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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Troll Slaying From An Ivory Tower

"All lies & jest
Still, a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest."

Lines from my favourite Simon & Garfunkel song; reading on the internet frequently  convinces me they are a one-point summary of human nature. Now, someone who wants to research current affairs, or even just keep up with the news, will tend to read a fair few articles on the internet these days - epapers, blogs, what have you. And while we all know that the internet has given new life to that remark about Monkeys, Typewriters & The Complete Works of Shakespeare, one begins to despair of finding a certain level of journalistic quality - or even intelligence - in many of these (to use the term loosely) writings. Even where the original piece is excellent, the ensuing (again, what may be loosely termed) debate ranges from banal to wildly off the point.

Hence this little piece. Think of it as "How to... / Propose a Controversial Position / ...For Dummies" sort of write-up. It's very simple, really. I welcome your opinions. I want to read them - & I particularly welcome the opportunity to debate them. Only, see, I want to engage in something we call "intelligent debate". If you're wondering what that is, I don't blame you. There isn't a lot of it on view, and often that's deliberate. Think of this article as a guide to recognising this increasingly endangered specie, if you should be lucky enough to encounter it.

First hint: the title itself - "intelligent debate" is (or at least endeavours to appear to be) a conversation between two or more "intelligent" people (i.e. people who are or at least endeavour to appear to be intelligent). It's a debate, because they disagree about something which is (or at least endeavours to appear to be) important. The quality of debate itself would tend to depend on the quality of the arguments of which it consists.

Because I'm a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fan, I've condensed my idea of "good" arguments/debate into something we can call the "RADICAL" method. (I tried coming up with something to acronym to "Cowabunga!" but the W,G & ! gave me some trouble.) Radical - while it may be an apt description for the notion that debate is meant to be intelligent at all - happens to stand for: -
  • Rational
  • Articulate
  • Debatable
  • Informed
  • Contextually Appropriate
  • Lucid

We'll go through each of these in turn. (We could do alphabetical order, but then the acronym would be rather pointless, no?)So, here's

#1 - Rationality
A working definition of intelligence, as provided by David Wechsler (one of the pioneers of intelligence testing, and the man responsible for the current concept of I.Q.) is "Intelligence is the... capacity to think rationally, act purposefully & adapt effectively to one's environment.
Let's just focus on the first one here - "think rationally". Webster's defines "Rational" as "based on or in accordance with reason or logic". This is a very important first principle - good arguments are reasonable, logical arguments. Without getting into too many of the technicalities, the basic formula is: 

Premise('A') + Logic = Conclusion('X')

Logic is you explaining how you arrived from 'A' (where you started) to 'X' (where you finished). 'How you arrived at X', as in, the reasons you believe 'A' leads to 'X'. What seems to happen most of the time is that we jump straight to X. That is, we present our conclusion as a statement. Unfortunately, unless I think like you do (which is unlikely, if we're having a debate), I have very little idea how you came to that conclusion. In fact, to me, it's not even a conclusion - it's just an "assertion". It might be the truth. In all probability, it's so far from the truth that entire dynasties would die out before light from there was visible to you. I know you still believe it's true. I know I don't. Thing is, unless you care to explain why you're asserting it, we're at something of an impasse. Here's an example:

"A logical argument is a good argument." I assert. Hard to disprove, no?


Premise: An argument is meant to promote debate &/or illustrate one's reasoning/stream of thought.
Logic: It is possible to debate logic, difficult to debate assertions. Also, a clearly reasoned argument is easily followed.
Logic: Anything that fulfills its purpose well is good.
Conclusion: A logical argument - <which fulfills its purpose> - <which is to promote debate / illustrate reasoning> - is a good argument.

Easier to debate? Challenge my premise, or my logic, as you choose, yes?

All logical so far? Good. Now, rationality testifies to a clarity of thought, that you know why or how the things you're saying make sense. Or at least appear to make sense. To you. It's still necessary to convey this to your (hopefully willing, possibly hapless) audience. Which brings us to

#2 - Articulation
Articulation is the ability to express an idea fluently & coherently. This is important, because if you're thinking clearly but writing gibberish, as far as I can tell, you're thinking gibberish. Which means you have to make the effort to present something which does not look like gibberish to me. (Unless you're writing for your own consumption. That's fun too. No rules there.) So, it may be eminently clear to you what "Qaddafi died. French planes sell pretzels. Rebels eat bananas & Sarah Palin supports it." means. The rest of us will probably get an aneurysm trying to make sense of it. You (presumably) want us convinced, not paralysed/dead. So please, translate your thoughts into words better.

