Rhetoric


Edmund BurkeMaria Bustillos has written a nice piece for The New Yorker on reading writers that you tend to disagree with…

Reading Burke, or any great polemicist, is a challenging test of one’s own intellectual swordsmanship. There is, or can be, a certain violence, even danger, in the clash of ideas. But I like to think that those hard-fought glimpses of understanding between ourselves and our rhetorical opponents open up the possibility of progress.

One of my healthier inclinations is towards exploring ideas that contradict my opinions. Had I been parochial enough to exclude myself to those who shared my prejudices I might still being waffling on about “intervention” and “conspiracy theorists”, or, indeed, “Islamophobia” and “Richard Littlejohn”.

These days I read people who include liberals, socialists, libertarians, reactionaries, sceptics, paranormalists, Christians, atheists, Islamic apologists, genetic determinists, vegans and Guardian columnists. Reading people with whom you have disagreed exposes you to data and analyses that test your preconceptions, and it is also a lot of fun. It can become a more active and enlightening experience than reading someone describe the view from your own window.

This could sound like a boastful assertion of my open-mindedness but it is not. One can read an argument that contradicts one’s prejudices yet be so biased against it that one need not have. An important point is that one must not approach the arguments with the expectation of their being incorrect but of their contradicting one’s preconceptions. The former attitude will ensure that one’s cognitive biases will do the rest of the work in dismissing them and the exersize will not transcend the anthropological. The latter, with its admission of the fallibility of one’s own ideas, creates room for intellectual contestation.

One must also be wary of the grounds on which one dismisses an idea. Is it because it is untrue or wicked or is it because it has been obstructed by a deeper layer of one’s prejudices? A Christian might reject an idea for being un-Christian, or a liberal might disdain an idea for being illiberal, yet they must first ask themselves if their religious and ideological premises are so firmly grounded that such objections have merit. It is hard to appreciate new intellectual terrain if one has yet to remove one’s tinted spectacles.

It is also worth ensuring that the thinkers whose ideas you choose to explore are not merely those people who your culture has designated as your ideological foes. A left-winger might think they are being open-minded in reading Toby Young, say, and a right-winger might assume they are being adventurous in reading Tanya Gold, but these tend to be court jesters of societies, arguing more for its amusement than its elucidation. It is worth venturing further into the territories of one’s supposed opponents: where the landscape is stranger and the beasts than one encounters seem more formidable yet also more fascinating.

BurchillPolitical correctness is a term used so promiscuously, both by its defenders and opponents, that it can be hard to know the meaning of the concept. I have, as on many issues, stood in both camps and will try to offer a fair definition: it is the attempt to exclude inegalitarian sentiments from mainstream discourse. As a nonegalitarian leftist I often find myself opposing this trend because inequalities can be inexorable facts of the human predicament. To restrict their discussion is dangerously anti-intellectual.

This week, for example, we were told that criticism of Sharia courts is “racist”. Left-wingers have been insisting that they have “no problem with…Sharia law, nor its exercise by Sharia courts”. No problem, then, with courts in which a woman can be told that being struck by your husband is “not a very serious matter”, and which can be staffed by blokes who advocate female genital mutilation and the marrying off of girls while they are young. Political correctness, at its worst, mandates the denial of reality.

I am all for political incorrectness, then. The problem is that being politically incorrect is often confused with “being a git”. The two need not go hand in hand. The first and only requirement for a worthwhile commentator, beyond the ability to think and then express oneself, is intellectual honesty. One must expose the truth. If it will be gladly received, so be it; if it won’t that is too bad. These things are incidental to its being correct. The second virtue that I look for is sincerity. One can illuminate the truth while casting the beam of one’s attention round in the showy, frivolous manner of a controversialist but this is typically due to luck rather than judgement and is more liable to simply distract and irritate.

A third virtue that I look for is empathy. This is not to say one must be inoffensive. The fault of PC is that it encourages people to respond to fact claims with ire rather than arguments, and one cannot be truthful, sometimes, without offending others. Nor is it to say one should be hypervigilant in moderating one’s rhetoric. That only encourages hypersensitivity. Nor, indeed, is it a fundamental requirement. Mencken empathised with humans to the same extent that a butcher empathises with a flank steak but eloquence, wit and insight can make up for a lot.

