Debate vs Inquiry and “Reasonable Debate” as a silencing tactic

Background: the president of American Atheists, who claims to be personally pro-choice, went to a conservative political convention to engage in some outreach and tried to mollify social conservatives into considering dialogue with atheists by saying that there were “secular arguments” against abortion. There was a huge “What the Hell!?!” reaction, there was an angry snarky hashtag enumerating all the other human rights that might be #UpForDebate, and then there was the pushback from the TrueSkeptic™ crowd:

What a joke #UpForDebate is. Skeptics should be willing to revise any and all of their beliefs given sufficient reason, argument, evidence.

Stephanie Zvan pointed out that actually inquiry was the primary tool that would accumulate reason and evidence for revision of prior conclusions, not argument.

Debate is not inquiry. Argument is not skepticism. Fetishizing debate makes us less knowledgeable as a culture and even as a movement, not more.

This shouldn’t be a difficult idea. We spend a lot of time talking about debates: debates on evolution, debates on the existence of god, debates on “alternative medicine”, presidential debates. We talk about whether they’re wise. We talk about who gets tickets to these events. We analyze debaters tactics and strong and weak points. We talk about their “hits” and “misses” whether they “won”.

What do we not talk about in all that? We don’t talk about whether the people debating educated each other. That’s not what “schooled” means in this context.

We also don’t talk about debates as a tool for critical thinking, and with good reason. Debate is not about sorting through the evidence and coming up with the best conclusion. Take a debate class, and you’ll be taught the opposite–how to find the evidence that best suits any pre-existing conclusion. That’s why a standard practice in teaching debate is to give students a topic but not tell them which side they’ll need to argue until they get to the debate.

[The classical toolkit of debating tactics] make for very effective rhetoric. They make for terrible skepticism.

Greta Christina weighed in:

Yes. By all means. Let’s have a calm, reasonable debate about abortion.

Let’s have a calm, reasonable discussion about my basic humanity, and my basic human right to physical autonomy. Let’s have a calm, reasonable discussion about whether I should be forced, by law, and at significant risk to my own health and safety and life, to donate my organs for nine months to an embryo/ fetus.*

Let’s have that discussion again. And again. And again and again and again and again and again. And again. Okay, sure, we’ve been having these debates for decades now. But let’s dredge it up again. Let’s treat the basic bodily autonomy of people with uteruses** as a subject that’s up for discussion, a subject that reasonable people can disagree about. And let’s be calm and reasonable about it.
And then, perhaps, we can have another panel at another atheist conference about why there aren’t more women in the atheist movement.


Greta’s basic question is that since atheist “leaders” and high-profile bloggers are (quite rightly) not up for debate on the question of “whether black people and gay people are fully human with the basic right to bodily autonomy”, then “why is abortion a special case”?

The conversation about abortion treats women’s bodily autonomy as a legitimate topic of debate. And that bloody well does affect me. If the right to abortion is up for debate, then my right to have consensual sex with whoever I choose, my right to masturbate, my right to dress as I please, my right to not be raped, are all up for debate as well.

I am enraged about this. And it is incredibly distressing to learn that some of my colleagues, my allies, even my friends, think that my rage is unreasonable. Yes, I understand that these people are themselves pro-choice. That’s not the point. The point is that they are treating women’s right to basic physical autonomy as just another interesting political topic for discussion and debate. The point is that they are showing little to no understanding about why people are so enraged about this, and little to no concern about that rage. The point is that they are showing a whole lot more concern about their hurt feelings over being the target of that rage, or about the hurt feelings of other targets, than they are about the hurt feelings of women getting our basic humanity called into question for the 874,905,836,513th time.

As Greta also notes, most arguments based on fetal personhood fail to engage with the unconscious violinist analogy: since one cannot be compelled to donate the use of one’s tissues/organs to a born person who will die without them, not even if their survival is dependent upon oneself and oneself alone, not even if one caused their fatal condition, then (again) what is the justification for making abortion a special case?

N.B. I want to host a meta-discussion on this latest iteration of the pattern whereby people with uteruses are asked to respond to anti-choice arguments “as if they were just another interesting political topic for discussion and debate — as opposed to the grotesque violation of the right to bodily autonomy that they are”. I will not host a debate about abortion that ignores a woman’s right to bodily autonomy to center the foetus/embryo as if we were a society that refuses to unhook non-consenting people from dying violinists, because there are plenty of other venues willing to host that insultingly counter-factual “debate” – if that’s your schtick then you are cordially advised to take your rhetorical flourishes over to be admired in those sandpits instead.

