Debating has become more popular than reading groups. Discuss

We have become nomads of the mind, going in search of refreshment and stimulation wherever we can find them
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Moseyed along to the Royal Geographical Society in Kensington last week for an Intelligence Squared debate. All the rage suddenly, debating. No one is quite sure why. A universal thirst for enlightenment in a darkling world is the usual explanation. The same explanation that's given for reading groups. Except that, in my experience, reading groups make the world darker than it was before. Not in every instance, of course. Just in those where they gather hugger-mugger to the exclusion of all men and read novels written for children, novels written by children, novels with an unhealthy interest in children, novels narrated by people purporting to be dead, novels about magicians, and novels about secret societies. Which doesn't leave much.

Moseyed along to the Royal Geographical Society in Kensington last week for an Intelligence Squared debate. All the rage suddenly, debating. No one is quite sure why. A universal thirst for enlightenment in a darkling world is the usual explanation. The same explanation that's given for reading groups. Except that, in my experience, reading groups make the world darker than it was before. Not in every instance, of course. Just in those where they gather hugger-mugger to the exclusion of all men and read novels written for children, novels written by children, novels with an unhealthy interest in children, novels narrated by people purporting to be dead, novels about magicians, and novels about secret societies. Which doesn't leave much.

Debating answers to a more intellectual craving, in my view. And might have something to do with the fact that the novel no longer contributes to the intellectual or ethical life of the nation. George Eliot once had the entire populace by the ears with such sentences as "We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves". Try writing that now and you'll be lucky to find a publisher. That's unless you can show that "udder" is an acronym for a secret celebrity conspiracy of underage Catholic magicians.

Parliament and television, as chambers of conversation and thought, serve us no better. So we have become nomads of the mind, going in search of refreshment and stimulation wherever we can find them. The Royal Geographical Society on an Intelligence Squared night being a better place than most.

Normally when I go, I go as one of the speakers. I feel easier on a platform than in an audience. Existentially, I know what I am about on a platform, whereas in an audience I tend to go to sleep or to pieces. The world can be divided between those who belong on platforms and those who belong in audiences. Some people would die rather than go up on to a stage; others would die rather than go down among the audience. This isn't a hierarchical thing. It's about function and belonging. The hero of Thomas Mann's novel Confessions of Felix Krull reports his discomfort while sitting in an audience at a circus watching clowns. Marvellous as he finds their antics, he cannot lend himself to the business of appreciation. As a confidence trickster he is a sort of acrobat and clown himself, both entertainer and illusionist, and therefore cannot be as the seething crowd, who "merely enjoyed, and enjoyment is a passive condition" Call it "audience-fright" - that sudden blast of icy terror that hits you when you take your seat among those who passively enjoy.

In fairness to this particular audience, however, I have to admit that passivity was not its defining characteristic. They stamped, they jeered, they shouted "Shame!", and no sooner did one person hit upon the felicitous formulation, "Answer the question!", than we all took a fancy to it, insisting that every speaker should "Answer the question!" even when a question had not been asked. The audience is more respectful, let me tell you, when I am speaking. But then the art of debate as I see it is to make something out of nothing, to play with lightness until you coin a new and entirely unsuspected seriousness out of it, whereas the other night we began with such a something of a motion it was inevitable many on the platform would make a nothing of it.

Start big and you'll end up small - that's the almost invariable rule of debate. And boy, did we start big! "Zionism today is the real enemy of the Jews." How's that for a topic for a good night out? Not a motion you would expect any sane person to put his name to, since it is the equivalent of saying that if you don't lie down and die you have only yourself to blame. But then a motion is but a motion, and by its nature begs for contradiction.

I am not going to discuss the merits of the opposing arguments, beyond noting that in so far as they occupied the usual left-right positions, the usual protocols were observed - the left in its seductive self-righteousness offering to talk for the oppressed, yet not a syllable they spoke linguistically or attitudinally humane, just the clang clang clang of dogma; and the right misjudging the mood of many who might have agreed with them had their logic-chopping not been so remorseless and would they only have let a little sorrow show.

Here, of course, is the problem with debating as a methodology of civilised discourse: confrontation is of its essence. There comes a moment when opinionating won't get us anywhere and we must give way to art.

Tragedy was the word which kept occurring to me as I sat sick and sorry in the audience. Where, between the warring factions, was there sufficient acknowledgment of the tragedy which has befallen Palestinians and Israelis, and never mind whose grievance is greater? Also this week, speaking of passive enjoyment, I was inveigled into watching King Lear. Not my favourite place, the theatre, and not my favourite play by Shakespeare. In fact my least favourite play by Shakespeare, not counting the lesser Henrys. But there are reasons to sit on your hands and put up with Lear, not the least of them being its forcible demonstration of the terrible ineluctability of event. Things once set in train cannot always be reversed; obduracy breeds obduracy, and action is entrammelled in consequence. To see any deed as author of itself and to censure it in isolation from its genealogy is not only inhumane, it is ignorant.

Yes, there is an Israeli occupation. Yes, a war intended to push Israel into the sea occasioned it. Yes, the Israelis... Yes, the Arabs....

And all the way back to Abraham? Yes, if you want my opinion. But then what do I know. I'm only in the audience.

Comments