Many of you been following the weekend's discussion on how to properly argue a point. Ethan Siegel originated the discussion and Isis provided an alternate perspective (Janet wondered about graphical interpretation).
I wrote a bit on the intrapersonal Overton window and how difficult it can be with staid logic and ration to move people's opinions, even those who claim to be subject to logical discussion. In this discussion I argued that frequently people seek to claim they have been called a nasty name, when they have not, as a cognitive defensive strategy to avoid being swayed by the aforementioned logic and rational argument.
Given this, we must seek at all times not to give even the whiff of name-calling so as to defuse this tendency in others, right?
The problem to be addressed today is the ex hominem* argument. This is, in many debates, intimately tied to the impossibility of moving a person's intrapersonal Overton window with sober, calm and rational discourse. The ex hominem argument goes a little something like this "Hey, I'm a smart person. I know a fair bit, been well-educated and I've been around the track a time or two. I'm a good, upstanding person. Moral. Ethical. Salt of the earth citizen. More importantly, I share with you some apparent (political, sociological, ideological, professional) goals which are under discussion. In short, I'm fucking fantastic! Consequently it is absolutely impossible that I might be wrong, mistaken, subject to bias, privilege, snobbery or otherwise be in error as you are suggesting. Clearly, there must be a flaw in your argument and I will invent up some shit to avoid admitting you are correct."
Of course, interesting debates being what they are, "inventing up some shit" that actually sounds pretty convincing is not one bit difficult and preserves the person's pre-existing position.
It doesn't help the discussion progress though.
This is when it is occasionally necessary to call someone a nasty name and attack their person, as opposed to their argument.
Okay, okay, calm down knickers-knotters and sphincter-ratcheters. We are not talking about the tactics of a specific venue and whether it is in fact better to call someone an asshat straight out (dorm room bullshit session, pub, etc) or elocute around it semi-politely in such a way as they know exactly what you mean. I still maintain that tactically the best approach is to address the act, rather than the person but I allow for exceptions. Nevertheless you need to make some things explicitly clear.
You do not agree that the two of you are on the same side, that you are working for the same goods and that this person is one of the good guys. Rather, you believe that this person is on the bad side and in your estimation closer to the people you both agree are on the bad side, than s/he is to the people you both agree are on the good side of an argument. You are, for example, communicating the following:
"I know you think you are on the side of junior faculty d00d, but in fact you are just a tool of the whitebearded scientific patriarchy which is oppressing junior scientists"
"I know you think that you are all progressive and anti-discrimination my friend but actually I see you as just as counterproductive as ol' Jim Watson"
"Sure, perhaps you comfort your women trainees but your desperate unwillingness to acknowledge your male privilege makes you just as despicable to us as Larry Summers"
"Hey Mr. progressive-librul donkey brayer..you do understand the concept of heteronormative privilege, right? "
I emphasize communicating. Not "saying". Not "observing". Communicating. Driving your point home past the usual robust cognitive defenses.
I argue that this takes more than a simple statement. It often involves engaging a lot of emotional processes to convince someone that others on a "side" on which they have prided themselves on occupying for some time might actually see them as being on the other side (the bad one). People don't like being called names, especially repeatedly and by multiple people that they thought were in their camp.
Does it work? Well, sure, some people will dig in and resist even this. But guess what? Despite what the "rational argument eleventy" fans would have you think, you aren't going to be convincing them anyway. No way, no how. The argument that "I would have been convinced if you hadn't put it so meanly" is complete and utter bullshit.
My experience is that yes, communicating to people that you see them as on the bad side has a way of getting them (some, not all) to stop with the obfuscation and defense and really grapple with their own motivations that are impeding communication. I say this from the perspective of both sides of this, I'll have you know.
To draw back up from the individual to the general I'll leave you with the following thoughts. Terms such as "nigger" and "fag" were within recent memory in the US considerably more acceptable to say in public than they are now. Ditto anti-woman statements, anti-anything "jokes" and other insensitive crap. The present state of acceptable public speech did not come about at one fell swoop at the hands of rational argument towards those who saw nothing wrong with "nigger-rigged", you "gypped me", he "jewed me down", "are you on the rag?" and the like. It came about because such people came to see that most other people, even of their affiliation groups, thought that they were complete assholes for saying that stuff. They came to see that because people called them assholes.
*Actually I don't know that there is a good term for whatever the opposite of ad hominem is, I got this from here. "Inverse ad hominem" sounds