And The Debate Rages On

There is a noble sport among the intellectual elite. It’s been with us for millenniums. It’s not going anywhere. It can often turn into the intellectual equivalent of a circle jerk. It’s called ‘debate’. We all use it virtually every day, for so many things, that we honestly can’t imagine doing without it. One person makes a supposition, and everyone else feeling their oats takes a stab at tearing it apart, according to some rules designed to govern whether an idea has merit, and whether a debate has succeeded or not.

I don’t debate. I don’t enjoy it. At all. In fact, I find it ugly and distasteful. I also find it a monumental waste of my extremely limited time. The truth is, I strongly resent being made to debate, even when the topic is serious and needs to be defended.

I’m not saying that logic or intellect are somehow suspect; I rely on logic and intellect myself, every day of my life. But I don’t actually think anything of true merit is discerned by mastering the art of debate. Critical thinking and debate are not necessarily the same thing, though they can be used in tandem to achieve good results. It’s good to quickly hash out plans and rule out ideas that probably can’t be implemented within the parameters of a given task.

But debating a topic for the sake of proving one’s intellectual superiority by being able to demonstrate your ability to argue effectively is a parlour trick; a mug’s game. Demonstrating cleverness by brow-beating someone with your superior knowledge of some arcane law doesn’t make you more intelligent; it makes you a bully. If you know a thing, use your knowledge to make something useful or beautiful. Don’t stand around shouting “I know better than you do”. If you can’t measure the value of your achievements without using your IQ score as a bludgeon, you haven’t really achieved anything.

I’m writing this because someone I call a friend decided to take me to task for making a few strong statements of opinion on Facebook yesterday, where I counterbalanced a few serious statements with a couple of throwaways that weren’t intended to do much more than make people smile as the bitter medicine went down. One of these throwaways became the subject of a stalking horse debate my friend produced, and it tripped me up because I failed to engage in the debate in timely fashion, and in so doing, had my credibility called into question. Forget that I produced what I felt was a legitimate argument after it became clear that I had been snared in a debate and wasn’t being released until I cried Uncle. I thought I was pretty effective in my explanation, but ultimately, I failed because I didn’t play by the rules of engagement.

The problem for me now is two-fold: This person is someone I deeply respect, and is someone who did me a considerable favour earlier in the year, so I feel bound to address the matter and attempt to preserve my credibility, even though I don’t see why I should have to if this person considers me any sort of friend.

So, what was the debate about? Well, I posted the following:

I need the Sheer Stupidity of certain segments of the human population to stop, preferably now.

The President of the United States is not rewriting the constitution. He’s also not the Antichrist. He’s just a guy with a job to do. Let him do it. You’ll thank him later.

The Pope is not the Antichrist either. He’s a Christian moderate who believes in the sanctity of doing the most good for the most people. That probably includes people you don’t like. Too bad for you. Get over it.

The Doctor is NOT going to run out of Regenerations. Drop it already. You’re making all of us Whovians look bad.

Facebook will not give you free things for sharing an image or link. It’s not going to happen.

And to the City Staff of Hamilton: just because it’s not the way you have done things in the past does not make a request, nor a demand, for new services impossible. It means you are becoming surplus to requirements, and should start thinking about finding other work where things don’t change as much. Like Payless Shoes. Life is change. Politics is managing change. Only Bureaucracies try to maintain the status quo in the face of overwhelming need for change, and the only solution is and always has been firing the deadwood. Be the change, or go home.

Thank you.

Now, don’t get me wrong, here. I know that what I said was strong in places. I also know that, in using the word ‘stupid’ to preface my statements, I essentially insulted anyone who disagrees with me. I get that.

However, none of my statements was meant to be taken as anything other than a statement of opinion. Yes, I was being polemic. I was going for style. I didn’t invite anyone to challenge my opinions, not because I didn’t think I had a reasoned argument to make, but because I didn’t have time to get drawn into a lengthy debate on any of these points just then. The context of my statements was that I had been barraged by information all day, and decided to sum up my opinions of the bits that really stuck with me. But my time was severely limited, so I said what I said and got off stage.

But my friend chose to call me out, and in doing so, robbed me of what little spare (writing) time I might have had yesterday by trying to salvage my credibility, because he’d trapped me in an argument that I couldn’t get out of because I wasn’t prepared to debate it on the level he was. When I didn’t address his argument as he insisted I needed to in order to support my statement, he then insinuated that my other statements were equally suspect.

Do I think it was unfair of him. No. He may have even had what he felt was a good reason to do it. And if he had made his motives clear, perhaps I wouldn’t be so offended at his implication.

