost, the debate goes on. It rages on while the voices that truly matter go unheard. It often comes from a well-meaning place, but also one of ignorance.
I am not arguing for any sort of authoritarianism, a place where debate, discourse, and dissent are put aside in favor of a single voice. Debate and discourse are crucial parts of our communication, an absolutely necessary element of being human beings. But for too many, too often, for too long, it has been thought that these sacred, unimpeachable ideals should not and could not ever be questioned. That they are the solution to every problem. And they’re not. We cannot argue whether or not transgender people are biologically people. That is absurdly insulting and can only hurt, hurt, hurt. We cannot argue whether some religions and races are more or less violent than others. For those who cannot argue back, while our argument suspends, damages, and ends their lives, discourse and debate aren’t the noble, democratic tools of an advanced society. They are a weapon with direct consequences on those who need our help the most. It’s our job to understand, then, that some things just cannot be up for debate.