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Saturday, April 02, 2016

Argumentation in a post-logical world

The rules of debate have changed. We must become more analytical in detecting and refuting
hidden assumptions in the debate.

T he right's traditional strengths—their advocacy of strong national defense, their respectability, and their ties to the intelligence community—helped us win the Cold War. Ronald Reagan was their finest moment and they are justifiably proud of their accomplishments.

Unfortunately, these strengths have not been so successful in fighting the culture wars. As many have pointed out, GOP politicians often seem more concerned with maintaining their respectability than resisting attacks from the cultural Left. The tactics that worked so well in the fight against Communism seem largely ineffective against cultural fascism.

Why is the refined intellectualism of mainstream conservatism no longer working? Part of the reason is our desire for respectability. The right has prided itself on its respect for classical values. But the cultural left long ago ceded the battlefield to emotional reasoning and political correctness. These are specifically designed to counter the right's advantage in knowledge and calculated reasoning.

Chess pieces fighting Chessboard fracas aftermath

We've all experienced it: you give a carefully reasoned argument to a leftist and instead of an answer they say something like this:

“I met a Republican once. He always talked about how proud he was to be a racist. Republicans are all racists!”

Another example is feminists who freely call men ‘misogynistic’ and society ‘patriarchal,’ yet think it's funny and ironic to call themselves ‘misandric.’ It's a way of defining the terms of the debate—the ground rules—so as to exempt your own side from pushback (see here for an analysis). Many similar examples can be found in the popular discourse.

The blast of self-serving illogic in these responses, sometimes coming from intelligent people with Ph.D.s and accomplished academic standing, is dumbfounding. Our arguments and our carefully crafted syllogisms go right over their heads.

But the utter barrenness of the left's intellectual territory is part of their scorched earth strategy. PC leaves no resources for the enemy to argue against. It is specifically designed to create a safe space for indefensible ideas. It substitutes reason with virtue signaling, mindless pretense, and the herd instinct. This makes it a powerful weapon against the intellectual right's craving for respectability, and it will take a new strategy to defeat it.

Sun Tzu: “Recklessness leads to destruction. Cowardice leads to capture. Delicacy of honor leads to shame. Inventing fake quotes by me leads to trouble.”

Instead of reasoning intelligently or discussing Constitutional law and Nicomachean ethics, the left's M.O. is to find a weak point, something they calculate that we will feel not worth fighting over, and incite frenzied mob action against it. A lone scout might walk into an unsuspecting pizza shop and ask the clerk if they'd hypothetically bake a pizza for a gay wedding. The bleach-blonde, hair-twirling clerk (as one imagines) behind the counter will quite logically crack her chewing gum and say no, because the question is clearly stupid and nonsensical. But sense is not at issue. The cultural fascists have found a head to put on their pike and their mob descends on the pizza parlor as if they had advocated putting baby seals in gas ovens.

It is a classic ‘kill the chicken to scare the monkey’ strategy. And the ‘monkeys’ are scared to death. The careers of most professionals are built on respectability. We might not all speak in the Thurston Howell III dialect, but for those of us who'd rather be dead than riot in the street or smash a window, loss of respectability is a serious threat.

Sun Tzu: “Advancing without uncovering the assumptions of the enemy is the path to defeat. Before answering questions from a MSNBC reporter, force him to reveal his assumptions.

But our strategy of conceding the validity of their points, which we learned in debate class, doesn't work. It grants their implicit assumptions a validity which they do not deserve because they are unstated. Proceeding without uncovering the assumptions is the path to defeat.

The postmodernists questioned whether truth itself was a meaningful concept. This idea was just one manifestation of a deeper change in the intellectual milieu: we now have to question not only our opponents' arguments, but also the viewpoint from which they arise.

Accepting the terms in which the opponent's argument has been framed as if they were sincere can make formulating a counter-argument impossible. For example, when they say that criticizing a woman for being unattractive is sexist, a number of unstated assumptions, all of which are held by feminists, come along with it:

  1. Sexism is bad.
  2. Judging a woman for her appearance is different from judging a man for his appearance.
  3. Women are weaker than men and so deserve special treatment.
  4. Women are equal to men in all respects.
  5. Only men can be sexist.

It is clear that these assumptions are mutually contradictory. Therefore they are not so much a position as an incoherent set of demands and assertions. So if you agree, even if only from the principle of charity, to debate feminism, you automatically accept the contradictory ground rules and you will be unable to argue coherently. If you take the question seriously, you are implicitly granting all their assumptions.

Sun Tzu: “I stopped beating my wife a long, long time ago. And I truly, sincerely regret it. Oh wait, is this thing on?”

We often criticize our politicians for abjectly surrendering. But what they're really doing is accepting their opponents' ground rules.

It is true that over time the inherent contradictions in the leftists' arguments will cause them to be abandoned. People sometimes think that we deduce what is true and false using logic. But in fact the way we arrive at the truth is by taking advantage of the brain's inability to remember and understand illogical arguments. Only afterward do we devise a formal argument and a narrative to go with it. This is what's happening when we say something doesn't make any sense.

So in the long run conservatism must win. But as a famous lefty once said, in the long run we are all dead. In the news cycle it is the present that counts. It doesn't matter if our logic is superior if our victory is printed three weeks later on page A46. All that matters is that in the battle of the eyeballs the enemy appears to have won.

It is the background assumptions, not just the specific facts, that are important, because all conclusions follow from assumptions.

Addressing the argument itself without challenging the enemy's assumption that you are a racist misogynist islamophobic xenophobe is like trying to answer the question of when you stopped beating your wife. To answer the question is to lose.

Logic itself has not changed, but the rules of debate have changed. We must become more analytical in our approach. We must continually question the assumptions behind every statement made by the media and every question asked. The only way to win an argument is to deny the validity of the enemy's assumptions.

Some people propose an alternative strategy: focus on the left's stupidity and fight stupidity with stupidity. They have found a leader whose tactic is what one might call ‘vice signaling.’ The advantage of fighting stupid with stupid is that it draws upon an inexhaustible resource. Maybe it will work. But however we fight, the main strategy must be: don't accept the enemy's ground rules. Take ownership of the enemy's insults. Fight dirty if you have to. And never, ever apologize.

updated apr 03 2016

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