Recently on social media, Ta-Nehisi Coates has been the focus of debate: a collection of mostly black scholars have debated Coates as a credible black public intellectual, including why he has an eager white audience), and Coates has been challenged to debate the Civil War.
Here, I don’t want to address the content of either situation above, but focus on the response offered by Coates to debating the Civil War:
Two situations come to mind here. First, in the documentary “Flock of Dodos,” filmmaker and scientist Randy Olson unmasks how Intelligent Design proponents (a warmed-over version of Creationist recants to evolution) have developed a strategy based on maintaining evolution as a topic of debate, and not a foundational scientific theory.
In other words, by placing evolutionary science within an idealized concept of debate ― that all issues have multiple credible sides that must be aired equally ― the essence of science itself is corrupted.
This normalizing of “both sides” debate characterized, as a second example, my own experience with mainstream media covering corporal punishment during the Adrian Peterson controversy.
But, as Coates expressed above, sometimes, there is no debate.
There is simple math for demystifying debate and compromise: To debate or compromise between an informed person and an uninformed person necessarily results in misinformation.
To form panels with equal sides for and against adults striking children, for example, misinforms an audience conditioned to see the world as composed of people having mere opinions. (Concurrently, we tend to be too careless about distinguishing between “opinion” versus an informed stance.)
Especially in Trumplandia, the call for “both sides” to listen to each other is a larger example of the “teach the debate” approach used to derail the teaching of science to students.
When I entered the larger discussion about Peterson spanking his child, I was routinely invited to debate corporal punishment ― a context that I have resisted in other issues related to education reform that would have required me to debate people without credibility who simply make opposing claims (such as advocating for school choice).
In 2017, we are faced with an incredible paradox ― democracy (and freedom) are tenuous because political leadership now drives an “all voices matter” agenda that appears to be democratic but is in fact a corrupting of what it means to be an informed and compassionate public.
It is a disservice to democracy, in fact, if ― as we are witnessing ― the act of debating itself trumps the content and credibility of the debate. Hints at this problem occurred when Trump was declared the winner of debates with Clinton, even though those declarations of winning were followed with clear analysis that many of Trumps claims were false and outright lies.
Democracy is also ill served when we fail to acknowledge that some issues are beyond debate. As I have noted often, while mainstream media and the public seem comfortable debating corporal punishment (despite an abundance of research fully rejecting it), when domestic violence reared its ugly head around another NFL star, Ray Rice, no one formed panels to debate the pros and cons of men physically abusing women.
We don’t debate rape, and when extreme beliefs exist, such as Holocaust deniers, we tend not to give them any platform ― except to discredit them.
There is a certain tyranny of the mobilized uninformed that makes simplistic views of democracy dangerous for a free people.
Consider (with caveats about his idealistic libertarian arguments) Henry David Thoreau:
After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest. But a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it.
Thoreau was navigating the contradiction between the law and “right” in the context of slavery being legal (determined by the majority) yet immoral. Even in Thoreau’s time, there was no debate about slavery—although debate was allowed.
Slavery, like corporal punishment today, was propped up by the false and manipulated authority of religious doctrine.
Slavery, like arguments against evolution, was propped up by a non-scientific set of beliefs about human beings and race.
If we dig into Thoreau’s plea, and confront his elitist and idealistic perspective, we can unpack a qualified understanding of democracy that requires informed voices for them to matter.
Thoreau’s idealizing of the individual is a projection of his own privileges, including his elite education. And thus his opening assertion (sexist language maintained): “‘That government is best which governs not at all’; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.”
So if we return to Coates at the center of debate, we have a powerful and complex example of what faces a free people: informed scholars debating Coates as a credible public intellectual and Coates himself standing firm against a reductive and idealistic view of “all voices matter.”
A free people and their democracy must find ways to embrace not an idealized view of debate but the political will to admit when there is no debate.