Debate on its own isn’t enough. We need to talk about power

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Credit: Soudure Design

by Frank Morris

This newspaper recently published a couple of articles stating that the only way to pull the current political climate away from the brink of dystopian fiction was to reinvigorate the practice of debate.

In an article published just over a week ago, Scott M. Patterson dubbed our current era as one of ‘post-truth’. In his view, if each voice is given equal weight in the political arena then the inherent truth would reveal itself and cast falsehoods to the side.

There is one thing that Mr Patterson has not considered, and that is testimonial injustice.

This, in simpler terms, is known as prejudice. When we think of prejudice, we think of people like Trump and his army of hat-wearing fanatics. We think of racially charged hate crime. We think of Orlando. But prejudice is embedded into every facet of society, including the ‘debate’ that people like Mr Patterson believe is dying by the roadside. What he fails to appreciate is the complex social constructs that surround certain voices.

Let us begin with John Stuart Mill. Mr Patterson’s article quotes Mill, incorrectly I might add, to explain a free exchange of ideas. Mill would agree that variety is needed in debate. In On Liberty, Mill claims that “[t]here must be discussion, to show how experience is to be interpreted. Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument: but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it.” Criticism leads to better opinions. However, Mill does not account for one salient aspect of society. Power, and those who wield it.

One does not need to be a Foucauldian to understand power. From a despot president to the peers in a seminar, there are power dynamics in every interaction. Power informs what Miranda Fricker calls the credibility economy. Due to the identity of their social group, people can be granted more or less credibility than they deserve.

In her book Epistemic Injustice, she describes this type of power as Identity Power. It goes as follows; in a dispute between a black person and a white person, the outside party will ascribe more credibility towards the white person. This is because whiteness, as well as maleness and straightness, are seen as the most rational in the identity spectrum. Yet, I can hear you asking yourselves, isn’t it the point of debate to hear these non-white, non-male, non-straight views? According to Mr Patterson, if all views are heard then the most logical and rational truths can be found. However, hearing has two sides.

Kirstie Dotson, in her paper Epistemic Violence, discusses the dependence between a speaker and their audience when it comes to knowledge being presented. When it comes to debate, not only does the speaker need to be heard, but they need to be listened to and seen as credible. Yet, as stated before, credibility is not distributed equally. Thanks to Identity Power, a person who is not white, male or straight will be given less credibility than a person who is. In this, the knowledge that the speaker offers will be ignored in favour of knowledge that is Eurocentric.

Hearing has two sides, and thanks to the credibility abundance given to white straight men, these voices are ignored. For every non-white, non-male and non-straight person trying to ‘debate’ their concerns or solutions there is a white, male or straight person not listening.

No one likes to think of themselves as racist, homophobic or misogynistic, and a response may be that they give equal credibility to everyone. To those people, I say congratulations on displaying the basic level of human decency that is expected from you. However, I am sorry to say you do not in most cases. The thing about prejudice is that it is socialised; something we learned through family or school in implicit ways. For example, whenever a boy shows emotion or – fates forbid – cries openly, they are shunned as a ‘sissy’, a ‘baby’ or worst of all, a girl. At this display of human emotion, they are dragged down into the lesser position of femininity. By being feminine, they are not as important. Therefore, their speech is given less credibility. It is a gut reaction. A snap judgement.

With the rumblings of the Union Neutrality debate staying to the sidelines for now, this writer wondered if the Union could ensure that debate is equal. Then could it be as Mr Patterson said; the inherent truth could win out?

No, it could not. No matter how much the Union gives to a fair and equal debate, that is just one side of hearing. Despite any precautions that can be put in place, the audience will still be held by testimonial injustice. If every view was heard, then those of non-white, non-male and non-straight voices would be drowned out by the white, straight male demanding he is right with all the fervour of a child past nap-time. Until prejudice can be removed from both sides of the debate table, there will never be an equality in voice.

As a philosophy student, I, too, believe in debate. Debate is my degree; I understand both its value and its importance. We should never stop talking to each other. But we must also understand the limits of dialogue. Plato feared the written word, for writing has no master – sometimes the most important thing we can do is read. In reading, we can come to know the voices that would otherwise be drowned out in Mr Patterson’s and Mill’s version of debate. Only by coming to know these voices, can we learn to listen.

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  1. Excellent piece, and I agree with your analysis wholeheartedly (although I’m not entirely clear on how I misquoted Mill). However, I feel it’s only fair to note that my original piece was making the case that dialogue and debate are absolutely more desirable for all of us than ideological isolationism, which does appear to be a tangible prospect. As you very astutely point out, this shouldn’t suggest that debate is the end of the road, rather that it’s a good start, and I certainly didn’t want to give the impression that I felt it was the former. As you point out, the bias of the listener always threatens to nullify the reason of the speaker, and it’s absolutely crucial to keep this in mind when it comes to the subject. I definitely would consider this subject to be a sort of ‘stage two’ in striving to get actual truth above alternative-‘truth’.

    It can be tempting to seek out a perfect solution that will unite us all, and further to see preferable options as that Holy Grail. Your argument demonstrates the folly of this quite astutely.

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