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Rules of Engagement

The left is often criticized for shutting down debate. But is productive debate even possible when we can't agree on the terms?

Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Jesse Singal, who has gained notoriety on the left for his frequent tweeting and writing on trans issues, says he just wants to talk. When readers get angry with him, which happens often, he sees them as curtailing a productive conversation that he has prompted in the spirit of a free and vigorous exchange of ideas. Earlier this month he took issue with the position that marginalized groups like trans people need not debate people who question their right to exist:

Singal compared the experience of these groups to enslaved black people in the antebellum era.* “People who started out their lives as slaves became leading advocates for abolition,” he wrote. “Imagine if they had said ‘I refuse to debate with people who don’t see me as human.’” (When other Twitter users noted that black abolitionists like Frederick Douglass had taken precisely that position, he deleted his tweet.)

Singal’s error was a historical one. But the very premise of his argument—that debate is an axiomatic good—was in error as well. Debate is fruitful when the terms of the conversation are agreed upon by both parties. But if there were a neutral space online for this imagined debate about, say, trans children, its location would certainly not be Jesse Singal’s Twitter feed. There’s a reason that we have a saying about not dignifying an idea with a response.

Singal’s lamentations elicit a very particular weariness among trans readers. His logic is circular, and obsessive. In returning to the subject repeatedly, Singal seems intent on cracking some truth about the trans experience that is not accessible to him, as if provoked by that very inaccessibility. And this is the epistemological challenge that trans culture lays at cis culture’s doorstep: You must trust me to know my own identity. To extend full humanity to trans citizens means marking the limits of cis knowledge.

One of the reasons that trans skeptics get so riled by this demand is that it implies that their empathy and their intellect have borders. It also denies the universality of human experience, and undermines the notion of a pure discourse where only reason prevails. Ironically, nothing makes those borders starker than the Singals of this world patrolling the edges of a culture war, demanding that their opponents meet them at the fence for a healthy conversation.

Singal and others who are critical of the social justice left—a group that ranges across the ideological spectrum and includes Bari Weiss, Ben Shapiro, Daphne Merkin, and Katie Roiphe—accuse the left of being footstampingly insistent on their views, to the detriment of healthy debate. In fact, it is the “debate me, coward” crowd that has made it impossible to have arguments in good faith, because they demand, unwittingly or not, to set the terms.

A good example of this vacuous fight-picking, which I think of as a howling canyon filled with misdirected energy, is Brett Easton Ellis’s new book White, a hodgepodge of inflammatory opinions designed to raise hives on the left. Everyone is overreacting to Trump, Ellis says. The youth belong to “Generation Wuss,” and liberals are now so censorious they have become illiberal. As Isaac Chotiner, The New Yorker’s inquisitor-in-chief, showed in his interview with Ellis, he has no grasp of and barely any interest in the issues he has written about. (A typical Ellis response to Chotiner’s needling: “O.K., but whatever.”)

And yet here is Bari Weiss offering a half-hearted defense of Ellis in The New York Times. Weiss snapped up the chance to stereotype an imaginary Ellis-hater, “a millennial who borrows many of his cultural opinions from woke Twitter,” before admitting that she shares “some of Ellis’s bugbears.” While criticizing Ellis’s “ranting, stream-of-consciousness book,” she says the topics he covers “would be rich fodder for a real analysis of the Great Awokening and its excesses.”

Are these two different approaches representative of a healthy debate culture? Or is it yet another example of the increasingly decrepit “both sides” ethos that pervades American journalism? Weiss must have seemed the perfect candidate to round out the coverage of Ellis’s book. After a left-leaning journalist humiliated Ellis in The New Yorker, now must come the right-leaning agitator to stake her own claim. This rhythmic handoff between commentariat teams is the underlying dynamic of the opinion section of The New York Times, where Weiss is a staffer, and other major newspapers, as well as magazines like The Atlantic, which published a controversial piece by Singal with the eloquent title “When Children Say They’re Trans.” That article posited that some parents of trans children are “concerned that physical transition is not the solution, at least not for a young person still in the throes of adolescence,” and that these parents are underrepresented in the conversation on gender. Publishing Singal or Weiss or Ellis is often justified by what has traditionally been seen as a self-evident, platonic good: a diversity of opinion.

The philosophy runs thus: Diversity of opinion informs the reader from multiple angles, allowing the reader to form her own opinion. It’s a familiar and simple idea, because we are all trained as children to understand democracy in these terms. It is central to our notion of personal freedom and our identities as enfranchised voters. We think of truth the way that capitalism conceives of the consumer’s best interest: Ultimately, in the so-called marketplace of ideas and opinions, the most convincing arguments will win out or augment one another, to the benefit of everyone.

So when “social justice warriors” come along to “shut down debate,” they appear to be acting in un-democratic, even tyrannical, ways. (Roiphe once compared me to a secret policeman, for example, implying that I root out and shame conservative wrongthink.) But those hungriest for debate have produced a very empty sort of paradigm. Is there any value, really, in the opinion of Bret Easton Ellis? Surely not—and yet he has been profiled in many major publications, sometimes even favorably. It is telling that critics of the social justice movement are obsessed with free speech and debate: It is the one inviolable principle they can fall back on when argument on the actual issues fails.