See, I’ve never truly mastered the art of debate, not so much because I lack the wit, but because I lack the desire to prove my wit to all comers at any and every given moment. I lack that fundamentally human character trait, competitiveness. I don’t care if you are a stronger athlete, a whiz at chess, a pool shark, or can debate like a member of British Parliament. I truly don’t. The only measure of your self-worth should be by the value of your contributions to society. And if you can’t muster anything more significant than brinkmanship, you aren’t really contributing.

The question here is, do I have the right to speak with authority on a topic I can’t or won’t back up with a detailed debate? The easy answer is ‘no’. But life is never that easy. If I tell you I have some authority on a subject, you are free to question my authority by whatever means you see fit. However, what this really implies is that you quite possibly have a superior knowledge of a given subject. The thing is, there is always someone who knows more than you about a given topic, especially as the facts are updated and the old knowledge is tested and proven incorrect. Does that therefore mean that no one can speak with authority on anything? Maybe. Or maybe there is a pecking order for these things that must be observed. But personally, I just say what I like, because I’m a fiction writer, and if I wait for permission to share my opinions or bald prevarications, I’ll be waiting a long time (and get no work done).

The problem as I see it is, we were arguing oranges and lemons. I made my statement based on being a writer of fiction who happens to be a fan of the Doctor Who television series, but hasn’t watched certain key episodes in a few years, and couldn’t formulate the kind of logical semantic argument that he implied was the only true measure of the validity of my statements. My argument was that the integrity of the assertions made in those episodes was questionable, but he kept on, doggedly persisting in his assertion that the facts of the argument were clear enough (according to Wikipedia), and that my grasp of them was suspect. Perhaps he was right. I’m disinclined to agree, but I could be wrong.

But from my point of view as a fiction writer, I see this as a small failing when discussing the inner consistencies (or lack thereof) of a work of purest fiction, of which I maintain Doctor Who is, and that’s what I love about it. The series rarely pretends to be anything other than a hopelessly whimsical dalliance with fact, regardless of the tenor of the episode in question. The Deadly Assassin, where the unassailable Robert Holmes first pulled this magic thirteen lives number out of his hat (over ten years after the series commenced; we call this ‘retcon’), also used telepathy, virtual reality, dream logic, numerous masked murders, and a pretty big Deus Ex Machina (the Master using the Matrix, an information network that has been used in the entire series perhaps once or twice to the best of my saggy recollection, to send a psychic premonition to the Doctor and thus lure him to Gallifrey to be implicated in an assassination plot; and if you buy that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you), to hammer home this story and establish this dubious piece of series canon that has been a sticking point for fanwank ever since.

The fact is, the Twelve Regeneration limit was a plot device invented for that story to make certain death sequences feel significant in a story where numerous Gallifreyans, including a few Time Lords, are violently killed and denied the ability to regenerate and walk away. It was done to achieve gravitas, and it worked, but I maintain that thirteen was an arbitrary number, and it needlessly painted the entire series into a seemingly irrevocable corner that hardcore fans are gleefully celebrating, watching with mounting anticipation to see how the riddle will be resolved, and then, presumably, measured against the value of the original assertion (re: Holmes vs Moffat), to decide the validity of New Who versus Classic one last time.

It’s perhaps my lack of the deepest respect for the inner workings of the gobbledygook that passes for empirical fact in the series that gets me into deep water with hardcore fans, and always leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It’s a big part of the reason I’ve largely eschewed Doctor Who fandom for as long as I have. They suck all of the fun out of the series for me by being so pedantic and argumentative over ‘facts’ that I (and most other fiction writers) see as mere plot hurdles, to be swept aside as needed, rather than the strict barriers that some fans take them for.

So, have I come back for a rematch? No. I’ve come back to thank my friend for showing me the colour of his friendship. I wasn’t aware that I had to prove myself to him. Now I know, and can treat him in the appropriate manner. The question becomes, do I use this lesson to inform future decisions about how to address people who question my authority and credibility in such a fashion? I think it has to be taken on a case by case basis, but I think the immediate answer has to be, “It depends on how they address me.”

If you treat me like a friend, advising me that my lack of interest in debating a frivolous subject can thus cast my more serious assertions in less favourable light, I’ll thank you and take it under advisement. But if you suddenly challenge me to a game of wits to demonstrate that I am a n00b and thus punish me for getting above myself, I’ll let you have your win, and quietly put you on my mental Ignore List until we can come to some agreement as to whether and how it is desirable to engage me in a friendly discussion. Because if it’s an argument you came for, you won’t get it from me, if I can help it. I’ll take the technical loss and call it a personal win for freedom and sanity.

I really hate debate.

Thanks for reading. Have a good day.


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