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Hypocrisy and Argument

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

I’m often more interested in how we argue than what we argue about. By “interested”, I mean “endlessly frustrated”.

Here’s a big gripe of mine: People don’t seem to understand that when arguing with someone, the hypocrisy (perceived or actual) of an opponent’s argument does not justify their own.

Let’s say that you are staunchly pro-life and I take you to task for it. Suppose that you are pro-death penalty and you have supported the various wars your country has initiated or been involved in. Let’s also say that I am pro-choice and anti-death penalty.

(I know, none of that is controversial, right?)

If make an argument that you cannot rationally be both pro-life and pro-death penalty, you cannot justify your position by claiming that I’m being a hypocrite. You may be correct — I may not be able to rationally be pro-choice and anti-death penalty. But that doesn’t justify your inconsistencies.

The worst part is that by using my inconsistencies or hypocrisy to justify your own, you are legitimizing mine.

This is where too many conversations go. People use all sorts of tactics, intentionally or otherwise, to avoid confronting their own inconsistent beliefs. Do you want to discuss my inconsistent beliefs? That’s fine, but one thing at a time. Let’s examine yours, then we’ll examine mine. Why in that order? It’s somewhat arbitrary — I brought it up first. Deal with it.

Or maybe you’re not interested at learning something new or having your mind changed. Congratulations, you’re part of a large group.


Monday, June 4th, 2012

What is the point of conversation and argument? I mean “argument” somewhat in the spirit of the logical and philosophical sense of the word, summarized on wikipedia as:

In philosophy and logic, an argument is an attempt to persuade someone of something, by giving reasons or evidence for accepting a particular conclusion. The general structure of an argument in a natural language is that of premises (typically in the form of propositions, statements or sentences) in support of a claim: the conclusion.

(Edited to remove footnotes)

A conversation can be made up of one or more arguments. While the point of an argument is to persuade, that’s not necessarily the point of a conversation.

Very few people actually make arguments as defined above. What most people do is assert opinions. That may be fine, but those aren’t arguments, and they don’t always make for very good conversation.

What I’m trying to get at is that I tend to irritate people, and vise-versa. I don’t really approach a discussion adversarially. If you want to “win”, that’s what debate is for. Yet this is exactly how many people approach conversations, especially when politics are involved. That, in fact, is the raison d’être of talking points. How cynical are talking points? They are employed to steel individuals for contrary beliefs and opinions, not to encourage an enriching, belief-challenging conversation. The very concept is irrational and depressing.

Note that I’m not implying that people need to be persuaded or concede anything. If they genuinely question the soundness of an argument, and as long as they are being intellectually honest, a conversation need not conclude with one participant conceding defeat. In fact, the vast majority of political discussions end this way, with no consensus. In the best of these cases, people find themselves unable to agree on a point that is difficult to prove one way or another. If they can acknowledge that, they at least have isolated a core point of dispute. In the worst cases, the conversation ends irrationally with name calling or (much worse) violence. In between are the sort of conversations we usually have, especially with people of a different political or philosophical persuasion.

I always try to have the best kind of disagreements. It’s very, very hard to have those conversations with most people. I’m frequently accused of being mercilessly (or foolishly) logical. There’s some truth to that. I am quick to find inconsistencies in peoples’ thoughts. Please note that I’m not bragging here — I know many people who are much brighter and better than I am. There are plenty of people who can absolutely destroy me in an argument. But because for me the conversation itself is the reward (not “winning”), I’m more likely than not to enjoy having my argument eviscerated. It’s not about proving yourself right, it’s about finding out what’s wrong and narrowing down what’s right.

There are a handful of things that will truly ruin a conversation for me. The first (and foremost) is irrationality. You can’t “just know” something. Supernatural revelations are likewise useless in a conversation, or at least only as useful as a statements like “Yesterday, blue was my favorite color”, or “I know in my bones that the president is a socialist”. This tells me something about how you think or see things, but it doesn’t tell me anything else. Related to this are appeals to common sense. Common sense is an attempt to assert something without providing any support, the implication often being that only an idiot would question it.

Speaking of idiots, another thing that ruins a conversation for me is if one participant really does believe that anyone who disagrees with them is an idiot (or is evil). If that person is also adept at rhetoric, odious in their treatment of others and prone to dismissing counter-arguments as meaningless or nit-picking, I won’t even give that person the time of day. A conversation should be respectful and should adhere to the rules of logic.

So when I get into a meta-conversation, I find myself in the awkward position of trying to defend the way I argue, because it irritates people. But defending myself is itself an argument.

The point of a conversation, for me, is to challenge beliefs — my own and others’. It’s to root out what we believe without sound basis. It is, in short, to learn. Sometimes, when making an argument I’ve never articulated before (or articulated well), I’ll go about disproving myself. That’s always an interesting, exciting moment, and it sadly doesn’t happen often enough.

I hope I don’t sound sanctimonious. I’m being sincere — after all, I got my B.A. in Philosophy and English. You have to love discourse to study that. When getting my degree, I was surrounded by many people who approached conversation the same way. Not all, but many. Maybe that spoiled me. Regardless, it also gave me hope that others could come around to this approach.

When was the last time you approached a conversation with the intention of learning something rather than proving someone wrong?

Notes on Happiness, 2006

Wednesday, December 6th, 2006

It’s been almost a year since I last wrote about happiness (and the clarification).

Now seems like a good time to write a little more.  I came across something about burnout on slashdot (and the linked nymag article).  Interesting stuff.

One excerpt of note is the statement, “… happiness equals reality divided by expectations.”  Which is a corny way of saying what Bertrand Russell said a long time ago — Unhappiness stems from a misunderstanding of reality.