Earlier this month, Singal published another piece in The Atlantic, this time taking a metacritical view of “erisology”: the study of disagreement, invented by a Swedish blogger named John Nerst. Singal was drawn to Nerst by his desire to foster productive conversations, he wrote, finding particular delight in erisology’s concept of decoupling, meaning the practice of blocking context (social, intellectual) from an argument and instead focusing on the bare rational bones of the conflict. Here, Singal thought, might be a way forward for online discourse.

This is Nerst’s summary of the difference between people who are able to decouple easily, and those who are less able:

To a low-decoupler, high-decouplers’ ability to fence off any threatening implications looks like a lack of empathy for those threatened, while to a high-decoupler the low-decouplers insistence that this isn’t possible looks like naked bias and an inability to think straight.

In his willingness to argue about trans issues from a supposedly more rational remove, Singal is a high-decoupler; in responding in an emotional, visceral way, his critics are low-decouplers. Singal’s take on the decoupling concept was, naturally, enthusiastic (as was a piece in Quillette, the much-derided hotbed of conservative ideas). He wrote: “Nerst and a nascent movement of other commentators online believe that the dynamics of today’s debates—especially the misunderstandings and bad-faith arguments that lead to the online flame wars—deserve to be studied on their own terms.”

Misunderstandings, bad faith: These are the very phenomena I am also trying to address. In the very notion of “decoupling,” however, lies a beautiful articulation of a basic difference in our respective theories of knowledge. In his assertion that rhetoric, context, and history can be stripped away from a conflict, Nerst writes in contradiction of one of the most influential turns in the humanities in the twentieth century.

Michel Foucault’s most luminous idea was that power and knowledge are mutually constituted social phenomena, and that they cannot be disentangled. He lays out this argument in his 1976 book History of Sexuality, but it’s well-expressed in a 1977 interview between Alesandro Fontana, Pasquale Pasquino, and Foucault titled Truth and Power. Foucault contends that truth cannot exist outside of power, or without power: “‘Truth’ is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which extend it. A ‘regime’ of truth.” Every society agrees upon what types of discourse “it accepts and makes function as true.” Once something is agreed to be true, then the truth-sayers are accorded higher status; the truth is spread through institutions of learning designed to re-exert the power of the truth and the truth of the institution’s power alike.

Scientists sometimes bristle at Foucault’s observations, because they seem at first blush to compete with certain tenets of the scientific method. But he was not questioning the inherent validity of, say, Newton’s laws of motion. Instead, Foucault said, it’s about truth’s “internal regime of power, and how and why at certain moments that regime undergoes a global modification.” A global modification is just another way to describe a paradigm shift, which all scientists are familiar with.

The great Foucauldian example is that of madness, recategorized as an illness subject to scientific inquiry in the nineteenth century. This recategorization did not, in fact, lead to better living conditions for the mentally ill, or better health: now “sick,” the formerly-known-as-mad were confined to punitive treatment regimes and experimented upon. Was this really an improvement on the earlier European concept of madness, which saw the non-normative thinker as a person in touch with spiritual truths? No. Consider how homosexuality was considered madness, and how women’s experience was pathologized by scientific concepts like hysteria. Consider how power flows decide what is true and what is false; how experiments and laboratories and doctors labored under delusions while believing themselves liberated by enlightenment from the ignorant past.

A relationship between truth and power can be found, for example, in the American notion of citizenry and freedom based on the right to hold conflicting opinions. People like Singal can bang on about free speech and debate endlessly without ever conceding a) that the deck may be stacked in their favor, and b) that certain ideas may be beyond their understanding.

Let’s go back to Singal’s approving quotation of John Nerst:

“Most people really are tired of shouting matches and want more nuance (according to surveys etc.),” he wrote to me, “and I hope we will develop some cultural immunity towards ragebait and hyperzealotry soon. They are quite recent phenomena at this potency, and I’m cautiously optimistic. If and when we get to that future, we might appreciate having tools on hand to make sense of what’s happened and how to get away from it.”

Let’s turn Nerst’s framing around. Could we not see the wild cruelty of nineteenth-century psychiatry as “hyperzealotry,” but one disguised by power, until we “woke”? Where is the “nuance” in the absence of women in the contemporary academic fields of mathematics and analytic philosophy? What is “recent” about the phenomenon of anger? It all starts to fall apart under the slightest pressure. Again, Foucault helps us, with a helpful and unbelabored explanation: History has selectively concealed the experience of reality felt by people without power.

Without wishing to exploit my position within the power/knowledge nexus animating American academia, I have taught this idea to many 18-year-olds, who have never failed to understand it. The exhaustion that comes of teaching something over and over again, only to witness people re-educated by poorly-read journalists, is profound. Exhaustion makes a person angry. Anger makes a person seem like a hyperzealot. You cannot believe that somebody is asking you to go around the same block—the very same block!—yet another time.

Having taken Singal’s proposition for a free debate seriously, let’s end with a question for you, the imagined reader whom we all fret over. Take the following statement, which I’ve made up. Is it nuanced, is it ragebait, is it the fever dream of a snowflake, or is it constructive criticism?

The concept of “de-coupling” as a strategy for producing neutral venues to investigate knowledge is a delusion designed to accommodate the fantasies of thinkers who are too full of themselves to see the gaps in their own learning.

The answer is up to you. It’s a free country.

*A previous version of this article stated that Jesse Singal specifically took issue with trans people refusing to debate their right to exist, and that he compared trans people to enslaved blacks. He was speaking of marginalized groups generally.