Rhetoric


The Heresy Club is a blog for young atheists. I’m not an atheist but despite the feelings of decrepitude that can swallow me as I consider someone like Jack Wilshere or Nancy Yi Fan – and despite the fact that the checkout girl in Tesco had the audacity not to ask to see my passport yesterday – I’m still relatively young and it’s interesting to read people from my age bracket. One of its bloggers has filed a critique of the rejection of the intellectual contributions of the young. It got me thinking.

They’re right, of course, that peoples’ opinions shouldn’t be dismissed on the basis of their youth. By the age of twenty Rimbaud had finished his poetic career and Alexander had invaded Thebes so people of similar ages can surely, say, offer coherent opinions of the Eurozone. (And, besides, opinion pages are crammed with older people and they can be idiots.) On the other hand, as someone who believed and said a lot of foolish things as a teenager and would attribute this at least in part to callowness, I do think youth can impair one’s judgement. If I were to ape Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and craft advice for a teenager who’s establishing their first WordPress or Blogger platform I’d give several words of advice…

1. Don’t have too much fun. I’m serious. Oh, sure, you can post photographs of cats; upload your pasta recipes and fill your posts on God, the government and Kurt Gödel with jokes but ultimately if you find arguing about politics or philosophy fun there is a decent chance that you’re doing it wrong. Both are centred, in large part, around the physical and emotional suffering of millions. The pursuit of truth in either is a frustrating and laborious procedure. The enjoyment people find in arguments is often derived from the things that make them hard to do right: the sense of community that comes from allegiance to intellectual tribes but can incline one towards siding with them prejudicially; the slight thrill that’s found in adversarial debate but can lead one towards being sophistic rather than sceptical; the smugness that’s caused by delivering intellectual smackdowns that has the potential to make one behave like an asshole. Learning can be fun but it’s not a medium of entertainment.

2. Listen before preaching. The temptation is to offer one’s opinions as soon as anyone will listen but if they’re served prematurely they’re liable to be half-baked. Significant arguments in politics and philosophy are based on hundreds of years of argument between extremely intelligent people and to imagine that you can easily arrive at conclusions as to which have been correct is likely to be arrogant. There’s no rush to make decisions and you might as well enjoy the luxury of time to read, reflect and question before making up your mind.

3. Be wary of groupthink. Be it parties, religions, political causes and philosophical schools, lots of groups of people want to entice youths into joining their teams. The desire for community, and the fear of isolation, can incline us towards joining them on less than rational grounds. Tribalism is unavoidable in the promotion of causes and ideas but it’s also a dangerous thing: inclining us towards defending them on the basis of loyalty to the group instead of the truth, and towards getting bogged down in domestic arguments that, from the outside, would seem trivial. It’s wise to be cautious before deciding a group represents truth and righteousness, then; to make sure you don’t sign away your individual judgement and to leave an exit route in case it grows less appealing.

4. Don’t trust yourself. Others tempt us towards irrationality, then, but this is no reason to hold one’s individual judgement as sacrosanct. We’re quite irrational ourselves. As the above points imply, our minds are rife with biases that tempt us to and from beliefs that do and don’t sit well with our preconceptions, self-concepts, ambitions and neuroses. It’s wise to acquaint oneself with one’s own prejudices, then – the loyalties, goals and fears one might form opinions to serve – to make use of the epistemological tools of scepticism and peer review that guard against their influence and to be humble enough to grant that you’re unlikely to have a monopoly on truth.

Oh, and…

5. Don’t be an asshole. Because, among other things, you’re liable to regret it.

Politics and philosophy, then: grim pursuits that can alienate you from others and make you far more insecure. Enjoy! Or don’t…

I’ve been meaning to post on Kevin Vallier’s defence of politeness in argumentation. Over the past couple of years I’ve tried to remain genial in online interactions: partly became flame wars are a tedious waste of time but also for less self-serving reasons. One of them is mentioned by Vallier…

…the best reason not to be mean is due to what Rawls called the fact of reasonable pluralism. Reasonable pluralism is the state of a society that obtains when rational, honest and thoughtful individuals disagree about even the most significant matters in life…

It is indeed the case that people often understate the extent to which opinions held by interlocutors and ideological opponents are reasonable.

