December 9, 2012

Two modes of intellectual discourse: Taking everything personally v. debate as sport

Much of the intellectual progress the world has made over the millennia is due to men managing to turn argument into sport rather than either a test of popularity or of physical strength.

Consider Zeno's paradoxes. I suspect that other individuals in other times and places came up with similar ideas, but either nobody paid attention or the propounders of annoying paradoxes got punched in the face by frustrated listeners who couldn't come up with a response. The Ancient Greeks, in contrast, found this type of debate interesting and felt that there ought to be a way -- logic -- to figure out who wins.

As I've mentioned before, the superiority of debate in the British House of Commons to what we're used to in American politics can be startling to an American observer. This is a social construct of the highest order. The British have crafted a society over many hundreds of years that emphasizes sport as a nonlethal, even potentially friendly form of male combat, and parliamentary debate as the highest form of sport. Today, most countries have legislatures modeled upon the British parliament and play British sports such as soccer. (Outliers include British offspring such as America, which has its own system and plays its own games.)

Similar attitudes were reflected in the written spheres. A century ago, G.K. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw, say, could go at it hammer and tongs like the intellectual sportsmen they were. 

It's not surprising that Americans have never quite attained this level of intellectual sportsmanship. Nor is it surprising that the British masculine model is fading, both here and in Britain.

Englishman Alastair Roberts writes a blog called Alastair's Adversaria on largely theological topics. As a writer, he has what I call an indoor voice, attuned to the style of the time, which makes his endorsement of the fading tradition of debate as sport interesting by contrast. Starting from some controversy in England, Roberts launches into a lengthy but insightful description of what has gone wrong:
In observing the interaction between Pastor Wilson and his critics in the recent debate, I believe that we were witnessing a collision of two radically contrasting modes of discourse. The first mode of discourse, represented by Pastor Wilson’s critics, was one in which sensitivity, inclusivity, and inoffensiveness are key values, and in which persons and positions are ordinarily closely related. The second mode of discourse, displayed by Pastor Wilson and his daughters, is one characterized and enabled by personal detachment from the issues under discussion, involving highly disputational and oppositional forms of rhetoric, scathing satire, and ideological combativeness. 

To provide a scorecard: you can think of Roberts' "first mode of discourse" as the one dominant in the 21st Century, while the second mode represents an idealized 19th Century British view of discourse as sport. First = New, Second = Old.
When these two forms of discourse collide they are frequently unable to understand each other and tend to bring out the worst in each other. The first [new, sensitive] form of discourse seems lacking in rationality and ideological challenge to the second; the second [old, sporting] can appear cruel and devoid of sensitivity to the first. To those accustomed to the second mode of discourse, the cries of protest at supposedly offensive statements may appear to be little more than a dirty and underhand ploy intentionally adopted to derail the discussion by those whose ideological position can’t sustain critical challenge. However, these protests are probably less a ploy than the normal functioning of the particular mode of discourse characteristic of that community, often the only mode of discourse that those involved are proficient in. 
To those accustomed to the first mode of discourse, the scathing satire and sharp criticism of the second appears to be a vicious and personal attack, driven by a hateful animus, when those who adopt such modes of discourse are typically neither personally hurt nor aiming to cause such hurt. Rather, as this second form of discourse demands personal detachment from issues under discussion, ridicule does not aim to cause hurt, but to up the ante of the debate, exposing the weakness of the response to challenge, pushing opponents to come back with more substantial arguments or betray their lack of convincing support for their position. Within the first form of discourse, if you take offence, you can close down the discourse in your favour; in the second form of discourse, if all you can do is to take offence, you have conceded the argument to your opponent, as offence is not meaningful currency within such discourse. 
I also don’t think that sufficient attention is given to the manner in which differing forms of education prepare persons for participation in these different modes of discourse. There is a form of education – increasingly popular over the last few decades – which most values cooperation, collaboration, quietness, sedentariness, empathy, equality, non-competitiveness, conformity, a communal focus, inclusivity, affirmation, inoffensiveness, sensitivity, non-confrontation, a downplaying of physicality, and an orientation to the standard measures of grades, tests, and a closely defined curriculum (one could, with the appropriate qualifications, speak of this as a ‘feminization’ of education). Such a form of education encourages a form of public discourse within which there is a shared commitment and conformity to the social and ideological dogmas and values of liberal society, where everyone feels secure and accepted and conflict is avoided, but at the expense of independence of thought, exposure to challenge, the airing of deep differences, and truth-driven discourse. 
Faced with an opposing position that will not compromise in the face of its calls for sensitivity and its cries of offence, such a [new] mode of discourse lacks the strength of argument to parry challenges. Nor does it have any means by which to negotiate or accommodate such intractable differences within its mode of conversation. Consequently, it will typically resort to the most fiercely antagonistic, demonizing, and personal attacks upon the opposition.

Generally, anybody who denounces opponents as representing "hate" is hate-filled.
While firm differences can be comfortably negotiated within the contrasting [old] form of discourse, a mode of discourse governed by sensitivities and ‘tolerance’ cannot tolerate uncompromising difference. Without a bounded and rule-governed realm for negotiating differences, antagonism becomes absolute and opposition total. Supporters of this ‘sensitive’ mode of discourse will typically try, not to answer opponents with better arguments, but to silence them completely as ‘hateful’, ‘intolerant’, ‘bigoted’, ‘misogynistic’, ‘homophobic’, etc. 
A completely contrasting mode of education, one more typical of traditional – and male-oriented – educational systems, values internalized confidence, originality, agonism, independence of thought, creativity, assertiveness, the mastery of one’s feelings, a thick skin and high tolerance for your own and others’ discomfort, disputational ability, competitiveness, nerve, initiative, imagination, and force of will, values that come to the fore in confrontational oral debate. Such an education will produce a mode of discourse that is naturally highly oppositional and challenging, while generally denying participants the right to take things personally. Deep divergences of opinion can be far more comfortably accommodated within the same conversation by those accustomed to such discourse. While the first form of education risks viewing persons as passive receptacles of knowledge to be rewarded for their conformity to set expectations, which are frequently measured, this form of education prioritizes the formation of independent thinking agents. 
This form of discourse typically involves a degree of ‘heterotopy’, occurring in a ‘space’ distinct from that of personal interactions.

