Plaudits & Polemics

“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” – Winston Churchill

This pertains to (mostly) those outside of academia: There is a severe abject confusion in our daily discourse regarding argumentation, one which hinders ideological evolution. Many people I’ve encountered recently are conventionally afraid of arguments and see them as negative, harmful, and offensive. Now that is a parsimonious view in my mind. Those who are unwilling to challenge are often unwilling to be challenged. That hesitance, I argue, needs to be corrected.

Its a survival technique to feel certain, to find patterns and make assumptions about the nature of reality, but we tend to be incorrect in those assumptions, at least in nuanced ways. Barely fifty years ago in the United States it was legally justified that blacks and women hadn’t the same rights as white men. This was a belief, one that needed to be argued against, and thankfully succeeded in changing many people’s minds. Without the argument, however, we would have sat in silence and casually allowed oppression to slip through the cracks in our perception. Argument is necessary.

What troubles me about this resistance to argument is, what I call, “the offence card.” Often in online conversation, someone will express a dissenting view from one’s own. It can feel like a violation of one’s own identity to have one’s central belief called into question so radically. Many people tend to mistake criticism of ideas as criticism of themselves which, in a good argument, would not otherwise be confused. A good argument engages with premises and conclusions, which we don’t often explicitly do when having these discussions (politics, for example). Places like the Internet are breeding grounds for straw man and ad hominem attacks, which are, at best, unhelpful. What falls as a logical fallacy, I would argue, is the offence card. I believe Stephen Fry best criticized this weak line of intellectual defense when he said, “It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’ As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more… than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so fucking what.”

I would like to acknowledge that people have feelings and their beliefs are not always detachable from their emotions. Feeling things is encouraged, it is human, but should not get in the way of logical discourse. You can feel passionate about something and even argue through that passion, but when encountered with contradictory views or evidence you should open your mind to the possibility of being wrong. Opinions are like writing utensils; when your pencil gets dull or your pen runs out of ink, you need to pick up a new, more functional one. Before adopting a belief, first seek out and evaluate opposing beliefs.

Let it also be said that we do not give enough praise to others, as a symptom of this refusal towards argument. Unwillingness to reason with another person is, in my experience, indicative of subconscious insecurity.  Not a weakness, but an unsharpened conviction. Those who learn through argumentative discussion tend to appreciate their own beliefs more, having risked them against someone else’s. When those beliefs are eventually overturned or punctured, however, there is a thankful or successful feeling that arises internally. There is something rewarding about meeting someone who teaches you something about the world and shows you how to think more intricately. This promotes gratitude towards others, if nothing else.

I am not claiming to have intellectual high ground here. I will surely reflect on this post as fatuous, without prescience. I think what is worse than being wrong is sitting in silence, afraid to say anything. There is a kind of intellectual despotism currently sprouting up around social media forums which is a punitive solipsism, “you can’t have this view because I am offended by that.” This is a non-sequitur, a cop out, and above all, intellectual dishonesty. You can be offended and still engage; if you’re offended, you should engage. In fact, empathy is an extremely powerful tool to create change. I only ask that you take the time to listen to others as well, not stultifying and shutting out someone’s ideas simply because they appear unscrupulous or incongruous with your own. Arguments and experiences are the only way to create empathy, in my mind.

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One Response to “Plaudits & Polemics”

  1. The Regressive Left | Blake Guthrie Says:

    […] a year ago, I penned two brief essays alluding to these problems. My writings weren’t nearly ambitious and honest […]

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