FOR ADVANCED USERS: Beware the sar-chasm. Annoying, but inevitable. Or, as they say on the metro - "Please Mind the Gap."

#3 - Debatability
 This is a tough one. You want your argument to win, right. So of course you should come up with something nobody can argue with, right? Wrong. See, if it's not debatable, most of us aren't crazy enough to want to try and argue it anyway. (I may be lying about that. Intellectuals are surprisingly masochistic surprisingly often.) Still, a few guidelines:

a) Assertions are rarely debatable: As explained in #1 above. You say it's right. I say it's wrong. Debate over. G'day, mate!

b) Premises SHOULD be debatable: You start at A. I start at Z. Even following the same logic, we probably won't both wind up at X. (If we're matching steps, I'll reach C instead.) If you're not willing to argue why we should start at A, Z or somewhere else altogether (ϕ, for instance), it's the same story as (a) above. "Is too." "Is not." G'day, mate! 

c) Articles of faith SHOULD NOT be used as premises. Or as logic. "God made the world, okay..." is a poor premise in a debate on evolution. ("...This has widely been regarded as a bad move, and caused much resentment." RIP, Douglas, my hero.) "God blessed America" is bad logic in a debate on American exceptionalism. (but, hey, Canada got Niagara. And Sasquatch. Who needs to be blessed when you have Sasquatch?)

(Mexico got tequila. Cuba really got a raw deal, which may be why USA tried to send them some democracy, but it landed on the wrong beach & had to be returned to sender... )

Generally speaking, appealing to an ineffable Divine Will (note, I capitalise the D/W. I'm quite a theist, I just don't see a role for religion in the realm of rational debate) is the very definition of a Deus ex machina - a get out of jail free card, as it were. "It is the will of God." "Okay, but why?" "We cannot question it. We can't even know it. It's ineffable." Okay, but you can take your ineffable will and <perform anatomical impossibility>.

d) FOR ADVANCED USERS: Reductio ad absurdem, much as we love it, is *NOT* debatable. The name itself proclaims it - you're stretching an argument to its logical extreme to make it look absurd. If you do, hey presto, it looks absurd. Congratulations. 10/10 for rhetoric, but it's pure gimmick. I enjoy reading it, and employing it, as much as the next man, but it can ruin ANY argument without adding anything of substance. Prenatal screening for congenital defects does not give us Hitler's eugenics programme. If you think so, show me the inevitability / overwhelming probability there. Me, I think you just wanted to say Hitler & Eugenics. Try again, and see #5. 

#4 - Informed
This is particularly important. You want to debate why buying rebel oil from Cote D'Ivoire is a bad idea? I'm ready - except the rebel oil is coming from Libya. Not that I mind debating every figment of your imagination, but most debates centre around real issues, not pure hypotheticals. You CANNOT debate a law without at least trying to read it. This is really of prime importance everywhere: when you are debating (based on) something someone else wrote, READ WHAT THEY WROTE FIRST. CAREFULLY. READ IT AGAIN FOR NUANCE. When someone challenges your interpretation of it, GO BACK AND READ IT AGAIN, to see if that interpretation is sustainable as well. Otherwise you risk getting shown up as an imbecile. Which, to be fair, you may well be, but you probably don't want to come out of the cuckoo clock so publicly. Also, as a matter of courtesy, when you're bringing in new stuff that somebody else wrote, do make the reference explicit. It's doing yourself a favour, really, because then you can blame the imbecility on Durkheim or Freud or whoever instead of owning up to it.

Here's what can happen.
a) Well-informed guy & uninformed guy engage in debate. Informed guy makes a nuanced statement drawn from the facts. Uninformed guy has no idea what he's saying. Pounces on one suspicious word in the statement and murders everything to do with it, its wife, parents, children, dog or goldfish. Well-informed guy explains why this is thoroughly irrelevant. Uninformed guy denounces this as a cover-up (or, better still, a conspiracy) & rapidly redirects attention to something he knows (or at least endeavours to appear to know) better. Well-informed guy dredges up every abuse reserved for hijackers & leaves in disgust. Uninformed guy proclaims victory of truth over conspiracy.
b) Well-informed persons debate amongst each other. Relevant points are raised and broken down based on each one's beliefs. People learn what serious critics of their viewpoints have to say. They address each other's concerns, and may even come to a compromise.
c) Uninformed persons debate amongst each other. General hilarity ensues. Well-informed persons who chance by the debate either have that aneursym or die in silent paroxysms of mirth - i.e. less well-informed people alive in the world.

