Note: This is my weekly op-ed.
“What are you talking about?” (I hear you say.) “All we do is argue these days. About gun control, abortion, Obamacare…”
No, we don’t argue about these things at all. Or at best, only one side argues.
“What? Doesn’t it take two to argue? Or fight, make up, or tango?”
Let me back up a bit.
I’m using “argument” in the formal sense used in logic. You have a set of statements, one of which is the conclusion. You’re claiming if all the other statements are true, the conclusion has to be true.
I thought of this a few nights ago when a teacher friend of mine was venting about an exchange he had in the teachers’ lounge.
The issue was gun control legislation, but it could have been anything.
What frustrated him was another teacher making assertions about what he should or should not be legally allowed to have, based on feelings, uninformed opinions, and flat-out assertions of what is or isn’t freedom.
“Is this what passes for argument among these people?” he said.
I’ve run into the exact same phenomenon. And what’s worrisome is, an awful lot among academics. You know, those people who are preparing our children to deal with the world?
I have an acquaintance I’ve known for well over 30 years who teaches history in an eastern college.
He vents a lot on Facebook, and recently something struck me.
In more than 30 years I have never heard him construct an argument. What he does is attack the sources he disagrees with. Sometimes he asserts dark and shady secrets in their past, having nothing to do with their opinions or positions. But lately it’s been simple name-calling: “idiots,” “fools” etc.
I hear this a lot, from a lot of different people. What passes as argument takes the form of an attack, not on the opinion but the person holding the opinion.
In formal logic this is called the ad hominem (“to the man”) fallacy, and can take few different forms.
The one I see quite often in political arguments starts with assuming the conclusion, then claiming if you disagree you are a terrible person.
I’ll use the example of Obamacare. If you are in favor of Obamacare, please remember I’m criticizing what passes for the argument – not the conclusion. That’s the first elementary mistake students make in freshman logic.
“Obamacare will bring down medical costs and make health insurance available to all the uninsured people. People against Obamacare want medical costs to go higher and poor people to have no insurance. That’s because right-wingers are heartless.”
Hold it! Agree or disagree, the argument is not that the claimed benefits are undesirable, but that Obamacare won’t produce them. That it will in fact drive costs higher and make medical care less available.
Secondly, it asserts an ulterior motive for holding a contrary opinion. (The argumentum ad hominem circumstantial.)
May I point out that motive is one thing we cannot know for sure, because it resides in people’s heads, and is what we are most likely to lie about, even to ourselves.
I believe that this inability to argue is more common on the left, though certainly not unknown on the right.
Why? For one, the so-called “conservative” movement is more intellectually diverse than what’s called “liberalism.” (I put liberalism in quotes because I’m old enough to remember when “liberal” meant something far closer to some kinds of conservatism these days, as it still does in Europe.)
Conservatism is in fact at least three or four “movements” in a loose alliance. The opposite ends of that alliance, libertarians and social conservatives positively loathe each other. Consequently, they argue a lot.
For another, establishment liberalism dominates media and the social sciences and humanities in universities.
The result is, right-wingers have to defend their opinion a lot more often than left-wingers, even among themselves. Left-wingers spend most of their time with people who agree with them.
They don’t learn to argue, because they don’t get their daily exercise defending their position.
An old journalist, Frank Meyer once said, “We find comfort among those we agree with, growth among those we disagree with.”