Earlier this week, I was mindlessly scrolling on TikTok — as many of us do in lieu of studying during midterm season — and a clip of Jon Stewart popped up on my “For You” page. My eyes glued to Stewart, I watched as he dismantled Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutlege’s argument for her recent ban on gender-affirming healthcare for children. I could feel a swell of patriotism within me 60 seconds later; as I swiped to the next TikTok, I knew that Jon Stewart just ended transphobia in America by dunking on conservatives.
Of course, that’s not the real outcome of my favorite comedian winning an argument. Trans kids in Arkansas are not getting the health care they need, regardless of how cogent the argument for gender-affirming healthcare looks in that clip compared to arguments against it. Yet, I wouldn’t be shocked to hear that some blue voters felt vindicated seeing that clip; after all, they just watched a conservative get absolutely obliterated. Clips where your favorite progressive dominates a debate in the marketplace of ideas can make us feel like progress happened just because someone used their words well, but everything about that feeling is antithetical to the struggle-driven nature of progress.
In an era where witty little one-line rebuttals can garner millions of views, it is too easy to feel complacent with progress when the progressive aesthetic garners mainstream attraction. But that sort of thinking blinds us to the struggles of people still fighting against modern injustices while we convert their issues into talking points to feel like an ally. Watching people win in debates and “dunk” on one another does not equal progress, and failing to distinguish between the two can substitute a genuine desire for change with a superficial TikTok.
At this point, it may seem like I’m being very dramatic, and it’s possible this isn’t all that deep. Sometimes a TikTok can just be a TikTok. However, there are very real consequences to people feeling like they’ve done something simply by liking a video. Concrete solutions to issues thrive on awareness, but modern awareness has become just about whether you can argue about an issue rather than spreading awareness about or taking action towards long-term solutions. For example, anyone who’s taken a humanities class loves it when someone raises their hand and says something so morally questionable it makes the Trolley Problem look cut and dry. It gives any argumentatively minded student the opportunity to raise their hand, look their enemy in the eye and blow them up in front of the whole class. It’s a guilty pleasure that I, at least, have no shame in owning up to. And though it’s very satisfying to do this, modern awareness culture essentially substitutes feeling technically right for being ethically correct. I identify two consequences: We commodify marginalized people for argument’s sake, and we lose the fervor to achieve legitimate social change.
The mindset of argumentation requires you to discuss suffering as a moral commodity, where more suffering is bad and less suffering is good. As a result, the victims of suffering are just vehicles to carry this moral commodity. Writing an argument encourages someone to disconnect from people they advocate for; the real victory happens when an argument is won, not when social change actually occurs. Though most participants in political debate would certainly be happy if social change was achieved, it is less of a priority for them than winning debates. Consequently, many never see the people they advocate for as more than argumentative pawns.
At this point, someone reading this has definitely thought, “Huh, Sarabaesh sure knows a lot about the consequences of disingenuous argument.” Yeah, I did debate in high school; all we did was make disingenuous arguments. I debated a plethora of topics, earnestly advocating for issues I wrote about through the lens of whether they’d win me a round or not. And for the longest time, I was convinced that my discourse was making real ripples. We lost our fervor for social change because we convinced ourselves that we were making a difference. It’s normal to want to feel moral, but our desire to feel good about ourselves often makes us feel satiated after we’ve accomplished very little. Like I said at the beginning of this article, Jon Stewart dunking on the Arkansas attorney general did not make life better for transgender kids.
What changed my mind about my debate rounds making a difference was a type of argumentation called theory. Theory is debate about how debating ought to happen, often simply defined by debaters as debate about debate (take a shot every time I said debate there). By being cognizant about how I argued, I realized how little my words mattered if I did not genuinely mean them. Advocating for causes I actually believed in through arguments that match my personal ideology should have been more important to me than winning rounds.
It is this mindset that I feel we should apply to modern awareness culture. The premise should be anything outside of actual policy change matters very little. That being said, when someone says something immoral, call them out. There is nothing inherently wrong with dunking on someone. Something so fun cannot be so inherently harmful, but if you’re going to dunk, dunk tastefully. Argue not with the intent of just winning, but with legitimate empathy for whoever you advocate for. Be aware of what you output. Conversely, be aware of your input too, since the media around us wants us to be first frenzied and then soothed in a never ending cycle of clicks and likes. So the next time I see a conservative get absolutely DUMPSTERED, I am going to watch that whole video and drop a like (sorry to disappoint), but I’ll also remain aware of the ongoing nature of progress — or the lack thereof — around me.