Longreads

No, I Will Not Debate You

akindo / Getty, composite by Katie Kosma

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Laurie Penny | Longreads | September 2018 | 15 minutes (3,795 words)

“The media here is the opposition party.
They don’t understand this country.”
— Steve Bannon, to the New York Times

“A point of view can be a dangerous luxury
when substituted for insight and understanding.”
— Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy

* * *

There are some stupid mistakes that only very smart people make, and one of them is the notion that a sensible argument seriously presented can compete with a really good piece of theatre.

Every day, people on the internet ask why I won’t “debate” some self-actualizing gig-economy fascist or other, as if formal, public debate were the only way to steer public conversation. If you won’t debate, the argument goes, you’re an enemy of free speech. You’re basically no better than a Nazi, and certainly far worse than any of the actual Nazis muttering about not being allowed to preach racism from prestigious pulpits. Well-meaning liberals insist that “sunlight is the best disinfectant,” anti-fascists disagree, the far right orders more popcorn, and round and round we go on the haunted carousel of western liberal thought until we’re all queasy.

This bad-faith argument is a repeating refrain of this low, dishonest decade, and this month it built to another crescendo. In the U.S., The New Yorker bowed to public pressure and disinvited Steve Bannon, Trump’s neo-nationalist former chief strategist, from its literary festival. And in the U.K., The Economist chose to do the opposite.

I’m accidentally responsible for a very small amount of the fuss here. I was due to speak at the Economist’s Open Future festival, where Bannon was scheduled to be interviewed by the editor in chief directly after the “future of MeToo” panel I’d be on with journalists Laura Bates and Ally Fogg. My note to The Economist, in part:

To speak personally, my opposition to Bannon’s place at this conference has nothing to do with wishing to see him silenced — that would be infeasible as well as illiberal.

I’ve spent much of the past five years hearing out and attempting to debate people like Bannon, and in my experience it only emboldens and legitimizes them.  As far as I am concerned, I am not interested in hearing those arguments again.

Bates agreed, writing that “there is a very small minority of cases in which it is justified to refuse to participate on a platform alongside a person because they explicitly and deliberately advocate hatred and harm to groups of people on the basis of their race, sex, religion or other characteristics. It is my belief that Steve Bannon meets this high standard, that his deeply racist, misogynistic, white nationalist views pose real threat and harm to a large number of people, and that it is therefore irresponsible and damaging to provide him with the legitimacy of such a highly respected mainstream platform as The Economist.” Fogg said that “to invite contributions from Steve Bannon, and furthermore to schedule his appearance immediately after a discussion about what happens after #MeToo, directly contradicts the very essence and message of the #MeToo movement. This schedule honors a man whose primary claims to fame are establishing an online magazine that specialized in inciting misogynistic and racial hatred and then maneuvering a self-confessed sexual abuser into place as the most powerful politician on earth.“

To me, refusing to appear alongside Bannon was an obvious choice, as obvious as the protest against Donald Trump’s visit to Britain earlier this year, when millions of people made my country inhospitable to a president who has done nothing to deserve our deference. Bannon, unsurprisingly, disagreed, calling New Yorker editor David Remnick a coward for rescinding his invitation.

We probably should have anticipated the disingenuous firestorm that followed. We should have anticipated the accusations of being the real fascists for refusing to make nice with white supremacists, the harassment and YouTube hobgoblining from self-appointed defenders of free speech, who seem to have forgotten that for Bates, for me, and for any other woman who flashes the merest inch of independent thought online, harassment is nothing terribly new. It’s just Tuesday.

There’s a term for this sort of bad-faith argument: it’s called the justification-suppression model. The theory is that bigots refrain from directly defending their own bigotry but get hugely riled up justifying the abstract right to express bigotry. So instead of saying, for example, “I don’t like foreigners,” they’ll fight hard for someone else’s right to get up on stage and yell that foreigners are coming to convert your children and seduce your household pets.

Focusing the conversation on the ethics of disseminating speech rather than the actual content of that speech is hugely useful for the far right for three reasons. Firstly, it allows them to paint themselves as the wronged party — the martyrs and victims. Secondly, it stops people from talking about the actual wronged parties, the real lives at risk. And thirdly, of course, it’s an enormous diversion tactic, a shout of “Fire!” in the crowded theatre of politics. But Liberals don’t want to feel like bad people, so this impossible choice — betray the letter of your principles, or betray the spirit — leaves everyone feeling filthy.

