State Senate in Illinois with American flag but no people

Lament for a Lost Debate

When Sen. Nguyen was removed from the Senate’s floor, I lament for yet another lost debate.

On 23rd February 2017, California State Senator Janet Nguyen was silenced and forcibly removed from the Senate floor. She was delivering a speech condemning the late legislator Tom Hayden for his opposition to the Vietnam War.

The public’s responses were swift and predictable. Cries of indignation soon filled opinion pieces. Buzzwords of our time such as “democracy”, “free speech”, and “minority oppression” were thrown around haphazardly. Republicans wasted no time in hailing her the Republican symbol of free speech. They decried her removal as a shameful and undemocratic violation of Sen. Nguyen’s, and by extension of Vietnamese-Americans’ First Amendment rights. The Vietnamese-American community rallied to her defence, likening her to the civil rights activist Rosa Parks.

On the other side, the Democrats feebly defended their actions by accusing Sen. Nguyen of violating chamber rules, but offered no further details. Her action on the Senate floor was considered “rude and mean”, intended to scandalise rather than to make a point.  When pressurised to apologise, Sen. De Léon couldn’t help one last brazenly hostile remark: “I think she enjoyed the 15 minutes of fame, and she doesn’t want it to disappear, obviously.”

These responses were so preoccupied with taking umbrage and brandishing political cant that they lost sight of the most critical issue of this incidence: the loss of a debate.

Debate is more than just a contest of argumentation with fixed structures. In a broader sense, debate is a method of discourse in which opposing viewpoints are expressed and supported by reasoned arguments.

Debate is an honoured art with a long tradition. Socrates and Plato built the foundation of Western civilisation on dialectic debates. The Age of Enlightenment extolled the virtues of reason, and by extension of discourses based on rational arguments. Debate as an integral part of policy-making dates from the Athenian democracy.

Debate is about persuasion. Interlocutors in a debate start out in a position of conflict of beliefs. They seek to persuade each other by appealing to the other’s rational side through reasoned arguments. Thus, debate doesn’t only belong in public schools and elite universities, or on the political stage. It is relevant to all who ever believe in something and wish to spread their convictions.

Debate is also about learning. It hones the mind and pushes it to its intellectual limits. It allows issues to be looked at from different angles, to be examined vigorously and discussed thoroughly. Both debaters and listeners come out of a debate with sharper minds, and a much-improved understanding of the subject matter.

Most importantly, debate is about finding truth. In a debate, ideas are pitted against one another – their inconsistencies are exposed, and their presumptions torn apart. Debate is the crucible of ideas. From this fierce contest, only true ideas can emerge, while fallacious ones are weeded out, and empty rhetoric are cut down.

But debate isn’t a one-off act. In “On Liberty”, John Stuart Mill argues that true ideas must be tested against lesser ideas over and over, otherwise their arguments risk being forgotten. If unchallenged, over time truths wither.

Debate matters. Yet it isn’t taking place.

Left and right, we are shying away from debate. Opposing viewpoints are squashed before they are voiced. Eloquent arguments are traded for outrageous cries, and condescending sneers. Clashes of ideas quickly turn into shouting matches filled with worn-out phrases and free of reasons.

What we call debates now are debate in name only. They are pure spectacles, loud in style but empty in substance. For all their hypes, the 2016 US Presidential debates had nothing but ad hominem attacks, big words and ambiguous statistics, scaremongering tales and stale accusations, hollow promises and hollower leaders. The televised PMQs in British House of Common is a theatrical stage on which politicians jeer at one another, blame their predecessors or their opponents for everything, and elevate question-evasion to a form of art.

The people are no better than their representatives. Universities, once touted the playground of ideas, now are too sensitive for certain topics and ideas. Instead of confronting their ideological opponents and defending their views, students choose to walk away in protest, or shout them down with screams and swears and even with violence.

The press and the media are heavily segregated by ideology, and so are their readership and viewership. This creates a phenomenon dubbed “echo chamber”, in which ideas are reinforced solely by repetition, not by vigorous contemplation, and in which we coddle ourselves.

As we turn our back on opposing ideas, we forget how to listen; judgments are made without perception. We also forget how to reason. Thus, when impelled to stand up for our beliefs, we flounder. Our knee-jerk reaction these days is to be affronted. Our default responses are to hurl insults and chant phrases exhausted from careless use. We regress from rational beings to an angry mob running on raw emotions, with fury and sarcasm as our pitchforks.

Unfortunately, weapons made of biting comments and armours of buzzwords aren’t strong enough to fight the ideological battles; the recent losses of political ground to ideas once defeated, to public figures who fight by making liberal use of pathos at the expenses of facts and reasons, are definite proof.

However fallacious they are, ideas we oppose don’t cease to exist just because we suppress them. Ideas are resilient; they will find a way to make themselves known. They will worm their way into the hearts and minds unprotected by reasons. The most effective way to defeat them is to face them head-on with rational arguments. But somewhere along the way, we have stopped doing so.

More troubling, the want of debate has corrupted the very ideas we treasure, a sad state of affair against which Mill had warned us almost two centuries ago. Terms once packed with generations of thoughts are now reduced to labels for us to wear and flaunt, or invective to demean and assail others.  Ideas are asserted, not argued. This is more than just a form of ideological totalitarianism. Ideas with no supported arguments are no more than prejudices. By parroting ideas mindlessly, we have turned them into dead dogmas.

And without these ideas and the arguments that substantiate them, we are lost at sea. We rally without directions, screaming catchy slogans that make no point. We get stuck in a passive position, responding to what thrown at us with bluster but unable to advance our beliefs further, since we have forgotten how to manage that.

So, when Sen. Nguyen was removed from the Senate’s floor, I lament for yet another lost debate.

I lament that the Senators chose to silence her instead of honing their best arguments against her, and that what she had to say weren’t responded to there and then. Her views went unacknowledged and unchallenged. They are now accessible to anyone with an internet connection, ready to sow fallacies in the hearts of the people.

Steve Heimoff of the Huffington Post believes that Sen. Nguyen deserved to be removed since her words are “insensitive and insulting”, her desire to criticise her predecessor on the Senate floor “shameful and wrong”. He seems to imply that letting Sen. Nguyen continue speaking then would be a disservice to Sen. Hayden and his legacy. I disagree. Not confronting Sen. Hayden’s opponents is a greater disservice. And that there is no better way to panegyrise him than to face any criticisms of him, and stand up for what he believed and fought ceaselessly for.


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