A claim to shame

Rational debate is a waste of time, writes John Gooding.

Do you find yourself trying to engage with the arguments of your political opponents and getting nowhere? Are your attempts to convince the hearts and minds with reason falling flat every single time? The problem might not lie with your arguing abilities, but because you need to amp up that shame-wow power.

When you come across someone arguing from a moral perspective you don’t agree with, the only reasonable thing to do is shame them into either adopting your values or shutting up and sitting in the corner like the outnumbered dunces they are. It’s one thing to be incorrect, but it’s quite another to be a deviant. Your friends stop seeing you, you can’t find a job, it’s just awful. Shaming is a tricky game to master, but once you’ve got rhetoric by your side and the herd at your back there’s nothing you can’t achieve. Call your opponents whatever-phobic, somehow compare their point of view to Hitler, repeatedly quote Bible passages at them. Whatever you need to get the job done.

But surely there are more civilised alternatives, you say? No, you’re wrong, you’re so wrong, social ostracism is the best and only tool at your disposal. For example, look at the argument over whether section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act (which outlaws certain types of racially discriminatory speech) is good or not. Both sides think freedom and equality are important, but they differ in which they think is more important. “Freedom of speech is paramount to liberal democracy,” says one side. “I’m all for freedom of speech, but there has to be limits so people are treated equally by society,” says the other. “No there doesn’t,” says the first, and the conversation from here on is pretty predictable. No matter how much you reason, assess or gesticulate wildly, you simply cannot prove that freedom is objectively more important than equality, or vice versa.

Well OK, I hear you say, if there’s no way to show my opponent’s values are incorrect, why not attempt to mount an argument based on their perspective? Why not attempt to make a conditional argument demonstrating why their values demand an alternative course of action?

You must NEVER EVER do this. NEVER EVER. I cannot stress this enough. A curious thing about conditional words like ‘if’ is that apparently no one has any fucking clue what they mean. For example, let’s say you were a pretty senior Liberal politician and you were to utter a phrase like, I don’t know, “If you want to put a price on carbon, why not just do it with a simple tax?” If you think about it for longer than five seconds the meaning seems clear, right? Assuming the goal of achieving X, why not try policy Y? Tony Abbott is very obviously not endorsing either the goal of putting a price on carbon or the policy of a tax on carbon.

Alas, by making an attempt to reach across the aisle you are handing your political opponents the rhetorical equivalent of a big stick to hit you with. You are trusting your rivals (and, more importantly, the fans of your rivals) not to be dickheads and imply you believe in either goal X or policy Y. This is too much trust, as the plethora of left-wing hacks using the above line to call Tony Abbott a hypocrite on the carbon tax demonstrate. When it comes to political debate, optimism and naïvete are about as fatal as hemorrhagic smallpox.

So the next time you find yourself a thousand words deep in a Facebook argument with a political zealot of any stripe, forget about reasoned debate. Forget about trying to see if your value systems are compatible (they’re not), or if you can come to a similar policy agreement from both moral perspectives (you won’t). It’s just not worth it. There’s too much at stake, too much to lose. Just wheel out the moral indignation cannons, load up some shame-unition, and fire away!