Tag Archives: knowledge

Why I’m not debating

I don’t like debating. It’s now something I tend not to engage with, and when I find people who want to argue recreationally, I tend to express an absence of opinion. I very much like being in situations where I can exchange ideas with people, but as soon as we’re into arguing and winning or losing, I’m out.

The win/lose approach of the debate means people have more invested in making their point than in deepening their understanding. That often means that the pushiest, thickest skinned and most aggressive debater wins – it’s not really about ideas at all. It promotes a culture where aggression carries the day and opinions supported loudly are more important than facts and experience. I will not be part of that.

It’s rare that these debates are balanced. The odds are that one person knows more than another. If I’m in a situation where someone has more firsthand experience than me, or more academic insight than me, I want to listen to them. Their knowledge and experience is clearly of more worth than my less informed opinion. Put me in that scenario I won’t debate, but I may well ask a lot of questions.

Sometimes I’m on the other side of this as the person who knows the stuff. I will – time and energy permitting – cheerfully dig in and share that with anyone who is interested. But, I’m not inclined to offer that up so that someone who knows less than me can try to shoot me down with their opinion. If I have knowledge and experience, and that isn’t being recognised there’s not much point being in the conversation.

In my experience, people who argue recreationally don’t invest much time in finding out what the other person really knows. This is especially problematic around firsthand experience. Wanting to argue with someone about their life experiences and how they interpret them, is deeply problematic and there’s a lot of it on social media. White people who want to argue with Black people about experiences of racism. Men who want to argue with women about sexism. We should not be debating people’s lives for fun or to reinforce power imbalance and prejudice. We need to listen to each other more, and recognise that an uninformed opinion isn’t worth bringing to the conversation.

Debating takes energy. As a consequence it tends to be an activity that goes with privilege. The less privilege you have, the less likely you are to have the time, energy and emotional resources to argue with people. This is weaponised. I see far too much effort online going into exhausting people who are trying to make changes and get their voices heard. Debating people can be an oppressive thing to do, and deliberately so. Demanding that people educate you while you try and pick holes in them is nasty stuff. There’s rather a lot of it out there.

The only way to truly win a debate is to not waste energy on it. The people who can afford to argue for the fun of it, to play devil’s advocate, to indulge in their opinions and to shout down those who disagree are not owed anything. They do not deserve anyone’s time. No matter how they demand attention and the right to play this particular game, none of us has to do it. The more of us refuse to do it, the less culturally normal it will become. Adversarial debating is just a game to such people – it achieves nothing but gives the winner a kick. It is of no real use.