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Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

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?

Why I’m Ignoring the 2012 Election (mostly)

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

I honestly think I’m going to sit out the 2012 elections. I’ll vote, of course, but I’m going to try to avoid arguments and day-to-day news.

I just can’t see the point. I’m not talking about apathy. I have very strong opinions, as anyone who has talked to me about this junk knows. But I honestly don’t know what the point of arguing about an election actually does. I don’t know what paying attention to day-to-day politics does.

Usually, in one of these debates, the supposed point is to convince the other person to vote for your candidate of choice. Short of the occasional political equivalent of being born-again, however, when does that actually happen? If you’re lucky, you end up with a fun and engaging intellectual exchange. Too often, though, people get bogged down with identity politics and inconsequential bullshit.

For those of you who will jump head-first into this election season (masochists), here are my suggestions:

  • Always ask yourself, “what would convince me that I’m wrong?” There should always be something — perhaps many things — that would convince you that you’re wrong. If your answer is “nothing”, you are not engaged in a real debate, and you’re not being intellectually honest. If the only thing that will convince you is extremely far-fetched to the point of being effectively impossible, you’re also not thinking it through. And if you’ve ever said, “If [politician] told me that 2 + 2 = 4, I would not believe them”, at best you’re not being funny (it’s a tired joke). At worst you’re betraying irrational partisanship disguised as humor.
  • Remember that “liberals” and “conservatives” are your family, neighbors, co-workers, etc. They are good people who want to live in a just society. No one wants to ruin the country. If you assert that “liberals” or “conservatives”, or even a “liberal” or a “conservative” are evil, you being uncharitable, even dishonest.
  • If you’re going to pay attention to political news, avoid the day-to-day news cycle. That means no cable news. The job of cable news is to retain viewers so that they can retain advertisers. That doesn’t mean they are complete bullshit, but it does mean they will gin up controversy over trivial “news”. In fact, any shallow political reporting should be avoided, whether on television, radio, the Internet, etc.
  • Don’t pretend that radio/opinion show hosts are in any way objective. If you’ve ever said, “just listen to [personality] for a while” or something along those lines, think about what that means and why listening to a radio show can, over time, convince you of their point of view.
  • Pay attention to your own reaction when you see an “R” or a “D” next to someone’s name. Be honest with yourself. Does it color your interpretation of what they’re saying? Remember that the easiest way to bullshit others is to bullshit yourself.
  • This is not the most important election. Even if it is the most important election in the history of the republic, anyone telling you that is trying to manipulate you. Recognize that come election season, candidate X , despite what many people will say, is not the most liberal/conservative or radical/reactionary candidate in history. If you believe that, you’re being manipulated. If you say that, you’re being manipulative. And you are, for all intents and purposes, wrong.
  • Patriotism is not a legitimate political position. It is a sentiment. An often harmful one, at that. You can love your country and love your ancestry, but recognize that it’s a personal preference; a sentiment. Saying, “America is the greatest country in the world” is a meaningless statement at best. It’s about as intellectually relevant as “Tacos rule!” I’m not denigrating America, anymore than saying the same thing about the statement “X-Files was the best sci-fi show ever!” means that I don’t like the X-Files. I think my mom is the best mom ever. That doesn’t mean that anyone who disagrees with me hates my mom or that I should throw a hissy fit.
  • Talking about “character” is usually an appeal to your irrational prejudices and biases. “Restoring dignity” and the like are similar.
  • Calling a candidate an idiot is mean-spirited and extremely unhelpful. Claims to intellectual superiority ring about as true as statements of superiority by school-yard bullies. Moreover, it’s fallacious and losing strategy. George W. Bush’s supposed intellectual deficiencies did little to keep him out of office.
  • Do you make fun of soccer moms? Latte-sipping liberals? You’re being an ugly bully and you’re spewing prejudicial bullshit. Correct that.
  • Are you conspiracy-minded? Have you used the term “Manchurian Candidate” to describe any politician? Realize that you are not being “open-minded” — you’re likely suffering from confirmation bias.
  • Are you a single-issue voter? You’re free to do that, but you’re being lazy, and you’re likely a hypocrite.
  • We don’t live in tribes anymore, at least not in American society (outside of street gangs). Recognize that our brains haven’t adjusted to this reality. That’s why we argue so viciously. That’s why we care what celebrities and politicians do/think/fart. Try to keep things in perspective.
  • Your political hero from yesteryear was much more liberal/conservative than your memory admits.
  • There aren’t two sides to any argument. There are many, many more.

I could go on, but I’m rambling.

I’m not saying that these things will help you win arguments, or even keep you sane. It’s precisely these things that make me want to avoid this sort of discussion at all. It puts you at a disadvantage, because almost no one follows most of these “rules”. I certainly have a hard time following them.

That said, I will get into the occasional discussion. I can’t help it. At the end of the day, I live for good arguments. I feel like I’m getting dumber if I don’t engage in these sort of discussions on occasion. But I won’t debate stupid “political” nonsense other than to call it out as exactly that: nonsense. I try to be respectful (or at least diplomatic) but I have no patience for appeals to emotion, conspiracy theories, slippery-slope arguments, etc. And that’s what dominates election-season discussions.

I recognize that plenty of family and friends don’t like to debate with me, precisely because I have a low tolerance for certain lines of discussion. I probably need to work on that.

To a larger point — do political arguments ever make people happy? Does it ever accomplish good? If so, is that enough to balance out the all the negatives that usually result?

And (to people I know personally) do you really want me to hide or block your posts to facebook/twitter because you buy into and repeat nonsense? It’s entirely possible that that doesn’t bother you. In which case, go nuts. I probably won’t block you, but no promises.

(As an aside, part of my motivation for writing this stems from something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately — the propensity for people to be mean, especially on the Internet. This is well-travelled ground, but I find myself increasingly irritated and upset when otherwise intelligent, kind people say hateful, stupid things. Do you say nasty things about hipsters, soccer moms, “guidos”? Do you say nasty things about celebrities? Have you ever called someone a “fanboy”? Do you think most people are stupid? If so, you may want to ask yourself some serious questions.)

The 11/3 Project

Friday, November 6th, 2009

Jon Stewart always cracks me up, but he hit this one out of the park.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
The 11/3 Project
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