Perspective | The problems with online ‘debate me’ culture


Donna Zuckerberg is a Silicon Valley-based classics scholar and the author of “Not All Dead White Men.” She is editor in chief of the online classics publication Eidolon.

August 29

Anyone who regularly expresses ideas on the Internet — especially women who express ideas critical of men — has encountered that bane of online discourse, the man who appears seemingly out of nowhere to insist on a debate. He disagrees with the sentiment expressed and is certain he can overpower the author with his superior logic and knowledge. So he takes out his metaphorical white glove and offers a slap, showing up in Twitter mentions and issuing an invitation to his YouTube channel or podcast. If you refuse, the “ ‘debate me’ dude,” as the journalist Miles Klee memorably dubbed him, spends the next week tweeting about how terrified you are of his massive intellect.

A classic example came a few weeks ago after Barstool Sports founder and president Dave Portnoy threatened, on Twitter, to fire his workers if they tried to unionize. After Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) joined the chorus of critics suggesting that such threats violated labor law, Portnoy fired back: “Hey @aoc welcome to thunder dome. Debate me.” She ignored the “request,” and in a follow-up tweet he — naturally — suggested that she had run from the challenge like a terrified child.

Ocasio-Cortez is a popular target of debate-me dudes, who can be high-profile media figures or nonentities. In August 2018, the radio host and Daily Wire editor in chief Ben Shapiro offered her $10,000 to argue with him in a public forum; she refused, likening the challenge to a catcall: unworthy of a response. Shapiro has long made “debate me” part of his public persona, targeting both men and women, although he himself has ignored debate requests. The conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza also loves to challenge people to debates — and to “call out” the supposed cowardice of critics who reject his invitations, like the Princeton historian Kevin Kruse (who instead counters D’Souza on Twitter). 

As the editor of an online publication that runs articles about the intersections of classical antiquity and the modern world, often from a feminist and progressive perspective, I’ve gotten my fair share of “debate me” challenges. Many of these have come after I began writing about far-right interest in ancient Greece and Rome in 2016. Blocking some of my would-be adversaries on Twitter seemed to just energize them — and convince them I was afraid to engage.

A call to debate may seem intellectual, even civilized. In theory, well-structured and respectful debates are an ideal opportunity to reach an audience that isn’t fixed in its views. In reality, however, most “debate me” types seem to view them mainly as a chance to attack their opponent’s credibility. Their model is not Lincoln and Douglas, but rather Socrates: By needling their interlocutors with rapid-fire questions, they aim to reveal, as they see it, their opponents’ ignorance and stupidity, and their own superior intelligence and logic.

My most memorable “debate me” involved a white-nationalist YouTube personality with a ridiculous ersatz Latin pseudonym (which I don’t want to share, since he doesn’t deserve the attention), who appeared in my Twitter mentions one day, absurdly insisting that I have called the classics inherently fascist. My actual, nuanced argument is that the long enmeshment of the classics and white supremacy, both in Nazi Germany and in the pre-Civil War American South, continues to inform how we understand the ancient Mediterranean, and that progressive classical scholars should discuss that legacy and confront it. As he was challenging me to debate him, he was also tweeting to his followers that he would use the writings of Marcus Aurelius and other Stoic literature to annihilate me, explaining that those texts are “particularly offensive to cultural Marxist femmes.”  

I ignored him, but it’s no surprise that someone like this would draw on Stoicism, which has emerged as the favorite philosophy both of corporate executives and of the far right. Classical Stoics said that almost nothing is worth getting upset about, even the death of a loved one, since death is an inevitable part of life. It’s a natural fit for online debaters who are convinced that they are more logical and less emotional than the people they challenge.

These modest men also identify with Socrates, the original “debate me” troll. The Platonic texts show Socrates pulling any number of Athenians into debates, and although some are eager to argue with him, others can hardly wait to escape him by the end of the dialogue. Plato’s “Euthyphro” concludes with Euthyphro insisting that he has to leave, while Socrates calls after him, complaining that they haven’t yet figured out the nature of piety. Many of the dialogues end when the interlocutor has been bludgeoned into submission and seems to find it easier to agree with Socrates than continue further — every “debate me” man’s dream.

After all, a debate isn’t a conversation — an exercise in which people generously try to understand each other’s point of view. A real conversation doesn’t have a “winner.” Debates are about scoring points and subjugating your opponent. Which means that, no matter what their opponents say, debaters have every reason to spin a confrontation as a victory. If I got angry or flustered in a debate, then I would lose by virtue of being emotional and irrational. If I used jokes or sarcasm, I’d lose by virtue of seeming unserious and smug. If I did take the debate seriously and even briefly entertained the points made by my opponent, I would seem conciliatory and weak. And no matter what, my opponent will have gotten my attention and sucked up my time. The only winning move is not to play.

Portnoy seems to have stopped attempting to draw Ocasio-Cortez into a debate and has instead decided to periodically call her “O’CRAZIO,” reverting to the tactics of name-calling and insisting that outspoken women are insane. And whatever happened to my Latin enthusiast? His online presence has faded, and his followers complain about how difficult it is to find his videos because YouTube keeps deleting his channels. As Laurie Penny noted last year with respect to Milo Yiannopoulos, deplatforming white supremacists is a much more successful way to shut them down than insisting that “sunlight is the best disinfectant” and allowing them to air their hateful views in a structured debate setting. 

Of course, most men screaming “debate me!” aren’t white supremacists, and most haven’t violated YouTube or Twitter terms of service. Still, a man who demands that someone debate him assumes that he is entitled to his or her — usually her — valuable time and attention; she can’t possibly have more important work than engaging with an aggressive man online.

It’s perfectly fine to critique men like Portnoy (who is now under investigation by the National Labor Relations Board for his tweets) without acceding to their presumptuous demands. Your critique can stand on its own, and you aren’t obligated to repeat it at length in a more formal setting to give such men a chance to insult you and pepper you with bad-faith arguments in real time. I believe there is little point in engaging with these people — and I’m not open to debating that topic further.


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