There’s an interesting piece in The New Republic by Josephine Livingstone, who analyses the idea that debate is always a good thing. She begins by looking at a US journalist called Jesse Singal, who’s notorious in LGBT circles for what appears to be an ongoing campaign of damaging misinformation about trans people and trans teenagers in particular.
When readers get angry with him, which happens often, he sees them as curtailing a productive conversation that he has prompted in the spirit of a free and vigorous exchange of ideas.
…Singal and others who are critical of the social justice leftâ€”a group that ranges across the ideological spectrum and includes Bari Weiss, Ben Shapiro, Daphne Merkin, and Katie Roipheâ€”accuse the left of being footstampingly insistent on their views, to the detriment of healthy debate. In fact, it is the â€œdebate me, cowardâ€ crowd that has made it impossible to have arguments in good faith, because they demand, unwittingly or not, to set the terms.
Livingstone rather brilliantly describes this as “vacuous fight-picking” and “a howling canyon filled with misdirected energy”, using the familiar idea that we must hear both sides of any story in order to form our own opinions.
But these people are not interested in letting people hear both sides. They want you to hear their side and only their side, and if you disagree with them they’ll shout you down and accuse you of trying to silence them.
It is telling that critics of the social justice movement are obsessed with free speech and debate: It is the one inviolable principle they can fall back on when argument on the actual issues fails.
All too often, the argument being made is based on (deliberate or accidental) misunderstanding, or straightforward bad faith: so for example many so-called debates about trans people simply ignore decades of research or dig up long-debunked talking points. Again and again demonstrably false claims are presented as incontestable fact: the number of trans people who detransition, the medicine given (or not given) to young people, the content of existing and proposed legislation.
And it’s usually asymmetric. Journalists have power that other people do not; a journalist or public figure with tens of thousands of social media followers has a disproportionate amount of power compared to the people they may write about. For example, the supposed quality press in Scotland and elsewhere consistently regurgitates the claims of extreme anti-trans activists about legal or medical issues but never asks legal experts or medical experts whether those claims are true and certainly doesn’t give trans people the right of reply.
The truth is out there, but too many journalists prefer “truthiness”: what feels true to them, not what’s actually true.
People like Singal can bang on about free speech and debate endlessly without ever conceding a) that the deck may be stacked in their favor, and b) that certain ideas may be beyond their understanding.
And this is why marginalised people can become so angry. Singal’s work, and similarly distorted reporting, has often been comprehensively demolished by people with a greater understanding and a less blinkered view of the things being written about. But they aren’t the ones given the column inches to fill.
The exhaustion that comes of teaching something over and over again, only to witness people re-educated by poorly-read journalists, is profound. Exhaustion makes a person angry. Anger makes a person seem like a hyperzealot. You cannot believe that somebody is asking you to go around the same blockâ€”the very same block!â€”yet another time.