Who wins from public debate? Liars, bullies and trolls

Steven Poole in The Guardian:

When Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Žižek met a fortnight ago in Toronto to do battle on the theme “Happiness: Capitalism v Marxism”, it cost US$14.95 (£11.60) to watch online, and touts were selling tickets for hundreds of dollars. Peterson, not having found time to read any of Žižek’s books, launched instead into an attack on The Communist Manifesto. In response, Žižek riffed about China, Trump, liberals, antisemitism and cheese. In the end, both men agreed that well-regulated capitalism was a good thing. It was billed as the “debate of the century”, and in a way it might as well have been: it was a perfect, if mostly harmless, illustration of why debate itself is such a bad idea.

We are told debate is the great engine of liberal democracy. In a free society, ideas should do battle in the public forum. Those who seek to lead us should debate with one another, and this will help us make the best possible informed judgments. Schoolchildren should be taught debating skills to better prepare them for the intellectual cut-and-thrust of the adult world. The rise in formal debating events such as those organised by Intelligence Squared enables citizens to better understand complex problems. People whose views we find abhorrent should not be ignored. We should debate with them, and so point out the flaws in the arguments. The more we debate, the happier and more civilised we will be.

That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, modern debate has a structural bias in favour of demagoguery and disinformation. It inherently favours liars. There is no cost to, and much potential advantage in, taking the low road and indulging in bullying and personal attack. There’s a reason why we talk about “point-scoring” in debates, and it is because we think of a debate as like a boxing match: it’s a competition rather than a collaboration. (If you can bear it, you can watch online a 2005 debate between Christopher Hitchens and George Galloway on the Iraq war: the result was that everyone lost.) In a recent Pew poll, just a quarter of Americans agreed that “the tone of debate among political leaders is respectful”.

More here.