In other words: "in the arena."
This heterotopic space is characterized by a sort of playfulness, ritual combativeness, and histrionics. This ‘space’ is akin to that of the playing field, upon which opposing teams give their rivals no quarter, but which is held distinct to some degree from relations between the parties that exist off the field. The handshake between competitors as they leave the field is a typical sign of this demarcation.  It is this separation of the space of rhetorical ritual combat from regular space that enables debaters, politicians, or lawyers to have fiery disagreements in the debating chamber, the parliamentary meeting, or the courtroom and then happily enjoy a drink together afterwards. 
This ‘heterotopic discourse’ makes possible far more spirited challenges to opposing positions, hyperbolic and histrionic rhetoric designed to provoke response and test the mettle of one’s own and the opposing position, assertive presentations of one’s beliefs that are less concerned to present a full-orbed picture than to advocate firmly for a particular perspective and to invite and spark discussion from other perspectives. 
The truth is not located in the single voice, but emerges from the conversation as a whole. Within this form of heterotopic discourse, one can play devil’s advocate, have one’s tongue in one’s cheek, purposefully overstate one’s case, or attack positions that one agrees with. The point of the discourse is to expose the strengths and weaknesses of various positions through rigorous challenge, not to provide a balanced position in a single monologue. Those familiar with such discourse will be accustomed to hyperbolic and unbalanced expressions. They will appreciate that such expressions are seldom intended as the sole and final word on the matter by those who utter them, but as a forceful presentation of one particular dimension of or perspective upon the truth, always presuming the existence of counterbalancing perspectives that have no less merit and veracity. 
In contrast, a sensitivity-driven discourse lacks the playfulness of heterotopic discourse, taking every expression of difference very seriously. Rhetorical assertiveness and impishness, the calculated provocations of ritual verbal combat, linguistic playfulness, and calculated exaggeration are inexplicable to it as it lacks the detachment, levity, and humour within which these things make sense. On the other hand, those accustomed to combative discourse may fail to appreciate when they are hurting those incapable of responding to it. 
Lacking a high tolerance for difference and disagreement, sensitivity-driven discourses will typically manifest a herding effect. Dissenting voices can be scapegoated or excluded and opponents will be sharply attacked. Unable to sustain true conversation, stale monologues will take its place. Constantly pressed towards conformity, indoctrination can take the place of open intellectual inquiry. Fracturing into hostile dogmatic cliques takes the place of vigorous and illuminating dialogue between contrasting perspectives. Lacking the capacity for open dialogue, such groups will exert their influence on wider society primarily by means of political agitation. 
The fear of conflict and the inability to deal with disagreement lies at the heart of sensitivity-driven discourses. However, ideological conflict is the crucible of the sharpest thought. Ideological conflict forces our arguments to undergo a rigorous and ruthless process through which bad arguments are broken down, good arguments are honed and developed, and the relative strengths and weaknesses of different positions emerge. The best thinking emerges from contexts where interlocutors mercilessly probe and attack our arguments’ weaknesses and our own weaknesses as their defenders. They expose the blindspots in our vision, the cracks in our theories, the inconsistencies in our logic, the inaptness of our framing, the problems in our rhetoric. We are constantly forced to return to the drawing board, to produce better arguments. 
Granted immunity from this process, sensitivity-driven and conflict-averse contexts seldom produce strong thought, but rather tend to become echo chambers. Even the good ideas that they produce tend to be blunt and very weak in places. Even with highly intelligent people within them, conflict-averse groups are poor at thinking. Bad arguments go unchecked and good insights go unhoned and underdeveloped. This would not be such a problem were it not for the fact that these groups frequently expect us to fly in a society formed according to their ideas, ideas that never received any rigorous stress testing.

We've seen this deterioration of discourse in recent years among gay men. Gore Vidal, for example, liked to argue and insult. But gays have increasingly taken on lesbian modes.

In general, the contemporary mode of emotionalism and herding is the human default. The great ages of intellectual progress via debate were rare social constructs, and it's not surprising that they easily break down.

90 comments:

Anonymous said...

I like discussion. Discussion is means toward greater truth.
I don't like debates because the main purpose is to WIN.

Discussion allows truth to win.
Debates allow one guy or other to win.

Anonymous said...

More like Take Everything Personally AND Debate as Sport.

That's why British debates are so emotional as well as rhetorical. They are as much battle of egos as well of ideas.

In America, the land of equality, the ideal politician doesn't show off he's soooo smart and ooh lala.
But in UK with aristocratic tradition, elites like to show off how smart, cultured, and whoopie doo they were, and that kind of haughty attitude informs modern British debate too.
Even leftist Brits like Christopher Hitchens like to razzle dazzle and show off their style as well as their logic.

This was why Buckley was a good debater. He brought that I'm-better-than-you-not-only-in-ideas-but-in-style attitude.

Anonymous said...

dis-curse.

Randall Van Der Sterren said...

Argument for sport is also known as sophistry.

Anonymous said...

Funny thing about Brit political debate. They are dry and wet. Lots of emotions but great emphasis on proper manners. It's like argument at family dinner but where table manners are kept.

As long as UK was made up of one family of people--blokes--, the old style of debate could thrive.
But then, with rising diversity with so many people who don't share the same manners and values, it's harder to debate the old way.
In the past, even people who hated one another were part of one British family, and that kept them together.
But in increasingly diverse Britain, the old style of debate may really lead to tensions, as when some guy said the London Riots was a case of whites imitating blacks.

In an odd way, the puritans won in UK, though by championing impurity. Impurity of the nation and purity of ideology.

