The End of Debate (No. 1)

[This is the first in a series that examines when, if ever, a debate may end. Cross-posted on Christodemocracy]

At what point does debate end? Certainly there’s a pattern to discourse in which a hypothesis is controversial, examined by a variety of criteria and then settles into consensus. Whether its empirical evidence or logical soliloquies, eventually a winner is declared… right?

I remember briefly in graduate school judging some debate tournaments, primarily Lincoln-Douglas debates. In such competitions a resolution is presented and two sides present the most logical arguments to be evaluated based on their merits. At the end of the rounds, a winner is declared. Then, the competition moves onto another set of teams and another resolution.

Today, the Christian Right is like the losing team in a debate tournament that refuses to get off the stage. The judges have gone home, the other debate teams have loaded onto the bus, and the lights have been shut off in the auditorium. But the Christian Right stands on stage loudly proclaiming religious arguments that have no logical application to civil law and pre-enlightenment reasoning that has no place in a pluralistic democracy. The losing team cries “intolerance” because its arguments have lost and the only people left to listen are the people who still think the debate continues.

I’ve studied the religious right for about fifteen years now. It’s a huge portion of my career’s research agenda. They have literally and figuratively had their day in court. They got their best attorneys to argue cases before state and federal judges as well as the court of public opinion – and they lost. For over ten years now, we’ve waited for the facts or truth they always promise but never deliver. The threat to marriage and dire social consequences ended up being imaginary friends that never came to dinner. Even in the interest of open debate, I’m not sure how it is sane at this point to pretend these figments have any validity.

Another change has occurred among these interest groups. It’s subtle but salient. Comment forums have been removed from their websites. Some groups, like AFTAH, never allowed comments. But, more recently, the Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America have removed readers’ ability to comment on their posts. Even their Youtube videos have comments disabled. Groups like NOM and World Net Daily have heavily monitored comment sections in which any dissenting opinion never appears publically. Americablog still has comments, so does Good As You, as does Box Turtle Bulletin, the HRC… all of them. Anyone can leave a comment and there is sometimes vigorous back and forth. But discussion is absent among those that claim they’re excluded from a discussion. They never were excluded, but some of us don’t want to talk about it anymore.

Among Christian Right groups, the wailing canard is that debate is somehow disallowed. “We’re shut out!” they claim. “We’re dismissed by society!” they whine. No, they are not. They have had many years and many venues in which to make their case. They have progressively failed to convince a variety of audiences that their bias warrants unequal treatment under the law. They now issue the copout of permitting disagreement in the hopes of keeping a dead horse on life support. They mislabel “disagreement.” It is no longer that people “disagree” with them. Their views have been tried and found unsupported.

The Attorney General has decided not to defend Virginia’s Marriage Amendment in Federal Court because it violates the Constitution. Nevada’s Attorney General has discontinued defense of her state’s marriage ban because, to paraphrase, what’s the point? Kentucky’s failure to recognize out-of-state marriages was struck down. The National Organization for Marriage grasps at the thinnest of straws to claim any little temporary victory or lashes out angrily at those who refuse to “debate.”

There’s legitimate disagreement and there’s invincible ignorance. No longer can anyone look someone in the eye and proclaim, “we disagree” about marriage equality. No. Two sides do not have equal merit and validity. One side lost. One side failed to present convincing arguments. To still hold onto discriminatory views at this point requires intentional ignorance or deep animus. The debate tournament has concluded.

In a free society, no one should disallow dissent. But, really no one has and no one will. Failure to convince is not the same thing as a suppressed viewpoint. A loss of saliency is not oppression. No one on the Christian Right’s speech has been impeded. It’s just now ignored by a large part of society. And yet, a sizable portion has dug in with invincible ignorance.

The question of when a debate ends is particularly meaningful. In a postmodern West, does every viewpoint remain in discourse indefinitely? It’s a question I will likely be exploring for some time.  


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