Monty Python had a great sketch called The Argument Clinic in which the concept of an argument is rather humourously discussed. Although intended to be humour, it contains the following exchange which I feel stands well outside the context of the sketch.
Man: An argument isn't just contradiction.
Mr. Vibrating: It can be.
Man: No it can't. An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.
Mr. Vibrating: No it isn't.
Man: Yes it is! It's not just contradiction.
Mr. Vibrating: Look, if I argue with you, I must take up a contrary position.
Man: Yes, but that's not just saying 'No it isn't.'
Mr. Vibrating: Yes it is!
Man: No it isn't!
Man: Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes.
The line I would like to highlight in this piece of comedy is Mr. Vibrating's.
Look, if I argue with you, I must take up a contrary position.
We could debate the definition of 'argument' but this concept of "automatic gainsaying" is seemingly what some of the most vocal people on the internet seem to believe.
Local journalist Heather du Plessis-Allan often writes thoughtful pieces in her New Zealand Herald column and sometimes, like me, she pokes at the fallacies of the topic, rather than coming down on one side or other of the debate. Today was such a day when she penned a piece about the recent TPPA protests in Auckland.
The column does not actually fall on either side of the TPPA debate, though it does list arguments for both sides. What it is really aimed at is the apparent ignorance of those people out protesting who could not string together a half decent reason for why they were there and yet, in some cases, felt empowered to create civil unrest, rather than simply protesting peacefully.
A valid response to the piece could be to attack the news item played on Heather's Story current affairs show, from where this view of ignorant protesters emanated. I have my concerns about how it was conducted. I'm sure there were people there who could have given informed and eloquent responses but they were probably not amongst the banner waving, shouting forefront of the march.
But that's not what this post is about. It's about the fact that so many people fail to understand an important part of arguments. If arguments are based on "a series of statements intended to establish a proposition" then those statements must stand up to scrutiny. While one way to attack an argument is to "take up a contrary position," another is to point out fallacies in the argument without necessarily taking a contrary position. Heather's entire post is poking at the fallacies of the protest, not taking an opposing view to the protesting of the TPPA. In fact, she actively encourages the debate to continue.
Here's the tweet that made me write this post.
The short version of this post appeared in a tweet I sent in response to that.
I probably wouldn't be writing this post if I hadn't repeatedly hit this problem myself. I once posted (now offline) about a spat between Leo Laporte and Adam Curry who disagreed on whether the moon landings occurred. While I agree with Leo's position that they did, I also have to allow for Adam's position to be tenable because to do otherwise is arrogant and in ignorance of many of history's fallacies. I tried saying that a few places and suddenly I'm a fool for not believing in the moon landings, even though I clearly claimed I did.
There was a New Zealand web site I used to visit regularly. Daily if I had the time. There were some fantastic debates, but in the end I quit going there because of this problem. Turns out that by trying to shoot down dodgy data that purports to support anthropomorphic global warming theory, I'm branded a "climate change denier."
Although I strongly believe in eradicating sexism, I've been "spat at" for daring to suggest that poor arguments do not help the cause. Maybe I really am wrong on that one, but once again, I was assumed, despite openly supporting the cause, to be "part of the problem."
We wonder why this country, heck much of the world, has an apathy toward confronting controversy like this. We wonder why, apparently, only uninformed fools can be found fronting a protest march. We wonder why the term "lurker" describes the vast majority of enrolled participants in social media debate. I don't think we need wonder. I think it's pretty obvious that intelligent debate is too often drowned out by people who insist on black and white arguments. I am, once again, prompted to point everyone to this.
Banner image by This Year's Love.