Debate – the practice of vigorously airing differing intellectual positions for the sake of changing someone else’s mind or conclusively proving them wrong, is a form of discourse that I have come to see as completely counterproductive when the subject is people’s rights. I have no desire to argue for the sake of argument – and certainly not about people’s lives –because I find that usually the people who are most eager to argue are the least eager to listen or learn.
In reading the responses to my last newsletter, I was struck by how upset some of my readers were about my disinterest in debating the issues I raised in it. I’m aware that some people believe that since I write for a publication that encourages conversation, this means I’m interested in debate on every topic. But I’m really not.
It is my firm position that it is unethical to imagine that people’s lives, rights or experiences can be debated or disagreed upon. I’m not interested in arguing about such things; I’m interested in curiosity, kindness, and introspective engagement with the subject and impacts of Othering in an unjust world.
Welcome to the Paradox of Open Societies. For a space to be truly progressive and inclusive, it has to be explicitly intolerant of intolerance. I consider it my responsibility, as the person paid to explore and expose the workings of intolerance via my writing at The Correspondent, to abide by this Paradox.
I am committed to highlighting the ways, both subtle and overt, that intolerance functions. I am committed to using my influence to create spaces, no matter how small, where structurally oppressive power does not hold sway over people’s wellbeing. That includes making it clear where I stand as it relates to dehumanisation in the name of discourse.
Oppression is like culture; it evolves. Or, more accurately, oppressive cultures evolve. As recently as 60 years ago in the US and 25 years ago in South Africa, it was culturally acceptable to use language, including "debate" about our humanity, to denote people with African ancestry as being of absolutely lower status than people with European ancestry. Overt anti-black racism has now gone out of fashion, but I do believe that Israel has adapted the language and workings of the apartheid state quite efficiently – even as the rest of the world continues to argue about whether or not apartheid is really that bad.
The oppressive status quo isn’t static, and debate is an unwieldy tool to try to use to keep up with it. Debate requires a "for" and an "against", which means that it legitimises "both sides" as being inherently worth discussing. This is why, as the writer of this newsletter and the keeper of this corner of the internet, I must make it clear to you: I do not believe in "both sides" when it comes to people’s access to rights, resources and respect.
I welcome curious conversation, empathetic engagement, and a willingness to offer insights that cause us all to listen, learn, and reflect. I do not welcome debate about people’s humanity, and as an avid reader, excellent writer and astute social observer, I most certainly have the ability to distinguish between the two.
I know that a lot of us are steeped in the idea of debate as intrinsically valuable. However, especially in an era where "debate" has become a dog-whistle for subtly demonstrating a belief in hierarchies of humanity, I’m opting out today and forever.
I look forward to robust conversations about our individual and collective roles in making the world less unjust, and moving us closer to a time when no one considers another person’s wellbeing amphitheater-worthy material. In the meantime, if there’s anyone hoping to debate people’s lived realities, they’ll have to look elsewhere.
Till next time,