No, I Don't Want To Take Part In Your Stupid Debate
“Let’s have a proper debate,” people sometimes say to me on social media, shortly before they get blocked. But I don’t want a debate. I’ve had enough of ‘debate’. Debate is what got us into this mess - and we sure as hell aren’t going to debate our way out of it.
Sometimes the people who want a proper debate are Team Toby fans of London Calling, the weekly podcast I do with my good friend Toby Young. Toby thinks the events of the last few years are just the result of a gigantic cock up by inept politicians. I think it’s all a pre-planned, carefully orchestrated, Satanically evil conspiracy. Presumably, these ‘proper debate’ fans think that if only we keep reiterating our positions doggedly every week, we’ll sooner or later find the sensible middle ground and all our problems will be solved.
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Sometimes the people who want a proper debate are fans of my solo podcast, the Delingpod. They want to know why I always seem to have as my guests people with whom I broadly agree. Wouldn’t it be interesting for a change, they wonder, if I had on someone from the opposite end of the political spectrum so that I could ‘challenge’ their views?
Sometimes the people who want a proper debate are contributors on my Telegram channel. They get very upset when I say I’m not interested in hearing the Normie opinions of people who haven’t yet gone down the rabbit hole - or who don’t understand how deep it goes. After all, isn’t everyone entitled to their point of view, and shouldn’t we be celebrating our diversity of thinking rather than imposing on everyone an official line like our enemies do?
But that’s part of the problem, isn’t it? Loads of people, even ones on our side of the argument who really ought to know better, have been so carried away by the ‘sanctity of muh free speech’ argument that they believe everyone has the unalienable right to spout whatever drivel they wish, in whatever context, to whichever audience, free of any kind of moderation or restriction or contemptuous rejection.
I’m not buying this. I feel no need to go through performative rituals of listening to other people’s half-baked points of view just to show that Our side is better than our oppressors’ side. Obviously I accept the broad principle that no government - or woke institution - has any right to censor what we say or write. But it doesn’t follow from this that everyone should be free to swear in church or promote transgenderism in kindergarten classes or, indeed, airily declare on my Telegram channel that the moon landings happened, 9/11 was planned by a man in a cave and that the pandemic was just the fault of a bumbling idiot called Matt Hancock. We’re all entitled to decide what the speech code is in our own private domain - and to enforce it as we see fit.
Take my Telegram channel. I really don’t like chucking members - my Sharklings, as I fondly call them - out of the chat group because it makes me look like a bastard and I want everyone to think that I am nice. But as I occasionally feel compelled to explain to the recalcitrant, I view the channel as the equivalent of my private room in a pub. Everyone is welcome to sit with me on my table and join in the banter, so long as they recognise that it’s my gaff and my rules.
These rules are not especially onerous. In a nutshell, they come down to ‘Don’t treat your host like a ****’. More specifically, they include strictures like: try not to stray too far off-topic (or at least be duly apologetic when you do so); don’t bore on too relentlessly and stridently about your hobby horses (hard-core flat-earthers and hard-core anti-flat-earthers are the worst); don’t try to tell me what the rules of the channel are because if you want to do that go and set up your own channel and see how far you get; don’t state with aggressive certainty stuff you don’t know to be true, especially when you haven’t looked into the counter arguments.
That last one has become especially important for me since my journey down the rabbit hole. I don’t mind at all when people who aren’t well-versed in this or that ‘conspiracy theory’ ask questions which indicate they’re not averse to being persuaded. But it does irk me somewhat when someone who is wedded to the Normie paradigm tries claiming the moral and intellectual high ground because it’s ‘basic physics’ or a ‘matter of public record’ or ‘plain commonsense.’ If there’s one thing I’ve learned to be sure of in the last three years it’s that pretty much every well-entrenched notion about our world is up for grabs: everything from history and medicine to the shape of the planet and how we are made. When you dogmatically assert that you know exactly what’s what, all you’re telling me is how little you really know.