Categories: culture wars, ethics & philosophy, gender & feminism, skepticism, social justice

Tags: , , , , ,

13 replies

  1. I think I’ve been waiting for someone to make that distinction, without realising it.

  2. In the absence of new information that might reasonably cause someone to change their stance, the fetishising of debate as the ideal method of resolving controversies is severely fucked up. When there’s been no intrinsically new arguments in decades, as is the case here, there’s no need for this to be debated again and again, FFS. And when women’s human rights are under sustained virulent attack, calling for abstract, pedantically academic, hypothetical dialogue, debating and devil’s advocating is perverse and unethical.

  3. The whole thing has reminded me of the devil’s advocate strategy: I’m just asking questions, I’m just clarifying the point, I just really want to know etc. All terribly clever intellectual tactics that totally minimise any really life consequences. Really, if they want to have fun arguing for the sake of arguing, they can take themselves off to a Philosophy 101 class.
    And then of course, they will wonder why the class is overwhelmingly male…

  4. To be honest, I don’t see why abortion has to be raised as a “debate” point in the first place. If you want or need an abortion, it should be safe, legal, and readily available, just like every other medical procedure known to humanity. If you don’t want one, you don’t have to have one. If you don’t need one (whether because you’re not currently pregnant, or because you don’t possess the physiological capacity for pregnancy) then you don’t get a say in whether or not someone else should have one unless you are the medical practitioner supplying the service (just the same as I don’t get a say in anyone else’s gallstone surgery, appendectomy, vasectomy, or corn treatment unless I’m the medical practitioner providing the service to them).
    If the only secular argument they have handy is the one about the sanctity of life, I’ll be pleased to debate this with each and every single pro-lifer just as soon as all the remaining states in the USA get rid of the death penalty, paying particular attention to those death penalty states such as Texas, where offering safe, legal abortion as an option is becoming less and less economically feasible.
    Arguments regarding the potential benefits to be gained from allowing un-aborted children to survive (such as great works of art, literature, scientific endeavour and so on performed by them in some misty future) should be accompanied by multiple forms of evidence of the anti-abortion campaigner in question also being extremely vocal in campaigning for better standards of public education, more income support for the disadvantaged, an increase in the US minimum wage, loud support for any and all efforts toward publicly funded healthcare in the USA, and engaging in loud repudiation of racist, classist and sexist discrimination whenever and wherever it happens. Otherwise, that’s just rhetoric.
    The “but adoption” argument needs to be accompanied by evidence the anti-abortion campaigner in question has actually researched adoption, relinquishment, and the various negative social and psychological effects of same on people related to the adoption not only in the first degree (the adoptee, the adopting parents, and the relinquishing parent/s) but also in the second degree (subsequent children of relinquishing parent/s, children of adoptees, extended family of adopting parents etc). They should be willing to answer questions regarding cross-cultural adoptions, forced relinquishment (eg The Stolen Generation here in Australia), and what happens to the children nobody wants to adopt. This also needs to be accompanied by similar evidence of campaigning for the welfare of all children, particularly those in lower income and non-white families.
    In all cases, the “debater” has to explain how they’re going to deal with the problem of illegal abortion and the deaths this causes (of both unborn children, and pregnant women), as well as what they’re going to do about infanticide should their campaign actually succeed. The point being: at no time throughout history has “lack of legal, safe abortions” meant “no abortions happened”. At no time throughout history has “lack of legal, safe abortion” meant “no children died prematurely”. At no time throughout history has “lack of legal, safe abortion” meant “people are not having sex without church/government sanction”.

  5. Because women are stupid, irrational and shallow, and clearly we just haven’t thought of these arguments yet…
    (bad day, strong sarcasm)

  6. Comment #202 in a 1000+ ToD at Pharyngula responding to the “secular arguments for abortion” idea:

    ButchKitties 9 March 2014 at 1:07 pm (UTC -5)
    There are many reasons to consent to sex that have nothing to do with procreation.
    There is only one reason to sign a bone marrow donation consent form: to consent to donate bone marrow. And yet I can still back out of the donation after signing all of the paperwork consenting to the procedure, even if it means the intended recipient will die.
    So why is sex irrevocable consent to pregnancy when signed contracts agreeing to donate bone marrow are not binding?

