Want to change hearts and minds? Debate is the answer

I spent (wasted?) a minute watching GB News the other day. The topic was, of course, the cause célèbre of the right-wing media: freedom of speech. While I think a lot of the right-wing rhetoric about “cancel culture” is hyperbolic, there does seem to be a tendency among certain groups to avoid open debate and stifle dissenting voices. However, it doesn’t do anything to help their cause. Three examples are illuminating.

I proudly support transgender rights and I reject the assertion by gender-critical feminists (sometimes called “TERFs”) that transgender women aren’t women. Moreover, I don’t think gender self-identification would be catastrophically dangerous. However, in campaigning for gender self-ID, groups like Stonewall have avoided entertaining robust debate and they’ve disregarded dissenting voices in an undesirable way.

While gender-critical feminists may wildly exaggerate in arguing that gender self-ID would imperil women’s rights and safety, it isn’t necessarily self-evident that there is no tension whatsoever between gender self-ID and women’s rights. Yet, many trans rights activists claim that all reservations about gender self-ID and any disagreement with their orthodoxy is inherently transphobic. They believe gender self-ID is an inalienable right, and that it isn’t up for debate.

But, rightly or wrongly, many people are anxious about gender self-ID, how it heralds a significant societal and legal shift regarding what amounts to a woman, and how it could therefore impact women. Such anxieties may be unfounded. But, because campaigners for gender self-ID reject debate about those anxieties and simply label them “transphobic”, they don’t demonstrate how or why those anxieties are invalid.

Yet, the tendency to avoid and to stifle open debate isn’t restricted to those who GB News describe as “woke warriors”.

Take criticism of Israel and Zionism. There is a tendency among some Zionists and supporters of Israel to try and delegitimise any criticism of Israeli state forces and Zionist ideology, no matter how justified, by branding it “anti-Semitism”. Some even liken it to Nazism or Holocaust denial.

While criticism of Israel and Zionism is sometimes tinged with anti-Jewish sentiment, it does not follow that all criticism of Israel and Zionism amounts to anti-Semitism. It is disingenuous to unyieldingly argue that it is. Branding all such criticism as anti-Semitism is a thinly-veiled attempt to extricate the labeler from having to justify the actions of Israeli forces, having to justify their own ideology, or having to accept any criticism of Israel or Zionism. As such, they don’t demonstrate that what they brand as “anti-Semitic” is in fact anti-Semitic.

Similar tendencies abound among some unionists and nationalists. As I recently wrote, many unionists won’t entertain the idea that they need to sell the virtues of the Union, holding what they perceive as the virtues to be self-evident. The same holds true for some nationalists. As such, elements of both camps often shy away from debating the matter.

The North may indeed be better off in the UK right now. But, it could also potentially be better off in a united Ireland. However, neither of those assertions are self-evidently true, despite the best efforts of their most fervent and fanatical proponents to present them as such.

Moreover, some debate-averse unionists and nationalists seek to invalidate challenges to their ideology by deeming those who espouse opposing arguments to be subversive, sectarian ideologues, thereby giving themselves a licence to attack, ridicule and denigrate those with whom they disagree, without actually rebutting the argument they espouse.

At first glance, the three issues above are irrelevant to each other. But, they’re united in that proponents of those positions believe their ideology is infallible; and thus they believe that any debate on the topic is illegitimate and intolerable.

You might ask: why should I expose my deeply held beliefs to scrutiny via debating with those whose beliefs I vehemently disagree with?

Because entertaining open debate on an issue, and thus having to defend your position is often the only way that you can amass widespread support for your cause. And only via this process can your position become so widely accepted that it can be protected from future challenge.

Defending your position via open debate gives you a golden opportunity to demonstrate why your argument is righteous and why your opponent is mistaken. If your opponent’s argument is indeed objectively objectionable, it will unravel before those in observance.

Of course, you can dodge debate by simply branding your opponent “transphobic”, “anti-Semitic”, “subversive” etc. But that in itself doesn’t invalidate their argument. It doesn’t make their beliefs go away: it merely puts them out of your sight. Moreover, it doesn’t change anybody’s mind or beliefs. In fact, skirting debate in this way leaves undecided and uneducated minds wide open to infiltration by your opponent.

You might worry that engaging in debate would be triggering. It might well be. But attitudinal and societal change cannot be secured without debate. Gay people and pro-choice women have had to engage in debate about their rights for decades in order to secure the rights they seek. Such debates can be hurtful and bruising, particularly when the opposition spouts invective. Yet, to expose faults in the opposing argument, to generate popular support, and to thereby copper-fasten our campaigns with legitimacy and security, we must expose our beliefs to challenge.

On that note, many warriors against “woke” view robust challenges to their opinions as attacks against their freedom of speech. They absolutely aren’t. Openness to being challenged is a necessary corollary of freedom of speech. If you want to argue, say, that gender self-ID is dangerous for women, then you must be open to entertaining strident counter-arguments. Freedom of speech works both ways.

Of course, debating your beliefs can be exhausting and upsetting: most of us dislike having our deeply-held beliefs dissected. But only through engaging in debate can we defend our beliefs. Only through debate can we generate support for them. And only through debate can the positions and changes we champion attain legitimacy. If you want to change hearts and minds, debate is the answer.

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