When ‘shutting down debate’ is nothing of the kind

Following my post about a thoroughly misguided lawsuit against LSE, the comments thread devolved into a display of off-topic nonsense, wherein the issues I highlighted and the questions I wished to highlight were not discussed adequately, in favour of what three commenters felt more comfortable talking about.

I took action, as the thread deviated from relevance. And, of course, I was met with the traditional cry. I was ‘shutting down debate’.

Those who have spent more than five minutes on the internet will be familiar with this charge. Those who have seen it in action will also be well aware that often, when it is employed, it is hardly as a reaction to Stalinist censorship. Indeed, it usually comes when someone becomes sick of banging their head against a wall, or wishes to get away from a troll firing personal attacks, or even when someone expresses the desire to have an on-topic conversation.

When used like this, it is a red herring. Usually, it’s a very effective red herring; it rings with implications of totalitarianism. The target becomes The Party, or Norsefire. It’s like invoking Godwin’s Law without having to mention Nazis at all. When the howl of ‘you’re shutting down debate’ goes up, what is usually meant is ‘let me say whatever I want, you big smelly Hitler! I want to look like I’m winning’.

The thing is, sometimes ‘shutting down debate’ is the only way that a debate can actually happen. It’s pretty hard to discuss, say, the perfect burrito, when someone keeps cropping up and shouting that we should be talking about quesadillas instead. Quesadillas are great. But we’re talking about burritos here. It’s also not possible to have the burrito conversation if someone is loudly calling everyone a cunt for liking burritos.

Far from shutting down debate, silencing Captain Quesadilla is sometimes the only way the conversation can be had. The aim is not to develop a burrito-based echo chamber, but, rather, to discuss a focused topic. If a passionate, yet polite, row breaks out over the merits of refried versus black beans, it’s relevant.

Before writing this post, I googled the term ‘shutting down debate’, to see if anyone had written a piece like this. Maybe they have. I didn’t make it past the first two pages, where I saw charges of shutting down debate levelled at gay people, Jews, black people and the nebulous, miscellaneous ‘left’. It made me wonder, why is this phrase so ubiquitous?

I’m not saying that all instances of the phrase ‘you’re shutting down debate’ are used so that somebody can continue shitting all over the world with prejudice, as it’s not true in many instances; only those of hate speech.

In the remaining instances, it is usually a reaction to being told to focus. We all have our pet causes and things which interest us, things we feel more comfortable discussing. These things are not always relevant. And we do not need to opine at every given instance, when our opinions are irrelevant. For example, I don’t typically spend family meals articulating the merits of anarcho-syndicalism, as it’s not relevant to my mum’s holiday photos. My mum is not shutting down debate. She’s showing me her holiday snaps.

There are times, of course, when debate is shut down. It does not usually look like someone closing a comment thread on a blogpost, nor does it look like moderating out off-topic comments, nor a block on Twitter.

Shutting down debate looks like Trafigura’s super-injunction which prevented discussion even in Parliament. Shutting down debate looks like the Prime Minister’s desire to regulate social networking. Shutting down debate looks like the attempt to ban Nick Griffin from Question Time; he’s welcome to his silly, wrong opinions.

Griffin on Question Time is a prime example: the episode was dedicated to immigration, so it was all right that he was perpetually farting on about immigration. Had the topic changed to, say, recycling, though, and he still kept banging on about immigration, he’d be off topic. I’d hope he’d be told to shut the fuck up. And he’d likely howl about shutting down debate when nothing of the kind had happened.

Fear not the charges of shutting down debate. Often one is ensuring the debate can happen at all.

17 thoughts on “When ‘shutting down debate’ is nothing of the kind”

  1. but Stavvers Nick Griffin’s ‘silly, wrong opinions’ led to people being killed, not true of other politicians, which is why he shouldn’t be allowed on QT, free speech does not include the right to harm others and deny their freedom of speech

    1. Honestly, I think having him on the telly sank him. BNP has been haemorrhaging members ever since. I would have liked them to discuss other topics, though. Suspect he’d be totally unable to formulate any opinion other than ‘but… But ENGERLAND’.