Hence partly my antipathy to this notion that ‘debate’ is always a healthy thing. Not if one side is coming from a position of knowledge, insight and truth, and the other from a position of ignorance, prejudice and dogma it’s not.
Take the global warming ‘debate’. The other day, an alternative media outlet asked me whether I fancied going head to head in the studio with some green activists. “No thanks,” I said, though I should have been ruder. It was a ruddy stupid idea, for reasons that should have been obvious to anyone on our side of the argument, as this broadcasting outfit was and is.
I spent a decade fighting the climate wars, looking into ‘the science’, exposing the nonsense. It became clear to me from pretty early on that this was not a nuanced issue. That is, there were no mights and maybes about whether or not the world was warming up catastrophically and unprecedentedly due to man’s selfishness and greed and refusal to amend his carbon-guzzling lifestyle. Everything we were told - threatened polar bears, drowning Pacific islands, melting icecaps, extinct toads - was a lie designed to stoke anxiety and push an agenda. Sustainability has nothing whatsoever to do with ‘saving the planet’. It’s just another mechanism for advancing the New World Order, dressed up - as these sinister measures so often are - as something warm, nurturing, caring and wholesome.
Once you’ve understood the Enemy’s modus operandi, you see it everywhere. Always, but always, on whatever subject you care to name - vaccines, the history of World War II, the Beatles… - there’s the official narrative, lovingly curated and promoted to catch the attention of the general public. And there’s the truth which is, almost by definition, completely at odds with what the media, the entertainment industry, academe and politicians are telling you.
One of the tricks this deception machine uses to deceive you is the notion that ‘debate’ is our best means of establishing where the truth lies. It’s often instilled in us from early on. I must have been about ten or eleven when I took part in my first school debate. Funnily enough, it was about the rights and wrongs of foxhunting. Even more oddly, I was on the anti team.
I remember it vividly because of something strange that happened before the debate began. As I moved in front of the audience to take my seat on the podium, I was greeted by rapturous applause. It was the purest, most ecstatic adulation I had ever experienced, and probably ever will experience - like being a rock star. What had I done to deserve it? Absolutely nothing: I hadn’t spoken a word at that point. I don’t think I ever did find out what had caused this outbreak of mass hysteria - were the boys all rabid bunny huggers? Had they mistaken me for one of the speakers in favour of hunting? But I remember one of the boys on the pro-hunting debate side bursting into tears because he felt he’d lost before the debate had even begun.
It wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience for me, either. I felt like a total imposter being feted so extravagantly for nothing I had done. The memory of that sensation has haunted me ever since, so much so that I now wonder whether it was perhaps one of my early moments of revelation, one of the signposts that fate - or, in my view, God - places on our life journey, whose significance we only understand much later.
What I glimpsed that day was the fickleness of the mob, the way it can form a powerful opinion based on nothing more than the emotion of the moment. It’s what - as Gustave Le Bon notes in his The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind - makes large groups so vulnerable to manipulation by demagogues. [Hitler and Mussolini both studied Le Bon, as did the inventor of public relations Edward Bernays]. It also explains why, at least since Aristotle, would-be elites have studied rhetoric - the art of persuasion through manipulation - as a means of swaying and controlling the masses.
There was a time when I would have agreed on the importance of rhetoric. When my children were younger I encouraged them - without much success, it must be said - to join their school and university debating societies. ‘Public speaking skills will set you up for life,” I used to tell them. And it’s true those skills been quite beneficial to my own career, especially now that I’ve got past that stage where you’re really bad at it and you definitely need more practice.
But I’m no longer persuaded, as I once might have been, by the moral case for rhetoric. As two perfect examples of why there isn’t one let me present Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. Gove and Johnson established themselves, early on, as pre-eminent public speakers of their generation, both at the Oxford Union and in international competitions against teams from universities around the world. How, though, have they used those Belial tongues of theirs? Never once, I suggest, for advancing the cause of truth and beauty. Essentially, the men are professional liars, with knobs on.
