In Defense of Debate
I'm tired of defending my own basic rights. I do it anyway.
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This week, I’ll be at Notre Dame debating abortion rights with National Review writer Alexandra DeSanctis. Notre Dame is a Catholic university; one of the Supreme Court justices poised to overturn Roe v. Wade is a graduate of its law school. Alexandra is someone I’ve met and debated before, and while I enjoy speaking with her, I find her views on women’s rights to be abhorrent and offensive (she surely feels the same about my views on abortion). And if I am being honest, I find it frustrating that abortion rights are even up for debate. Nothing is more fundamental than the sanctity of one’s own body. It is profoundly dehumanizing and insulting that women keep having to defend our right to not be forced into pregnancy, childbearing, and motherhood.
So why am I going?
Debate is not particularly en vogue at the moment. In progressive circles, there’s an understandable exhaustion with the debate me, bro brand of right-wing point-scoring. Many on the left argue in favor of deplatforming or refusing to feature those who hold ugly, dangerous, or hateful views, particularly although not exclusively on college campuses. The latest example comes from the University of Virginia, where the student newspaper editorial board argued that the school should not have welcomed a talk from former Vice President Mike Pence, because “dangerous rhetoric is not entitled to a platform.”
The questions of who deserves a platform and which issues should be up for debate are not simple ones. No matter how much of a free speech absolutist someone is — and I’m a pretty staunch one — just about everybody agrees that there are some issues that are so beyond the pale that they are not, and should not be, up for discussion. So the question really isn’t whether debate is good or bad. One question is what falls inside the circle of what we debate and what falls outside of it. Another is whether agreeing to debate an issue validates that issue as justifiably contested. In other words, if I agree to debate abortion rights, isn’t that conceding that abortion rights should be up for debate?
Since I am heading to Indiana to debate abortion rights, my answer is clearly no. Or, to be a bit more precise: I do not believe that abortion rights should be up for debate. But whether I like it or not, abortion rights are up for debate. My choice is not whether I live in this world or my ideal one; it is whether I show up in the world I live in to defend abortion rights or not.
That isn’t to say that everyone has a permanent obligation to debate and defend their own fundamental rights. There are lots of days when I don’t feel like doing defending and debating, and a lot of venues where I don’t feel debate is particularly productive (hello, Twitter). Debate is not universally good or useful, and most individuals are totally justified, at any time and for any reason, in saying, “no thank you.”
College campuses, though, are one space where I think it’s particularly crucial for those of us whose job it is to publicly grapple with questions of politics and rights to show up and engage, even on issues we don’t believe we should have to defend and even on questions we believe have long been answered. Colleges are, at their core, places for intellectual exploration, including of difficult and unpopular ideas.
Colleges are also places where the seeds of lifelong change are planted. When I debate issues I don’t believe should be up for debate, I’m not doing it because I think I am going to convince the audience that I am right. I’m doing it because there may be a few people listening who haven’t thought about it in quite that way before, and who may not change their minds right that minute in a college auditorium, but for whom a real back and forth may be one in a long list of small moments that eventually produce a bigger shift. I’m doing it because there will probably be a bunch of people in the audience who agree with me but may not always know how to articulate why. I’m doing it because I think it’s good practice for me to think through, be challenged on, and defend my most deeply-held beliefs. I’m doing it because there will definitely be many people in the audience — potentially a majority — who think I am flat-out wrong, and while I don’t believe I will convince them to embrace abortion rights, I do hope I can push them to think about why their own position is incomplete or hypocritical. Maybe I can get them to dig a little deeper into why they believe what they do.
It’s not a question of “winning” some game in the marketplace of ideas. It’s instead about doing the slow work of change — knowing the goal isn’t universal persuasion, but the scattering of ideological seeds. Maybe the ground is inhospitable. But maybe, someday, something new grows.
It’s also the case that college students, though mostly legal adults, are not fully-formed human beings, and one of the best things you can give a young person is information that challenges their priors and pushes them to defend their views. I’m acutely aware, just writing this, of how emphasizing the value of debate and discussion is seen on broad swaths of the left as naive and a little embarrassing. But part of what solidifies my belief that it’s important is my own experience as a college student — seeing how I have evolved, and seeing how much the people around me have.