  7. I’m pretty cynical about “debate.” I’ve never heard of anyone being convinced by good arguments. What convinces people to change their minds is when they have experiences that force them to reconsider their prejudices. All the arguments that gay men[*] were human beings got no where. It took people being confronted with friends and family (and celebrities) who were gay — and, I think, watching these people they cared about die — that got a lot of people to reconsider.
    I’m decidedly pro-abortion (like I’m pro-antibiotics and pro-chemotherapy), but I have no illusion that any of the arguments I’ve seen for either side will make much difference. At best, they’re rallying cries for battle. Ultimately, it’s a power struggle, and whether women get control of their bodies or not will have less to do with what’s right or which side has the better “logical” argument than with which side has more political power.
    And you don’t get political power by logic, you get it by appealing to people’s interests, their prejudices, and their emotions.

  8. If the only secular argument they have handy is the one about the sanctity of life…
    Which in *no other context* is extended to mean the right to have someone else coerced into yielding up their body for your maintenance. Whether a foetus is entitled to its own life or not, it doesn’t get a claim on yours to go with it.

  9. I’m finding more and more that people who want to just have a ‘debate’ around an ‘issue’ are a waste of time and will never change their minds about anything. Sometimes makes me wonder if it’s even possible to change anything by engaging.
    On the link between rhetoric and abortion though, my partner’s Classics PhD thesis is about attitudes towards abortion in the Roman Christian writer Tertullian. His writings often get cited as early evidence for condemnation of abortion, embryos having souls, etc. A large part of his argument though is that Tertullian (like most other ancient rhetoricians and polemicists) has no overall stance on abortion – he picks and chooses whatever evidence or arguments he thinks will win his case, which is usually about some other moral issue. There’s no consistent ideology, just changing rhetoric. It seems sometimes that the pro-life stance hasn’t changed a bit.

  10. Anti-Choicers made me cranky before I fell pregnant, made me totally stabby-cranky after being pregnant, and now after having a termination, make me livid and incoherent.
    The best I have ever been able to manage (much as my stance about gun-play for small boys) is to shut them down by stating my reasons for for taking that approach in my life. I doubt I have ever changed anyone’s mind, though I do hope that sometimes I made them think past an oversimplified idea of what exactly they were “debating”.

  11. @Jo – I changed my mind. I was pro-life when I was younger on account of being a fairly devout Catholic. The process of changing my mind was probably a fairly slow one, but I recall a fairly distinct tipping point. I was listening to a news article on TV about some aspect of the abortion debate and a feminist or women’s health worker (alas, I don’t remember her name or face) made a comment along the lines of people not trusting women to make these decisions for themselves. That was a massive slap in the face for me, because all my life I had been told (by priests and teachers) that abortion shouldn’t be legal because women chose to have them so they could go on holiday or fit into their wedding dresses. It only occurred to me when I heard that woman’s words that I would not have an abortion for those reasons, so why would I assume other women would? It became very clear to me then that this was evidence of deep lack of trust in women’s moral agency, and that really pissed me off. Funnily enough, I fairly recently read an account of another formerly Catholic woman’s journey from pro-life to pro-choice who seemed to come by a very similar route.
    So by all means keep countering the stupid arguments, and laying out the pithy words of wisdom, because you never know when you might be someone else’s Road to Damascus moment (I had another about inclusive language, but that’s a story for another time).
    Having said that, I read something a while ago about acceptable behaviours. It was pointing out that in societies that have been fairly stable and peaceful for a long time there are a range of behaviours that are pretty much unthinkable because the people in those societies never see anyone reacting that way. The example given was that in some places the Dismissal would have been considered fair cause for an assassination attempt. In Australia it is unthinkable that someone would respond to a political situation that way, if for no other reason that no one ever has. Many of us may find it strange to be reminded that Queen Victoria was the subject of several assassination attempts. It would be brilliant to be in this position with respect to women’s rights – that no one would ever think to question the value of a woman’s bodily autonomy – and if someone came here from elsewhere and made pro-life remarks we would look at them with the same askance as we look at those who propose armed insurrection.
    (what a difference the going away of a headache makes)

  12. I am really glad someone has pointed out what “debating” actually means.
    I’m in favour of framing discussion of abortion thusly: are you in favour of safe and legal abortion?
    No ethics, no morality, no angst. Safe and legal or unsafe and illegal?

  13. I’ll admit, I will present arguments to people I think are well-meaning but probably haven’t been in an environment where the pro-choice position would have been well-represented. I consider those kinds of debates more of an education process than an actual debate, especially since they’re usually people whose intelligence and background I already am familiar with.
    However, among people who know better, it feels something like the “evolution debate.” Sure there are people who argue against it, but their arguments really have no place at a gathering of reasonable people. The basic notion that one person’s bodily autonomy should for this specific case alone, be automatically subordinate to the needs of another is not a reasonable argument. To engage with “the other side” as though it were is contrary to the way these men would engage with any other equally irrational position.

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