There’s no way to come out of this convinced of your own political purity. The thing is, though, that establishing your own political purity isn’t what progressive politics are supposed to be about. As Ms. Marvel says: Good is not a thing you are. It’s a thing you do. This is not about censorship. It never was. It’s about consequences, about drawing a line in the sand.

That can be harder in practice than it sounds. The problem with taking a stand within and against respectable organizations is that however righteous you may feel, you create a lot of work for people in that organization — especially people lower down the chain of command who don’t get to make the big ethical decisions. And it takes rather a lot of courage to defy the customs of polite society, especially if it means compromising social capital you yourself have worked hard for. Some people speaking at the Open Future festival are female activists of color whose positions and profile deserve the same institutional recognition that Bannon doesn’t.

The Economist defended its decision to keep Bannon on the program:

The future of open societies will not be secured by like-minded people speaking to each other in an echo chamber, but by subjecting ideas and individuals from all sides to rigorous questioning and debate. This will expose bigotry and prejudice, just as it will reaffirm and refresh liberalism. That is the premise The Economist was founded on. When James Wilson launched this newspaper in 1843, he said its mission was to take part in “a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.”

I don’t believe that holding this position makes anyone evil or stupid. I understand why people cling to it like shipwreck survivors on a floating door. The problem is that it relies on two pieces of magical thinking: number one, that intellectual ideas are the same as moral ones, and number two, that the sucking ethical vacuum at the center of public life can be replaced with a commitment to the polite forms of a free society.

There’s a good case to be made for what anarchists call “prefigurative politics” — the idea that part of the way you build a better world is by creating a version of the world you want to see. The Occupy movement did this, creating microcosms of sharing societies based on mutual aid and consensus, before the camps were summarily squashed by police. The culture of “debate” operates on similar lines but at a much higher budget: it’s live-action roleplaying of a Classical fever-dream of a society where pedigreed intellectuals freely exchange ideas in front of a respectful audience, the sort of society that would have made certain ancient Greek philosophers drop their hemlock in excitement.

Personally, I prefer an exchange of ideas that is less hierarchical and performative, because I’ve found that a lot of the people whose voices matter most are people who don’t put themselves forward as spokespeople, if they are invited at all. Or written dialogue, because it gives all parties more time to think and reflect. Or any format where good ideas are what count, not how good you are at showboating and humiliating the other guy.

Remember the U.S. presidential debates of 2016? Remember how the entire liberal establishment thought Hillary Clinton had won, mainly because she made actual points, rather than shambling around the stage shouting about Muslims? What’s the one line from those debates that everyone remembers now? It’s “Nasty Woman.” What’s the visual? It’s Trump literally skulking around Hillary, dominating her with his body. It’s theatre. And right now the bad actors are winning.

* * *

The far right does not respect the free and liberal exchange of ideas. It is not open to compromise, and it does not want a debate. It wants power.  Last week, when I was on the evening news discussing my refusal to attend The Economist’s event, the showrunners sat us in front of a big screen with Bannon’s face on it — twice. And that, of course, is the problem.

Steve Bannon, like the howling monster from the id he ushered into the White House, exploits the values of the liberal establishment by offering an impossible choice: betray their stated principles (free, open debate) or dignify fascism and white supremacy. This weaponizes tolerance to legitimize intolerance. If we deny racists a platform, they feed off the appearance of censorship, but if we give them a platform, they’ve also won by being respectfully invited into the penumbra of mainstream legitimacy. Either way, what matters to them is not debate, but airtime and attention. They have no interest in winning on the issues. Their image of a better world is one with their face on every television screen.

The marketplace of ideas is just as full of con artists, scammers, and Ponzi schemes as any other marketplace, and as always, when the whole thing comes crashing down, it’s ordinary marks who lose everything. Bannon is that rare thing: a true Gordon Gekko in the attention economy, a man who is both troll and true believer, a man whose lack of integrity is part of the ideology: win at all costs and screw the other guy, because fools and their morals are easily parted. There is no deeper truth to be divined from “holding him to account,” no point at which his racism and xenophobia will somehow become unacceptable to a public that has already bought its penny stocks in neo-nationalism.

