Why debate is necessary and painful

Do we really need to argue this again?

There is a refrain I’ve heard that pleads that we not revisit settled arguments. What those who ask this mean by “settled argument” usually involves a degree of force, since they tend to think war is able to settle arguments in some way. To these, a solution in urgency (that the victor of war is able to impose its will onto those defeated and thereby rescue its allies) is also a discursive precedent (or, basis for estoppel) that should persuade the intellectual descendents of the defeated to relinquish in peacetime the abhorrent points of view of their forebears. For example, the Southerners who continued the racist tradition of their Confederate forbears should, by reflecting on the result of the US Civil War, persuade themselves out of their culture of racism. Or, the ethnonationalists who revived doctrines of the German National Socialists should be able to overcome their ethnic identarianism and embrace global citizenship by recalling that their ideological forbears lost the Second World War.

The central motive of these kinds of arguments is that we should not have to revisit settled arguments.

Contrary to those who say we needn’t debate what has been resolved, I would like to offer a theory for when we are justified in revisiting well-worn debates that is rooted in nature of political persuasion itself – Persuasion that is a slow accretion of reasons in the public consciousness.

Reasons in support of a proposition and in opposition slowly become present for thinking in the consciousness or collective memory of society as a whole.

Sudden shifts in political climate

Despite its steady nature, however, persuasion is strictly not gradual in shifting adherence nor is it incremental in its observable effects. People need to hear the same arguments repeatedly before they make conscious steps to change their minds, then they suddenly shift. Every debate is simultaneously a rehearsal (of old ideas) and an exploration (of new ideas).

Collective deliberation as a theatre production

This is why democratic deliberation must be a theatre play on repeat showing: People choose their parts in the play by adopting one of the various arguments available. Once everyone is tired of seeing the same play enacted (i.e., hearing the same arguments be met with the same counter arguments), we make a collective decision to not reenact the play (i.e., revisit its arguments) if for no other reason than sheer boredom. This decision is crystallized as policy and we do not revisit the policy unless serious practical problems with it arise. This dialectical estoppel can only be maintained, however, so long as we remember the play’s synopsis: If we forget how it went, we may need to return to its stage and play it out a few more times to remind ourselves of its acts.

Those who refuse repetition contribute to discord

In any ongoing debate, the various sides clash in many intellectual skirmishes or deliberations. To retire after contributing to only a number of such exchanges is to encourage a transition from a battle of ideas to a state of attrition and then actual violence. That is why the mindset that confuses the need for debate with the validity of one of the sides in debate is as much an impediment to social progress as those who refuse to entertain new ideas altogether.

It’s untrue that debate arises from a need to simply resolve a given issue (to find its actual solution, like a scientist); rather, debate is a vehicle of persuasion. Debate is ongoing. The mindset that opposes this says in effect that (regardless of whether the refutation is understood by everyone) no debate is needed where there exist effective arguments against the refuted side of the debate. Think about that. This is like believing (if persuasion is an aid to the persuaded) that once one has gotten out alive, there is no further need to go back into a burning building to rescue others. This mindset says, Never mind that the building is still half full of people — it is frightening and dangerous to go back. It might even feel unfair. Nevertheless we have a duty of care to those who remain unmoved to engage them. We are not entitled to rest after finding the truth ourselves or after making one or two attempts at articulating it for others. For those in democratic societies, ours is a responsibility to stay with deliberation until the matter is exhausted.

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