It’s been a while since I have written here or on my Substack. We were on a long vacation in Texas to see family, including my mom, who has had a hard time of it lately. Here is a piece I have worked on sporadically throughout December (about 6,700 words in all, so it’s like 8 800-word essays, in my defense!) about the need for conversation and debate. I specifically react to two pieces where people are withdrawing from debate or platforms. The first is John McWhorter’s declaration from 2021 that he feels no need to debate the likes of Ibram X. Kendi and doesn’t blame Kendi or his fellow travelers for feeling the same. TL;DR: I think he’s wrong. The second is Ken White’s decision to withdraw from Twitter. TL;DR: I can’t fault a lot of his reasoning, but I don’t think moving to another social media platform is the solution.
A couple of excerpts for you, first from the free portion, which is slightly over one-half of the piece. It references a now-iconic moment when Ted Cruz waddled into the crowd just before the Indiana primary in 2016 to debate a mostly brain-dead Trumper:
McWhorter portrays Kendi as a creature of a class of race scholars who never face serious challenges to their arguments, and thus reflexively respond with irritation to any criticism. Says McWhorter:
I can’t work with that. Because he has never had to actually defend himself, he would have a hard time getting past just accusing me of making things up or being a racist. I would make quite sure it was clear neither of those things held the slightest water, upon which what I would get for my trouble was looking like a bully with 15 years on him. All he could see in me is an aging Uncle Tom running him down. What I would see in him is what I just wrote.
OK, but you aren’t doing this for one another. Nobody thinks the point of a public debate between John McWhorter and Ibram X. Kendi would be for Kendi to persuade McWhorter or McWhorter to persuade Kendi. And that’s not how Oxford-style debates are scored. We don’t measure success by whether the opponent came away persuaded, but by the degree to which the audience was moved to change its opinion. These debates are for the benefit of the onlookers. And that’s what Ted Cruz was no doubt thinking when he took on the mindless hillbilly in the clip above. He was banking on persuading the people watching the video, not Cletus himself.
And one from the portion for paid subscribers, assuming I still have any who are patient enough with the long intervals between pieces to stick with me:
I have spoken at length about the ways in which Twitter is a less-than-ideal mode of discourse. In this post I contrasted the Socratic discussions recounted by Plato and tried to imagine such a discussion taking place on Twitter. In short, it would be impossible. I gave an example of a “dialogue” in which Socrates’s interlocutor behaved the way people behave on Twitter: deliberately misunderstanding the point, ignoring it when they can’t plausibly misunderstand it, and heaping abuse on the philosopher all the while:
The conversation is not going to go anywhere. It would be like Socrates wandering into a den of monkeys and trying to reason with them while they dance around, hooting and flinging their feces at him.
Yes, we are incapable of rational dialogue the way we were back in the good old days of Socrates.
Except . . . except that when Socrates made the Athenians uncomfortable through his speech, they killed him.
Maybe human beings are just fundamentally horrible and generally incapable of rational discourse, with rare exceptions, no matter the venue.