I often forget, when arguing with someone who believes physical force is the answer to many of the problems our society faces, that the reason I argue is to educate myself and others. It can be very difficult to remember this fact when people wish to cage you for a certain behavior, execute some other guy for mere words, or steal from you to pay for his whims. But we must. A friend reminded me on twitter yesterday (yes, I have a twitter to this page! @snvirtus, duh) that constructive argumentation and drawing people to understand the corruption of the state as a necessity of human nature is the point of knowing about what is going on in the world. That, and to prepare yourself and those you love if a law changes that affects your life…
With that in mind, two articles in the folder on my desktop speak to this. The first is a means of transcendence to a place where we can understand where people are coming from. This lesson is essential for a guy like me, because I often have trouble even seeing where people are coming from at all in discussions of taxes, drones, Obama love, etc. I can be very difficult to offend, but some arguments will drive me up the wall. Perhaps they shouldn’t:
In order to truly be a master of th[e Art of Never Being Offended], one must be able to see that every statement, action and reaction of another human being is the sum result of their total life experience to date. In other words, the majority of people in our world say and do what they do from their own set of fears, conclusions, defenses and attempts to survive. Most of it, even when aimed directly at us, has nothing to do with us. Usually, it has more to do with all the other times, and in particular the first few times, that this person experienced a similar situation, usually when they were young . . .
All of that said, almost nothing is personal. Even with our closest loved ones, our beloved partners, our children and our friends. We are all swimming in the projections and filters of each other’s life experiences and often we are just the stand-ins, the chess pieces of life to which our loved ones have their own built-in reactions. This is not to dehumanize life or take away the intimacy from our relationships, but mainly for us to know that almost every time we get offended, we are actually just in a misunderstanding. A true embodiment of this idea actually allows for more intimacy and less suffering throughout all of our relationships. When we know that we are just the one who happens to be standing in the right place at the right psychodynamic time for someone to say or do what they are doing—we don’t have to take life personally. If it weren’t us, it would likely be someone else.
With that, the key when debating or speaking with another on issues of society, morality, faith, politics, etc. is to add to people’s experiences and knowledge, to the point that overlooking various evils in pursuit of our own utopian visions becomes impossible.
The second article appeals to the competitive facet in all of us who like to engage others about our and their beliefs. It also explains why, as a culture, we are becoming less intelligent in dialogue and social critique, and why arguing is so very important for being able to think clearly and independently. Steve Sailer explains:
Much of the intellectual progress the world has made over the millennia is due to men managing to turn argument into sport rather than either a test of popularity or of physical strength.
Consider Zeno’s paradoxes. I suspect that other individuals in other times and places came up with similar ideas, but either nobody paid attention or the propounders of annoying paradoxes got punched in the face by frustrated listeners who couldn’t come up with a response. The Ancient Greeks, in contrast, found this type of debate interesting and felt that there ought to be a way — logic — to figure out who wins . . .
Similar attitudes were reflected in the written spheres. A century ago, G.K. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw, say, could go at it hammer and tongs like the intellectual sportsmen they were . . .
Englishman Alastair Roberts writes a blog called Alastair’s Adversaria on largely theological topics. As a writer, he has what I call an indoor voice, attuned to the style of the time, which makes his endorsement of the fading tradition of debate as sport interesting by contrast. Starting from some controversy in England, Roberts launches into a lengthy but insightful description of what has gone wrong:
In observing the interaction between Pastor Wilson and his critics in the recent debate, I believe that we were witnessing a collision of two radically contrasting modes of discourse. The first mode of discourse, represented by Pastor Wilson’s critics, was one in which sensitivity, inclusivity, and inoffensiveness are key values, and in which persons and positions are ordinarily closely related. The second mode of discourse, displayed by Pastor Wilson and his daughters, is one characterized and enabled by personal detachment from the issues under discussion, involving highly disputational and oppositional forms of rhetoric, scathing satire, and ideological combativeness.
When these two forms of discourse collide they are frequently unable to understand each other and tend to bring out the worst in each other. The first [new, sensitive] form of discourse seems lacking in rationality and ideological challenge to the second; the second [old, sporting] can appear cruel and devoid of sensitivity to the first. To those accustomed to the second mode of discourse, the cries of protest at supposedly offensive statements may appear to be little more than a dirty and underhand ploy intentionally adopted to derail the discussion by those whose ideological position can’t sustain critical challenge. However, these protests are probably less a ploy than the normal functioning of the particular mode of discourse characteristic of that community, often the only mode of discourse that those involved are proficient in.
To those accustomed to the first mode of discourse, the scathing satire and sharp criticism of the second appears to be a vicious and personal attack, driven by a hateful animus, when those who adopt such modes of discourse are typically neither personally hurt nor aiming to cause such hurt. Rather, as this second form of discourse demands personal detachment from issues under discussion, ridicule does not aim to cause hurt, but to up the ante of the debate, exposing the weakness of the response to challenge, pushing opponents to come back with more substantial arguments or betray their lack of convincing support for their position. Within the first form of discourse, if you take offence, you can close down the discourse in your favour; in the second form of discourse, if all you can do is to take offence, you have conceded the argument to your opponent, as offence is not meaningful currency within such discourse.
I also don’t think that sufficient attention is given to the manner in which differing forms of education prepare persons for participation in these different modes of discourse. There is a form of education – increasingly popular over the last few decades – which most values cooperation, collaboration, quietness, sedentariness, empathy, equality, non-competitiveness, conformity, a communal focus, inclusivity, affirmation, inoffensiveness, sensitivity, non-confrontation, a downplaying of physicality, and an orientation to the standard measures of grades, tests, and a closely defined curriculum (one could, with the appropriate qualifications, speak of this as a ‘feminization’ of education). Such a form of education encourages a form of public discourse within which there is a shared commitment and conformity to the social and ideological dogmas and values of liberal society, where everyone feels secure and accepted and conflict is avoided, but at the expense of independence of thought, exposure to challenge, the airing of deep differences, and truth-driven discourse.