But I don’t save my politeness for the reasonable. A lot of people hold ludicrous opinions they’ve arrived at and maintain through irrational means. It’s this irrationality that’s one of the reasons I’m inclined towards being polite and, indeed, sympathetic towards people whose ideas I consider to be rubbish, and dangerous at that, as well as those whose beliefs I think are misguided.

Perhaps I’m an optimist but I suspect that most people cleave to such ideas not because of malignant intentions but due to the biases we’re all influenced by to some extent: their environmental context; the sad but somehow endearing human instinct towards group conformity; the unwillingness to admit to mistakes that only liars could claim not to empathise with. Even if an idea is completely wrong and profoundly disagreeable this needn’t mean its advocate must share those characteristics so getting acrimonious, which typically leads to their opinions becoming entrenched rather than shaken, is unnecessary. What’s important, though, is that civility doesn’t preclude frankness. It’s not “mean” to tell somebody they’re completely wrong – only to add that they’re a ball of pus on the gum of humanity.

As a rule I try to save my insults for people who are consciously lying, aggressive or both influential and unresponsive to debate. There’s little point in being rude to even these specimens but, well – it can be a lot of fun.

Another commentator on the Rochdale rapists is Julie Bindel, who says the “uncomfortable truth” is that organised sexual exploitation is ignored because we “choose instead to blame the victims”. This is not a point of world-juddering significance but I encounter lots of arguments surrounding heterodox ideas and I don’t think I’ve ever heard or read someone propose a claim as an “uncomfortable truth” when it didn’t neatly accord with their preconceptions. They tend, in other words, to sound as if this “truth” has been as discomfiting as a child finds their blanket. If it’s troublesome for reasons people might have failed to grasp they should, of course, explain them but if they merely assert that it’s uncomfortable, awkward or inconvenient – telling rather than, to steal a phrase of English teachers everywhere, showing – it evokes a questionable smugness: I’ve accepted the idea, it implies, but you might have some trouble with it. Perhaps I’ve done this too so henceforth let’s all agree to state the facts as we see them and allow readers to draw their own interpretations.

Laban Tall is disturbed by this anti-fascist’s apparent enthusiasm for the deaths of members of radical nationalist groups (I don’t know if his post was meant to coincide – well, nearly – with the 10th anniversary of the death of Pym Fortuyn but if not it was a neat coincidence)…

Tactically I think a policy of targeted assassinations would be very unwise, certainly in the context of Western Europe. I’d shed no tears if Griffin got killed, but I don’t think it would do any real good overall.

It had never struck me before but “shed no tears” is as a popular and interesting recommendation. “Shed no tears over the killing of the sheikh of hate,” said Michael Gove after Ahmed Yassin was blown to bits. “Shed no tears for Saddam Hussein,” said the Independent before he was hanged. “Shed no tears for Gaddafi,” said the Express after he’d been killed. None of these pieces explicitly defended the slaying of the men – which, whether right or wrong, were more defensible than that of Griffin would be – but ignored or equivocated over the moral concerns. Yet they were insistent that their deaths shouldn’t be marked with tears.

Answer me this: who were the people who were getting weepy over poor Saddam Hussein? Who was liable to blubber of the demise of ickle Muammar? I wasn’t. I could muster no emotion for the guys. But I get the feeling that their unsympathetic nature is being raised to implicitly justify their fates and that’s wrong because our conceptions of legitimate behaviour aren’t restricted to the people who are worth our pity. Such a crude notion is, in fact, barbaric. Yet I’d guess it’s also quite effective, as in the knowledge that you’re not emotionally invested in somebody’s plight you’re less liable to care enough to think about it. Thus, I propose that this phrase be banished from our discourse. And my eyes aren’t going to lacrimate over its passing.

Will Self floccinaucinihilipilificates critics of his wordiness…

Both general readers and specialist critics often complain about my own use of English – not only in my books, but also in my newspaper articles and even in radio talks such as these. “I have to look them up in a dictionary”, they complain – as if this were some kind of torture.

…although the subject matter of my stories and novels – which includes such phenomena as sexual deviance, drug addiction and mental illness – has become quite unexceptionable, the supposedly difficult language they are couched in seems to have become more and more offensive to readers.

