Nothing can capture the nature of a free intellectual society like a good debate. Good debates promote critical thinking, challenge worldviews and encourage attendees to consider arguments of other sides. However, people seem to increasingly view debates as nothing more than venues for someone to “own” a person with whom they disagree. Look on websites such as Facebook or Youtube and you’ll find millions of videos of people from the political right and left getting “owned,” usually in all caps to the accompaniment of airhorns.
This isn’t to say it’s wrong to enjoy debate or the moments when an individual has made such a good argument it’s entertaining. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying good arguments being made. The problem comes when entertainment and snappy comebacks are the only thing one looks for in a debate.
This trend was best illustrated at a debate I attended earlier this year regarding a controversial topic. The actual topic, time/place of the event and the positions argued are irrelevant; the only thing I want to highlight are the arguments both speakers used, without any divisive labels attached. Seeing how the topic was divisive, the audience was mostly composed of a group gathered to root for one speaker, and vice versa. Few attendees were there to actually listen to both sides, only to applaud their side exclusively.
A time came in the debate when the two speakers used sources conflicting with each other. Out of this stalemate, the first speaker asked the other, “Well, could your sources be wrong?” To which the second speaker replied, “I don’t know, could you be wrong?” At this moment those who supported the second speaker let out an audible gasp, a collective “oh snap” moment signifying they felt the debate had been won. It wasn’t the academic sources that convinced people, nor the quality of the speakers logic. Rather it was the snappy “gotcha” comeback that amounted to nothing more than a way of saying, “I know you are, but what am I?”
The problem with this line of thinking is it cripples any possibility of discussion and dialogue about serious issues. It reduces those with whom we disagree to chariactures who can supposedly be “owned” with a snarky comeback line. The biggest consequence of this is how it allows certain people to rise to prominence that value style over intellectual substance. One example of this is Milo Yiannopoulos, an alt-right provocateur who enjoys saying controversial statements in order to get attention.
In 2016, Yiannopoulos wrote an op-ed portraying the alt-right, a group now associated with the violent Charlottesville protests, as a movement of intellectuals. In his op-ed he describes some alt-right members as engaging in the “gleeful demolition of the age-old biases of western political discourse,” which he lists as liberalism, democracy and egalitarianism. He also attacked conservative author Ben Shapiro, who is Jewish, on racial grounds by tweeting a picture of a black baby when Shapiro announced the birth of his son, suggesting Shapiro was a “cuck.”
He was also disinvited from speaking at CPAC (Conservative Political Action Committee) after videos surfaced showing him appearing to advocate for relationships between young boys and adult men. With views such as these, how did Yiannopoulos gain such prominence among conservatives who now distance themselves from him?
It’s because his whole shtick was being a sassy, rude provocateur who would say things that would “own college snowflakes.” There’s no real intellectual value in Yiannopoulos talking about how many black men he’s slept with when asked about racism, but it’s a statement that lends itself to the “owned” culture well. There’s no argument made when Yiannopoulos says to a female college student, “If you can take a dick, you can take a joke,” but it makes a striking soundbite for those underdeveloped in human empathy. It goes against the very principle of religious freedom when Yiannopoulos says to a Muslim American she “shouldn’t be wearing a hijab in America,” but because he’s “owning snowflakes,” it’s acceptable.
While I’m using Yiannopoulos as a main example here of how “owned” culture can go wrong, in no way is it being suggested this is a problem the political right deals with exclusively. From viewing late night comedians as political pundits, applauding actors who make controversial statements at award shows or former President Obama “dropping the mic” on Donald Trump, both sides face this issue.
It’s fine if you want to derive some entertainment from politics every now and then, even from “owned” moments. But don’t let it become the only thing politics is about. Our country is already polarized at record levels and that won’t be solved when political opponents seem to be more concerned with “owning” the other, rather than making serious arguments.