Of course it’s easy for the pessimist to misinterpret both statements.  They might reply, “well, then, I’ll expect absolute shit so that I won’t be disappointed.”  Which is not the implication at all (I can’t imagine that happiness equaling a divide-by-zero error is a good thing).  Not to mention, someone who makes a statement like that is already bitter, disappointed and most likely they thrive on it.  Anyway, what the receiver of this advice is challenged to do is to not have irrational or outlandish expectations.  Unfortunately, people who hold such expectations obviously don’t view them as irrational or outlandish, otherwise (one would hope) they wouldn’t seriously hold them.

The article really caught my attention because it highlighted something I’d been struggling with — burnout at work is not caused by workload.  Not necessarily, anyway.  Don’t get me wrong.  My workload can (and often does) get crazy and is a source of stress.  On the other hand, I am quite happy in general.  I think I’ve sustained this level of moderate, even-keeled happiness for a long time now.  At least a year.  Probably more like 2.  I’m not sure exactly what has changed.  Perhaps it’s due to a number of things — transplanting myself to Minnesota (could have been anywhere, really, and from anywhere) and living entirely on my own for a long time (three years now?) among them.  A change of environment worked wonders for my state of mind.  This was actually an interesting point of debate between Jason and myself, though I’m not entirely sure whether that debate occurred on the phone or on this blog.  I’ve also had some relatively even-tempered relationships in the past few years — much in contrast to a few volatile, tumultuous relationships I had while in the southwest.

On the other hand, I do lead a very solitary life.  Sure, I’ll hang out with friends on weekends.  Work permitting, I’ll enter bar poker tournaments during the week.  Overall, though, I spend my time at work and at home.  Honestly, I’m usually just too tired to do much of anything during the week.

A solitary life is apparently a cause of burnout, simply because there are fewer outlets for an individual.  Luckily, I do things to fill in those gaps — I play online poker, video games, etc.  Still, it’s a major factor.

I learned that quite dramatically the last time I visited Las Cruces.  Just spending a week with family and friends did wonders for me.  My chest pains went away entirely, and did not return until several weeks after I returned.  I felt refreshed when I got back.  Interestingly, my mood (by my perception, anyway) didn’t change much — I was happy before, during and after the vacation.  There were only three things that changed — I was in a different geographical location, I was with family & friends and I wasn’t working.

It’d be a mistake, I think, to emphasize any of those factors too much over each other.  To wit — I like my job.  The culture at my company is great.  I’d turn down a substantial increase in salary from another company with a significantly different culture.  Really.  That’s not to say that it isn’t a source of stress — of course it is.  I took on a new role in the last several months, and the company has been reorganized.  No matter how well it all works out in the end, that’s gonna cause stress and frustration (for example, when being informed that our group would get a new boss — the third in about as many months — one co-worker asked, “And who will be our boss next week?”  Luckily, our company’s culture thrives on such honest yet sarcastic commentary).

Likewise, geographical location shouldn’t be overvalued — sure, the weather is great down there.  But that visit was in late summer, so there’s not as much dramatic difference between there and here as there is, say, in the wintertime.

Family and friends?  Of course that’s a significant factor.  But I’ve got plenty of family and friends here, too.  Granted, they are different family and friends, but on a purely detached, psychological level, family & friends are family & friends.  Hell, watching a favorite sitcom has similar psychological effects as spending time with friends (no pun intended — indeed, I must enthusiastically deny that pun because I never much liked that show).

I think, personally, that my main cause of burnout is too much routine.

On one hand, routine is good.  Successful people stick to routines (if you believe what some books would have you believe, anyway).  I read something about a study showing that people who eat the same food on a regular basis enjoy their food more, counterintuitive as that may seem.  I’m the kind of person, though, who goes in streaks.  When I was an adolescent and teenager, I was obsessed with magic.  Slight of hand, etc.  I got really good at it too.  Unfortunately (though fortunately for my sex life), I eventually burned out on it.  I’ve returned to it every few years, if briefly.  I was into collectible card games as a young adult.  I never returned to that, but I do play poker now, and get much enjoyment from it (as much as I may criticize some of the more annoying personalities who are attracted to the game — poker is interesting in that it lays bare peoples’ personalities, and it’s not always pretty).  I’ve done the same with video games.  Programming too.  My interest in philosophy (and the like) follows a similar course, though not to the same degree — philosophy can be, in one sense, not so much an activity as it is a disposition.  Nevertheless, with all these things I have periods of intense interest followed by periods of diminished, though not extinguished, interest.  And yes, I do the same thing with varieties of food.

In short, I like to shake things up a little.  Not to the extreme of some people who need constant novel stimulation, but over a relatively long-term period.

That’s a long-winded way of saying, “Breaks are good.”  However, I think it is helpful to understand and examine the details.

Another major cause of burnout, for myself anyway, is uncertainty.  Whether it’s about a job (re-org madness), financial problems, personal conflicts, etc.

Too much routine mixed (paradoxically, almost) with uncertainty can cause anyone to burn out.

Am I burned out?  I don’t know.  I don’t think so.  One thing that’s helped is that we’ve recently hired another programmer for my team.  At least now I can concentrate on the more pressing matters.

Regardless, I have a lot of the symptoms.  Sleeping problems (though that’s not unusual for me), easily getting frustrated, etc. have plagued me.  Believe me, I’m no fun to talk to after work.  I need that decompression period.  I’m not angry or mean.  I just don’t want to talk.  I can occasionally be talked into an after-work beer, and that sometimes loosens me up.  As a rule, though, I like to go straight home and either read (usually on the web) or play video games or poker.

Anyway, I’ll be visiting Las Cruces again very soon.  And believe me, I’m looking forward to it.


Saturday, August 12th, 2006

Check this out. Be sure to watch it all.

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