Are we damaging debate by turning it into entertainment?

If we hear opposing arguments from ‘extremists’ on either side, do we end up somewhere in the middle? Or simply one fringe over the other?

Social media plays an important role in uncovering stories that governments in many countries want to suppress. Recent examples of this include the Uighur genocide in China, the farmer’s protests in India and the democracy protests in Hong Kong.

The footage obtained in these cases and shared on platforms such as Twitter and Instagram provides an element that is otherwise missing in print media - it demonstrates just how real and human these causes are because we are shown the people that are fighting against injustice and suffering at the hands of it. It is so much harder to ignore because it creates so much more emotion than print media can.

However, online spaces are not often used with the best intentions. One article that I recently read stated:

“The pandemic made social media, whose utility had languished and whose user growth was in decline, suddenly relevant. Some even mused that social media, though still under intense scrutiny for spreading misinformation and general toxicity, was good again".

Social media has never declined to levels of complete inactivity, but a resurgence not only in its use at a time where so many of us have been unable to have human interactions, has become very apparent and makes it incredibly easy to polarise people’s opinions and create a hostile and relentless environment. There has been a culture shift online which commodifies debate.

But it's not just online. The method of televised debate seen on talk shows such as Good Morning Britain (which actively invites those who have fringe opinions and pit them against each other) is one that has been growing in recent years.

I spent some time going through a multitude of clips that were posted onto YouTube and what I soon realised is that in many cases those presenting arguments lacked the nuance that I held in those views, but more importantly that these were solely opinions and there was a distinct lack of presence from experts in the fields of topics that were discussed. Many debates – which is not necessarily a term I would afford to them – resulted in arguments over incredibly disingenuous points and veered entirely from the initial start point, serving very little purpose in finding common ground and progressing causes. At this point, it is difficult not to question: what benefit does this have? None. Instead, it is divisive and pulls people out of the centre.

Is GMB good for debate? Credit - Wikimedia Commons/9BUJA CC BY-SA 4.0

Of course, controversy and conflict mean a larger, more loyal viewership, more clicks on a video, more traffic to a website, but they do little in informing people of the facts of current debates.

Nicola Thorp writes: “My second issue with TV debates is this: debating whether or not something is racist, sexist, ableist or homophobic is not helpful. But it is helpful to talk about why.”

This has a knock-on effect that tarnishes people’s ideologies (and sometimes their whole identity or way of living) as “woke” or labelling the individual as a “snowflake”. These terms catch on and are distorted by people who weaponize them against those who hold a different point of view. It enables people to call others sensationalised and dismiss their opinion entirely; acting as barriers that make people feel justified in behaviour that normal society probably wouldn’t tolerate.

An example of this can be found in another GMB debate where a participant argued that being homosexual was a choice, a view that when expressed in a debate over whether children should be taught about LGBTQ+ issues is exhausting and damaging to hear. This isn’t to shame people from having strong opinions, there are many that I firmly hold and doubt I could be swayed upon, but there is something to be said in these segments that stop people from seeking to foster healthy, civil conversation.

But, if we hear opposing arguments from ‘extremists’ on either side, do we end up somewhere in the middle? Or do we gravitate towards one fringe over the other? Either way, we are not making any progress if we become reactionary, we merely stagnate.

I’ll use another example involving Novara Media’s Ash Sarkar and conservative MP Andrew Rosindell on GMB back in 2018 debating the latter’s proposal that all children should sing the national anthem in school. Many buzzwords were thrown around like ‘patriotism’ and, as Sarkar does not agree that schools should have to sing the national anthem, the whole of the left is now labelled as unpatriotic. Rosindell states: “The politically correct left, as an example here downgrade and diminish everything that’s British” and according to him these include “flying the British flag” and “singing the national anthem”.

Ash Sarkar is not representative of the left, just as I am not, but this debate just proves how one person’s views can be suddenly sensationalised so that a whole political party and ideology is now deemed unpatriotic. Especially from an MP, it carries weight - not only on national television but online too.

I do wonder if there will be a space for honest conversation. For if not in politics, then where?

Vicky Gill's interest in politics grew after participating in the UK branch of the European Youth Parliament in 2018.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in this piece belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of Demographica Limited as a company.

Cover photo credit: Joshua Hoehne - Unsplash

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