Yet it is a virtue. I think you can guess what prompted this. Julie Burchill is a narcissistic bigot, largely famed for crude abuse and unreadable bluster about the most inane of subjects. She is known as a contrarian and disputant but has never made a truly thought-provoking argument in her life. In the screed that has resulted in so much controversy she defended a pal of hers from aggrieved transsexuals. She did this by calling them “shemales” and “dicks in chicks’ clothing”, and comparing them to the Black and White Minstrels.

I have never known a transexual nor given their experiences and orientation particular thought. It seems clear, however, that anyone prepared to undergo such laborious and frightening operations and then face such a potential for awkwardness, humiliation and abuse must have endured a lot of turmoil and arrived at strong convictions. Whatever the argument that one is making about their status or behaviour, then, to do it in a sneeringly unsympathetic manner does not make one an iconoclast but, well – a git.

This sort of poisonous pundit encourages the perception that unpleasant truths must be delivered unpleasantly. This seems peculiar. Policemen, when called to inform citizens that their loved ones have died, do not feel compelled to howl, “THEY’VE SNUFFED IT!” and start cackling. One should be sensitive to the fact that truths can frustrate ambitions, threaten self-concepts and raise disturbing implications to such an extent that they are understandably traumatic, and while this should not lead one to ignore or obscure them it should influence the manner in which they are presented. One should not, in other words, reveal them as if tossing the flattened remains of dogs into old womens’ laps; still less rub their noses in them.

The potential of words to damage and endanger can be overstated, that it is true, but they have that potential. If they did not carry such emotional force or social significance our right to use them as we wish would not be so precious.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has an article in Newsweek that’s advertised on this week’s cover under the giant headline, “Muslim Rage – How We Can End It”. (The cover, incidentally, which depicts berobed Salafis howling in outrage, is representative of an irksome stereotype. Most theocratic Muslims look and act much as we do.) Most of the essay is made up of recounting the experiences she and Salman Rushdie have undergone. Only the last few paragraphs, indeed, are given over to expounding on her optimistic thesis. She writes

Utopian ideologies have a short lifespan…It is clear, as we saw in Iran in 2009 and elsewhere, that if the philosophy of the Islamists is fully and forcefully implemented, those who elected them will end up disillusioned…

After the disillusion and bitterness will come a painful lesson: that it is foolish to derive laws for human affairs from gods and prophets. Just like the Iranian people have begun to, the Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans, and perhaps Syrians and others will come to this realization. In one or two or three decades we will see the masses in these countries take to the streets—and perhaps call for American help—to liberate them from the governments they elected.

There has never been a period where Muslims haven’t thought that laws for human affairs can be derived from their creed. The extent to which their legislatures are based on religious teachings and the scale and severity of laws within them varies and they might grow more secular and lenient if and when radical governments such as that of the Muslim Brotherhood collapse. To suggest that liberalism is going to suddenly flourish, though, is wildly optimistic. It assumes that an alien ideology that has little or no support within these nations is going replace the dominant and generally traditional culture before I’m in a position to get over 50s car insurance. Hirsi Ali must have a great idea for how we’re going to make this happen, right?

We must be patient. America needs to empower those individuals and groups who are already disenchanted with political Islam by helping find and develop an alternative.

I can get behind the recommendation of patience but what does “empower” mean? Taking them to our countries like latter-day Charles de Gaulles or trying to turn them into revolutionary forces within theirs? Arming them and funding them for violent resistance or smuggling books and tapes to them so they can learn and teach? Who exactly is it she wants to “empower”, anyway? What influence do they hold, and how can we expect them to gain it? What are their ambitions should they become powerful? As it stands, Hirsi Ali’s advice is no more helpful than if she’d written, “Imagine all the people – sharing all the world”.

An annoying habit of commentators is to act is they have the cure for the ailments of the world and then offer prescriptions that are so ambiguous as to be of no help whatsoever. Imagine going to the doctor with meningitis and being told that you should ‘stand up to it’ or ‘empower’ yourself. You’d be pissed off, would you not? Yet when people claim to have solutions for the rather more complex and consequential problems of the world we tolerate this wibble. Next time someone claims to have the wisdom with which to resolve the dilemmas of millions bark “DETAILS” into their face until they give substantive instructions or admit that things aren’t quite as simple as they’d presumed.

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.

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