“Public debate is dead,” wrote Douglas Murray some years ago in the pages of The Spectator. Voicing unpopular opinions has become a hazardous game in public or on social media, and the majority prefers to stay quiet and ducked when it comes to ‘sensitive’ issues such as sexual difference, migration, public policy, race, sustainable energy, or causes of climate change. Much of society has grown apathetic, smothered by oppression of opinion, and has grown content to leave a “set of lies unchallenged.”
Jordan Peterson has first-hand experience of the death of debate. A most recent example can be found in this sweeping argument—directed at Peterson—by Vanessa ‘Van’ Badham, writer for the Guardian and activist, during a debate session on ABC News Australia. The panel had gathered to discuss topics on gender and feminism; Peterson had rallied behind Western models, to which Badham responded:
What has happened in the West is that we developed democracy and democracy meant the enfranchisement of all of us, it means that conversations about what society looks like, what manners are, what behavior is, what courtesy looks like have changed. Because it is not one group making that decision anymore. And I understand that this is a difficult transition for people who’ve grown up with narratives where those decisions and those institutions belong to a very narrow demographic of people … it’s hard to get your heads around [this fact] … but it is necessary.
The argument in its logical stringency may make sense. If democracy is the best way of ‘enfranchisement of all,’ the basic assumption of democracy, i.e. that everybody can place their vote on whomever they see best fit to represent their values, has led to giving everybody the power to make decisions (not just one group). Therefore those who understood the world through a certain lens, i.e. that all decisions should—rightly or wrongly, lay within one group or another—have to abandon this idea of there being a custodian of values.
But widen the possibility for numerous sources of cultural authority, and the narrative loses its thread. Unfortunately for Badham’s readers, they remain unaware of Peterson’s original statement and thesis, that Western values allowed democracy, empowerment, and the belief in the intrinsic value of human beings in the first place.
However, since arguments like Van Badham’s are as common today as sand on the beach, it serves well to remind us of ‘Bulverism,’ a condition that gets its name from Ezekiel Bulver. You have never heard of E. Bulver? Perhaps this is because he is made up—by none less than C. S. Lewis.
In his essay, “Bulverism,” from the 1941 collection of essays God in the Dock, Lewis writes:
Some day I am going to write the biography of … Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father—who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than a third—‘Oh you say that because you are a man.’ ‘At that moment,’ E. Bulver assures us, ‘there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.’ That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.
Lewis continues his insight into the peculiar pathology endemic to modernity that has sickened the art of disputation:
You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became to be so silly.
Bulverism, in the modern landscape of social media and identity politics, is omnipresent. Progressive commentators, in classical Marxist and Freudian fashion, discredit the person speaking instead of actually tackling the argument. They are, thereby, committing an ad hominem logical fallacy that combines circular reasoning sprinkled with some healthy condescension.
Lewis’ brilliant observation could not be more timely. Incredible foresight and a healthy acuity into human nature enabled Lewis to make his prophetic prediction. People like Bulver represent the essential feature of the 20th (and even more so, the 21st) century. The age is defined not by conversationalists seeking truth together through meaningful debate and discussion for a greater good and self-knowledge (‘know thyself’). Rather, it is dominated by slurs, slogans, and political catchphrases; a time and place where opinions are quickly categorized, dismissed, and ultimately claimed to be irrelevant if they do not fit with the mainstream (progressive) ‘narrative’ (yet another word that would deserve some scrutiny).
And it applies hand in glove to Badham’s aforementioned announcement: Instead of engaging with Peterson on the values that are foundational to the West, and their effects, she prefers to discredit whatever he says by identifying him as the ‘result’ of a certain mindset: “people who’ve grown up with narratives where those decisions … belong to a very narrow demographic of people” (i.e. men). That Peterson belongs to this group makes it impossible for her to even engage in his arguments. Rather she proposes that he has “to get [his] head around” the fact that the situation has changed. How exactly and why it has changed she leaves unanswered. Unanswered also remains the question if the change is intrinsically an improvement. No statistics, no deeper analysis, no philosophical speculation. Bedham is content postulating a reality doomed to remain unchallenged (“It has changed—come to terms with it … or else”).
The Freudians have discovered that we exist as bundles of complexes. The Marxians have discovered that we exist as members of some economic class. In the old days it was supposed that if a thing seemed obviously true to a hundred men, then it was probably true in fact. Nowadays, the Freudian will tell you to go and analyze the hundred: you will find that they all think Elizabeth a great queen because they all have a mother-complex. Their thoughts are psychologically tainted at the source. And the Marxist will tell you to go and examine the economic interests of the hundred; you will find that they all think freedom a good thing because they are all members of the bourgeoisie whose prosperity is increased by a policy of laissez-faire. Their thoughts are “ideologically tainted” at the source.
This logical fallacy has a twofold result: First, it makes reasonable debate (in public or private) impossible. The opponent’s claims cannot be true, since his arguments are rotten at the root. The very cause of a debate—the search for truth—is rendered meaningless. A change of mind is precluded as impossible. No more arguments, only the meek acknowledgement of one’s own incompetence—especially as a white, Christian male.
Second, those who proclaim the ‘grand shift’ of narrative become the new prophets, albeit secular, of our time: it is they, and only they, who hold the truth. It is their presumptions, their anthropology, their definition of truth that must dominate all discourse, or else.
Perhaps you find yourself listening to a debate and get a queasy feeling when said slogans are spewed forth. In such moments, you can be sure that Ezekiel Bulver is sitting on his armchair, wryly smiling with deep satisfaction.