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“The more logical or rhetorical terms someone uses on the Internet, the less you should listen to them.”  I can’t remember where I first read that, but it found an echo in a lot of dreary knock-down, drag-out fights I’d witnessed in the comment sections of various publications.  Whenever the term “slippery slope”, “no true Scotsman” or even “straw man” made an appearance during a debate over at Comment is Free or Feministe, the value of that thread seemed to drop pretty swiftly.  As soon as appeals were made to the “rules” of argument and argumentation, I got a feeling that it really wouldn’t matter who won this one, because not much worth hearing would be said from here onwards.  Not because these were meaningless phrases, or used by people with nothing to say, but they just seemed to coincide with the discussion taking a lousy turn.

I’m only speaking from my own personal taste here, but the Internet has really put me off “reasoned debate”.  Not the ideal of it: evidence-based arguments which stand up to critical scrutiny are definitely a good thing in both public life and civil society.  If that’s what “debate” means, surely we need more not less.  But the more I’ve read (and then written) online, the more uninterested I’ve become in that mirage which everyone claims to believe at places like CiF: the public discussion space where rational and critical speakers attempt to reach the truth via constructive debate.

It was a bit of a shock to realize I didn’t quite believe in it any more, or at least to admit that I’d hardly ever seen it. Because this image was praised all the way through my education, and in fact formed the invisible framework of assumptions within which I wrote school and college essays.  The rational and agonistic debate is unusually embedded in our public institutions in Britain and America: the regular operations of both the political and legal systems are predicated upon the extraordinary idea that if two people take directly opposing positions, and argue against each other for a while, then truth will result.  That’s a reductive account of both processes, but I don’t expect it feels too reductive to someone whose liberty suddenly depends upon the truth manifesting itself in the space between two quarrelling people armed only with the rules of argument.  Not an investigative commission, or a consensus of expert opinion (neither of which I would trust any more than the scrapping barristers, incidentally) but a rhetorical and logical fight between two positions.

This can easily be criticised as simply proof that rational debate was being done wrongly in my accustomed corner of the Internet. That’s entirely possible, and maybe I just hang out in rotten comment sections.  But once I started thinking about it, I realized that I didn’t think I’d ever been convinced by someone arguing with me online.  This doesn’t happen much, as I don’t tend to pick individual scraps in the blogosphere.  Indeed I’m always baffled by people who proudly proclaim that they “love a good argument” or “really enjoy getting into a heated debate”, though I think it’s telling that they always say this as a boast: it’s a personal trait which receives validation from the agonistic ideal which underlies much of public culture.  Rather unfairly (perhaps) I associate it with Sixth-form debating clubs and earnest undergraduates convinced that if they only get to share a platform with a fascist politician or a religious extremist then the sheer trueness of their arguments (and their command of the relevant facts) will render their opponent incapable of replying.

I believed all that too, after getting a taste for applause in exactly those kinds of school debates.  But it never worked out like that online – I never found that my opponent’s grasp of logic compelled me to admit they were right.  And this wasn’t, incidentally, because we now all live in social-media echo chambers as some pundits are keen to convince us.  The other opinions were there, often presently forcefully and tirelessly.  But they never had the effect they were supposed to.  If I’ve never been persuaded out of my opinion by a interlocutor online, that isn’t to say I’ve never changed my mind from reading blogs, or even (sometimes) the comments on them.  I’ve learned an extraordinary amount from the last five or ten years rooting around online, especially in blogs where long and often heated conversations take place.  But it has almost always been gradually, and at an angle.  Listening to the exchanges of people’s experience and perspectives has often shifted my view, but almost never because I was convinced that I had been setting up a man of straw or denying the existence of patriotic Hibernians.

I felt rather ashamed of this, since it seemed to suggest that my writing and reading online was essentially fraudulent.  If I only found debate persuasive when it was overheard over a period of time, then my reading was parasitic: it needed other people to have rhetorical fights whilst I learned from them without contributing.  And if I didn’t enjoy direct and personal debate online, and find it immediately instructive then, my claims at Quite Irregular to delight in hearing my readers answering back were hollow (unless it was simply to bask in being told I was right.)  I think those are both misunderstandings, but it wasn’t until I came across a passage of Rowan Williams on the integrity of language that I worked out what really bothered me about Internet debating.

In an essay on “The Integrity of Theology”, Williams starts by suggesting that we usually describe discourse as possessing integrity if it speaks about what it claims to be speaking about, without concealing its real topic or purpose.

Why is it so important that speech should not conceal its purposes?  Discourse that conceals is discourse that (consciously or not) sets out to foreclose the possibility of a genuine response.  By operating on two levels, one acknowledged and one not, it presents to the hearer a set of positions and arguments other than those that are finally determinative of its working.  Thus the repudiation or refutation of the surface position leaves the body of the discourse untouched, since it will not engage the essential agenda

He goes on to link this to the idea of “conversation”, that honest discourse exposes itself to “the risks of conversation”, that it

permits response and continuation; it invites collaboration by showing that it does not claim to be, in and of itself, final.  It does not seek to prescribe the tone, the direction, or even the vocabulary of a response.  And it does all this by showing in its own working a critical self-perception, displaying the axioms to which it believes itself accountable; that is to say, it makes it clear that it accepts, even within its own terms of reference, that there are ways in which it may be questioned and criticized.

Vitally, Williams considers the integrity of a discourse to be intimately connected to the question of power.  Where language is used in a way which seeks to close down this potential for response by the concealment of its true topic and grounding, then

such a lack of integrity is manifestly a political matter.  To make what is said invulnerable by displacing its real subject matter is a strategy for the retention of power.

This, I think, is a passage with remarkable implications for reading as well as for writing, and I want to explore some of them in later posts (such Bad Faith and a Devil’s Advocate, on the rhetorical tropes used online).  But I’ve cited it here because it provides a resonant account of what I often found wearying and depressing about discussions Below The Line.  The debates lacked the integrity Williams writes about because they were not attempts to discover the truth, but to win.  On a technical level, all the appeals to the “rules” of argument weren’t aimed towards the analysis of verbal propositions or the concepts which lay behind them, but at shutting down the possibility of a response. They were attempts to invalidate any possible response before it had been undertaken, and sought to retain the sliver of power gained by taking their turn at speaking.  For me, Williams’ insight clarifies the difference between the stale atmosphere of debating where the only kind of honesty is playing within the rules of logic, and the space where genuine listening and learning can take place.  It also provides a better model for what we might strive towards when reading and writing online than simply clearing a conceptual level playing field where an agonistic slanging match can take place.