My core values and politics haven’t changed all that much from when I was in college — I was as much a pro-choice feminist then as I am now. But some of my views have shifted significantly; certainly my general outlook has been revised and edited many times over. And one thing I am glad I experienced in college was consistent interactions with people who believed very differently than I did. I was a columnist for the NYU student newspaper under a conservative section editor and, before we met, I was convinced I would hate him and that he would hate me. When we worked together, we argued constantly and heatedly, and also ended up becoming good friends. After he graduated, I took over as the opinion section editor, overseeing and then working alongside a different conservative columnist whose views I abhorred but who I also often sparred with, and who I found to be a thoughtful and decent — if totally wrong — person. At NYU, he was an anti-abortion Catholic and a member of the College Republicans; I was the president of the pro-choice club and a college Democrat. Today, he’s a self-identified socialist. He may still be an anti-abortion Catholic — we haven’t kept in close touch so I have no idea — but his politics otherwise have undergone a huge shift. Maybe that would have happened no matter what; I suspect that much of what fueled that change happened after college.
But I wonder what would have happened if I had used my position as a gatekeeper of ideas to deplatform him. I vehemently disagreed with just about everything he wrote, from abortion rights to affirmative action to the Iraq war, and I frankly found his views not just wrong but deeply offensive. If I am being honest, I was at times totally disgusted by him — I felt like our differences were not simply ideological, but moral, striking to the core of my own humanity and his arrogance and misogyny in questioning it. Here was this guy telling me that, should I get pregnant, I’ve been an irresponsible slut and the government should get to force me to risk my life in pregnancy and childbirth and foreclose upon my entire future — demands never made of the men who get women pregnant. I’m two decades out of college and I still get angry thinking about it.
All of which is to say, I understand the impulse to tell someone whose politics amount to “you should be relegated to second-class citizen status” to buzz right off; I understand the impulse to use whatever power one has to shut down that kind of debate. But with nearly 20 years of hindsight, I wonder if making this particular student’s views unpublishable would have had the opposite of the intended effect — if he would have felt aggrieved and victimized, and that would have reinforced his own self-certitude and encouraged him to double down instead of opening up. By publishing him, I surely didn’t make him the most popular kid at the uber-left NYU. But he also had to deal with the social consequences of his ideas, without being able to point a finger at someone with a tiny bit more power shutting him down.
When it comes to the contours of what is or is not up for debate, where I’ve landed is this: For those of us who are paid to think through issues in public, there is value in publicly discussing and debating questions that are actually being litigated in the public and political spheres. Whether I like it or not, abortion rights are being litigated (quite literally). Affirmative action is being litigated. Trans rights are being litigated. There are other issues that some reactionary knucklehead may want to debate that are not actually subjects of any real potential legal or policy change — for example, whether women should have the right to vote, or whether slavery was really that bad. Don’t get me wrong: There are people out there who make those arguments. But the answers to those questions are not being written into law at this particular moment. Debating offensive questions with no real political stakes does have the effect of legitimizing them, and potentially creates real political stakes later on. I feel very good about ignoring the provocations that are intended to open or reopen questions long since resolved.
But I can’t justify refusing to engage, in any circumstance, on questions I believe should have been resolved but are, to my great sadness and frustration, still legally, politically, and culturally unsettled.
One argument against debate is that it reduces complex issues of profound human importance to point-scoring — he who can make the most rational argument wins, which is just not a reasonable way to resolve some of the most pressing questions human beings face. I agree with that, which is why the debate events I participate in aren’t judged contests, but rather public conversations. I am also selective about which venues I have those conversations in, and the people with whom I have them. And I don’t think any other person on this planet needs to operate according to these same rules of engagement. This is where I land; it’s not prescriptive. And I object to efforts on the left to demand that everyone refuse to engage on this question or that one just as strongly as I object to the idea that everyone has an obligation to engage with any yahoo who demands it.
I’m not going to spend my days debating any Twitter troll who demands my attention or any rando podcaster who thinks I owe him my time. But I will spend an evening in conversation with a staunch opponent of my own basic rights in front of a room full of students — not because I think my rights should be debated, but because they are already being debated. The only question is whether or not I show up to defend them.
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