Debates require fair conditions to be effective


Illustration by Julia Poage Photo credit: Julia Poage

Last semester in an opinion column about broadening the types of political media people consume, I cited the YouTube series “Change My Mind” by Steven Crowder as an example of someone from the political right who engages with people from opposing viewpoints. The series centers on Crowder as he sets up a table in public places such as college campuses and invites people to debate with him about a strongly-held belief of his, such as “Male Privilege is a Myth” or “There are Only Two Genders.”

At the time, I was trying to demonstrate how someone with passionate political opinions can create content centered on interacting with opposing arguments instead of a purely one-sided demonstration that doesn’t acknowledge any dissent. However, even though Crowder may include people who disagree with him in his videos, the way in which he engages with his impromptu debate opponents is unfair in nature and borders on malicious in intent, ruining any chance of a fruitful exchange of ideas.

The context of Crowder’s show involves an inherent imbalance, seen when he sets up a table featuring a large poster proclaiming his opinion and invites people to sit down and change his mind.

The problem with this format is that Crowder — who has prepared a topic, a table and is followed by a production team with multiple cameras — is far more prepared to engage in debate than the random people passing by. While arguing, he often cites specific data and statistics that seem to support his argument and renders his opponent’s arguments futile.

In the beginning of his “Male Privilege is a Myth” video, Crowder broadly dismisses all of his opponents’ arguments by claiming that “every single point, without fail, was anecdotal.” It is, however, unfair of him to expect college students passing by his table to have prepared, thought-out arguments with sources to debunk his beliefs. By establishing his show in such a way, the debate contains a power imbalance that prevents Crowder’s opponent from having a fair shot.

Crowder also tends to jump on people’s emotional reactions to his provocative statements, shifting the focus from the argument itself to the illegitimacy of his opponent.

In the same male privilege video, one of Crowder’s opponents, named Gregory, calls Crowder’s arguments “bullshit,” causing Crowder to smugly remark, “that’s always a great way to start a civil conversation.” He repeatedly references Gregory’s profanity, asking him why he resorted to such measures in the midst of “such a civil conversation.”

Later, as their debate becomes more heated, Gregory raises his voice, causing Crowder to place his hand on the student’s shoulder and say, “You’re getting very emotional.” By doing so, Crowder belittles his opponent, reducing them to emotional (and therefore irrational) reactionists. This discredits any arguments his opponents use and reinforces the power imbalance of the debate.

I am not focusing on this specific YouTube series in order to discredit Crowder specifically. Rather, I have noticed that there seems to be a growing online culture around the supposed sanctity of the political debate.

Often, conservative political commentators measure their success and truthfulness of their ideas through their ability to debate. Take, for example, the hundreds of videos of commentator Ben Shapiro debating with various people who disagree with him. Often, the videos consist of people arguing with him at Q&A sessions in which he has a crowd of supporters who cheer on his every counterpoint. Other times, Shapiro debates with someone on the news, which seems like a fair fight until the news anchor starts arguing against his opponent as well.

These types of unbalanced settings for discourse only serve to demonize the commentator’s opponent while raising their own opinions as inherently better because the more reasonable and calm person comes out of the debate looking like the one with the “right” opinions.

Last month, progressive political candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez denied Shapiro after he offered to donate 10 thousand dollars to a charity of her choice if she agreed to debate him. In this case, Ocasio-Cortez refused to engage in Shapiro’s unbalanced power dynamics, arguing that the offer of money implied entitlement to a debate with her.

If the arguments of political commentators are strong enough, they should stand on their own in a fair and balanced setting for a debate. They should not need a crowd of supporters vehemently cheering support, nor should they only be effective on strangers who are spontaneously chosen without prior preparation.

In a neutral and balanced setting with two people of equal experience and preparation, debates can develop ideas and challenge opposing views to make them stronger. Without these conditions, however, one person walks away believing they have the better opinions when in reality they’ve only ridiculed and dismissed the humanity of their opponent.