Mere weeks ago he told a gathering of the far-right National Front in France to be proud “when people call you racist, when people call you xenophobic… wear it as a badge of honor.” Too many well-meaning liberals are clinging with ten fingernails to the idea that their institutions are robust enough to withstand fascism. They believe, because the belief is soothing, that the marketplace of ideas cares about the value, durability, and quality of its wares rather than how shiny the packaging is, how catchy the jingle, how many times it shows up in your peripheral brand awareness until it’s the one you reach for on the shelf. They’re the equivalent of the people who tried to sell cars in the 1920s by taking out full-page ads solemnly explaining how unlikely their machines were to break down rather than trying to sell you a dream of freedom and potency on four wheels.

The left is catastrophically losing the PR battle in the marketplace of ideas. Inviting someone like Steve Bannon to your conference about how to build a free and open society is a little like inviting Ronald McDonald to your convention on solving world hunger.

Well-meaning liberals insist that “sunlight is the best disinfectant,” anti-fascists disagree, the far right orders more popcorn, and round and round we go on the haunted carousel of western liberal thought until we’re all queasy.

I’m not saying that there’s no point in talking to the far right at all. I have interviewed members of the far right in my capacity as a journalist. But academic research and investigative journalism are very different from formal public debate. Public debate — at least the way I was taught to do it at my posh school — is not about the free exchange of ideas at all. You only listen to the other guy so you can work out how to beat him, and ideally, humiliate him. I’m choosing my pronouns deliberately here. The format is fundamentally an intellectual dick-smacking contest dressed up in institutional lingerie, and while there are plenty of women out there who can unzip their enormous brains and thwack them on the table with the best of them, the formula is catastrophically macho.

People rarely change their minds in the course of formal public debate. Not the people on stage, and very few of those in the audience. Years of robust debate in my capacity as a commentator and journalist have taught me that you don’t change minds simply by pointing out where someone is wrong. As a dear friend once told me, trying to bring someone over to your side by publicly demonstrating that their ideas are bad and that they should feel bad is like trying to teach a goat how to dance: the goat will not learn to dance, and you will make him angry. The ways people actually change their minds is by reading the mood of those around them and then going away and thinking about it, by being given permission to think what they were already thinking, or by being shamed into realizing how ignoble their assumptions always were.

Plus, being better at debating does not make you right. It just makes you better at debating. Any prep school debate champion can tell you that a bad story well told can beat a sober litany of facts, though it helps if you also have facts on your side

Curating debate participants is itself a political choice, because the terms of a debate inform public opinion as much as its content. I’ve lost count of the number of evenings I’ve spent in the role of “shouty leftist” juxtaposed with a set of Tory talking points in a suit, with ten or fifteen minutes (if we’re lucky, a whole hour) to decide whether poor children should be allowed to eat during school holidays or whether migrants deserve human rights. What matters is not who wins on the merits. What matters are the terms: who gets to speak, and who must be silent.

The idea of the public sphere has always been elitist in practice, if not in principle. The people most likely to lose out are some of the least likely to have been trained in the art of public speaking or to have spent the past decade building a career in the media. They were too busy holding down four jobs, or trying to escape a civil war, or practicing medicine in a different language in a country they fled to with their family, or raising and then mourning their children. These are the people whose voices are truly being silenced, whose place in the lofty theatre of formal political debate is not subject to public discussion because they were never invited in the first place.

* * *

The far right are not themselves committed to the principle of free speech. Far from it. In my encounters with neo-nationalists and professional alt-right trolls I have found them remarkably litigious — more than willing to use money and legal threats to silence their more serious critics. I’ve been legally prohibited from describing racists as racists. That’s why you’ll see so many news outlets use phrases like “alleged white supremacist” or “the deportation policy, which critics have described as xenophobic.” It’s not because there’s serious doubt over where these people stand, it’s because journalists are silenced by threats from speech “defenders” who have the money and spite to shut down their critics. I will not be bullied by bad-faith actors trying to rules-lawyer my own principles against me into treating neo-Nazis with respect they don’t deserve.

They are unscrupulous. They incite violence. It’s not my place to tell anyone else who to host at their events, but I can make a choice as a free individual about who I choose to associate with in a professional context, and the more of us who make that choice, the stronger the message it sends.


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Sunlight is neither literally nor figuratively the best disinfectant. Modern white supremacy does not grow like bacteria — it grows like a weed, aggressively, crowding out everything else that stretches towards the light.  Nor is sunlight what the ritual of formal debate offers. What it offers is a chance to build one’s brand.

