July 9, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith
I have a rule I follow when it comes to debate. If someone has resorted to personal attacks it’s because they are not sure their arguments are strong enough, or worry that their opponents’ arguments are too strong. One of the most unedifying spectacles of the Scottish referendum debate has been the behaviour of the so-called ‘cybernats’, who have developed a habit of trolling and making personal attacks on anyone who casts doubt on the Yes campaign or makes arguments for the No campaign. A good example of this is the response to JK Rowling’s intelligent and considered article outlining why she had changed her mind and was now against independence (click here for that). These attempts to silence doubters suggests that they are scared that they might be wrong. If they were sure of their position they wouldn’t need to resort to these tactics.
I saw the strength of this when I retweeted a speech that George Galloway had made at a debate recently. I thought it was a very good speech, passionate and emotive, one of the first times I have heard anyone speak for the No campaign with anything like the force with which those who believe in independence speak. I rarely agree with George Galloway, and in this case I wasn’t necessarily agreeing with him, just admiring his speech writing and public speaking skills. But the response I got was interesting. Those who support the Yes campaign could have provided counter-arguments to what Galloway was saying, but instead tweeted things like
“Do you have no concern at @georgegalloway attitude to allegations of rape or his espousing violence on the streets? #indyref”
There then followed similar stuff from quite a few people, much of which had nothing to do with what Galloway had actually said. It was a shame, as I would like to have learned why his arguments were wrong but instead they just went for the person not the arguments.
What is about to happen is a vote that could have massive repercussions for every country in the United Kingdom, not just Scotland. There needs to be a proper debate, in which both sides recognise that the other has valid arguments, but explain why theirs is stronger. When you attack the person making the arguments instead of they arguments themselves, you cheapen your own case. The cybernats think they are advancing their cause, but it is a real shame they feel the need to use the tactics they are.
It was JS Mill who over 150 years ago said that free discourse is a necessary condition for intellectual and social progress. We can never be sure, he contends, that a silenced opinion does not contain some element of the truth. He also argues that allowing people to air false opinions is productive for two reasons. First, individuals are more likely to abandon erroneous beliefs if they are engaged in an open exchange of ideas. Second, by forcing other individuals to re-examine and re-affirm their beliefs in the process of debate, these beliefs are kept from declining into mere dogma. It is not enough for Mill that one simply has an unexamined belief that happens to be true; one must understand why the belief in question is the true one.
It would be a shame if the people of Scotland March forward into independence, with all it’s negative as well as positive consequences, because of unexamined, silent beliefs. If you have confidence in your case, you should confidence to take on arguments against it.