There are indeed anti-intellectual voices that react against displays of erudition as if someone else’s knowledge is a personal affront. In the interests of accessibility prose can be reduced to pools of terms so miserably shallow that the ideas and experiences they’re conveying can’t be accurately still less adequately expressed. This is not merely boring, it’s dangerous inasmuch as their implications can be elided under a carpet of facile phrases. (Think of people who fill tinkertoy verses with baffling terms like “progress”, “moderate” and “fairness”.)

On the other hand, there’s an opposite extreme…

English, being a mishmash of several different languages, ha[s] a large and exciting vocabulary, and…it seem[s] a shame not to use it – especially given that it [goes] on growing all the time, spawning argot and specialist terminology as freely as an oyster does its milt.

Specialised terms and obscure words can be employed to express the profound if enigmatic implications of formidable theories. On the other hand, they can also be used to present dull and disingenuous theories as more intriguing than they are: tarting up their claims with promiscuous polysyllables and gratuitous jargon that makes theses that might otherwise be thought trivial, absurd or ugly hard to answer. (The Sokal Affair has been referenced so many times that, like a classic Fawlty Towers scene, it can grow tiresome to revisit – yet that doesn’t mean its quality has been diminished.)

Oversimplification and overcomplication are agents of obscurantism inasmuch as they render the fathomable communication of one’s views far harder than it needs to be. And, of course, they fail to appreciate the textual and phonetic richness of the English tongue. Which is to say that they’re, like, totally boring.

The possibility of a bizarre and unforeseeable event notwithstanding future historians won’t look back on George Galloway as a particularly consequential figure. An eccentric who’ll be good for the odd anecdote and, perhaps, cautionary tale he’s largely of interest for the trends he represents rather than his personal deeds. One may dislike his words to Arabic leaders, for example, but they’d have been just as powerful and nasty if they’d never met. (Saddam didn’t attack the Kurds to live up to his reputation as indefatigable dude.) Why, then, do so many – and I’ve done it too – expend such energy debating his supposed merits and faults? Why did people do the same over Sarah Palin? Why, indeed, do so many people spend so much time on any one politician or commentator? It’s sometimes because they want to specialise and that’s fair enough. It’s sometimes to attack the schools of thought or political movements they’re opposed to and that their targets are agents for. Another trend that I think is significant, though, is an overemphasis on the consequence of personality.

The modern thinker whose work this applies to more than any other is Galloway’s foe, Christopher Hitchens. (This is not an original observation but I’m damned if I can remember who first expressed it.) His interest in the structural roots of national and world affairs was limited and so his commentary was too often misdirected at the characters of its representatives. Thus, he could eloquently detail the atrocities of Henry Kissinger but was blind to the abiding institutional trends that drove American foreign policy. The actions of Dr K were not, it seemed, in any way a product of the system but this nasty dude within it. That, I think, is how Hitchens could balance the opinions that the invasion of Vietnam was a cynical and horrific one while the invasion of Iraq was downright charitable.

Once you’ve surmised that bad deeds are merely the result of bad people it’s a small logical leap to the idea that their elimination depends on excluding men and women of poor character. This can be true, of course, to some extent – nobody in a nation where Boris and Ken will vie to rule over the capital can deny the importance of personality – but as policy generally arises from indistinct power structures manned by smooth, carefully-spoken suits and more bombastic characters tend to be marginal with a strength of voice that’s not matched by their actual power the writers this apply to can spend hours dwelling on the entirely ignorable.

Are you British? Well, then, you’re not a victim of persecution. Actually, that’s a little too sweeping. You might be one of the few spouses or pensioners who are abused by partners, relatives or carers but I doubt such people have enough access to the computer to be able to stumble over this blog. You might be one of the children whose parents mete out abuse but I doubt those poor kids’ reading will have advanced enough. You might be one of the luckless members of our nation who’s been targeted by thugs in the playground, workplace or neighbourhood but I doubt it because, well, I suspect they’re too rare. The point is that you’re unlikely to be the victim of oppression because there is no broad group of people in this country who face systematic ill-treatment on such a scale as to substantially and inevitably disadvantage them. (Sorry.)

This bloke’s trolling (or, at least, I hope he’s trolling) provoked this…

I’d like to think this is a joke as in a world containing the Iraqi Christians, the Ugandan homosexuals and the North Korean North Koreans the claim that any group in 21st Century Britain is “persecuted” is, if made with a straight face, nauseating.