Curation is a political choice, and so is the choice of who we allow to take lead roles in the theatre of public discourse. I say: If Bannon has to have a public platform, make him work for it. Have him stand on a stage and play the audio footage of the toddlers at the Mexican border screaming for their parents as they’re dragged away to detention. Have him answer to the mothers of children who were gunned down by police because of the color of their skin, or to the friends and family of migrants who drowned in the Mediterranean. That’s not a polite thing to say. It wouldn’t be a polite thing to do. But the idea that politeness and civility is owed to anyone in a position of power is one of the great gotchas of liberal thought.

Too many well-meaning liberals are clinging with ten fingernails to the idea that their institutions are robust enough to withstand fascism.

Moderate liberalism cherishes the idea of “civility” because it allows it to believe in its own goodness and relevance. To refuse to debate someone is an act of discourtesy. It is rude. It implies that you do not consider that person’s ideas or behavior worthy of basic respect. You would be amazed at the contortions people yank themselves into to avoid being rude, especially to people in positions of authority, or simply people whose faces they’ve seen on the television. Television interviewers have repeatedly failed to hold far-right leaders properly to account because one simply does not call someone a liar and a bigot on a respectable news program.

I’ve come to think of this as the deference trap. It’s a huge part of why I refuse to formally debate fascists. It is staggeringly clear that formal debate is failing to stop white supremacy. This is not an abstract philosophical issue. White supremacy is here, at the heart of world governments. The discussion about whether free speech can stop fascism is not actually about free speech; it’s a proxy for a rolling identity crisis among the political mainstream. About whether the mechanisms of state power can withstand fascist takeover. About whether good people with good ideas can stop bad people with worse ones.

Which, right now, they cannot. The arguments about what freedom of speech actually means are endlessly reheated because they’re the last piece of real philosophical meat moderate conservatives have in their cupboard. It’s a mistake to think that the far right cares about the free speech debate as anything other than a way of confusing the enemy. The far right doesn’t have a profound philosophy, it has a media strategy.

The first time that white supremacists are denied a formal public platform, they get to plead martyrdom, to call the opposition cowards. And the second time. And the third time. But there’s only so many times you can whine that people aren’t paying you enough attention before those same people get bored and lose interest. Milo Yiannopoulos, who spent much of 2017 thrashing around in a self-ordained orgy of far-right martyrdom, recently complained on Facebook:

My events almost never happen. It’s protests, or sabotage from Republican competitors or social media outcries. Every time, it costs me tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. And when I get dumped from conferences, BARELY ANYONE makes a sound about it — not my fellow conservative media figures and not even, in many cases, you guys. When was the last time any of you protested in the street at the treatment meted out to me or Pamela Gellar or Mike Cernovich or Alex Jones?… For my trouble, I have lost everything standing up for the truth in America, spent all my savings, destroyed all my friendships, and ruined my whole life.

Cry me a river of blood. What stopped Yiannopoulos was neither formal debate nor the dubious disinfectant of a spotlight. What stopped him was progressives collectively refusing to put up with his horseshit.

If we deny racists a platform, they feed off the appearance of censorship, but if we give them a platform, they’ve won by being respectfully invited into the mainstream. Either way, what matters to them is not debate, but attention. There is no perfect choice.

But there is a choice, and this, to my mind, is the sensible one: To refuse to dignify these people with prestigious public platforms, or to share them. To refuse to offer them airtime or engage them in public debate.

Fortunately, we live in a brave new world where real censorship is something that is almost infeasible unless you are extremely rich and venal and have an army of lawyers. If you want to hear what Bannon thinks, you can. Extensively, at many, many websites and forums. If you want to try to tease out and challenge the deeper truth behind far-right ideas, you’re free to do so, although be prepared to be disappointed. You see, the deeper truth is that there is no deeper truth. No hidden nuance. The new right have already shown us exactly who they are. Now the rest of us get to choose who we want to be.

As for me, I can’t dictate who should and should not be allowed to speak, and I wouldn’t want to. But I can make my own choice as a free citizen. So I choose not to debate them. I choose not to treat them with deference they don’t deserve. I am not interested in hearing out the ideas of the far right, because there are no new ideas on the far right. There are only new recruits. And every time progressives sacrifice the public good on the altar of personal purity, there will be more.

* * *

Laurie Penny is an award-winning journalist, essayist, public speaker, writer, activist, internet nanocelebrity and author of six books. Her most recent book, Bitch Doctrine, was published by Bloomsbury in 2017. 

Editor: Michelle Weber

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