"Resolved: To depolarize America, we must not draw lines regarding the content of debates."
That was the resolution being debated a few weeks ago at a debate hosted by Braver Angels. (It was a sort of meta-debate, if you will: a debate about debates.) I argued in the affirmative, but I also learned something from the speeches in the negative: Each side came well-prepared with a variety of arguments. I also found the back-and-forth that occasionally ensued from a given line of argument to be productive and insightful.
I only spoke for two or three minutes, and afterward, I realized that I had a lot more to say on this topic. I also generally prefer writing to speaking for complex arguments, so what follows is a version of many of the thoughts that have occurred to me when thinking about this subject recently.
The first thing that I have to say on this issue is that, in a free and open society such as ours, the burden of proof should be on those who do believe in drawing lines regarding the content of debates. Even if the goal is not to depolarize America, but simply to discover what the truth is, and to share it, then drawing lines is directly contrary to that goal. A default stance of openness to ideas and epistemic humility should be our guiding principle when it comes to discourse.
Still, there are some reasons that we might want to exclude some perspectives from a debate. We discussed some of these at the debate in February. Those arguing in the negative spoke were concerned about the possibility of spreading misinformation, harmful rhetoric, the direct incitement of violence, and ideological disagreement.
While I think these are valid concerns, I don’t believe that any of them necessitate drawing lines regarding the content of debates. Instead, I argue that there are other, more prudential measures that a responsible organization should take regarding debate speakers and debate formats that are sufficient to guard against these concerns. I’ll briefly go through each one in turn.
The concern here is not over values but over facts: What are we to do when one debate opponent makes claims which are simply false and potentially dangerous? Isn’t it better to simply not leave some things – such as, say, that Joe Biden was the legitimate winner of the 2020 election – not up for debate?
It’s a valid question. I view the false information regarding the risk of getting the Covid vaccine, for example, as being quite dangerous. I would go so far as to say that it’s at least partly responsible for hundreds of thousands of needless deaths.
Moreover, some debate formats certainly could allow misinformation to be shared without being properly countered. One could imagine a loosely structured debate, in which one opponent steamrolls the other and presents a Gish gallop of arguments. They could make up new lies on the spot which can’t properly be fact-checked in real time and generally make a mockery of what a genuine good-faith debate should look like.
If it were possible, I would limit all debates to good-faith participants and exclude the bad-faith ones. We can’t read people’s minds to discern their intentions, however, so that option isn’t a viable one. The question of whether someone is acting in good faith is fairly subjective, and I also think it’s too similar to leaving the question of what topics to consider to debate. It can be all too easy to convince yourself that your debate opponents aren’t acting in good faith even when they are.
Still, I don’t think that all debate formats are equally vulnerable to the problem of spreading misinformation. I am not a debate expert, but I can at least in principle imagine that there are certain practices that you could enact to improve the quality of information being shared. Here are a few that come to mind:
- You could require the outline of an argument to be submitted ahead of time. You could further require that the debaters not deviate too much from the material that they provided. a. This would not mean limiting what they are allowed to say; this would simply mean requiring that they provide advance notice of what they are going to say and holding them accountable to that. For example, if there were a debate about whether one should get vaccinated for COVID, one could argue that the mRNA vaccines are a plot by Bill Gates, but if and only if one had stated up front that they were going to do so. This would allow the debater in favor of getting vaccinated sufficient time to prepare for arguing against that particular conspiracy theory.
- You could require that references be provided for claims of fact that are made. This would not mean only allowing certain sources of information, but it would bring greater clarity and transparency to the debate.
a. Checking the validity of references might be helpful here as well: Without limiting what sources are allowed, one could require that the sources cited actually say what the person citing them claims they say. While this would be a time-consuming task, it would likely be an excellent practice for getting to the root of the facts that are disputed.
b. If both parties agreed to it, then one could require that claims of fact be verified by an organization that adhered to an external standard, e.g. the International Fact Checking Network Code of Principles. This would be a practical means of addressing the philosophical question of how we actually know what we claim to know. While not necessary for a debate, it would be helpful to clarify how both parties think about verifying claims of fact before the debate had begun.
- Because one does not always get the chance to rebut all of the opposing points made, one could allow written rebuttals to be provided afterwards. These rebuttals would only address previous arguments made during the verbal portion of the debate.
