Over at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, Burt Likko argues in favor of a cool, emotionally detached form of argumentation. This is, Burt says, “a journey towards the truth.”
My own preferences for debate style align pretty closely with Burt’s. But I’m skeptical about how effective logical argumentation is as a tool for finding truth. Very often, internet debates — including debates in Burt’s (and my) preferred style — are less about finding truth than they are about demonstrating who is the more skilled debater.
I’m pretty skeptical of the idea that any particular subject matter, or any particular viewpoint about a subjet matter, is so out of bounds that it is unworthy of debate.
Ironically, Burt goes on to argue, in effect, that logical debate should not include criticism of positions for being bigoted (specifically using the example of racism). So apparently some subjects — those that make Burt uncomfortable — are out of bounds, according to Burt.
Worse, Burt does this in a dishonest manner. When a comment writer suggest the argument “the logical leap from P to Q is incorrect, and what’s more, rests on some bigoted and hateful premises,” Burt responds:
If the logical leap from P to Q is incorrect, then your response should be to refute the major premise…
That’s not good enough for you? You have to go the extra step and say “…and you’re a bigot for suggesting what you did”?
So the comment-writer says that an argument rests on bigoted premises, and Burt dishonestly paraphrases that as the writer having accused someone of being a bigot. Burt conflates calling an argument bigoted and saying “you’re a racist!”
Aziz Ishak‘s actual statement is that being called a racist or a bigot just plain isn’t so bad.1 He’s right from a logical perspective, but as we’ve seen over the past two days, logic is not the only level upon which people operate. There is a very high degree of moral opprobrium attached with attitudes of racism and bigotry in our culture. For the most part, our (relatively recent) cultural condemnation of bigotry has been a good thing.
So I think it’s appropriate that, for instance, Tim defend himself against claims that he is a bigot, or more precisely, that his post advocated bigoted ideas.
Tim’s post did advocate bigoted ideas, incidentally (as Burt’s co-blogger E.D. effectively argued). But that aside, note that Burt is once again conflating criticism of an idea with a direct attack on the person making the argument.
That’s a nasty rock to have thrown at you and not responding in some way to it can create the impression that you willingly accept the moral opprobrium associated with racism. (If you want to see what real anti-Muslim bigotry looks like, take a look at some comments offered in response to one of my recent posts.)
I don’t think “you want to see what real bigotry looks like” is a very persuasive argument. Apparently Burt believes that if statement X contains over-the-top bigotry, while statement Y contains only subtle (and questionable) bigotry, the mere existence of statement X is enough to prove absolutely that statement Y is not bigoted. But that makes no sense. If Sally calls Charlie Brown “wishy-washy,” but Lucy calls Charlie Brown “a COMPLETE BLOCKHEAD,” Lucy’s statement is clearly meaner than Sally’s. But it doesn’t logically follow that Sally’s statement isn’t mean at all.
There’s also something distasteful about Burt — who I suspect isn’t a Muslim — lecturing a Muslim about what “real” anti-Muslim bigotry looks like. I’m not saying that Burt can’t logically disagree with Aziz about what does or does not qualify as “real” bigotry; but Burt should do it with thoughtful, considered arguments, not with a dismissive “this is what real bigotry looks like” sneer.
It’s also the case that one person throwing that rock tends to end the discussion. […]
If you call me a “racist”, you are using an appeal to emotion not to win the argument2 but rather to end it.
This is very problematic.
Remember, Burt has already established, multiple times, that he doesn’t acknowledge a distinction between saying “the argument rests on some bigoted premises” and saying “you’re a racist!” So in Burt’s view, just saying “the argument rests on some bigoted premises” is an act of rock-throwing, an appeal to emotion, and an attempt to end the argument.
Let’s imagine this in dialog form:
MARCIE: Your argument is wrong because it rests on bigoted premises–
PATTY: How dare you call me a racist! You blockhead!
What happened there is that Patty mischaracterized Marcie’s statement and ended the argument. But if we use Burt’s standards, we’d blame Marcie; by merely bringing up the question of bigotry, Marcie ended the argument. But this is not only unfair to Marcie, it also unfairly absolves Patty from responsibility for her own actions.
* * *
Emotion has more value in argumentation than Burt credits. I agree that it’s not good for constructive debate if Schroeder calls Woodstock an asshole rather than answering Woodstock’s arguments. But emotional expression can be persuasive, and sometimes rightly.
Remember what I said earlier; just because someone has the better logical argument3 doesn’t always mean that they’re right. Sometimes it just means that they’re the more skilled debater. If someone makes a very logical argument concluding that the highest good requires kicking all puppies to death, our emotional revulsion may protect us from accepting a bad argument merely because it’s well-constructed and hides its holes cleverly. Emotion can be used to test logic’s soundness.
Of course, emotion isn’t the end-all and be-all; sometimes emotion is wrong. Just as we use emotion to test logic’s soundness, logic should be used to test emotion’s soundness. The point is to maintain balance; a wholesale rejection of either logic or emotion is a mistake.
Emotional speaking can also facilitate good communication and debate, by letting the debaters know that someone in the room has a personal stake in the issue under discussion.
PIGPEN: Let’s face it, the average farmer is just lazy, and…
SALLY: What? I’ll have you know that I am a farmer!
PIGPEN: I’m sorry, Sally. You know I respect you. What I should have said is, the average farmer, like all intelligent workers, strives to be more productive with less effort whenever possible.
If Pigpen acknowledges Sally’s stake and responds, not by giving up his argument, but by phrasing it in a way that shows respect for Sally, that facilitates discussion and gives him a better chance of being persuasive.
- This wasn’t actually Aziz’s statement, as Burt admitted later in the thread. [↩]
- By the way, outside of formal debate, I’m not sure that there is such a thing as “winning” an argument. Which doesn’t stop me from using the phrase, I admit. [↩]
- Or at least, the best logical argument of anyone in the room and presenting arguments at that moment. [↩]