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30 January 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 4:11pm

How Peterson, Shapiro and the online right would rather attack the left than debate them

A sort of intellectual cage-fighting in which the aim is to DISMANTLE, DESTROY and OBLITERATE your opponent.

By Dorian Lynskey

Recently, I came across a surprising book beside the tills in Waterstones. Political Correctness Gone Mad? was surprising because it wasn’t really a book, but a transcript of last May’s Munk Debate, “What you call political correctness I call progress”, which pitted Jordan Peterson and Stephen Fry against the sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson and the New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg.

I’d already seen it. For the sin of writing a piece about Peterson last year, YouTube’s algorithm has punished me by recommending his videos every day since. I thought this one was worth investigating. It wasn’t. For two painful hours, the antagonists failed to agree on a definition of political correctness that would make the debate fit for purpose. Even Peterson and Fry were talking at cross-purposes. Yet here it was, immortalised between hardcovers as if it were the Lincoln-Douglas debate of our times.

The prestigious Munk Debates, held twice a year in Toronto, are old-fashioned “Oxford-style” debates, featuring two proposers, two opposers and an audience vote. This format is essentially a game, with winners and losers and a set of rules. “Everyone tacitly understands that it’s not a real argument,” writes Sally Rooney in her essay about her days as a champion debater. “Imagine if all conflict was like this: you don’t have to get upset or angry, everyone will listen to you even if they don’t want to, and at the end of the discussion a nice man with a British accent will tell you that the game is over now and you’ve won.”

Peterson’s presence, however, introduced the harsh, dissonant energy of online debates: a sort of intellectual cage-fighting in which, in the language of the YouTube clips that have replaced the nice man with a British accent, the aim is to DISMANTLE, DESTROY and OBLITERATE your opponent. The most popular fan-made highlight reel of the Munk Debate is called “Jordan Peterson BEST COMEBACKS”. Watch the whole thing and he appears peevish and defensive, but the clip montage creates the illusion of unbroken dominance.

The smirking face of this school of debate is Ben Shapiro, described in a New York Times profile as a “principled gladiator” and “the cool kids’ philosopher, dissecting arguments with a lawyer’s skill and references to Aristotle”. Aristotle, no less. Another Times piece grouped Shapiro with the likes of Peterson, Sam Harris and Dave Rubin in the so-called Intellectual Dark Web: an informal coalition of “renegade” thinkers who have allegedly been ostracised by the liberal elite for the heresy of opposing political correctness, left with nothing but celebrity, wealth and long-form profiles. Pointing out that almost all of them are white men makes me guilty of the dreaded identity politics, but then it is also a fact and, as Shapiro often says, “Facts don’t care about your feelings.”

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A passion for debate is central to the group’s brand. Shapiro enjoys figuratively slapping opponents in the face with a duelling glove – only a coward would refuse. Last summer, he offered US Democratic rising star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a $10,000 charity donation to debate him. She didn’t bite: “Just like catcalling, I don’t owe a response to unsolicited requests from men with bad intentions.” Shapiro was sorely aggrieved. “Discussion and debate are not ‘bad intentions’,” protested the author of How to Debate Leftists and Destroy Them.

Shapiro’s slim manual gives the game away. The Intellectual Dark Web’s rules of engagement are ostensibly noble: interact with people beyond your echo chamber, venerate freedom of thought and speech, focus on facts not emotions. Good stuff. But Shapiro’s third rule of debate tells a different story: “The goal of the debate will not be to win over the leftist, or to convince him or her, or to be friends with him or her… The goal will be to destroy the leftist in as public a way as is humanly possible.” During a speech in Berkeley in 2017, Shapiro invited his fans to, “Get to know people. Get to know their views. Discuss. Debate. That is what America is all about,” while calling the protesters outside “communist pieces of garbage”. Don’t get to know those people. Shapiro’s playbook is followed by alt-right B-listers such as Count Dankula and Paul Joseph Watson and, further down the ladder, by Twitter pugilists who cry “Ad hominem!” and “Evidence?” in between insults.

The hardmen of the online right would struggle against a Sally Rooney because their form of debate is essentially a confidence trick, designed to bamboozle opponents with a remorseless barrage of statistics, generalisations, interruptions, non-sequiturs, facetious analogies and clip-worthy put-downs. This rhetorical aggression goes hand-in-hand with a pseudoscientific belief in the power of evidence to disprove an argument, as if, say, identity politics were simply a logical fallacy that could be “debunked” by the right statistic or gobbet of evolutionary biology.

The go-to rejoinder for both Shapiro and Peterson is, “There’s no evidence for that.” Fail to respond instantly with hard data and you become a YouTube patsy, OBLITERATED by the cold steel of their logic. In reality, the goal is not the hard work of serious engagement but performative contempt for the irrational, emotional snowflakes of the left. It’s theatre, it’s a brand-building exercise, it’s a business model, but it’s not debate.

Debate is valuable only when free speech means listening to the speech of others, venerating facts means acknowledging the ones that don’t suit your case and there is good faith on both sides. As for time wasters like Shapiro, Ocasio-Cortez made the right call. I refer you to the advice of the computer in the 1980s film WarGames and its assessment of nuclear war: “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”

This article appears in the 30 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Epic fail