Via Steve Sailer, here’s a really interesting analysis of competing modes of argument in contemporary culture. The author is Alastair Roberts, an exceptionally intelligent and articulate Englishman who usually writes about Christian topics (and I’m grateful to Steve for introducing me to Roberts’s blog). Roberts writes. In the post, Roberts examines why our argumentation is so often highly personal, and fruitless. Excerpt:
A discussion that may be largely academic for many participants can be of great personal import and impact for others. It is considerably more difficult for such individuals to establish the distance between person and issue that is demanded for conventional disputation. Establishing this distance becomes all the harder when they feel that their personal stake in the issue is threatened by the other voices in the conversation.
The fact that some people are incapable of establishing such distance is worth reflecting upon. While this alone proves nothing about the legitimacy of either side’s case, problems in this area are generally a symptom of the absence or decay of trust between the parties in the debate. When trust is lacking, even the smallest sense of vulnerability can develop into full blown paranoia, encouraging highly reactive forms of discourse.
In many of our cultural and political debates today, the absence of mutual trust produces paranoia on both sides. When all parties feel vulnerable to other parties that they don’t trust, a paranoid victim mind-set takes hold on all sides, as do reactive modes of interaction. This is quite evident in the ‘culture wars’, for instance, where most parties seem to act as if their existence and identity were on the line, and the discourse plays out like the interactions between two animals that have simultaneously cornered each other. While I will argue that the distrust that prevails in many of our cultural debates is actually a carefully manufactured distrust, this manufactured distrust is seldom a sufficient explanation for the actual distrust that exists between most parties.
As Western society has become progressively more sensitized to victims, the unempowered, and the disenfranchised, and has desired to give a voice to them, we have tended to truncate or limit public discourse in various ways to ensure that such groups don’t feel threatened. While well-meaning, this reformation of public discourse has come at considerable cost. It has rendered the taking of offence or the playing of the victim or underdog card incredibly powerful ploys within debate. In many cases these ploys overwhelm the debate, making challenging debate next to impossible. These ploys, as they are often open to only one party in the debate, establish their own secondary power differential, a differential that can frequently provide more influence on the course of a conversation for those willing and able to leverage it than the primary differential would provide to those advantaged by it. I will discuss this in more depth later in this post.
The retailoring of public discourse around these power differentials and the negotiation of the limited amount of trust between parties has resulted in a significant transformation of that discourse in a manner that jeopardizes certain values that are integral to a free society. Within this transformed public discourse, values such as ‘tolerance’, ‘nonjudgmentalism’, and ‘reasonableness’ are paramount – all values that result in the restriction of reason and the claims of challenging discourse from realms in which they formerly operated. ‘Tolerance’ is perceived to deny any right to subject individuals and their core beliefs and identities to the claims of any greater truth or the challenge of a broader conversation. ‘Nonjudgmentalism’ denies the right to be rigorous in forming and applying considered judgments, particularly moral ones. ‘Reasonableness’ denies us the right to introduce our deepest convictions into public discourse. To be ‘reasonable’ is to expect much less from rational discourse and the power of persuasion, reining in the socially unsettling force of challenging debate, seeking rather to settle matters using the decidedly limited resources of consensus principles.
However, each of these commitments entails the closing down of the sort of challenging and searching public discourse that can secure a free and open society. Discourse is increasingly truncated, to the point that it is no longer able to say much that is meaningful, and is unlikely to be able to settle many of our differences without our deeper convictions being smuggled into the debate under vague terms such as ‘equality’, ‘freedom’, and ‘reciprocity’. With the loss of trust in the power of rational discourse, the unifying power of a shared pursuit of truth, and the effectiveness of persuasion, public discourse provides a slender basis for intellectual community, and core convictions tend to become ghettoized. As this truncated discourse is unable either to resolve or clearly to expose the source of our differences, parties end up talking past each other and the temperature of debates swiftly rise.
In observing the interaction between Pastor Wilson and his critics in the recent debate, I believe that we were witnessing a collision of two radically contrasting modes of discourse. The first mode of discourse, represented by Pastor Wilson’s critics, was one in which sensitivity, inclusivity, and inoffensiveness are key values, and in which persons and positions are ordinarily closely related. The second mode of discourse, displayed by Pastor Wilson and his daughters, is one characterized and enabled by personal detachment from the issues under discussion, involving highly disputational and oppositional forms of rhetoric, scathing satire, and ideological combativeness.
When these two forms of discourse collide they are frequently unable to understand each other and tend to bring out the worst in each other. The first form of discourse seems lacking in rationality and ideological challenge to the second; the second can appear cruel and devoid of sensitivity to the first. To those accustomed to the second mode of discourse, the cries of protest at supposedly offensive statements may appear to be little more than a dirty and underhand ploy intentionally adopted to derail the discussion by those whose ideological position can’t sustain critical challenge. However, these protests are probably less a ploy than the normal functioning of the particular mode of discourse characteristic of that community, often the only mode of discourse that those involved are proficient in.
To those accustomed to the first mode of discourse, the scathing satire and sharp criticism of the second appears to be a vicious and personal attack, driven by a hateful animus, when those who adopt such modes of discourse are typically neither personally hurt nor aiming to cause such hurt. Rather, as this second form of discourse demands personal detachment from issues under discussion, ridicule does not aim to cause hurt, but to up the ante of the debate, exposing the weakness of the response to challenge, pushing opponents to come back with more substantial arguments or betray their lack of convincing support for their position. Within the first form of discourse, if you take offence, you can close down the discourse in your favour; in the second form of discourse, if all you can do is to take offence, you have conceded the argument to your opponent, as offence is not meaningful currency within such discourse.
There’s much, much more to this post, and I hope you’ll read the whole thing. Roberts’s conclusion is that while it is right to expect people to be sensitive to how their discourse is heard by others, we cannot allow our argumentation to be limited by the kind of people Roberts describes as “offence-takers.” Excerpt:
One routine tactic employed by offence-takers is to accuse anyone who opposes their (typically radical) positions of waging a ‘culture war’. Offence-takers win by society’s choice of appeasement as its response to their unreasonable demands and incessant agitation. The agitators will generally present themselves as people of peace. They have no desire to start a culture war. All that society has to do is to accede to their – perfectly reasonable! – demands and peace will prevail. Whenever people choose to resist the demands of the agitators they will be presented as beastly bullies and belligerent culture warriors. While they are pressing to achieve their goals, and even more so when they have achieved and wish to consolidate their gains, offence-takers will present themselves as proactive about peace. Any attempt to regain lost ground will be presented as unprovoked aggression. Offence-takers consistently lament the belligerence and intractability of their opponents.
Exactly right. Exactly. And I hope you’ll forgive me for quoting one more passage:
One of the immediate effects of the culture of offence is to encourage the thinning of skins, and the raising of sensitivities. Persons are trained to be suspicious to the point of paranoia of all differing viewpoints, a suspicion that enables them to put the worst possible construction on the words and actions of their opponents and critics. Far from representing a triumph of critical thinking, these hermeneutics of suspicion tend to reproduce the same threadbare analyses that have been applied on a myriad previous occasions and create a sterile groupthink…
In general, the contemporary mode of emotionalism and herding is the human default. The great ages of intellectual progress via debate were rare social constructs, and it’s not surprising that they easily break down.