Each of these policies would remain entirely agnostic to the quality of the arguments made or the sources referenced (with the exception of the fact-checking methodology idea, which is something both parties would have to agree to). Their purpose would not be to enforce a particular worldview or epistemic mindset but instead to bring greater clarity and precision to the debate.
In addition, there would be no requirement to rely on third party fact checkers or subjective judgments as to whether any particular rules about content were violated. This is because there are no rules about content, rendering that issue moot. On the other hand, there might still be a need for an independent judgment of whether the rules were adhered to. After all, if the rules are stated upfront but not adhered to by both parties, then there is no point in having the rules at all.
The above practices are not the only way to address the concern about misinformation, but they are one possible way to address the concern without limiting the subjects up for debate. I also want to offer the disclaimer that I am approaching this from more of a theoretical perspective than a practical one. It may be that the structure of debates that I suggested are not something that would attract many debate participants or debate viewers. Many of the proposed practices would take a lot of work. Yet practically everything that is high-quality requires a lot of work, so we shouldn’t let that stop us. I would rather watch one well-done debate – complete with references and a detailed exploration of the topic at hand – than ten on the same subject that are haphazard, include cheap rhetorical tricks, and leave the work of verifying claims up to the audience.
If all these suggestions turn out to be unworkable, then that would do a lot of damage to my arguments that rely on them. Still, I think that these rules, or something like them, are far preferable to the foreclosure of certain debate topics. As I see it, they are at least worth a shot before taking more drastic measures, given what should be our default preference for open discourse.
Regarding harmful rhetoric, I certainly agree that this is a downside of freedom of speech. Certain kinds of speech are very offensive. While there seemed to be a consensus in the Braver Angels debate that speech should not be silenced simply because it is offensive, it is worth taking the time to point out how difficult certain debate topics can be for the debaters and how much we are asking of them when we ask them to debate.
Put simply, should a black man have to argue for his basic dignity? Should a woman be made to argue for her equality to a man?
Ideally, no. Practically speaking, it might be necessary in some contexts. Historically, I think it certainly has been.
The writings of Frederick Douglass, for example, were so forceful in large part because they were made by a man who had been enslaved, beaten, and generally treated as lesser-than because of the racial category into which the dominant forces of society (mostly Anglo-American men and their institutions) had placed him. It is similarly hard to imagine the women’s suffrage movement without the suffragettes as being nearly as effective as it was.
I was glad to see that no one in the Braver Angels debate emphasized the idea of harmful rhetoric as a reason to prevent debates. Instead, folks were much more concerned about the danger of certain ideas being spread, or the appearance of giving two sides on a given issue equal weight. That lines up with my own thinking about the relative importance of these concerns as well.
The incitement of violence
This was a category that I hadn’t thought about before the debate, and it certainly gives me the most pause. There are certain kinds of speech, such as that encouraging imminent lawless action, that are not protected by the first amendment. While I don’t think we should draw lines regarding the content of debates as a general rule, this is one line I feel comfortable drawing. Illegal speech, narrowly defined as it is under first amendment case law, is not something that any responsible organization should host.
That still leaves a lot of open questions, though. What about the encouragement of violence at some unspecified time against some general group? That is (probably) protected by the first amendment, but should any responsible organization host a debate where one of the participants is doing that?
My honest answer here is “I’m not sure.” I hadn’t thought about this before partly because I’m not aware of this sort of thing happening. It seems to me that, if one is advocating for violence, one is usually past the point of wanting to debate the topic. A speech in favor of violence is the kind of thing I imagine being said to a crowd with torches and pitchforks, not on a debate stage next to someone who opposes you.
Still, while I am fairly confident in the ability of a well-structured, informed debate to lead to more good than harm, I am hesitant to take that risk when it comes to violence against my fellow human beings. So if there is a line that I feel comfortable drawing around the content of debates, the advocacy of violence is probably going to be that line.
To define that a little more, the prohibition would be (let’s say) against advocating for the use of violence in the United States to achieve political ends or against a person or group of people. From a certain angle on things, that seems like a good line to draw.
Yet my inclination is to not draw that line. My reasoning is the same reason I am in favor of debating ideas generally: If there are bad ideas out there that large groups of people believe – and there certainly are – then we should want to air them in full view and rebut them as best we can. There has been talk recently of the possibility of civil war in this country. Thankfully, that still seems like a distant prospect, but what if the possibility grows? Should we not at least attempt to hash things out verbally before it comes to that? No one knows what that would even look like, but it would surely be a wrenching and bloody affair. I would say that we must do anything and everything that we can to prevent that from becoming a reality, up to and including allowing the idea to be debated.
