Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 2, No. 14. July 12, 1939
"The 'Vanity debate"—a time-honoured institution mellowed by tradition and sustained by its popularity. Now degenerated into a farcical exaggeration of its avowed function. A kind of popular University entertainment, distinguished by a flow of witless wit from the back of the hall and a flood of emotionalism and verbal trickery from the front. How many people, coming away on a Friday evening, must be struck by the futility of it all!
Platitudes, cliches, wholesale quotations acknowledged and unacknowledged, and hearsay evidence are rife. (People went away from the last debate with at least three versions of the Kulack episode.) Logical fallacy is a commonplace at these debates—witness the eternal supposition of a hard-and-fast line between "capitalist" and "proletariat" in modern society. Tabloid thinking of the type "Freud says everything is sex" is not rife, it's absolutely rampant. Confused ideas and irrational thought cloud the issue. All is a sea of trouble swept by tides of eloquent emotional appeal to popular prejudice and blind Idealism. How far is it all from that vital necessity of modern times—open-minded, rational discussion, where personal prejudice, conditioned by past experience and past thinking, is recognized and discarded!
What hope for us if we think, yet know not how to think? What hope for the world when its leaders rely on persuasion rather than proof?
Most people refuse to think. Thinking is difficult. To be swayed by rhetorical fervour, by subtle innuendo, is far easier than to be convinced by rational argument. In the present stage of human evolution (I use the word evolution, not civilization, the latter being hardly applicable to the present world), an idea, to be accepted, must have emotional appeal, apart from its logicality. Quite rightly so. But appeal to mass prejudice swamps individual thought, forbids intellectual conviction, acceptability being based on emotional appeal, not necessarily on logicality.
The danger to clear thinking arising from past and present environmental influences must be self-evident. One's thinking tends to be based on things that are already acceptable to us: we choose the facts that suit our purpose. We have before us different interpretations of Soviet Communism, radical variations of opinion being published by members of identical political persuasions. The Left Book Club's books on Russia defend the system; Sir Walter Citrine. Eugene Lyons and Andrew Smith pick holes in it. How are we to judge? This tendency is Illustrated vividly in debates at Victoria. We see, too, the danger of following one line of thought. One tends to cling to it because of the initial emotional appeal to one, to the inevitable exclusion of, and prejudice against, opposing ideas. To cast aside all past prejudices, hopes, fears—become "aware" as Krishnamurti puts it, should be our aim. Then only have we started on the road to truth.
Let not the audience be exempt from blame. As Susan Stebbing points out, many people, most people come to a meeting (especially a political one) with their minds made up. They have prejudged the issue, and all they ask for is information that will support their thesis. The difficulty of obtaining facts facilitates this characteristic of most 'Varsity audiences. They want to be "converted before they are educated." The temptation of the honest speaker, then, is to persuade, and only to persuade, as there is no time to educate. (However honest speakers seem conspicuous by their absence from 'Varsity debates.) Much of the fault lies therefore with the audience, because they do not desire rational conviction. Susan Stebbing believes that intellectual honesty is not incompatible with public speeches, but experience with 'Varsity debates points the other way. Exploitation of the personality of the speaker is only too frequent and the judging, also being a time-honoured and traditional occupation, is consequently often worthless.
If then, the Debating Society is not concerned with the true nature of its function (which it apparently cannot fulfil), long may it continue. To one and all it affords admirable opportunities for mental relaxation, and for entertainment value is well up to the standard of the Auckland Zoo or the Chicago Wheat pit.
I can heartily recommend three extremely useful books in connection with this article. "The Art of Thought"—Graham Wallas; "Straight and Crooked Thinking." by Robert Thouless; and "Thinking to some Purpose" (a new Pelican edition by L. Susan Stebbing).