I think political debates are often important. I would do more debates if I had appropriate venues. I engage in debates even when they are unpleasant. But I often get the feeling that they are unnecessarily unpleasant. The unpleasantness, in other words, isn’t a function of the disagreements, or of the vehemence of the disagreements, or even, in some cases, of the vileness of the people involved. I have, after all, had reasonably smooth interactions with people I think are vile (and no, I’m not going to name names) and with people who I suspect had nothing but contempt for me.
The reason for the unpleasantness, I believe, has to do with the culture we have about debating and handling disagreement. In our culture in general, we handle disagreement very poorly. Those friends and family of mine who aren’t leftists go to great lengths to avoid disagreement or controversy. Any disagreement that does arise immediately becomes a personal problem or issue, a conflict between two people that has to be smoothed over, preferably by changing the subject.
In the academic world, the idea of separating the personal and the intellectual exists. But academic debates are often very sectarian and abusive.
Political debates are similar. On the very rare occasions when leftists have the opportunity to debate mainstream types, abuse is frequent. What is worse, however, is that within the left, abusive debate is the norm. It is truly painful to read some of the debates between people I have great respect for, as they call each other ‘commissars’, impute base motives to one another, belittle and demean one another, and so on.
I used to be much more active in electronic debates and discussions than I am now. I was influenced in this by Michael Albert, who, when I met him, used to respond point-by-point to every email on a political topic that he received. I don’t think Michael does that any more. I don’t, either. There are times when that is called for and times (most) when it is not. Others who have had a lot of influence on me (and I won’t name names here either) can be quite mean in debates, and it’s taken me a while to let go of their influence in this particular domain.
I have to admit that I get some pleasure out of watching a leftist ‘win’ a debate – like Galloway’s debates. There’s no way around it: Galloway is simply an abusive debater. He has great skill, and he uses it against verbal bullies (Sky News, the US Congress, Hitchens), so it’s vindicating to watch. But I don’t hope that others imitate him, or try his techniques on folks that are not such bullies themselves.
When you are being verbally attacked, it’s hard not to respond in kind. Some time ago I read a whole bunch of psychology and related books. My readings brought me into contact with Suzette Haden Elgin and her work on ‘Verbal Self-Defense’. There is a whole set of interesting and relevant ideas here about how to create a non-abusive verbal environment in your work and in your life. I have been thinking about how this might apply to activist situations, left debates, and so on. I’ve been trying to apply it, myself. I may add a post or two on some of her specific ideas. Meanwhile, I wanted to link to her blog. She’s a fascinating person with a fascinating body of work, in linguistics, feminism, and psychology. Also a good novelist!