What about those ideas that we simply can’t stomach? Are certain ideologies – those that advocate totalitarianism or lawlessness – just beyond the pale?
Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that liberal democracy, the form of government which I support, is incompatible with autocracy and anarchy in equal measure. No, in the sense that liberal democracy is not incompatible with debating these other forms of government. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it requires it. Democracy, by definition, allows people to vote against democracy; freedom of speech, by definition, includes the right of people to argue against freedom of speech.
Along the same lines, I think the strongest, most robust commitment to freedom and democracy includes a commitment to not proscribe certain ideologies from reasoned discussion. This is because in order to find out what ideas are best, we must not make any rules about which ideas are allowed.
Even for those that we know are bad, we don’t do ourselves any favors in the long run by disallowing the topic, at least in the abstract. That is to say, I don’t think it’s necessary in the US in 2022 to debate, for example, white supremacists. I think they’re still relatively small in number, and I don’t think their numbers are likely to grow all that much any time soon.
If I did think it was necessary to debate them, it would be because I was worried about their growing influence in society, and the purpose would be to convince the audience of the fallacy and moral error intrinsic to their ideology. To put this another way: I am confident enough in the equal worth and dignity of every human being that I am not afraid that a well-structured, informed debate on the topic, will in the long run, result in more white supremacists.
I say “in the long run” because it might be true that, in the short run, disallowing any debates with white supremacists does a good job of limiting the spread of white supremacist arguments. I don’t think it does over a sufficiently long period of time (years or decades), however. I think this because I think those who might be attracted to the ideology are going to find the arguments for it if they really want to, and they are going to find them convincing if they really want to. I think this is probably true of anything that I believe: The persuadable ones – those who truly could go in either direction – will, on average, come to believe what is right when they are presented with the best case for both sides. We should therefore do our part to make sure that any hateful or harmful ideology has a sufficient and robust counterargument readily findable by anyone who is looking for it.
In Closing: A Philosophical Argument
Finally, let me put it this way: Vladimir Putin is afraid of ideas. Xi JinPing is afraid of ideas. Kim Jong Un is afraid of ideas. Tyrants will always seek to prevent certain ideas from being spread, but should we?
I will admit that I, too, am afraid of ideas – afraid that lies and evil ideologies will continue to spread and cause real harm in the world. The difference between us and authoritarian regimes should not be our fear of ideas. We are probably less afraid of ideas on net, but it would be foolish to not be afraid of them, at least on some level. Instead, the core difference should be in how we respond to them.
Simply because we allow all perspectives in a debate does not mean that we can't draw lines regarding the structure or format of debates. Instead of disallowing perspectives with which we vehemently disagree, we should prepare ourselves to argue fervently against those perspectives and do our best to persuade those who are still unsure about where they stand.
There are a couple other things that either came up in the debate or are tangentially related to the topic that I wanted to mention briefly.
- There was some concern about the idea of giving the appearance of equal weight to two sides of an argument, even when one side is morally abhorrent or just factually incorrect. I share this concern to some degree, but I am not sure how much this affects things in practice. I would think that the very sort of people who are likely to view both sides of a given argument as live options would be the ones most open to changing their mind given a persuasive argument. For example, I don’t think a well-structured, informed debate about whether the Earth is flat will result in more flat-Earthers, though I do think that it might reassure some people who had some doubts about whether it could be. I also think that if an organization is known for hosting debates that are sometimes controversial, then it would not be seen by many as giving either side the imprimatur of acceptability. This is a question that I think might be open to empirical investigation, however, so I am certainly open to more arguments or data on the subject.
- I want to be clear that I don’t think it’s wise to seek out the most controversial topics and debate them. We shouldn’t seek out the most outlandish or horrible ideas for their entertainment value, or to show how open-minded we are, or to show how capable we are at being a devil’s advocate. Rather, if an idea is gaining traction (or is already popular), and we oppose it, we should be willing to debate it, regardless of how dubious or backwards that idea is.
- Braver Angels recently published this Guidelines on Tolerance document, which touches on many of the things that I addressed above.