Friday, September 18, 2009

The Way To Win An Argument Today

Worldviews have consequences – sometimes inevitable and destructive consequences. There is an argumentative move being made more and more in our culture that is about as irrational as it gets. What is so infuriating about it is that it is pervasive and persuasive among sizeable chunks of our population.

It probably has a formal name I don’t know, but I am going to call the move “Emotional Sabotage.” (It could also be an instance of the non sequitur, the ad hominem, or some version of a genetic fallacy.) The Emotional Sabotage happens when instead of dealing with the claims or ideas of someone with whom you disagree, you attack their emotional or psychological stability instead. Though it is a natural and unreflective reaction many times in the heat of the moment, it is abhorrently childish in thoughtful conversation. This argumentative move is driving me nuts because it is about all we hear right now, often times from alleged Ph.D.s.

Without even dealing with the embarrassment that is Jimmy Carter, let’s move to a more influential and “mainstream” voice, Maureen Dowd. The pull-line from her column, “Boy, Oh, Boy,” says it all: “Joe Wilson’s outburst in Congress revealed one thing: Some people just can’t believe a black man is president and will never accept it.” The rest of the article fares no better in the rationality or logic department. It is one long ad hominem attack on Wilson making him out to be a racist with only one-half a sentence devoted to whether Obama lied or not. She says he didn’t. Case closed.

So, the pull-line is the argument. Someone disagreed with an African-American, so he is a racist. That’s on par with arguing: You disagree with the usefulness of hypnosis, so you are an anti-Semite. Or: You disagree that chocolate is the best ice cream flavor, therefore you are a pedophile.

Dowd pulled the Emotional Sabotage, and it seems to have taken over the debate regarding the actual details in the bill and the facts contained within. Whether Wilson or the President is right on the merits is not an actual question for Dowd – all she wants to do is make you afraid to disagree with her side and be labeled something vile.

But, I would argue, the Emotional Sabotage is the inevitable result of a worldview Dowd and others likely hold. Theirs is a more morally and religiously progressive point of view, which entails the belief in the ultimate authority of the individual. Without a non-subjective and intolerant reality to deal with, they are left more and more with only “their” sets of preferences, which end up outweighing facts. The symbolism meaningful to them outweighs all argumentative considerations, because all they have left is their symbols. Literally, the only moves they have left are appeals to their symbolic social gestures. Therefore, the worst sin that could be committed is not to mistake reality or the facts of the matter, but to disagree with their social sensibilities.

So it is frustrating, but not surprising, that many in the public discourse have only the Emotional Sabotage or its corollaries in their philosophical tool boxes. May it not be with those who follow Christ – those who believe in the ubiquitous truth of God.


Brian B said...

Hey Phil! I had the same reaction to Dowd's piece when I first read it. I got the impression that she (and others who've made similar "arguments") reasoned something like the following:

"If Wilson's outburst were racially motivated, it would be such a great example of a more general (often underlying) racial resentment that I believe partly explains the vicious and angry backlash against Obama. Therefore, Wilson's outburst probably was racially motivated - it just fits so well with my general theory!"

It ain't modus ponens, that's for sure. It seems as if they want to use events like Wilson's outburst as evidence for the general claim, but have to use the general claim as evidence for that interpretation of Wilson's outburst in the first place. A bit circular, to say the least!

I don't know why Dowd and her ilk feel the need to "argue" this way. Why not stick with the general claim - there's at least some evidence for it. It just totally undermines the credibility for such a claim, however, when its proponents engage in this kind of sloppy, emotionally-manipulative rhetoric. And you're right - calling it "non-sequitur" is generous, when one considers the distance between premise and conclusion!

My theory: Dowd is jealous of Fox News's Glenn Beck's recent popularity, and thought that if this kind of "emotional sabotage" works for him and his ilk (remember when he "argued" that Obama is a racist who "has a deep-seated hatred for white people"?) then it's good enough for her =) It's sad to see someone like her resort to the same sort of un-thinking and argument-stopping name-calling employed by people not worth taking seriously on the "other side" (e.g. those who use labels like "socialist," "fascist," "communist," "totalitarian" and "Nazi" in the service of what you call "Emotional Sabotage.") No one on either side seems able or willing to do anything but lob these emotional hand grenades at each other.

(By the way, I liked David Brooks' reply to Dowd's accusation: - I think he's wrong about racism not being a significant factor, but he does a good job of showing how fairly obvious and deep-seated ideological differences contribute much more to the explanation of the resistance to Obama than does racism.)

Rusty said...

Here's another one floating around: "No one should die, go blind, or be crippled because they can't afford health care. No one should go broke because they get sick. No one should be unable to change jobs because of a "pre-existing condition." Health care should be for health care and NOT for profit."

Nah, nothing emotional in that argument.