Here, (a) is a zero sum game. You can only win what the other loses. (b) is a win-win situation. Everybody gains. (c) is net loss. Nobody wins anything, except maybe the ones who died happy. In case this is unclear, a win-win is the best outcome of those three. Moral of the story - do a little research before shooting your mouth off. And please, for the more serious issues, this means credible research. Wikipedia does *not* count - because, though this may be the lawyer in me talking, I don't think reading the Wikipedia page on the Goldstone Report is nearly the same thing as reading the Goldstone Report (all 575 pages of it), or even its Executive Summary (30 pages).

FOR ADVANCED USERS: Douglas Adams Reference #2: Just preface your assertion - like I did above - with "It turns out..." Just the right suggestion that this is based on real research or consensus - not just your wild imagination, without ever referencing what that research may be. Sheer genius!

#5 - Contextual Appropriate-ness (Appropriacy?)
Most debates take place in a certain context. Each argument contributes best if it stays true to that context. If we're discussing what to do about Communists, it tends to matter whether you mean in India or Cuba. Or China. ("Drop them in boiling oil" is not really an option. Unless you were at a meeting of HUAC in the McCarthy era. QED.)
You can deconstruct even the best of arguments by taking them out of context. (Ambrose Bierce did this famously to Descartes. He says the appropriate refined version of Descartes' famous dictum should be "cogito cogito, ergo cogito sum". For what it's worth, I tend to agree with Bierce - the brain is an apparatus with which we think we think.
Thing is, the debate was relevant to this context. You do nothing for it by dragging it beyond. What the Argentinian Constitution says - if there even is one - matters little or nothing to whether Pranab Mukherjee* is tackling Marxism properly. (I loved Evita, I really did. But we're not a Peronist government. Sorry.) So yes, that was a scholarly, thoroughly well constructed and irrefutable analysis of what Juan & Eva did. Pranabda doesn't care, and neither do I. Hunt around, and you ought to find the... gumption... to contest what I'm saying in THIS arena.

* He was Home Minister when I originally wrote this. But PC doesn't care much about Argentina either, so pouncing on that won't help you.

FOR ADVANCED USERS: This is sometimes seen as a special form of the reductio ad absurdem hijack, to make a policy appear misogynistic / bigoted / racist etc. Make my idea sound like a policy promoted by Nazi cannibal chauvinists, and you've got most (of at least the uninformed) public opinion on your side, while I have to defend those (pig-eating?) schwein. Plus you probably get to say "Hitler" & "Eugenics" quite a lot. Maybe even a "Sieg Heil!" or two. Again, love the theatrics, but you're not actually debating my point at all.

#6 - Lucidity
Closely related to #2, Articulation. (Yes, changing the order messes up the acronym. Do you have no poetry in your soul?) In fact, you may not - and you may have none in your pen either. So expressing your thoughts fluently may be a little difficult. That's okay. We're not language snobs. Really. We appreciate your ideas in their own right. Unfortunately, that is precisely why the latter bit - coherently - is a bit of a sine qua non. Otherwise, we just don't get it.
To approach it a little differently: brevity is the soul of humour. And efficiency is the soul of logic. So the best (& funniest) arguments aren't long, laboured works (like this one). They're short & to the point. (Like: you people type infuriating <stercus taurorum>. Go <perform an anatomical impossibility>) Consequently EVERY word has to serve a purpose, preferably many. (Besides, a good pun is its own reword.) It's not a coincidence that four-letter words are so popular - sometimes they're seductively eloquent.

Endeavour to be concise. Elegant. Apt. It's a talent, but it comes with practise too. Wodehouse reportedly used to start with pages of his manuscript on the floor, and then tack them to the wall as he refined them. He wasn't willing to publish a page until it had risen till eye level. Not that we aim that high, but surely we could at least try to avoid hitting below the belt?

Again, an older piece of writing. Since then, I've subscribed to paid syndication services, that also deliver some very insightful analyses & opinions to my mailbox. Nonetheless, the moment one steps into the wider blogosphere, these perils are as evident as when I first wrote this. The only difference is, I'm friends with more trolls now. This doesn't make them any less infuriating, it just means I can abuse them to my heart's content via private messages instead of in the comments feed, thus denying them sustenance. A winning strategy, if I do say so myself!

What remains interesting, though, is a point first made by Noam Chomsky (in Manufacturing Consent) - media that promote soundbyte-sized interactions, sans context or even opportunity to contextualise, consciously sacrifice opportunities for intelligent debate in the bargain. Oh, and they probably say "Hitler" a lot.

And yes, I know something about preaching to the choir. G'day, mate!

1 comment:

  1. Oh, the irony of this article.