A famous linguist once said that of all the phrases in the English language — of all the endless combinations of words in all of history — “debate me” is the most badass.
Or that’s what a cohort of online dudes appear to believe. The way a drunk roughneck might square up to you for a fight in a seedy roadhouse, the “debate me” dude pops into your Twitter mentions to demand a formal argument. Ignoring that people debate shit on the internet as automatically as one might breathe or blink, he is oddly constrained by the notion that disagreement has rules, or at least a chivalrous code of honor befitting a pistol duel in the countryside. Simply tussling over this or that question is beneath him. Debate, meanwhile, is a gentleman’s contract, holy ground, a noble anachronism.
That an opponent must accept (or acquiesce to) this ultimatum is crucial to the “debate me” dude’s asinine method. Whereas bad-faith dissent from other species of male wastoids — the humorless and needling Devil’s Chadvocate, for example — begins with direct, unsolicited engagement on the matter at hand, the “debate me” dude feigns politeness, or his paltry concept of it, by initiating his courtship ritual.
To him, it must sound positively enlightened: Who wouldn’t want to test their convictions in the fire of earnest critique? But the request is false humility, and also, in practice, the first attack, one that clarifies the debate-hungry fellow’s one real position: “I’m right, you’re wrong, and your opinions only count if you are willing to defend them against me, an objective genius.”
This approach provides a fulcrum. Most immediately, it may suggest that the two parties share equivalent status, even — or especially — when the person being challenged occupies a higher sphere or is otherwise under no obligation to perform this petty theater. The classic example of the past election cycle was when the far right’s favorite debate boy, Ben Shapiro, offered future congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez $10,000 to spar with him over her progressive platform. When she declined to give him the time of day, likening the stunt to a catcall, Shapiro’s fans took it as further evidence that leftists are just too afraid to step into the rhetorical arena with him. The “debate me” command is not always a bluff, per se; no doubt Shapiro would have enjoyed a bump in his public profile by facing off against Ocasio-Cortez and been declared triumphant by his loyal commenters regardless of how it went down. But laying the groundwork to call her a coward was almost as good. Either way, he got what he truly wanted.
“Debate me,” then, isn’t the prelude to a debate — it is the debate, over before it began, a lose-lose dilemma for the person targeted. It is the premature ejaculation of discourse.
Besides, it’s not as if the lad insistent on a volley of conflicting ideas is willing to be convinced by his rival. He wouldn’t be doing this if he weren’t assured a victory, and so the provocation signals the egoist’s pride — as well as the almost charmingly naive certainty that competing ideologies can be vanquished by scoring enough points in a virtual joust. Of the two main models for American debate — political and extracurricular — he favors the airless academicism of the high school debate club, where he first learned some of his favorite fallacies: straw man, ad hominem, the appeal to authority. Whereas a presidential debate is decided on the intangibles, with voters swayed by gut reaction, the after-school debates play out in the technicalities, with naturally quarrelsome young men learning to fetishize what they consider their powers of logic and deduction. If they do well, they may conclude that others lack such faculties. Indeed, the “debate me” dude often behaves as if he’s the last “rational” person on Earth.
That mindset, sadly, is widespread: Most of us — educated men extremely included — can’t admit how bias and privilege, ignorance and fuzzy facts inform our conclusions. To view one’s attitudes as purely sensible is part of how we make our way through the world without freaking out every five minutes. Inside each of us, then, is a snotty brat who wants to demolish what sounds obviously inaccurate and preach what he knows is correct. He cannot let a perceived falsity stand; it is an affront to his understanding. This pretentious punk can be suppressed by guys self-aware enough to recognize his misplaced confidence. The debater, of course, prefers to let him off the leash.
More at stake than an opportunity to channel his inner ninth-grade Socrates, however, is the chance to be heard at all. It can be no coincidence that the debate-wanters are, in essence, begging for any contact whatsoever, and transparently unable to attain it without some measure of cultured aggression. Nor can they conceive of a dialogue that is not based in hostility. “Debate” is a land mine of a word because it implies mutual respect where none exists. It’s there so that when the would-be debater is rebuffed with a well-deserved “fuck off,” they can pretend to be the victim of their own manners. But Ocasio-Cortez was on the money: The call to debate is rarely dignified, as it assumes the caller is owed attention, persuasion or recognition. Barring those, he’ll still say he came out on top. How easy it is to “win” debates when nobody wants to talk to you.
Like all trolls, the debate-starting man is there to suck away your time — something of which he has only too much. Don’t let him. The bogus aura of ceremonial dispute is his lone alternative to his primary pastime: intellectual masturbation. Until he figures out that he’s not entitled to anyone else’s labor, he can keep on shouting his idiocy into a soiled gym sock. By which I mean you ought to mute him instead of blocking, so that he has nothing to screenshot and feels ignored rather than censored. That way, perhaps, he will be cursed to roam far afield for the thrill of annoying a stranger. The utopian possibility is that in the end, the “debate me” dudes will be trapped in a purgatory of their own making, with only one another to debate.
And then, my dear and patient friends, debate will be good again.