Anyone who remembers the early days of YouTube will remember ‘Hitchslaps’. These compilations of clips of videos featured Christopher Hitchens creatively abusing political and religious figures he opposed, and shot the late critic and commentator to a cultural status none of his peers could ever have dreamed of achieving. Even people who would have been bored stiff by C-SPAN or NPR enjoyed the florid insults that this eloquent Englishman could produce. Who else, for example, would have said that if you had given the recently deceased Jerry Falwell an enema he could be buried in a matchbox.
Hitchens had been raised in the intellectual milieu of Oxbridge, which fostered a culture of ideological dispute. When he moved to the US he flourished in a political scene where television shows like William F. Buckley’s Firing Line had turned political debate into a form of entertainment. Buckley was notorious for his debates with Gore Vidal, and spent years rhetorically sparring with the likes of Noam Chomsky and James Baldwin. Hitchens’s wit, combativeness and smooth upper-middle class English accent made him a fixture of such lively intellectual jousts.
As he aged, Hitchens’s style grew more dependent on rhetorical force than intellectual sophistication. Audiences started to enjoy his insults more than his arguments. As long as he faced intellectually hapless opponents like Dinesh D’Souza or Rabbi Shmuley Boteach he could beat them not with incisive points but the equivalent of a verbal club.
Hitchens’s rhetorical style influenced a generation of debaters. YouTube soon became filled with angry, hairy men screaming at one and other about the existence of God or the proper role of the government. None of them had Hitchens’s eloquence or intellectual breadth but millions of viewers enjoyed the conflict. Bright young commentators like Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos exploited the market for vaguely intellectual dispute with their videos of their rhetorical deconstructions of adolescent hippies and blue-haired feminists. These videos took on a similar character to online pornography, as Dominic Green so acutely noted. ‘Ben Shapiro DESTROYS a communist’, and so on.
There are limits to this fun. Online traffic has no sense of fairness: watching popular clips of somebody getting ‘owned’ often feels like watching a grown man beating the crap out of a 10-year-old. You keep watching, then you feel bad. And even if you assume that the confrontation involves two equally matched opponents, debating is a terrible way of conducting intellectual inquiry and a bad way of conducting politics. If a civil exchange of letters on a narrow subject is akin to a martial art then a verbal debate is a backyard brawl, and while I like watching a Kimbo Slice knockout compilation as much as anyone I am not going to pretend he was a gifted martial artist or that the ability to come up with a clever insult neatly correlates with ethical or epistemic rectitude. Debating is not a contest of knowledge or insight as much as of mental quickness and rhetorical cruelty.
Still, most of us know, at least subconsciously, that debating is a political more than intellectual art. The debater is seeking popularity more than truth. As the English historian Maurice Cowling said in his response to a critical review by Bernard Williams, in a refreshing show of academic shamelessness:
‘At various points in his review the Provost states that I am incapable of arguing my opinions. Given that I have a certain articulateness, it is, it seems to me, quite likely that I can argue them. Argument, however, is not what it seems to me suitable to do with opinions. What one does with opinions — all one needs to do with them, having found that one has them — is to enjoy them, display them, use them, develop them, in order to cajole, press, bully, soothe and sneer other people into sharing (or being affronted by) them.’
We know that most people are not and will not be persuaded by dry argument as much as by the sense that opinions indicate higher status. Debates have some role in this and it would be foolish to deny it. Still, I think the conservative fondness for debates obscures the fact that being loudly, proudly right is just one way to make your worldview seem attractive. Indeed, focusing on being loudly, proudly right can make one look like an obnoxious nerd. The left achieved its preeminent cultural status — inasmuch as it was achieved through human agency — less with debates than with community, activism and art. Right-wingers can seem like the kid who was always desperate to answer the teacher’s questions in class. That kid, bless him, was rarely the most popular.
There is a place for debating, even if it is for entertainment’s sake. Ask yourself, though if — for all the pomp, circumstance and thumb-sucking predictions — any onlooker has gained anything except a few laughs from the endless Democratic candidacy debates in the US or the general election debates in the UK. Me, I am trying out the new website ‘Letter’, which encourages participants to exchange ideas without the aggression and spontaneity of Twitter or YouTube debates. Of course, that has its own problems. It privileges literary style and ingenuity as much its oral equivalent privileges quick-wittedness. But it is at least an interesting change of pace, and it is useful to analyze ideas without instinctively trying to DESTROY them.