Faced with an opposing position that will not compromise in the face of its calls for sensitivity and its cries of offence, such a [new] mode of discourse lacks the strength of argument to parry challenges. Nor does it have any means by which to negotiate or accommodate such intractable differences within its mode of conversation. Consequently, it will typically resort to the most fiercely antagonistic, demonizing, and personal attacks upon the opposition.
While firm differences can be comfortably negotiated within the contrasting [old] form of discourse, a mode of discourse governed by sensitivities and ‘tolerance’ cannot tolerate uncompromising difference. Without a bounded and rule-governed realm for negotiating differences, antagonism becomes absolute and opposition total. Supporters of this ‘sensitive’ mode of discourse will typically try, not to answer opponents with better arguments, but to silence them completely as ‘hateful’, ‘intolerant’, ‘bigoted’, ‘misogynistic’, ‘homophobic’, etc.
A completely contrasting mode of education, one more typical of traditional – and male-oriented – educational systems, values internalized confidence, originality, agonism, independence of thought, creativity, assertiveness, the mastery of one’s feelings, a thick skin and high tolerance for your own and others’ discomfort, disputational ability, competitiveness, nerve, initiative, imagination, and force of will, values that come to the fore in confrontational oral debate. Such an education will produce a mode of discourse that is naturally highly oppositional and challenging, while generally denying participants the right to take things personally. Deep divergences of opinion can be far more comfortably accommodated within the same conversation by those accustomed to such discourse. While the first form of education risks viewing persons as passive receptacles of knowledge to be rewarded for their conformity to set expectations, which are frequently measured, this form of education prioritizes the formation of independent thinking agents.
This form of discourse typically involves a degree of ‘heterotopy’, occurring in a ‘space’ distinct from that of personal interactions.
In other words: “in the arena.”
This heterotopic space is characterized by a sort of playfulness, ritual combativeness, and histrionics. This ‘space’ is akin to that of the playing field, upon which opposing teams give their rivals no quarter, but which is held distinct to some degree from relations between the parties that exist off the field. The handshake between competitors as they leave the field is a typical sign of this demarcation. It is this separation of the space of rhetorical ritual combat from regular space that enables debaters, politicians, or lawyers to have fiery disagreements in the debating chamber, the parliamentary meeting, or the courtroom and then happily enjoy a drink together afterwards.
This ‘heterotopic discourse’ makes possible far more spirited challenges to opposing positions, hyperbolic and histrionic rhetoric designed to provoke response and test the mettle of one’s own and the opposing position, assertive presentations of one’s beliefs that are less concerned to present a full-orbed picture than to advocate firmly for a particular perspective and to invite and spark discussion from other perspectives.
The truth is not located in the single voice, but emerges from the conversation as a whole. Within this form of heterotopic discourse, one can play devil’s advocate, have one’s tongue in one’s cheek, purposefully overstate one’s case, or attack positions that one agrees with. The point of the discourse is to expose the strengths and weaknesses of various positions through rigorous challenge, not to provide a balanced position in a single monologue. Those familiar with such discourse will be accustomed to hyperbolic and unbalanced expressions. They will appreciate that such expressions are seldom intended as the sole and final word on the matter by those who utter them, but as a forceful presentation of one particular dimension of or perspective upon the truth, always presuming the existence of counterbalancing perspectives that have no less merit and veracity.
In contrast, a sensitivity-driven discourse lacks the playfulness of heterotopic discourse, taking every expression of difference very seriously. Rhetorical assertiveness and impishness, the calculated provocations of ritual verbal combat, linguistic playfulness, and calculated exaggeration are inexplicable to it as it lacks the detachment, levity, and humour within which these things make sense. On the other hand, those accustomed to combative discourse may fail to appreciate when they are hurting those incapable of responding to it.
Lacking a high tolerance for difference and disagreement, sensitivity-driven discourses will typically manifest a herding effect. Dissenting voices can be scapegoated or excluded and opponents will be sharply attacked. Unable to sustain true conversation, stale monologues will take its place. Constantly pressed towards conformity, indoctrination can take the place of open intellectual inquiry. Fracturing into hostile dogmatic cliques takes the place of vigorous and illuminating dialogue between contrasting perspectives. Lacking the capacity for open dialogue, such groups will exert their influence on wider society primarily by means of political agitation.
The fear of conflict and the inability to deal with disagreement lies at the heart of sensitivity-driven discourses. However, ideological conflict is the crucible of the sharpest thought. Ideological conflict forces our arguments to undergo a rigorous and ruthless process through which bad arguments are broken down, good arguments are honed and developed, and the relative strengths and weaknesses of different positions emerge. The best thinking emerges from contexts where interlocutors mercilessly probe and attack our arguments’ weaknesses and our own weaknesses as their defenders. They expose the blindspots in our vision, the cracks in our theories, the inconsistencies in our logic, the inaptness of our framing, the problems in our rhetoric. We are constantly forced to return to the drawing board, to produce better arguments.
Granted immunity from this process, sensitivity-driven and conflict-averse contexts seldom produce strong thought, but rather tend to become echo chambers. Even the good ideas that they produce tend to be blunt and very weak in places. Even with highly intelligent people within them, conflict-averse groups are poor at thinking. Bad arguments go unchecked and good insights go unhoned and underdeveloped. This would not be such a problem were it not for the fact that these groups frequently expect us to fly in a society formed according to their ideas, ideas that never received any rigorous stress testing.