Matt said...

I've noticed this phenomena as well, and I blame our reticence to speak of IQ in public. The idea that someone might be better at thinking than someone else, that they might either have greater aptitude for it or greater dedication to it, is anathema, and so all disagreements must be now be wholly moral in nature.

What a boring way to live!

Thomas O. Meehan said...

This deserves great exposure. It's a fine wide open window on why the two antagonistic cultures of America talk past each other. If there were an actual conservative media, this kind of insight would have greater currency among the population. Instead we have Greg Guttfeld.

a very knowing American said...

Great stuff. This seems to be a big difference between ancient Greek and Chinese intellectual life. A good book here is "The Way and the Word: Science and Medicine in Early Greece and China," by Geoffrey Lloyd, historian of Greek science, and Nathan Sivin, historian of Chinese science. The book makes clear that apart from differences in content, the two traditions had huge differences in style, Greeks being more confrontational, and deliberately courting controversy, Chinese harking back to the ancestors as authorities.

The Chinese approach seems to work OK for technology (if my machine works, this doesn't have to mean your machine doesn't work), but not so well for science (if my theory of the solar system is true, then yours is crap).

A telling bit is Aristotle writing about how Plato had been a great teacher and friend, but then declaring that truth is greater than friendship, and ripping into the guy.

Anonymous said...

It's quite depressing...

OTOH, current Black mode of discourse seems to be repeating themselves at ever higher volumes until they get what they want, everyone leaves the vicinity, or they "snap" and have Cat 5.

Anonymous said...

http://www.vdare.com/articles/republican-retreat-or-rout

I've said it and I'll say it again. Bush should never have cut taxes for the superrich. When richer are getting richer--and more Democratic--, you don't cut their taxes.

Anonymous said...

Steve, you should fix your text so that you link to the specific blog post you are excerpting, rather than the current page 3 of the blog itself (which is where your link points now).

Other than that, I think the argument being made is very good. But Alastair's post is disappointing on one sense: it is a poster child for tl;dr! I won't be sending anyone there. :-(

agnostic said...

That would seem to extend to storytelling as well -- the narrative as a fragile, emotive, and boring personal statement vs. a robust, playful, and engaging sport.

And to coining new words for popular usage ("slang"). Forget the liberal side, where passive-aggressive terms like "Rethuglican" and "denialism" are not so surprising.

What about even among the supposedly more rambunctious right? They too are more likely to get their panties in a wad than to come up with evocative new phrases like "bleeding heart," "Mau-mau", or "Don't be afraid to see what you see".

Instead we get sterile, butthurt terms like "leftism," "Axis of Evil," and all sorts of personal lifestyle insults like "latte-sipping," "Prius-driving," and "cheese-eating surrender monkeys".

The whole oral culture is collapsing, not just modes of debating, and sadly not just among the liberal tribe.

TGGP said...

Robert Wright was bemoaning how unintellectual American politics is compared to British politics with its "Question Time". His diavlog partner Alex Massie, who actually is from across the pond, disagreed. It kind of reminds me of Walter Block noting that the most common complaint about the Fraser Institute's economic freedom ranking (from the ideologically sympatico) was people thinking their own country was ranked too high.

agnostic said...

The only terms in the original post that I'd quibble with are "empathy" and "communal" to describe the butthurt mode of discourse.

It's more solipsistic, whereas the detached mode requires empathy -- understanding, and even resonating with views you don't personally hold, just for the sake of argument.

And "communal" suggests something warm or hot, bonding members into a superorganism. The personal mode turns the community into a hive, where every individual is left to vibrate within their own isolated cell within the hive, never to be disturbed or asked to interact with any of the other drones.

The playful mode is more communal, like a rowdy group of friends or strangers who go out carousing on a Saturday night. They lose their self-focus as they temporarily assume personas different from their ordinary selves, melting into the crowd, and getting lost in the moment. If it really gets going, it feels more like carnival than combat.

Anonymous said...

the two traditions had huge differences in style, Greeks being more confrontational, and deliberately courting controversy, Chinese harking back to the ancestors as authorities.

I concur. In my observations, even modern East Asian political discourse seems to be not one of proving someone or some idea as inferior or mistaken, but more focused on presenting one's own position as being more sensible.

sunbeam said...

Here is a critique of the writing you mention.

Way. Too. Wordy.

Ever notice how a brit takes 5,000 words to say something that can be said in 50?

Also I'd say he is incorrect in his description of the second model of discourse (as he defines it). The purpose it serves is the same as a monkey throwing poo at other monkeys. Oneupmanship in other words.

Ever convince anyone they were wrong in an argument like this? I haven't. When you engage in something like this, you are looking for someone to say "Burn!"

And no matter the trappings, whether it is in some men's club in London (they still got those?), or in whatever venue you want, the goal is to get some twit like Kelso from That 70's Show to give you an attaboy for how clever you are. They definitely have them, the smell of twit is strong on Boris Johnson. And on quite a few others I've seen on television over the years.

I'm not an anglophile so I really don't pay very much attention to them.

But as an opinion, and only as my opinion, Alastair Roberts needs to throw away everything he thinks he knows. He needs to go on a literary quest and find someone who can inspire him to be a less boring writer.

For God's sake, I could have covered everything he said in two or three paragraphs.

Eric Hoffer got mentioned in that 60's thread the other day. Ol' Alastair needs to hole up and read his collected works. Everything Hoffer ever wrote is probably less lengthy than what this guy would write about going to the can.

Man, what a concept. Write about taking a dump in this guy's style, and using a lot of words that sound vaguely sophisticated.

"Agonism" "Histrionics" "Mode" "Passive Receptacle"

And my favorite "Heterotropic." I'd move heaven and earth to use that one in MY essay.

Ok, this was just my try at flinging a little poo.

But I have to wonder how many anglophiles come to this website.

agnostic said...

Maybe there really is something to the hive analogy. That form of social organization leads to a steep hierarchy, where most are drones -- blind, wingless, and sexually immature -- a handful are soldiers who single-mindedly police the borders against outsiders, and a pair of reproducers.

In our PC world, most people are drones, like the peon who votes for gay marriage, the woman who gives a peeved look when someone in the office tells a good joke about endangered minority species, and so on.

Then there are the thought police, who wield weapons. Al Sharpton et al are not a meek bunch of sissies -- they find out where the upstart lives, drive by with tommy guns, and mow him down in broad daylight.

Last, there's the small number of gurus who cook up the next big ideology. They're sheltered in some think tank, ivory tower college, etc.

In contrast to the steep hierarchy of the hive, the social organization of the detached mode of discourse is more like a pack of predators. There's lots of rough-housing, playfulness, and interactivity.

While there may be some members who enjoy higher rank than the others, the hierarchy is fairly shallow, with far more frequent turnover or instability compared to the Ancient Egyptian persistence of roles within the hive. While the leader of the movement may be beyond attack in the butthurt mode, no one is safe from toppling in the assertive mode.

Finally, the packs are just smaller in scale, so that everyone has frequent face-to-face interactions with each other, not vast impersonal and mediated relationships.

Anonymous said...

Steve, you're an open racist going against a society that has mostly moved on from institutionalized bigotry! How do you square that with your conformist views? Do you realize what a freak you are? Conform!!

Anonymous said...

The problem is that you can win debates without having the truth on your side if you're persuasive. And logic isn't foolproof because you can devise logically consistent theories that have nothing to do with reality.

With science, people were forced to test theories against experiment rather than argument.


Derek Brown said...

No GK and Shaw liked each other that was the difference. Add to thst the fact that Shaw acknowleded thaf GK's study of Shaw basically had him pegged to a T and was always quite astounded by that. I would counter that Chesterton's relationship with Wells is better proof of your theory. There the two weren't friends but did get along better than two people who disagrees on everything and took shots at each other constantly would normally get along.

Chesterton's partner in crime Belloc was notorious for almost fighting his interlopers so I would counter that this was less a testament to the age than a testament to Chesterton.

Anonymous said...

We need TRUTH CRIME laws. The truth hurts too many people. Truth is insensitive and offensive. We all speak the noble lie than notorious truth.

Many conservatives were hurt by the truth that Romney lost. We must make them believe that Romney won. Telling them the truth would be truth crime, and it might drive many cons into depression.

Anonymous said...

Say no to Truth Speech!

Anonymous said...

Try the "Six Hats" method of discussion.

SFG said...

Sure; nobody can understand why I read an anti-Semitic blog. 'Because it's often true' would sound even worse.

Truth has no party, but try telling anyone that these days.

Baloo said...

I remember that C. S. Lewis was accused of disliking women, which bewildered him. It turns out that in academic debate/discussion, he treated the sexes alike and engaged in the sort of objective dispute we're talking about here. Women, who think disagreeing isn't being nice, were offended. Women can't seem to get into that kind of objective thinking. I'm sure the exceptions are present, but are extremely rare.

factcheckers league said...

3rd mode: appealing to "4 year studies" conducted by "Republican PACs" of Fox viewer IQ

Thursday said...

The dispute he was talking about was between Rachel Held Evans, a Southern Evangelical feminist, and Douglas Wilson, a conservative Reformed pastor in Idaho. Both of Evans and Wilson can be pretty aggressive, with Evans being passive-aggressive and Wilson just being aggressive. Wilson's daughters also got involved. You can read through some of this here, here, and here.

Pastor Wilson also wrote a book on biblical satire here, though he's no Evelyn Waugh.

Simon in London said...

"We've seen this deterioration of discourse in recent years among gay men. Gore Vidal, for example, liked to argue and insult. But gays have increasingly taken on lesbian modes."

The early Feminists used 'agonistic' argument also.

I agree, Herding & Hateful mode is default human behaviour, though I think Armenian "Look at my gold chains! See how wealthy and powerful I am!" is historically a lot more common than Jewish "See how weak and vulnerable I am!" - indeed even most elite Jews tend naturally more to Armenian mode IME. I think the recent success of the argument-from-weakness may relate to Pinker's discussion of how we are becoming more empathetic, more unwilling to hurt people. But the offense takers are predatory; the nice guy like James Watson is destroyed when he apologises for 'racism', whereas not-so-nice historian David Starkey refuses to 'feel their pain' and successfully bulls through.

Personally I recommend not engaging with offense-takers at all. If you start discussing an issue with someone in good faith and they go into offense-taker mode, stop immediately and walk away.

Amalek said...

What "debate" Steve? Character assassination is the norm.

Anonymous said...

Feminization reaches farther than just public argument now. Doesn't Roger G want to eliminate kickoffs? (Which would cost them an commercial break each time btw)

This "cult of hurt feelings" is the kind of thing I thought Seinfeld was always good at mocking, but your quoted post causes me to doubt the objects of jest knew upon whom the joke was.

elvisd said...

Fascinating topic, Steve. Please don't let this be the only post. The whole idea of intellectual sporting is tied to the grand tradition of the disinterested pursuit of knowledge, which I think has largely been forgotten. I wonder if anyone really tries to teach that anymore.

The dynamics of debate that this writer covers points to the problem of consensus processes vs a Roberts Rules of Order form of deliberation. It's not an academic debate, either, with roundtable consensus groups becoming the way that government agencies try to resolve policy conflicts on local levels.

Thursday said...

Some background.

Rachel Held Evans is really, really passive-aggressive blogger and book author. In the situation referred to above, Evans whipped up a storm around the author, citing a quote from an old book of Pastor Wilson describing the sex act as one where men conquer their wife. Evans went to twitter calling on her followers to get angry, which they predictably did, calling Pastor Wilson a rape apologist and such. He responded in kind. Maybe he shouldn't have, but Evans can be pretty vile at times.

As for the larger background, there has been something of a split in Evangelicals mirroring the orthodox/liberal split in the mainline churches. The Emergent people basically have the same old, same old liberal theology that the mainliners started developing in the late 19th century, but they come out of the Evangelical culture not the mainline culture and want to continue calling and thinking of themselves as Evangelicals.

Anonymous said...

Baloo - "Women, who think disagreeing isn't being nice..."

That has certainly been my experience.

One of Chekhov's characters said arguing with a woman is like pulling taffy. So true.

Anonymous said...

The whole idea of intellectual sporting is tied to the grand tradition of the disinterested pursuit of knowledge, which I think has largely been forgotten. I wonder if anyone really tries to teach that anymore.

Hell no they aren't trying to teach that. It runs counter to their self interest. The last thing charlatans are going to champion is the pursuit of objective truth. That is for them suicide.

elvisd said...

current Black mode of discourse seems to be repeating themselves at ever higher volumes until they get what they want, everyone leaves the vicinity, or they "snap" and have Cat 5.
I'd leave the vicinity.

Anonymous said...

Zeno himself was gay according to Plato, with his lover being Parminides. The dialog named after the latter has them traveling to Athens together.

Gays are so obviously better at debate and witty banter that perhaps the decline of debate may be in part due to heterosexual flight. The only out gay male I knew as a kid was a friend of my parents from their college debate team.

Udolpho.com said...

the modes are basically masculine vs. feminine...with the effort to treat women as men, to pretend they have the same natures and same proclivities, the West let itself become sillier and more effeminate, but also shriller and more demanding

it seems to be one of those things that is difficult to correct

irishfan87 said...

Thursday is your name a nod to Gabriel Syme?

Yaelin said...

I have to disagree with one aspect of the author's article. He basically states early on that the sensitivity crowd argue this way not necessarily because their arguments are weak, but because they are focus entirely on a different debate style centered on sensitivity instead.

Based on what we observe, however, they are more than happy to break out fact and rational debate against an opponent if there is a point they can logically argue like the age of the earth based on radioactive dating. Or how many people are dying from a war that a Republican president initiates.

The reality is, however, for the vast majority of their positions, they are weak and lack real substance, so they are forced to either resort to sensitivity nonsense and suppressing facts and rational discourse, or they put on the pretension of a rational discussion- make up 'facts' and straw men and debate about these, while keeping a lid on the inconvenient facts that contradict these arguments. They are forced into the sensitivity argument for most of their positions because they cannot argue these positions based on facts and rational thought.

Of course, this goes over just fine with most of the left, overrepresented by low IQ minorities, emotion-driven women, naive youth, and union workers and professors who benefit immensely from the rise of the left.


Anonymous said...

I personally greatly enjoy "intellectual combat" which is why I became a litigator. It is quite a thrill to engage in oral arguments before a judge or panel of appellate judges. At least there, the old rules of debate apply, and if you get your adversary to act butthurt over something then you've scored some points and they've disserved their clients.

While the Supreme Court isn't televised, the 9th circuit court of appeals is, they have a YouTube channel. Watching Chief Judge Kozinski may be the best, he can rapidly jump from joking to serious and obviously enjoys befuddling the attorneys before him when they deserve it.

Our legal system is the most traditional and most English part of our government, so fortunately the old norms of debate still apply.

Kozinski can be watched in person quite frequently from the Pasadena courthouse, but he also rides circuit all over the Western USA. He combines the intelligence and pragmatic libertarianism of Richard Posner with the sense of humor and vocabulary of a basement-dwelling Internet geek. He even got in a tiny bit of trouble about 10 years ago for storing random examples of bad Internet humor, including some light hearted porn, on a publicly accessible government website.

Dutch Boy said...

Debate as sport is a manifestation of Anglo-Saxon cynicism. Discourse aims at truth, not scoring debating points.

Anonymous said...

The first mode of discourse, represented by Pastor Wilson’s critics, was one in which sensitivity, inclusivity, and inoffensiveness are key values, and in which persons and positions are ordinarily closely related.


I have not - yet - followed the link and I don't know anything about "Pastor Wilson" or "his critics".

And yet I feel certain of the following - that the "sensitivity, inclusivity, and inoffensiveness" mentioned are all aimed at certain people, and that the "critics" in question have absolutely no hesitation about being extremely insensitive and exclusive and offensive towards their opponents.

Luke Lea said...

Don't know about Britain, but a few concrete American examples might help to understand what this guy is talking about. For example, what type were:

1. The Adams-Jefferson Presidential debates

2. Andrew Jackson - John Quincy Adams debates

3. Congressional debates preceeding the Civil War

4. The Johnson-Goldwater debates

I think this 2nd style typifies what passes for debate on liberal college campuses. The 1st style is what goes on in college debating societies, or maybe in courtrooms, where combatants must be prepared to argue either side of the case.

But I really don't know what this debate is about.

Luke Lea said...

A very knowing American knows, I think, nothing about Chinese debating styles. I'm not sure debate as ever been a part of Chinese culture and civilization.

Luke Lea said...

The Lincoln-Douglas debates exemplified the sporting approach I suppose -- which is interesting considering how deadly serious the issues were.

Larry "Legend" Summers said...

Meh, inclusion is for pussies

Luke Lea said...

Then there is the whole climate change debate, with alarmists condemning their opponents as knaves and skeptics ridiculing theirs as fools. Where does that fit in?

slumber_j said...

A lot of what's going on in British politics and political debate nowadays proceeds from a sort of Americanization--the never-ending-campaign mode of frenzied spinning behind the scenes, the vacuously symbolic initiatives that take the place of useful legislation etc.

For a fictional depiction of this stuff, check out Scottish[!] humorist Armando Ianucci's sitcom "The Thick of It," available on Hulu. It's pretty great:

http://www.hulu.com/watch/382126

Luke Lea said...

There can be no doubt that Sailer himself takes the sporting approach. Too bad his opponents don't. That would raise the level of discourse.

Luke Lea said...

You could say that Fox News and CNBC both take the sporting approach. Too bad they are so seldom in the same room.

Luke Lea said...

Lou Dobbs took the feminine approach -- and the other side ignored him completely.

On the issue of immigration I'd be happy to see any kind of mainstream debate, but somehow the powers that be keep it off the table.

Anonymous said...

The fear of conflict and the inability to deal with disagreement lies at the heart of sensitivity-driven discourses.


Really? It's been my experience that the sort of people who warble on about "sensitivity" are very comfortable indeed with conflict - they just want conflict which they win.

Conflict which they lose is "insensitive" i.e it makes them feel bad. Conflict in which they call you bad names and you accept that you are indeed a horrible person is "sensitive" i.e. their feelings are not hurt in the process.

Every argument you've ever had with a woman, in other words.

Anonymous said...

"current Black mode of discourse seems to be repeating themselves at ever higher volumes until they get what they want, everyone leaves the vicinity, or they "snap" and have Cat 5."

The Hispanic mode is whoever speaks faster, wins.

Conatus said...

Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of England had similar thoughts in 2007. Here he opines on Multiculturalism as a disaster:
Liberal democracy is in danger. Britain is becoming a place where free speech is at risk, non-political institutions are becoming politicised, and a combination of political correctness and ethnic-religious separatism is eroding the graciousness of civil society. Religious groups are becoming pressure groups. Boycotts and political campaigns are infecting professional bodies. Culture is fragmenting into systems of belief in which civil discourse ends and reasoned argument becomes impossible. The political process is in danger of being abandoned in favour of the media-attention-grabbing gesture. The politics of freedom risks descending into the politics of fear.

Rohan Swee said...

Udolpho: the modes are basically masculine vs. feminine...with the effort to treat women as men, to pretend they have the same natures and same proclivities, the West let itself become sillier and more effeminate, but also shriller and more demanding

That explanation appears to be a nice fit for the modern West (especially the "shriller" part"), but I think Steve gets at a more general truth when he concludes "[i]n general, the contemporary mode of emotionalism and herding is the human default. The great ages of intellectual progress via debate were rare social constructs, and it's not surprising that they easily break down".

What Westerners of a certain age (or certain epochs) think of as being a natural masculine mode of engagement - dispassion, disinterest, "playing the ball, not the man", willingness to take personal responsibility for a mistake (with the expectation that being in the wrong sometimes is to be expected, not an invitation to a scapegoating frenzy) - is probably a pretty rare ethos among human beings. From my bigoted and hidebound perspective the rest of the world has often struck me as irritatingly "effeminate" and emotionalized, even where women's participation in public or professional life was negligible.

sunbeam said...

Conatus said:

" Britain is becoming a place where free speech is at risk, non-political institutions are becoming politicised, and a combination of political correctness and ethnic-religious separatism is eroding the graciousness of civil society. Religious groups are becoming pressure groups. Boycotts and political campaigns are infecting professional bodies. Culture is fragmenting into systems of belief in which civil discourse ends and reasoned argument becomes impossible. The political process is in danger of being abandoned in favour of the media-attention-grabbing gesture. The politics of freedom risks descending into the politics of fear."

That is a pretty decent description of the US as I have known it my whole life. When I was young gays were in the closet. Other than the fact that religious people are politically active now, I don't know when exactly it was ever different. If you go back to 1972 you will find people doing the same things, different players, but the same plays.

Jeff W. said...

The word argue comes from the Latin arguo which has the same root as argentum, the Latin word for silver.

Both words carry the meaning of bright or white. The Latin word arguo carries the idea that through arguing, ideas are refined and polished and become as bright as silver.

http://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/The-Home-Forum/2008/0905/p18s01-hfes.html

A good argument is a process of refining ideas and plans, trying to make them as well thought-out and as clearly expressed as possible.

It takes some humility as well as tolerance of criticism to take part in such a process. Experience in argument and debate is also helpful. Most American college graduates got no experience of it in school.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to burst your contemporary gay bubble. The Greeks you speak of were pederasts and ebophiles. They were as "GAY" as Jerry sandusky, and modern day pederastic rabbis and priests. Contemporary egalaterian homosexuality was not practiced by them. Homosexual sex was between grown men and adolescent /children. I don't know if sex with children is something your gay lobby wants to be associated with.

Kylie said...

"the modes are basically masculine vs. feminine...with the effort to treat women as men, to pretend they have the same natures and same proclivities, the West let itself become sillier and more effeminate, but also shriller and more demanding."

What effort to treat women as men? I've never noticed that. What I have noticed for decades now is the effort to treat women as some sort of privileged mutation of men, entitled to the same rights but allowed to pass on the concomitant responsibilities.

The West has definitely become sillier and shriller. More feminized or more infantilized? Not sure there's much difference between the two.

Silver said...

The word argue comes from the Latin arguo which has the same root as argentum, the Latin word for silver.

Both words carry the meaning of bright or white. The Latin word arguo carries the idea that through arguing, ideas are refined and polished and become as bright as silver.


I'm blushing.

Anonymous said...

"The Greeks you speak of were pederasts and ebophiles."

Plato was gay so we can disregard all that philosophy stuff. That's reasonable.

Anonymous said...

It seems like basically (and somewhat counter-intuitively), discourse among ingroup members tends to be more of the combative type (since it can be assumed that underlying the various points of view, some core interests are shared), while discourse between members of different groups tends to be of the sensitivity-driven type (since in this case the people will generally not share the same interests, and the main purpose is to prevent some kind of serious conflict from breaking out).

David said...

What about people who are neither offended by the truth and plain speaking nor dirty-mouthed playground brats? What might Chesterton have made of the epithet "butthurt"? (Which, I believe, originated among Democrats of the Kos and Democratic Underground variety and now has spread, apparently, to would-be tough guys on the right.)