The art of rhetoric, after all, is about winning an argument or successfully pushing an agenda regardless of whether or not you have right or justice on your side. And weirdly, instead of being fearful or wary of such tricksiness, our culture encourages it. We celebrate oratory and the power of persuasion everywhere from school and university debating chambers, to parliament to the advertising industry to newspaper op-eds to our courts of law. The people who are good at it we reward with vast riches and almost limitless power; the people who are not so good at it - even if they are the ones who are morally and factually in the right - are expected to take their place, with good grace, as society’s also rans.
“Serves them right for being such crap speakers,” I might once have argued. But no longer. One of the salutary effects of journeying down the rabbit hole is that you see the world anew, interrogating all your former, deeply-held preconceptions and reexamining them according to first principles. So, in the case of rhetoric - and debate generally - I no longer automatically assume that they are desirable things just because accumulated tradition and the status quo tells me that this is so. Rather, I’d ask: cui bono?
If you ask me who benefits from rhetoric I’d say, in the first instance, the yarn-spinners, the weavers of words, the silver-tongued. But the bigger beneficiaries of rhetoric, of course, are those who employ them to advance their cause. That’s why oligarchs and Saudi princes pay London QCs top dollar to preserve their interests in the courts. It’s why, in a recent Succession, Shiv got so cross when she discovered that her husband Tom had secured the services of ALL New York’s most aggressive divorce lawyers, meaning that she couldn’t use them herself. Implicit in all the above examples is the widely understood notion that truth - or as here, the rights and wrongs of a case - often comes a poor second to presentation. We take this state of affairs for granted but I don’t think we should because it is at the root of so much that is wrong with our civilisation.
One of the best essays ever written in defence of free speech was John Milton’s 1642 tract Areopagitica. I’ve often quoted it myself to argue against censorship, especially the famous line ‘Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?’ It’s a seductive argument: bad ideas, perhaps even more than good ideas, should be put to the test in the crucible of debate. But where I think Milton gets a little carried away with his point in his claim that the Truth will always win.
Will it? I think even Milton recognised the flaw in that argument when in Paradise Lost he created the character of Belial, most beautiful of all Satan’s crew of fallen angels and also the most eloquent, who uses ‘words clothed in reason’s garb’ to sway his audience. Milton is surely acknowledging the possibility here that lies, hypocrisy, smooth talking can be more seductive than the naked truth. In fact, he arguably went and proved it by writing a poetic epic in which he set out to praise God, but where the most exciting, charismatic, sympathetic character is actually his anti-hero Satan.
But I digress. I want to make it clear at this point that I’m most certainly not arguing against eloquence, clarity, wit, structure, variety, rhythm, entertainment value or any of the other tricks used by public speakers to make their case more compelling. On the contrary, I tend to think that people who aren’t good at public speaking shouldn’t be engaging in it because they are doing a disservice both to their audience and their subject.
What I am saying, though, contra Areopagitica, is that the truth will not always out. It will not automatically defeat falsehood by dint of its essential truthiness, whose radiant integrity will make itself clear in the ears of all those listening. I know this, inter alia, because of all the debates in which I have participated over the years where - invariably though not always - my team’s cogent arguments against the lunacy of environmentalism have been defeated by the other side’s wailing, often mendacious litany of the damage man has done to the planet and of the urgent need to take expensive, intrusive action to stop him doing any more.
Now we’ve already established, I hope, that the entire foundation of the environmental movement sits on a stagnant swamp of lies. (You’ll have to take my word for it. Otherwise this piece will go on forever). But that hasn’t stopped the tenets of sustainability, and so on, becoming the dominant political narrative of our era. One reason for this is the point attributed to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, who in turn probably got it from Le Bon: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
Our culture abounds with such lies: evolutionary theory; the Moon Landings; the Kennedy assassination ‘lone gunman’ theory; almost everything we think we know about the First and Second World Wars; modern medicine; the benefits of vaccines; and on and on and on. If ‘debate’ is so helpful in enabling us to sift truth from falsehood, how come it has proved so singularly useless at protecting us from these deceptions? On the contrary, I would argue, that our culture of ‘debate’ actually entrenches them.
