When I was about 10 years old, the boys in my class suddenly decided en masse to try to get the girls to punch them in the gut to prove that they could take it. For the propositioned puncher, there was no way of winning: if you followed through and failed to fell them, you were weak; if you declined, you were a loser. The situation eventually got so out of hand that actual fights broke out, until the random phenomenon was eventually replaced by another playground fad.
As adults, instead of “Punch me!” we now find ourselves followed around by people saying “Debate me!” What comes next follows the same logic of the infantile game: you either engage, and end up in a pointless altercation that descends into rancour; or you decline, and are accused of being fragile.
The forums in which we find ourselves debating issues – Brexit, immigration or “identity politics” – are structurally designed to exacerbate, rather than resolve or even explore, differences. Conflict is favoured over conversation, animosity over inquiry. Usually, disagreements that happen on social media are picked out and repackaged by traditional media outlets. We see it all the time: a public figure tweets a controversial statement, social media users come out for or against, print and online media amalgamates the content into 600 words, and perhaps “the debate” makes the six o’clock news. There may be a relatively small number of people actually online, and an even smaller number actively arguing, but their activity is magnified, consumed and, ultimately, monetised and pressed into the service of political agendas.
Even the language we use to describe the interlocutors shows how conflict is manufactured. We have “provocateurs” and “controversialists” who demand a hearing. Characters such as Katie Hopkins and Nigel Farage are given platforms and coverage in our “polite media”, spreading misinformation about immigration and race, which contributes to racism and xenophobia. In these conditions, engaging in a back-and-forth with someone holding an opposing viewpoint is not a constructive act with the aim of reaching common ground, or at least an understanding of the other: it is to feed an insatiable appetite for public spectacle.
We have been heading in the direction of this discursive dead end for a long time. A copy of the Spectator from 15 years ago, dedicated to race and edited by Boris Johnson, featured majority white, male writers and journalists who could have graced the magazine’s cover today. This small group of people cycles in and out of journalism, politics and public relations, with little to advance but their own personal ambitions. Provocation has become a necessary skill for a career in the media, rather than the ability to engage in a healthy debate as a means to promote the cause of political accord and social cohesion.
Those who profit continue to repeat the words “debate”, “diversity” and “freedom of speech” as if a mantra to ward off criticism, and through accusations of intellectual intolerance attempt to shift the blame on to those who won’t indulge real-life intolerance. To opt out of a debate is to be accused of “living in a bubble” or an “echo chamber’, rather than just wanting to go about our daily lives with as little unnecessary aggravation as possible.
Much of this moral panic is linked to a liberal crisis of confidence that came about after 2016. In a state of shock after the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote, liberals decided that the reason they had failed to anticipate these seismic events was because they were out of touch, walled off in their ivory towers. To gain a sense of understanding of the world, and rediscover the path to power, they needed to engage with a wider field of opinions. A bigger dose of liberalism, in the form of an expanded marketplace of ideas, was going to save them. Bring on the racists and the xenophobes and the climate-change deniers; just don’t call them that. Punch us in the gut; we can take it.
Between guilty liberals, a rightwing government happy to substitute policy for macho posturing, and the toxic feedback loop between social and traditional media, the concept of open disagreement has become divorced from its utility and virtue.
The result is a society and public discourse roiled by conflict for the sake of it. We are falling into a trap of manufacturing dissent under the impression it is a noble pursuit that will make us stronger. But we are weaker, more exhausted and more divided than ever.
In valuing only how to argue, we are forgetting how to, or even why, we should talk. If the ultimate purpose of debate is to encourage pluralism and tolerance, we need to realise that these ends cannot be achieved when the means has been infected by bad faith. Debate, diversity of thought and freedom of speech can only positively foster pluralism when they happen spontaneously, and aren’t leveraged to advance an unflattering view of the participants or their politics, which is then used by traditional media for clicks, print sales and viewing figures.
An immediate step that can be taken is to recognise what lies behind this fetishisation of disagreement culture, and reclaim what debate is for in the first place. No one is under any obligation to subject themselves to argument for the hell of it. Whether it’s student debates on university campuses, exchanges on the floor of the House of Commons, or the squabbles broadcast into our homes every day, there is no moral virtue in seeking out friction for spectacle. The way to foster social cohesion is actually to “debate” less, to recuse ourselves from conflict culture, and try to find ways to disagree, unmediated by others, on our own terms.
Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist