The Hypocrisy of Debate

Reading on in Cheryl Misak’s biography of Frank Ramsey, we’re into his early undergrad life at Trinity Cambridge. Trying out the various college and university debating societies including the still legendary Cambridge Union.

A recurring topic of mine is the value of dialogue in contrast to the artificial win-lose aims of debating a motion. Inescapably and imperfect binary decision-making component of choice by voting in a democracy, but far from advancing truth and knowledge. Rather the contrary. An evolutionary degeneration  towards a world of binary opposites, as I’ve characterised it many times in the last two decades.

After giving up on debating societies Ramsey records
(my [paraphrasing] Misak, quoting Ramsey):

He loathed the perverted ambition of debating … [playing to the gallery]

He found [it better] in less formal settings … [like being invited to tea to debate with individuals]

Obvious risks in identifying with the greatest genius that ever lived, but I do … also in his impression of mixed gender settings moderating the “silliness” of debate. And how about (with my day-job information management hat on) a woman’s intuition (Dora Black) after wading through an archetypal (C.K.Ogden) tutor’s office buried under cluttered piles of books and papers …

… a method of filing which would commend itself to anyone who knows that, once a thing has gotten into a folder of a filing cabinet, it will never be found again …

Too true. The hypocrisy of formally imposed structure.

Reading on.

2 thoughts on “The Hypocrisy of Debate”

  1. It sounds like an interesting book.

    It sounds like Ramsay’s impatience with debate has more to do with its rhetorical shallowness than its inherent dualism, but it’s true that a dualistic approach invites polarization, and polarization leads to a certain kind of oversimplified rhetoric. Nevertheless, dualism is so pervasive in so many cultures that I can’t yet discount its importance. My own response is to look for depth in the merging of perspectives.

    I must protest the suggestion that formally imposed structure is hypocritical. Sometimes it’s very useful and not at all controversial. For example, some program languages require one to declare everything as a type (integer or boolean, say), while others require one to use, extend, and define classes. These impose formal structures, but very useful ones for the purpose, and there is nothing hypocritical about programming in C or C#.

    There is a question of design. There are good filing systems, and bad ones, and I suppose nonexistent ones (to indulge in metaphysical confusion for a moment). The haphazard nature of a badly organized professor’s office may result in things getting lost, but the problem is not that they were put into filing cabinets.

  2. Hi AJ,
    Sure, duality and debate have their pragmatic place … the hypocrisy is (because it is relatively simple to formalise & structure objectively) the natural tendency to apply it everywhere as if it is some natural state of the world rather than just the easy bit.

    I guess I’m / he’s saying the dualism is inherently shallow (because of this).

    I would defend the badly (formally) organised filing in terms of its implicit network of relations … I’d also invoke Jay Rosen’s mantra “Information is downstream of identity” … this is a longer topic for another time.

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