Sure, different groups face serious disadvantages but none of them – unless I’ve been paying no attention – are broad, violent or methodical enough to be correctly understood as systematised oppression. For example, Jewish people are more likely than members of other ethnic and religious groups to face attacks in the streets but nobody claims they’re a “persecuted minority”. The shrill, sanctimonious desire to present oneself as a victim, or, indeed, the shrill, paternalistic desire to present somebody else as a victim, leads to such clumsy, coarse and clangorous “debates” that reasonable consideration of these disadvantages is often lost. There’s also an argument to be made that some groups should be privileged but demanding entitlements makes for a less appealing argument than protesting abuse so members of such groups – like, for example, the Anglicans – suggest they’re persecuted. This initiates the arguments on such bogus premises that nothing worthwhile comes from them.

Y’know, perhaps there is a persecuted minority: the people who don’t feel they’re the victims of persecution but are forced to hear everyone else drone away.

Bigotry detection is, of course, a controversial science. I’d like to contribute to its sophistication. Arthur Goldwag is, as so many are, an opponent of “conspiracism”. An extract from his new book on this and related themes recounts his experiences with “9/11 Truthers”, and imputes to them a hefty racist element…

But what took me by surprise was the outsize role that Jews played in the anecdotes that so many of them related: warmongering Jewish neoconservatives in Washington, D.C.; the World Trade Center’s owner, Larry Silverstein, in New York City; even well-known Jewish leftists like Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, and Amy Goodman, who had stubbornly and, to their accusers’ minds, unaccountably refused to endorse the agenda of 9/11 Truth. Binding them all together was the Zionist entity of Israel.

Now, don’t get me wrong: a lot of people who’ve been involved in “9/11 Truth” have been Jew haters and, yes, that goes for just about all fringe groups: they’re attracted to them like men to broken-down cars. Yet Goldwag’s point reminds me of when people used to claim that opposition to neoconservatives is liable to be anti-semitic because, er – lots of neoconservatives are Jewish. And, indeed, when people implied that criticism of Goldman Sachs was anti-semitic because, er – lots of its employees are Jewish.

Look – members of racial, gender and sexual demographics can, in fact, be represented in different parts of societies on a scale that’s incommensurate with their actual number. And in the States that’s true men and women of Jewish descent in economic, political and intellectual life. One’s interpretration of these facts can be extremely bigoted but the mere recognition of them can’t because, well – they’re facts. So, if you criticise businessmen, politicians or intellectuals you’re pretty much bound to be criticising lots of Jews. For example, this essay by Peter Collier of FrontPageMagazine denounces leftists such as Chomsky, Goodman, Klein, Howard Zinn and John Stewart. Hrm – all Jewish, aren’t they? Does this make the longtime collaborator of David Horowitz an anti-semite!? Well – no. No more than my list of favourite comedians makes me a Judeophile. If someone’s targeting members of a particular demographic that’s deplorable, of course, but there need to be good reasons to feel that they’re targeting them because they’re members of that demographic. Otherwise you’re just mindreading. And not very well.

Update: Arthur Goldwag clarifies his comments in the, er – comments.

There’s a lot to dislike in Éoin Clarke’s tirade against the likeable if not always congenial former MP and Renaissance woman Ann Widdecombe. So outraged was its author by one of her columns that he battered out a response that called her “Anne” – understandable – named the paper she was writing in “The Epxress” – sloppy – and insisted that she “think[s] [gays] have an illness that needs cured” – er, what? I’m not a member of the Gestypo but if someone writes such a denunciatory piece that’s so characterised by errors it leads me to feel that they either haven’t cared – in which case I suspect it’s not a matter of as much importance as their adjectives imply – or that they’re so consumed by rage that their critical faculties have left them – in which case I’m mightily sceptical about their claims.

With good reason. Widdecombe’s Express column argued that gays should have the right to seek treatment to change their sexual inclinations if they’re unhappy with the ones they’re experiencing. The idea that gays might feel so miserable in their sexuality as to look to change it is unpleasant to me, and I doubt that “treating” it would do them any good, but perhaps it is their choice to make. It’s not something I’ve thought about. The author, though, feels the very idea is…

…a breach of the ethical standards of journalism [and] an incitement to anti-gay verbal and physical attacks.

In his view it…

…feeds into a worrying rise in a Tea Party style movement in the UK, and it is crucial our national leaders seek to defuse it.

He thinks…

David Cameron should show leadership by taking steps to expel Widdecombe from the Conservative Party.

