Real learning is hard. It’s a slow, confusing process where you sometimes have to read long books with dreadful covers, and look at footnotes and shit. It requires us to recognize and then overcome our biases as best we can. It can take years to learn what we really think and why, and then if we get a lingering feeling we might be wrong, it can take years to un-learn and start all over.
Debate, in contrast, offers an easy way out. Some dudes spouting their favorite buzzwords in each other’s vicinity makes us feel smart and engaged, like we’re in that fresco of the Greek men they put on all the philosophy textbooks. (Small aside — have you ever noticed how in this image, all the female figures look thoroughly sick of these guys?) However, the format of debate, which is supposed to represent the height of intellectual tradition, encourages us instead to applaud the candidate who is best at using simple rhetoric, looking suave, and machine-gunning irrelevant lines at their browbeaten interlocutor. These are all things that real intellectual inquiry is supposed to look beyond.
Aisling McCrea debates debate.
Speaking of frescoes of Greek men, the whole point of rhetoric in its original Greek formulation was that, because what we’d now consider empirical sciences and the scientific method hadn’t been fully invented yet, people didn’t have anything other than force of argument to persuade people about stuff…