Over at Wuthering Expectations, Amateur Reader, always a model of integrity and rigor, has been having a very interesting discussion about the possibility of engaging in really good, vigorous intellectual debate online, and whether it can be ‘safely antagonistic’ in his preferred terms. My immediate reaction was to say ‘no’, but let’s face it, I am someone who runs very fast away from conflict and has a visceral reaction to snide remarks, unkindness and, heaven forbid, outright attack. I do like intellectual debate, however, and goodness knows it’s necessary. The discussion (which you will be glad to know was extremely civilized) was a fascinating one and got me thinking about the various debates I had witnessed over the years. On the whole, the circle in which I moved was a very polite one, and the only car-crash sort of debate I ever saw took place at a psychoanalytic conference. Part of me wonders whether it weren’t staged in some way, or manufactured to meet hidden expectations. As it was, half the participators got into a fight and the other half scribbled away on their notepads, diagnosing the different disorders on view. I kept my mouth firmly shut for all kinds of reasons.
My feeling, however, is that no good ever comes out of any form of antagonism in debate; that when difference transforms into conflict, any kind of learning, or respectful appreciation of the inherent value of different views, goes out the window. The only exception to this is when you happen to have a group of people all of whom agree that they enjoy a more aggressive stance in discussion. Otherwise antagonism is the verbal equivalent of the power tool – anyone can use it, but the results can be extremely destructive.
It is very easy, however, for intellectual discussion to dissolve into conflict because knowledge is always bound up with authority, and thinking differently is inevitably a form of challenge. Does the person speaking really know what they are talking about? Why should we believe this or that, on what grounds? A relationship to authority resides at the heart of any learning process, whether we are binding to it or reacting against it. We begin by learning things because we have to, out of a blind and trusting compliance with authority. The fear of the teacher’s wrath, the fear of the exam, the fear of public humiliation, of being shown up as worthless or a fraud are undoubtedly motivating factors, too. But the stick isn’t enough on its own – there must be a carrot. And the flip side of authority, its gentle alter ego, is the act of belonging. We submit to education in the first place in order to belong to our world, to a particular culture or society and its ways of thought. Belonging is a hidden, stealthy part of the things we learn, but it is all the more powerful for being understated
For most of us, the point of thinking is to reach a point where we don’t have to think any more. A point where our ideas are organised, fixed and justified. And that point is usually one that is terrifically satisfying in relation to belonging – our ideas please our parents or our teachers, they seem in line with the famous figures we admire, the class we aspire to, the religion or political party that impresses us, or we may simply belong to a sense of what’s right, what’s ethical, what’s meaningful. But it’s why intellectual arguments, no matter how brilliant they are, rarely persuade people to think otherwise, even in situations where objective, rational arguments might be recognized as extremely valuable. We have already thought ourselves into a position that feels secure and correct. To put forward a direct and antagonistic challenge to someone’s accumulated knowledge is a risky strategy; whilst it may perhaps sting some into examining what they know, it is just as likely to put them on the defensive, angrily rebutting the intrusion into their belief system. Whether it’s academics arguing about the Oxford comma, or the locals in the supermarket discussing politics, emotional commitments and connections are every bit as much at stake as facts and figures, right and wrong. It’s why being shown up as wrong can be so disproportionately painful; it really does shake our world.
That’s why I think that the dominant quality of any debate has to be curiosity. Curiosity opens people up, keeps things non-judgmental, can even loosen some entrenched views. Being curious about what we think we know never hurt anybody. I know I respond better to someone saying ‘I’m so curious to know why you think so and so’ than to someone saying ‘You’re completely wrong.’ And if someone refuses to be even the littlest bit curious, then their closed mind is on display for all to see.