Sometimes, things happen. Such as:
- Someone is wrong on the Internet
- Someone is being a dumbass on the Internet
- Something is wrong with the world
- I'm bored
...and that's when it is time to argue. Sometimes (sigh), there's simply no way around it and I am forced (forced, I tell you) to put myself out there and make the best argument that I can to make what I want to happen actually happen.
Let me start with this lighthearted conciliatory air
Why start with such a confrontational piece? Well, the good Dr. Isis covered some of that in her post on "How to Argue..." in which she made the essential points about power-differential. In essence, controlling the terms of disagreement and debate are often (not exclusively, often) a tool of the power structures which is deployed to artificially enhance their side of the dispute at the expense of the less powerful. Head on over to Isis' place to discuss this facet.
I also present this extended version of the well-known Public Enemy rap because it links back to the Civil Rights era. This is but one (highly salient and relatively recent) example of the value of so-called "civil" and "uncivil" approaches to causing palpable change in a highly important and highly charged discussion. It is hard not to frame this in terms of the Overton window.
Overton described a method for moving that window, thereby including previously excluded ideas, while excluding previously acceptable ideas. The technique relies on people promoting ideas even less acceptable than the previous "outer fringe" ideas. That makes those old fringe ideas look less extreme, and thereby acceptable. The idea is that priming the public with fringe ideas intended to be and remain unacceptable, will make the real target ideas seem more acceptable by comparison.
Despite what the short-memoried may think based on the highly successful 30 yr Republican Overton strategy, these tactics are not limited to a single political dimension. Such tactics were deployed during the Civil Rights era with remarkable success in moving the window of what it was reasonable to discuss in a more liberal, progressive direction. Fringe ideas such as equal treatment under the law, attacks on pervasive systematic discrimination and interracial marriage became normalized. Yes, in part because of the radical fringe of Black Power, the early Malcolm X, the Panthers and other ideologies which helped to drag that Overton window.
How does this work and/or what is the purpose of the extreme end of the debate? A shock to the system is perhaps the best way to put it. Despite what some people would like to believe, the calm rational argument is a piss-poor option in changing people's opinions and beliefs. Do we need to resort to the many, many examples in the political sphere people's central emotional political affiliation trumps any possible consistency with respect to individual issues? Tax-and-spend versus Don't-tax-but-spend-more? Sanctity-of-life versus execute-criminals?
So let us examine these views about the proper way to argue advanced by Dr. Siegel.
there are good ways and bad ways to argue. Calling someone names? Probably a bad idea. Yelling at someone that they're wrong without explaining what's actually correct? Probably also not the best idea.
First we need to deal with the whiff of straw that is coming across. If we venture down to the base of Ethan's pyramid we find the ad hominem attack listed down at the bottom with name-calling. Now what I find in discussion on the sorts of forums and blogs that I frequent is that actual name calling and ad hominem attacking exists far less than certain nose-sniffing comments would have us believe. The reason, of course, is a fundamental confusion between these two statements.
"You are an ignorant fucknut and therefore your argument lacks merit."
"Your argument lacks merit for these reasons from which I conclude you are an ignorant fucknut"
See the difference? And yet when the criticized person reads the second statement, they almost inevitably conclude that the former has been said. See this for an example. Why do people mis-read? Because they are so invested in their position that they have to immediately construct a defense when anything starts to question that position. This little jujitsu puts the critique back on the opposite position by making out that their legitimate position comes from an illegitimate personal bias against the person holding the position. Nice trick!
The second part is also a work of straw since, once again, the proportion of times someone is told they are wrong without explaining why they are correct is vanishingly small. Most of the time, especially on the linky-linky internets, the reason for being wrong is provided...somewhere and in some format. Although likely enough right in the discussion in question. So the trope that "you are not explaining why I am wrong" is usually a sign of lazy unwillingness to do some additional reading.....or.....
Cognitive defensive structures built up to resist considering that one might actually be wrong.
Here we arrive at the meat of the matter. Once having accomplished more than about 300 ms worth of consideration of a given topic, people are highly resistant to the idea that their rationale, conclusions and evidence base might actually be wrong. And the wronger the consideration might be, the more resistant to acknowledgment is the individual. We might think of this as the intrapersonal Overton window.
Once a person has convinced him or herself that s/he is correct, or has a pretty good take on the world, the notion that s/he is a sap, fool, tool of advertising, subject to the laws of behavioral conditioning, biased, mistaken, illogical and the like is outside of the Overton window. Consequently, anything that suggests to them that they are mistaken, etc, must be flawed, illogical, unfair, below-the-belt, not-cricket, uninformed and/or meaniepants.
If you need examples, stroll about the ScienceBlogs and review discussions of alternative medicine, vaccine-autism theories and all varieties of anti-medical woo and crackpottery. Here at DM you can amuse yourself with those firmly committed drug fans. The nice-guy types who argue at Zuska's pad and elsewhere with their "yeah buts". And make no mistake, the intrapersonal Overton window assuredly applies to the host bloggers just as much as it does to the antagonist commenter (this makes no comment on who is correct I will note).
This is why this statement from Professor Siegel
Those top two levels are really the only way to ever change someone's mind, or to sway other intelligent, thinking people to your side.
is as wrong as wrong can be. This only works (maybe) within the intrapersonal Overton window. Once your rational refutation strategy ventures too far afield SNAP!, the listener defaults back to their position and starts rapidly building the cognitive defenses, arguing any old nonsense, to avoid the apparent distress of actually moving his or her Overton window. Fascinatingly, Professor Siegel actually fesses up to exactly this:
But if you want to argue on my site, you're really best off remembering this hierarchy, and staying as high as possible on it.
The translation is "Don't try to actually convince me that I might be wrong about anything to which I cling dearly".
[I'll end here for now. Part II will be on the function and utility of name calling and generally FWDAOTI.]