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.