  2. I agree with you, except for the mention of Nick Griffin. I hope that talking about No Platform is relevant to charges of shutting down debate, since No Platform advocates are often accused of it. No platform for racists. “So, Is Racism Great?” isn’t a debate, and can’t be “shut down”. It’s a propaganda opportunity, and propaganda can be more effective the louder it is shouted down.

    Question Time may have sunk Nick Griffin in the minds of many people who had already denounced him, whatever that counts for. But his motive was never to persuade those people. It was to legitimise the BNP (“Look, we’ve been on QT now. They can’t ignore us!”) and to dogwhistle to the BNP’s base. And let’s not even start on how it must feel to be a person of colour and/or an immigrant and/or born to a family with immigrant history and/or etc. etc. and to see someone like that legitimised on prime-time TV.

    In other words, his appearance on QT was a complete success, a victory for racism and a failure of anti-racist work. People trying to stop him appearing there weren’t trying to “shut down debate”, we were trying to prevent a PR opportunity.

    I’ve never seen an extended conversation about No Platform do anything except degenerate into awfulness, so I don’t want to have one. I’ve said my piece above and now I’m going to leave it here and not respond.

    1. I think you raise some very good points, and I will say that I’m very conflicted about No Platform. I agree fully with the principles, but I am also worried about the implications for radicals as a whole: how can the precedent be used.

      As yet, I have not yet managed to reconcile this within ny own sense of morality.

  3. Hmm-wouldn’t worry too much, it’s your blog you can do as you wish 🙂

    There is a typo in the last paragraph ‘shuttong’ should be ‘shutting’

  4. Like I said to you in email, yes I agree with the above commenter it is your blog, you can do what you like. You presented it to me as if you had no choice but to take action due to such an unruly and off-topic mess of a comments thread. When we were all sticking to the topic of gender bias in gender studies and what is an appropriate response to it, if it exists.

    And you did literally ‘shut down’ that debate as nobody else has commented on the post since you came along with your school ma’am lecture, except for one person who wanted to slag off QRG. And if you don’t write another post on the subject, it means as far as you are concerned, the ‘debate’ is over.

    But believe you me, however much feminists try and make light of the situation at the LSE, the powers that be in gender studies will be very nervous right now.

    1. As I said in the original post, I wasn’t going to bother discussing the issues you fancied discussing, as they have been discussed elsewhere, and if you fancy that conversation, then you are more than welcome to have it in one of those fora.

      Nobody’s commented yet. Perhaps Tom will mysteriously “find” this evidence. That’d be relevant.

  5. when the debate magically re-ignites I will read it with interest. Till it does, I will be convinced you ‘shut it down’ yourself. And of course you could do that as it is your blog.

    1. Yes Ms Salt but if you read that thread about the LSE, nobody was ‘shouting’. The majority of my later comments were lists of books and a few thoughts about some important gender theory.

      In my experience, the people who rant about people who rant about ‘shutting down debate’ are normally narrow minded feminists who haven’t read enough about the subject they claim to know all about.

  6. Great article, and I completely agree. It’s no coincidence IMO that the best discussions I see on feminist blogs are those where the comments are strictly modded and the base line is that, for instance, posts questioning the value of and need for feminism are not permitted. Tiger Beatdown, IBTP, and Shakesville are all good for this, although the latter sometimes goes a bit too far for my taste.

    Funnily enough, I was trying to think of political male-run/dominated (if that’s not a tautology) blogs that do something similar and I can’t, and I think that’s why their comment sections often simply descend into flame wars. Liberal Conspiracy could do with more modding of trollish comments, for instance. And the comments under any Laurie Penny article in the New Statesman are usually vicious enough to make one’s uterus fall out. I suspect one of the reasons she gets so much personal shit because she’s perceived as being more vulnerable to being affected by it, but that’s just my theory.

    I’ve mentioned a couple of times on Comment is Free that they need to tighten up the moderation policy there, but that’s very much a minority view; it occasionally happens on Israel/Palestine threads I think, but not elsewhere. So you get threads like Suzanne Moore’s today, which invariably become about whether men are more disadvantaged than women rather than whatever the article is about. A shame, I think.

    1. I think I am blocked from commenting on all those blogs you mention Finisterre -Tiger Beatdown, I blame the patriarchy and Shakesville.

      But look! I still exist! You can’t stop people having differing opinions to you.

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