"Empathy is more radical than intellectual rigour"Espen Moe

There is a pervasive idea in academia and everyday life that the way to solve problems is through aggressively masculine debate in which we pick ideas to shreds. Much of Cambridge is structured around this notion: how far can you take one idea and stretch it? How strong is the argument you form after reading primary and secondary material and can you defend it? From this it is easy to fall into a model of thinking that places everything up for debate. Online and in comment sections there seems to be a pervasive idea that if an individual refuses to engage in debate their argument is weak and they have therefore lost. But what we see as up for debate is crucial and is influenced, of course, by structural privilege. If you feel like you can debate every single topic calmly and rationally without stress or anxiety, well done. You’re one of the lucky ones.

When we think about what it means to platform and privilege problematic voices, inevitably power dynamics exist. What is up for debate for one person is off limits for another, not because one values intellectual rigour more than another, but because the implication that the idea in question is even up for debate harms them and people like them. For example, as a black woman, debating whether racism still exists in the 21st century is dangerous because it suggests that we have moved to a stage in which myself and my blackness are considered safe enough that they can be spoken of as abstract ideas. That is not my reality. From police brutality to toxic beauty standards, there are still very specific cases of exclusion for black people, and black women especially, in society.

What we choose to put up for debate is important because when we debate something, the assumption is that all the speakers begin on a level playing field. In debates about racism or sexism, if I argue with a white cis man, we begin at a point in which he enters the debate from structural privilege which means his ideas are more likely to be viewed as legitimate and accepted uncritically. I am not afforded this same reception and therefore the emotional cost to me as a speaker is far worse. When I engage in debates about those things, I contribute to my own dehumanization by suggesting that asking such questions is helpful to the liberation of the groups involved. It is odd to argue about “if” race and gender still affect our lives when every single day we are dealing with the repercussions of what it means to be a person of colour or a woman or both. What we defend is important. It is easy to debate ideas because we cannot grasp them; this means we can poke at them, twist them around, play devil’s advocate, imagine a number of situations in which X-Y-Z could occur and how does this change the argument and so on. Marginalised groups cannot do the same thing with their lives.

It is important to recognize that we live in a hierarchal society where all kinds of discourse – social, political, and economic – privilege the voices of particular people. How then, can we ever conceive of debate on equal terms? Maybe it’s scary to admit that debate is not everything. Winning an argument in the bar with your friend is only a victory on a microscopic level; it changes nothing in the long term. Often it comes down to one’s ability to frame an argument, rather the truth and validity of experiences. There also seems to be an edge in perpetuating violence by allowing ‘controversial’ figures to speak, asking questions like “was slavery good economically?” or “are black people genetically inferior to white people?” without properly examining what this means for the groups involved. What is wit and style to one person undermines the existence of another. This may be difficult to realise if it is never your humanity that has been put up for debate. It is this same thinking that often leads people to ask marginalised groups to remain calm and rational when their existence comes under scrutiny. This reliance on rationality does not take into account the fact that when we ask these reductive questions, we enforce the idea that it is possible to separate experiences from ideology.

When you come from backgrounds that have told you that winning the debate is the only measure of academic success, it becomes difficult to think of other methods of acquiring knowledge as valuable. Listening, for example. We cannot think of debate as something that everyone enters into with the same ability to detach themselves from the topics that are discussed. Understand that when people from marginalised groups take the time out to explain a particular idea to you, they are expending a great deal of emotional energy. Recognise what a privilege it is to have someone view you as worthy enough, valuable enough, to take the time out to explain the facets of their life and how oppression affects them. Empathy is more radical than intellectual rigour. Remember that often, refusing to engage in debate is not a sign of intellectual weakness, but an act of survival.