‘Why I believe that rational debate is dying’

On the one hand: Philosophers Plato and Aristotle debating in Raphael’s The School of Athens.
by James Black

Black is a writer and folk singer from London. His piece first appeared on Spiked Online, a website launched in 2000 which has since become known for its attacks on censorship and defence of free speech.

From ancient Greece to the Enlightenment, debate has long fuelled cultural progress. But according to James Black, technology is now killing reasoned discussion ― and at huge cost to us all.

The difference between discussion and aggressive clashes of rhetoric is brilliantly demonstrated in Plato Republic. In Book I Socrates is confronted by Thrasymachus, who gives a crude description of justice.

He argues that the authority of a ruler must be absolute — regardless of the moral value of the policies. Socrates challenges this, and a frustrated Thrasymachus accuses him of pedantry.

As is common with Plato, this dialogue is about more than the debate itself. This clash also illustrates Plato’s idea that sincere discussion is the most effective way to articulate and refine ideas. Thrasymachus disagrees, and believes that compelling and brilliant speech is all that matters.

only when we subject ideas to dialogue can we have a hope of discovering truth

For Socrates, the authority of speech-making and eloquent grandstanding is deeply suspicious. Only when we subject ideas to dialogue can we have a hope of discovering truth.

Thrasymachus defends his views by attacking Socrates personally — insulting him with sarcastic jibes. Socrates uses irony to fight back, and, in doing so, Plato’s point is made. Those who cannot debate properly will resort to personal attacks to distract from the weakness of their arguments.

In the medieval era, too, dialogue and dispute were an essential aspect of university education. Using St Thomas Aquinas’ argument for the existence of God as an example of this, Catholic thinker Bishop Robert Barron argues that Aquinas took care to articulate the best and most convincing argument for atheism, before presenting his own argument.

The Enlightenment era also largely rejected a sanitised approach to knowledge. Rather, some of the greatest minds of the time forged their ideas in clandestine meetings in Edinburgh coffee houses and drinking taverns.

The likes of David Hume and Adam Smith were known to meet as part of secret societies where they would debate their blasphemous atheism. Even when ideas had the power to destroy reputations — and kill people — disputation could not be silenced.

As history shows, you cannot have ideas without dispute. This seems to have been forgotten today. The assertion that social media has “made us more divided” is a half-truth at best. What has been lost is the value placed in debate.

The instantaneous nature of social media means that debate often descends into bickering and one-upmanship. A certain tone of voice becomes universal — snarky and sarcastic, with no love for truth or humility. It seems that the more our access to discussion has expanded online, the more we tend towards mob consensus.

The reason for this is that some of the essential elements of dialogue — face-to-face contact, a collegiate atmosphere, the assumption that the truth is more important than self-esteem — have been lost.

Instead, all we have is sneering and nit-picking, which only serves to entrench people in their views, however incisive the challenge may be. Arguments are taken personally, as people’s social-media identities are intertwined with their sense of self.

We’re used to hearing the cliché: “I can’t believe how divided we have become.” However, we have always been divided, and it is these divisions which have created the best and worst in our cultural legacies. What has changed is our ability to embrace disagreement.

If we honoured truth above point-scoring, and dialogue over bickering, we would not fear division — we would recognise it as the engine of social progress.

This is an extract of a longer piece. For the full essay please see the link in Become An Expert.

You Decide

  1. Has social media made it harder for people to have a reasonable debate?


  1. It is time to have a debate! Firstly, get into pairs and write down some issues that your care about. Your ideas could come from any subject: from sport and politics, to film or fashion. Once you have some ideas turn each issue into a debating question, for example: “I believe that football is the worst sport in the world.” One by one, debate each question with your partner. During your dialogue try to use precise language and reasoning, and always show your debating partner respect when they are speaking.

Word Watch

Greek philosopher (428—348BC). His book The Republic is one of the most influential works of philosophy and remains widely studied. The book records a number of dialogues between Plato’s mentor Socrates and various citizens of Athens, and other Greeks.
Greek philosopher (470—399 BC). Credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy, he was ultimately sentenced to death for “corrupting the minds of the youth”. Contemporary accounts, of Aristophanes and Xenophon, differ from Plato’s more substantial and developed version.
Overly concerned with minor details.
Thomas Aquinas
Italian priest, philosopher, and theologian (1225—1274). Considered one of the greatest Western philosophers, his thought remains widely studied — particularly in the Catholic church.
Intellectual movement that dominated European culture in the 18th century.
David Hume
Scottish philosopher (1711—1776).
Adam Smith
Scottish economist (1723—1790). In the book The Wealth of Nations Smith establishes the founding principles of modern free market capitalism.

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