To conclude…

…we live in a democratic state where the majority are overwhelmingly supportive of protecting gay rights, and that includes protecting them from the prejudice of Tory MPs who think they have an illness that needs cured.

It’s not my place to speak for Britain’s gays but, still, I think it’s pretty condescending to assume they’re so fragile, so sensitive that they need “protecting” from the words of a person who was neither advocating treatment for them nor passing judgement against themselves and their behaviour and, besides, whose ideas are as fashionable as the mullet. They’re big boys and girls. They can cope.

What I find disturbing is Clarke’s assertion that the words of Widdecombe represent “incitement to anti-gay verbal and physical attacks” because in that case they’d be illegal. Well, they don’t – and the elision of disapproving and threatening sentiments is a danger to our freedom of expression; rendering ideas the people find unpleasant as illegitimate. “Incitement”, to me, is when you actually promote a course of action in the hope that people take it. Are there cases of unspoken and even unconscious incitement? I guess. But it depends. Self-appointed wardens of our discourse cleave to the idea that if your words criticism of or disapproval towards people they can be defined as “incitement” simply because they might contribute towards a broader social phenomenon of disapproval towards people that could lead to insults, physical attacks and so on. (Did you get all that?) This, to me, depends on the nature of your disapproval and the context in which it’s expressed. If you declared your loathing for the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994  you’d be hard pressed to argue that you were merely stating a personal preference. You’d be contributing towards a genocidal mindset. If you say you disapprove of homosexuality in England in 2012 – which, to be clear, Widdecombe didn’t even do – the only thing you’re likely to “incite” is a liberal’s bile ducts. The English are, in the main, a placid enough people to read somebody’s opinions without turning into psychopaths. Long may that endure.

I don’t believe that anyone becomes so energised merely on reading an opinion they disapprove of. (Thinking back to days when I’d shower the columns of Hitchens, Phillips, McKinstry et al with hot invective I suspect I was pleased to encounter writing I disliked – it gave me material.) These blustering condemnations aren’t just one of the most unpleasant features of our discourse because they’re overreactions, then, but because they’re so artificial – the rhetorical equivalent of the footballers who’ll mob the referee, wailing in anxiety, at the slightest trangression from the opposing players. People do say unpleasant and even dangerous things but let’s talk about it like adults. Adults who aren’t footballers.

Here’s news of another paper on the relative unintelligence of people who hold conservative views. Cue chortling from liberals and left-wingers (some of whom only seem to accept the validity of IQ when it’s used to suggest that conservatives are dumb). That the less intelligent often believe in dumb things is true, of course – someone hand me a Nobel Prize! – but those higher up the IQ spectrum shouldn’t bask in their smugness.

The idea that smart people need hold sensible opinions is, in fact, stupid. Some of the most destructive notions of our history were the preserve of intellectual elites who spread their views throughout the educated middle classes. This, of course, is also true of some of its most valuable ideas. Dreaming up and comprehending the sort of theories that are likely to be influential tends to demand an intellectual curiosity, transgressive spirit and sophistication of thought that calls for one to be pretty smart. So, as we’re considering the less agreeable ones, communists were smart; neoconservatives are brainy and rampant free marketeers are often bloody geniuses. Once ideas have gained traction among the intellectual classes they’ll take root within the academia; the think tanks; the foundations. Smart young people will be taught and come to accept them.

Again, I’m not suggesting that the products of these mechanisms have to be malign, but there’s clearly room for bogus notions to catch on; especially in fields where the value of ideas is hard to test ‘til they’re inflicted on the world. The point is that smart people needn’t accept theories for smart reasons. They can have appealed to other features associated with smartness and smart people: the curiosity and impudence that attracts one to the original and the subversive; the egotism that endears one to groundbreaking ideas; the cerebral nature that can lead one to be so entranced by theories that their relation to human consequences is forgotten. And, more simply, they can be things their smart friends believe. Smart people are also marked by the tribalism and personal prejudice that all of us deal with, but their skills at rationalisation and rhetoric equip them to shape their biased perspective into more credible, persuasive forms. Thus, you’ll find a thousand suited gentlemen and ladies taking tostands at forums and debates across our civilisation, offering eloquent, impassioned and compelling speeches on behalf of total crap.

Don’t trust smart people, in other words. Or anyone. Especially yourself.

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