One reason for this is that ‘debate’ is so easy to rig. I used to experience this often in my mainstream media days: every time I’d go on the BBC to discuss a particular issue, I’d be doughnutted by three people fully on board, in their marginally differing ways, with the dishonest official narrative. What impression would this have given to the viewers and listeners, would you say? That the line I was arguing was a niche, minority position, natch!
Even when it’s one to one, though, and the encounter really is ‘free and open’, I’m still not convinced that truth has the advantage over falsehood. I wonder this every time I go into battle with Toby Young on our podcast London Calling. When I go out into the lists and argue, as above, that almost everything we have taught to believe from both is a lie, I’m not merely arguing against Tobes but against a paradigm which is daily reinforced and promoted by the entire structure of our civilisation: schools, universities, the media, the entertainment industry, the realm of politics, and so on. I’m forced to make my every point ab initio: I can assume no prior knowledge on the part of my sceptical audience. All Tobes has to do, on the other hand, is assume a tone of wry scepticism or even outright ridicule: “So you’re actually saying that…” It’s not a fair fight.
And suppose on that particular day that Tobes’s battery of rhetorical tropes - or the audience’s lifetime biases - mean that he appears to win the argument does it follow therefore that truth has prevailed? Of course not. Truth is an absolute. It exists independently of any and all cases made for or against it.
Finding the truth of the matter is something that debate seems almost expressly designed NOT to do. It simply pits two sets of ideas against one another and allows the winner to be decided on the basis of the audience’s emotions and the speakers’ eloquence (or charisma, or mendacity or deviousness…) It’s the equivalent of deciding the truth of something by trial by combat: the honest and just party is by no means the one most likely to prevail.
What debate also often does - and arguably this is even more dangerous - is to embed false notions of what is and isn’t acceptable by imposing arbitrary and loaded parameters (aka ‘the terms of the debate’) on the topic being discussed. Debates about climate change, for example, tend to be couched in terms that take as a given that the problem is real.
Here’s a recent example from the Oxford Union: ‘This house believes that low- and middle-income countries should be allowed to exploit their fossil fuel reserves.’ In fact, the only correct and true response to this motion is that every country in the world should be allowed to exploit their fossil fuel reserves because man-made global warming is a lie. Oh, and that that use of the word ‘allowed’ is both bizarre and sinister, because it presupposes that it is right that the world’s economy should be policed by supranational bodies with the power both to decide and enforce what is and isn’t permissible. But I doubt any of the people proposing the motion would have got that far. No doubt they thought they were being edgy enough merely by daring to suggest that fossil fuels shouldn’t be banned everywhere.
Besides being used to delineate the frame of the Overton Window, debate also serves as a means of advancing the Hegelian Dialectic of problem/reaction/solution. Take that foxhunting debate I participated in at my prep school. I can’t remember the exact title of the motion but it would have been something like “This House believes that foxhunting and other bloodsports have no place in modern society.” Do you see the sly indoctrination going on here? There we all were, schoolboys aged between 7 and 13, being programmed to think a) that ‘bloodsports’ were an issue that we needed to have an opinion on - But why?? Who made this rule? - and b), that, at least by implication, their ongoing existence was something that ought to be decided by majority consensus.
So many of the notions that we think of as our own are the product of this kind of relentless but subtle cradle-to-grave programming. The widespread misconception that debate is in any position to solve our myriad problems is one of them. People who call for more debate on this or that issue think they are being reasonable, open-minded, enquiring. But they’re really not. They’re just the helplessly naive pawns and useful idiots of the arch manipulators of the Great Deception.
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