The apparent meaning of this epithet is: "I, your opponent, have ---- you in the ----. Now you are injured, like a male rape victim. I win." What this has to do with sporting discourse and logical argument is hard to say, unless by argument we mean the gutter variety popular among proles of all stations. "Yo momma" is more civilized by comparison.

In a funny way, the use of "butthurt" is feminine, in the sense that it concentrates on the personal - the emotion involved or, more often, merely thought to be involved. "You're butthurt!" is supposed to be a checkmate, like "you're a racist!" or "you're a male chauvinist pig!" is supposed to be a checkmate. The argument then devolves into the familiar pattern: "No, I'm not [epithet]." "Yes, you are, and your denial proves it!" "That's absurd." "[Epithet! Epithet!]"

Auntie Analogue said...


The modes aren't "feminine" and "masculine," the modes are purel juvenile vs. grownup.

Pre-schoolers and Kindergarteners need inclusiveness and "all must have prizes" so that no one's feelings get ruffled. Grownups - like Margarent Thatcher and Harry Truman - stand on their own two feet and dish out as good as they get. Western Civilization has gone down the tubes not because it's been feminized, but because it's been juvenilized. This is implicit in all the race-preference laws and policies: everyone must, like children, be compensated for past or present perceived slights, instead of everyone standing on his, or her, own two feet and taking and giving lumps on the actual issues. Gahhhh.

There is an old saying: If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen. Nowadays, under the juvenile mode, the juvenilizers have simply...taken away the kitchen! - just like the snotty little brats who upend the checkerboard whenever the game hasn't gone go their way.

And, oh, yes, that Alastair Roberts is most certainly one windy writer. Must have stayed home from school the day that "Brevity is the soul of wit" was taught.

Simon in London said...

>> Auntie Analogue said...

The modes aren't "feminine" and "masculine," the modes are purel juvenile vs. grownup.

Pre-schoolers and Kindergarteners need inclusiveness and "all must have prizes" so that no one's feelings get ruffled. <<

I haven't seen any sign of that in my son or his male peers (he's 5). They love masculine competition. I think it's more the kindergarten _teachers_ who need 'inclusiveness and all must have prizes'.

Anonymous said...

The root problem is white women of course! Geesh!

I have no problem debating and discussing and yelling and screaming at my white female friends...and then going on being friends.


The time I have run into this stuff is with non-white women. And there has never been a counter-example.

There was one white women I couldn't be open with...then I discovered she was claiming Hispanic-ness.

Anonymous said...

As a distant spectator to both the French and British political scene I'd say it's the French who have the more lively, masculine and sporting style of debate of the two countries. Britain seems to now use the "inclusive" feminine techniques of shaming, shunning, appeals to peer pressure and a delight in silliness and trivia to carry out its politics while France still uses the bare-knuckle debate. Their big political prizefight last week was between Manuel Valls and Marine Le Pen, who is very much her father's daughter except that she's better at keeping her cool. And, yes, even though she's one of the better players at this game, the French political scene is still very masculine. When I say "masculine" I don't mean there are lots of men either.

Zed O'Toole said...

Generally, anybody who denounces opponents as representing "hate" is hate-filled.

What a hateful thing to say.

I tried arguing with a woman once that women (on average) are too emotional to be good at reasoning. But she refused to accept it or indeed discuss it further, because the idea of sex-differences upset her too much. As for arguing with the Scotch-Irish... Tinnitus ahoy! And it has been a v. successful tactic.

Anonymous said...

Here's the debate on immigration between Marine Le Pen and Manuel Valls I mentioned:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AE3UdAV73C0

NOTA said...

I'm no historian at all, but my impression is that this kind of outraged point-and-sputter mode of argument, complete with purges, blacklists, lynchings, burnings at the stake, and breakings on the wheel, is not only the default mode of argument, it was common even during what we now think of as intellectual golden ages. Certainly, people arguing in public for unpopular minority religions, Bible-violating astronomy, geology, or biology, or political theories that required the powerful people in the local society to pick their own damned cotton have gotten plenty of hatred, shouting down, and running out of town over the years.

The thing is, we now see at least some subset of those rabble-rousers as the good guys. Their contemporaries mostly didn't--they saw the Darwins and Benthams and Douglasses as offensive and dangerous subversives, the way powerful people in the US in the early 50s saw Communists.

Similarly, most of the rabble-rousers were full of shit, just like most of their contemporaries spouting conventional wisdom of the day. But we mainly remember the small subset of rabble-rousers who were right. And if you're looking for a way to be right, arguments based on logic and data, of the kind that can convince a fair-minded skeptic who doesn't want to believe them, will get you a lot further than arguments based on "If you say that in public again, you'll be spitting out teeth, buddy."

Anthony said...

Those articles are long. I'm lazy. I want to read the Mencius Moldbug Condensed Edition.

Robellini said...

"one in which sensitivity, inclusivity, and inoffensiveness are key values"


The problem with this article is when i read that sentence, I knew the author was on the other side. No one ever characterizes their OWN position as dedicated to "inoffensiveness".

NOTA said...

I think there's a kind of availability bias that makes the arguments of the past seem more logical than they probably were. Logical arguments are almost the only ones that feel like they have any currency at all, and so the only ones most people will ever bother reading from the past. Arguments based on political or social identity have a lot of weight now, but they don't translate across countries and centuries too well. Seventy years ago, you could have shut up a lot of arguments by accusing the speaker of being a Communist, but these days, that kind of accusation just doesn't have much weight. Arguments that amount to "shut up or you'll get your ass kicked" have even less weight, when read centuries later and thousands of miles away--who cares what the Inquisition or the KGB will think of this argument, now that those things are no longer fearsome entities and never were very important here anyway?

The result is that the only arguments that seem worthwhile or intereting from the past are the ones that are mostly driven by logic of some kind. The more common appeals to identity, tradition, widespread belief, or threats of dire consequences for you or the world if you persist in your heresy just don't translate well.

