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When debate is worse than silence

August 29, 2013

As an intersectional feminist on the internet, one of the things I come across fairly often is the accusation that to refuse to debate something, or to withdraw from a debate for any reason, is an admission of failure. It is assumed that to refuse a debate, or to decide to end it before your opponent, means that you tacitly accept that your argument was flawed, and that your opponent ‘wins’, no matter the circumstances or reason for refusal / withdrawal.

This is stupid.

There are many reasons why one would not want to enter into a debate, but one of the main ones is when you can see no merit in it, because the other person’s opinion is so weird and wrong, that to even start a debate, or acknowledge that there is a debate that could be had, gives legitimacy to a position that deserves none.

Richard Dawkins, for his many faults, is unquestionably an expert on the subject of Darwinian evolution. He neatly explains in this short video clip the reason why he won’t debate with creationists. He compares it to a geographer agreeing to debate with a flat-Earther, or a reproductive scientist debating with an advocate of the stork theory of human reproduction.

These examples are patently ridiculous and exaggerated, and yet daily, intersectional feminists are lambasted by MRAs (Men’s Rights Activists, of the sort found on this bizzare sub-reddit), TERFs (Trans* Excluding Radical Feminists such as the despicable Cathy Brennan, whose hazing of trans* women I won’t link to, but is well known) and others for failing to debate a position and therefore ‘losing’. Yet to enter into debate on some subjects with these people is to say that there is a debate to be had, and to entertain the possibility that their views hold merit.

They don’t. And to give these views the oxygen of publicity and the legitimacy of a response allows the wider societal debate to shift due to a psychological effect called anchoring. Zoe Stavri explored this effect in this blog post, and I advise you to read the whole thing if you haven’t already, as this strategy is being used all over the place these days, and it’s crucial to be aware of how debate is being shaped by extremism.

MRAs assert that patriarchy is not real, and women are not really oppressed. TERFs assert that trans* women are not women. Creationists challenge the theory of evolution and the carbon dating of fossils and rocks. Flat Earthers assert that the world is, contrary to the evidence of space photography and centuries of science, flat.

All of these views are as ridiculous as each other, and all are unworthy of debate. And the next time someone refuses to engage in debate with you, maybe you should wonder why.

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