At Rationally Thinking, Julia Galef has an intriguing piece on the uses and abuses of metaphorical thought. One trend she identifies is the style of rhetoric that depicts argument as war; manifesting…
…in the way we talk about “attacking” an idea, “shooting down” arguments, and “defending” a position. Thinking of arguments as battles comes with all sorts of unhelpful baggage. It’s zero-sum, meaning that one person’s gain is necessarily the other’s loss. That precludes any view of the argument as a collaborative effort to find the truth. The war-metaphor also primes us emotionally, stimulating pride, aggression, and the desire to dominate — none of which are conducive to rational discussion.
This is true of reams – or, well, gigabytes – of writing on all sides of all kinds of debates (including, I’ve no doubt, this humble corner of the web). And it can be rather sweet. When people invest a lot of time and feeling in a subject – music, books or arcane corners of philosophy – they want to think that it’s of actual significance. Clothing their debates in the regalia of conflict helps them think there’s something meaningful at stake.
It’s more irritating when such language clothes debates surrounding human affairs. The debates, by and large, will have no measurable effect beyond their players and whichever luckless souls are in earshot. This – like all futile attempts to align oneself with the behaviour of one’s state – gives an illusion of participation that’s belied by cold, unchanged and unimpressed reality. It is, however, easier than rising from one’s rump and doing something more productive. (That’s why columnists demand that we show “solidarity” without explaining what the heck that represents in practice.)
To this, and Galef’s observations, I’d add that fiery hot polemic isn’t always good for readers. They – by “they” I mean the people who don’t sigh and turn the page – can stop being rational observers and become kids in a playground; milling round combatants and screaming, “Fight! Fight! Fight!” Wit and force of rhetoric are easy to mistake for sapience and truthfulness. On any question where the truth is relevant, however, they’re like the polish on a car. Sure, it might look cool, but if you’re trying to get from A to B you should make sure it works.