You could demonstrably lose your job and be chased out of town and lose all your friends for making the wrong arguments even during the golden ages (still going on) when reason and math and experiment and observation gave us previously-unimaginable power and wealth. You could say true things that would ruin your life in 1612, in 1712, in 1812, and in 1912, just as you can in 2012. The thing that changes is mostly *which* true things you'd get in trouble for saying, which vary across times and places. )

Anonymous said...

The good way is a form of parallel processing - a way of leveraging all the brains in a population whereas the new way just uses the brains of those who have the ability to shout the loudest.

Not surprising that innovation stems from cultures that hit upon the good way.

jgress said...

I think Sailer is onto something when he notes that this social construct is rare. The natural mode is to take debating attacks personally; you need a lot of training in the right milieu to learn to separate your personal life from the debating arena.

I also agree that there is something inherently masculine about the Anglo-Saxon debating style, though it is also much more civilized than the "traditional" way men settled their difference. The introduction of more women into intellectual discourse may have something to do with this shift, though I imagine a lot of it is also beta-males wanting to make the women feel comfortable, as well as get emotional protection from the alpha-male debaters.

Anonymous said...

Steve, this is kind of an old distinction that feminist psycholgists have been talking about for decades regarding ethical learning.

Lawrence Kohlberg, a famous psychologist, in various studies discovered that female children have more difficulty than male children in learning and grasping the application of "universal" moral laws (like everybody should be treated equally before the law, etc...)

Carol Gilligan, another Harvard psycholgist, posited that it wasn't that girls were inferior it was just that they were more orientd to the communty and to building and maintaining relationships of inclusiveness (sound familiar?) and so they were therefore more likley to view universal laws as amenable to bending or breaking in order to preserve the community.

It's quite funny really ... and just nonsense because bascially what it boils down is girls wanting everyone to get along...even if it means fucking over their brothers ... and if you object ... well then you are "racist" or a "sexist" or whatever.

To me the Left doesn't use rational arguments because rational arguments are yucky and ineffective to reach their fellow travelers who operate purely on the level of emotion... therefore they just rely on ad hominen attacks like you're "racist" or "sexist".

Extraordinarily primitve type of point and sputter if you think about it... but amazing how effective being denounced as a witch is in this day and age.

It's all emotion ... female brains are smaller that's a fact (as is the case with certain minorities)... giving them the vote was a huge mistake...no question about it. Rational arguments will never ever reach most of them .

We are doomed.

Anonymous said...

The distinction stems from the aim.

If the aim is to arrive at the closest point to the truth i.e. *both* brains want to arrive at the same spot, then you develop a debating mechanism with agreed rules which leverages all the available brains to the same end.

Peer-review is an example.

If the aim is for one side to *win* regardless of the truth then the form adapts to that aim whether through extreme verbal aggression or extreme passive-aggression the result is the same.

Rigging peer-review a la climategate is an example.

The first form is rare but when it takes root the people among whom it roots tend to invent / discover a great deal during the time it lasts.

seebs said...

I don't think there are exactly two models on offer, and I'm not sure I buy the assignment of gender roles to them.

As always, before you declare a mechanism superior, you need to figure out what you want to accomplish. In general, my experience is that more metaphorically violent forms of discourse are great at determining who's wittier, and crappy at determining who's right. Carefully non-confrontational forms, on the other hand, are frequently poor at getting any articulation at all of what the positions even are, let alone some kind of meaningful contrast.

In short, it seeems to me that you're comparing two strategies which both suck.

I observe:

There is giving offense, and there is taking offense. If you try to avoid anything at which people might take offense, you can't expect to say anything of interest. If you go out of your way to give offense, you may be able to say things of interest, but you won't communicate them. The winning strategy seems to be for people to accept that offense may occur, but to avoid going out of their way to give offense.

Most people know nothing about how to persuade.

seebs said...

I don't think there are exactly two models on offer, and I'm not sure I buy the assignment of gender roles to them.

As always, before you declare a mechanism superior, you need to figure out what you want to accomplish. In general, my experience is that more metaphorically violent forms of discourse are great at determining who's wittier, and crappy at determining who's right. Carefully non-confrontational forms, on the other hand, are frequently poor at getting any articulation at all of what the positions even are, let alone some kind of meaningful contrast.

In short, it seeems to me that you're comparing two strategies which both suck.

I observe:

There is giving offense, and there is taking offense. If you try to avoid anything at which people might take offense, you can't expect to say anything of interest. If you go out of your way to give offense, you may be able to say things of interest, but you won't communicate them. The winning strategy seems to be for people to accept that offense may occur, but to avoid going out of their way to give offense.

Most people know nothing about how to persuade.

NOTA said...

Anon:

Two markers for seeking truth instead of victory:

a. How likely is it that your claim about reality can be tested with experiments or observations in the near future?

b. Is there an incentive for some people to get their picture of reality right, in order to achieve some other goal?

The worst situation is one where there's nobody with a strong incentive to get the right answer to accomplish some other goals (like making their plane fly or getting rich or geting their building to stand up), and where it's rarely or never possible to test anyone's theories against new data. In that case, however much the field has the trappings of science, it turns into an exercise in convincing other people you're right. That looks a lot more like philosophy or macroeconomics or politics than it does like physics or engineering or even medicine.

I think in fields like that, intellectual fads and clicques are almost guaranteed. Let those fads and clicques get caught up in larger social and political identity, and any search for truth is even less likely to happen.

NOTA said...

seebs:

Techniques for enforcing group norms and beliefs, or defining some ideas or people as beyind the pale, are pretty useful in various levels of group politics, from me and my brother vs my cousin stuff all the way up to national politics or keeping a big church together.

The super inclusive style of discourse is mainly useful for keeping a relatively big, diverse group all pointed the same direction, I think. CEOs and political leaders like that kind of language, because it helps them harness a bigger group of people to their will. (And the purpose can be good or bad. There is a damned good reason why the usual advice about workplace discussions involves staying off of politics, religion, and other conflict-laden topics.).

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