Bartlet: “And stay up in my face, okay?”
Sam: “Yes, sir.”
Bartlet: I swear to God, the winner of this debate’s going to be the next President. Anybody want to be on the losing team?”
All: “No, sir.”
Bartlet: “Then let’s pump it up. Let’s go, Claudia Jean.”
C.J.: “Good evening, and welcome to the Presidential debate between President Josiah Bartlet and Governor Robert Ritchie being brought to you from the University of California, San Diego. The format agreed to by both candidates, is as follows: A candidate will have 90-seconds to respond, followed with a 60-second questioning by his opponent, followed by 60-second summation. By virtue of a coin toss, Mr. President, the first question goes to you.”
“The West Wing”
I love online debates. In contrast to the usually very good TED talks (not the frequently ideologically crippled TEDx talks), you hear about an interesting and complex topic from more than one side. Not only arguments but also counterarguments and rebuttals. It’s one of the reasons why I enjoy even not-so-relevant-for-me discussions on BBC’s “Question Time” (I’m not British). But when it comes to great online debates — I think it’s hard to beat “intelligence squared”.
You find the website of “intelligence squared” here. There’s also an US version of “intelligence squared” that is also very interesting and very well moderated. The way the moderator asks to clarify terms (or who mentioned persons are), moves through the different aspects of an issue, or makes sure questions are answered — it’s just impressive.
If you are looking for specific examples of great discussions, I can highly recommend the 2006 debate “Freedom of Expression Must Include the License to Offend” (among others with the late Christopher Hitchens, but Philip Gourevitch and Signe Wilkinson are also very powerful):
You find the debate on the intelligence squared US website ; it is also on YouTube (link by LogicinspiresLiberty); you find even a transcript of the debate on the intelligence squared US website, the radio version, and much more.
Other interesting debates are, among others, Affirmative Action On Campus Does More Harm Than Good, Legalize Drugs, or Snowden was justified.
The only debate I have seen so far that was abysmal was “It’s Wrong to Pay for Sex“.
As Robert Rosenkranz said in the beginning of that debate, the question is badly defined when it comes to “wrong” and “pay”. The side for the motion (i.e., that it is wrong to pay for sex) talked about human trafficking, almost exclusively of women as prostitutes and men as clients/guests, and even about sexual abuse of children and the like — with the usual feminist rhetoric of, e.g., “exploitation of women” (as if there were only female sex workers) and “selling one’s body” (I didn’t know that when you pay a sex worker for his/her services, you also purchase a kidney). It was like discussing whether “It’s Wrong to Kill for Money” and one side talking about child soldiers and the other about the regular military (okay, the regular military does not directly kill for money, but killing people can be part of the job and they get paid for it — and depending on the situation that can be right). And while the side against the motion made clear that they condemn human trafficking and sexual abuse of children (which are crimes, e.g., rape and sexual abuse of children!, and not related to the question), they couldn’t bring the debate to focus on the cases where it might be right to pay for sex. And they didn’t successfully challenge the view that only women are exploited and that only men exploit. For example, they could have asked about (at least) middle-aged female tourists visiting certain areas of the world to spend their time with men (usually black impoverished men who require monetary favors) and ask the side arguing against paying for sex how they see this kind of prostitution/sex tourism. I personally don’t think that this is necessarily right, but at least it would have taken gender out of the exploitation equation. And that might have opened up the debate to focus on cases where it might not be wrong to pay for sex.
Anyway, the whole debate was hard to watch.
Still, even here were a few interesting moments, for example the question whether the unemployment office should offer jobs as sex worker if sex work is legal — and requiring unemployed people to take these jobs. Personally, I think that what holds true with any job holds true here: The person doing the job must be qualified for it. That might sound strange, but I think that when it comes to skills, sex work is regarded as similar to what many people think about fry cooking. Many people think it’s easy and requires no skills, in reality it might be much harder. I mean, honestly, I have encountered multiple cases where I left the food untouched after one bite because the french fries were just … disgusting. Or to put it differently, if it were just spreading one’s legs or bending over, people could have that at home “for free”. 😉 But seriously, when it comes to a person’s “moral” issues — to use another military comparison — there is the case for conscientious objectors. Why should sex work be different? I mean, personally, I could not work for a faith-based organization that requires me to profess their faith. I’m an agnostic/atheist and I would not accept to pretend to believe something I do not believe in, especially if it were to run counter to my character. I think these objections should be and are accepted. I shouldn’t be forced to take a job for a religious organization requiring profession of faith, but that does not mean that the job should be prohibited or that the work is wrong. It just does not fit me.
Another interesting moment was when one of the women against “paying for sex” mentioned “Seeking arrangement” (a sugar-daddy website that some female students use to pay for their education). She said that one man using this site decided to pay a woman’s education without asking for sexual services in return and how there was “beauty in that choice”. I remember a SavageLove(?) Podcast where a person mentioned that paying for women without getting sexual services in return turned him on more than actually getting laid (yep, there’s a kink for everything) — and I wondered whether she just argued for “paying for sex”. There was a “beautiful” opportunity there.
And yeah, I just love debates about sex work. Take the smartest, most rational and most freedom loving people you can think of and talk with them about this topic — and in many cases you can watch it all flying out of the window in an instant. For many people, values and arguments suddenly don’t count anymore. Self-determination? Freedom of choice? Free decisions among consenting adults? Seeing the diversity and complexity of the issue? All irrelevant. I mean, I can understand it if all these people have in mind is the worst kinds of street prostitution (what people usually associate with prostitution/sex work — after all, it’s highly visible), or drug prostitution, or even child prostitution (which I would not see as sex work but as abhorrent child sexual abuse). But what about sex work in different conditions? Sex workers who enjoy being keenly desired by their clients/guests? Not to mention getting paid well for their services? Isn’t that something that can hold attraction — being, e.g., a modern-day courtesan? Especially if the person is really skillful in his/her work? And when the work is without human rights violations and without exploitation, but is safe, there are frequent medical exams, and there is choice (to quote some factors mentioned by a Penn & Teller episode)? Anyway, always fascinating to see how people react to this topic. Apparently everyone should decide for themselves unless they make the wrong choice. And the discussion of empirical studies? It’s not my topic but I get the impression that if marriage were assessed this way, the researchers would have based their surveys about the marriage satisfaction solely on women in battered women’s shelters.
Well, even this abysmal debate shows that online debates can also be interesting if they are bad. And so far almost all of the “intelligence squared” debates were at least entertaining, and some really fun to watch.
So, how about that “Freedom of Expression Must Include the License to Offend” debate? (BTW, if you use Firefox and go to the YouTube video, you can use the Video DownloadHelper to download the video, e.g., to watch on a mobile phone — on an iPhone/iPad e.g., with GoodReader.)