I usually find it a waste of my time to debate people, and I assume it’s a waste of their time too. So, I rarely get into debates. However, last night I got into one and, predictably, it turned out to be a waste of time.
Worse, it saddened me.
I discovered the person with whom I was debating has become quite the debater since she and I last had the pleasure of each other. Some time ago, it was different. She was once a research scientist with a doctorate in psychology. When she tired of that, she took a masters in theology. As you might expect from such a learned person, she was once rich with fertile insights. She had the power and the magic to see an old thing in a new light, or to make sudden sense of stuff you might otherwise be wrestling with for years.
Well, now it seems she’s turned her interests to debate, and last night was like saying goodbye. I guess she’s no longer into sharing ideas, because instead of sharing hers, she merely jumped on one of my opinions and “refuted” it by spinning it with the dexterity of a White House Press Secretary, a Creationist, or a bimbo talk show host. It’s as if she’s decided conversation is all about scoring points — even when the points are obtained through intellectually dishonest means and can therefore matter only to her.
What I mean here by “debate” is the sort of stuff that too often passes in our society for reasoned debate nowadays. Spin. Trickery. Intellectual dishonesty. Fallacious logic. The sort of nonsense that Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh pass off as “reasoned debate” to people who unfortunately don’t know much better. She wasn’t as bad as them last night, but it seemed clear to me she’s become their soul mate.
I’m of the opinion that people who are honest about their knowledge and experiences can honestly disagree to their mutual benefit. Let’s take the simplest possible example of that happening. Suppose I tell you the sky is sometimes blue. And suppose you then tell me the sky is sometimes white. And a third person informs both us the sky is sometimes dark. There we have three honest, but differing, opinions and yet each has contributed a truth to the conversation.
I’ll give a real example now. The other day on this blog, Dana offered her opinion that people are much more physically attracted to youth than to age. Now, I was somewhat clumsy in how I phrased my response to her. The point I tried to make, however, was I agreed people are more physically attracted to youth than to age, but that when we get older we might find ourselves more attracted to such things as someone’s sexual confidence than we are to someone’s looks.
In other words, Dana and I were able to share our honest points of view without getting into a weaselly pissing contest over who was right and who was wrong. I don’t know whether Dana got anything out of that exchange, but in some small way it enriched my view of the issue.
Yet, it seems to me a debate seldom enriches — even in a small way. To illustrate the point, let me take an petty example from last night’s debate, which was over — I shudder to say it — the Leibovitz photo of Miley Cyrus (if there is anything more worthless than debating someone, it must be debating someone over a celebrity). In response to something said by the person with whom I was debating, I made the following statement:
What harm has come to her from this? People are used all the time and it is found perfectly acceptable so long as they are consenting and no harm comes to them through it. So what harm has come to Miley from this?
To which she responded:
Wow, so much for you previously stated admiration of Kant.
In other words, instead of actually addressing my point, she merely spun my point as being philosophically inconsistent because, about a year ago (She’s got a good memory!), I expressed a fondness for Kant’s categorical imperative but now seem to her to have abandoned that fondness. So, I suppose score one for her! Or, whatever. But her argument is of no more value to me than an old tree stump. It merely wasted my time to read it, and I felt used.
A debate is so greatly different from a good conversation. I believe that when people are honest with each other while sharing their points of view, everyone can benefit, whether they agree with each other or not. But sharing ideas does not seem to be the point and purpose of debate these days. Instead, I would argue debate these days is too often about tricking — manipulating — people.
Of what value is that to anyone?