Let’s debate his points, so his bad ideas can be defeated

William Pietri wrote a thing that resonates strongly with me (and a lot of other people).

Some people are having a hard time understanding why the Google engineer was fired. “Let’s debate his points,” they say, “so his bad ideas can be defeated.” That sounds reasonable, but it isn’t. To understand why, let’s conduct a thought experiment.

Imagine that tomorrow, your least-favorite work colleague reveals that he is a literal Nazi. At your company all hands, he would like to debate a proposition with you. His proposition is: “Inferior races like the n****** and the k**** should be immediately executed; women should return to their status as property of men and be executed if they object.” You ask why he wants to debate this. He says that this is what he believes should happen. Do you accept the debate?

Let’s assume that you refuse, possibly with some swearing. This means you believe, as I do, some ideas are not worth debating. Perhaps you recognize how this would make non-white-male members of the audience feel to have their humanity and survival up for debate. Perhaps you see that by debating his ideas, you help normalize them, making them more likely to happen. Perhaps you realize that you’d be exposing your company to a massive lawsuit. And maybe you just don’t want to give this guy or his terrible ideas the elevation in stature that comes with treating them as worth serious discussion. Your colleague slinks away.

The next day, he proposes a different, less extreme debate topic: “Non-white races should be enslaved; women should be treated as property and beaten if they object.” You ask if he has changed his beliefs. He shakes his head. Again you say no; again he goes away.

On day three, he has another proposal. “Non-white races should be isolated in ghettos and reservations; women cannot work or own property and must always be accompanied by a male relative when outside their home.” Again you say no. Again he leaves.

Each night, he realizes that his ideas as expressed are beyond what’s socially acceptable. Each day, he comes back to you with a slightly more mild debate proposition. His intent never changes; he’s just looking for a way to get on stage. When do you say yes?

You might say, “Never!” But at some point, he will have refined his pitch enough that a bystander not having heard the history will say, “Why are you refusing to debate him? That seems like an entirely reasonable thing to talk about.”

That’s where we are with James Damore and his manifesto. If one has plenty of privilege, doesn’t know the long history of race- and gender-based oppression in America, and hasn’t kept up with the arguments of terrible people, it is apparently easy to read his screed and say, “Well, maybe we should talk about it.” That’s especially easy to say if your humanity and your participation in the workforce aren’t up for debate. Not only is it no skin off your nose, but you are being invited to judge everybody else, which can feel appealing.

Exactly. Damore’s manifesto is strikingly un-novel, unoriginal, unsurprising; it’s the same old shit we’ve been seeing forever, especially and with extra venom over the past few years (thanks, Twitter). No we don’t need to “talk about it” yet again; it’s been talked about ad infinitum for decades. Plus it’s shit.

It’s the same trick the alt right and the neoreaction loons have been pulling. They get that white hoods and swastika armbands and prison tattoos are beyond the pale. So they have carefully rebranded their ideas. They are still white nationalists. But they talk about their opposition to multiculturalism. They talk about supporting people who want to live near people like themselves. They fret about “too much” immigration “changing the character” of America. America first, they say! They still admit to wanting ethnic cleansing, but maybe they describe it as peaceful demographic change.

I won’t tell you not to talk to these people. But I will tell you that giving them a platform is exactly what they want. Getting the mildest versions of their ideas discussed is the foot in the door, the leading edge of the axe. They will use your attention and credulity to shift the Overton window bit by bit. You might think you’re being brave and open-minded, but marginalized people around you will realize that you can’t be trusted. That you value the appearance of openness far more than their safety.

That window? It’s shifted a lot already.

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