An Aggressive Argument for More Aggressive Argument

The comment and contribution guidelines for this blog open with an observation, “internet discussions frequently are neither respectful nor enjoyable, nor really conversations.”  That is a point that is difficult to contest. Everyone knows the internet is an intellectual and political shithole.  Thus the instructions continue: “Conversation here is respectful.  That means it is not insulting and it gives the benefit of the doubt.” These are laudable goals.  We would like folks to be good and charitable listeners.  But it is not clear that saying, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all,” is the best way to get more—and more open—discussion.

Elites, in my view, want to have it both ways.  We want to cherish and protect the rights of the screaming plebes . . . but keep them out of our back yard.  I will argue here that without more fully embracing screaming plebeianism, the otherwise sophisticated and correct academic prescriptions for more rhetoric, more debate, more interdisciplinarity, more ideological diversity, will stay unrealized.  Academic culture varies between a self help group, kindergarten sharing circle, and a buttoned-up sixteenth century court.  These performances of dispassion and emotional empathy are well intentioned, but they frustrate real intellectual confrontation.  Should we give up the game completely and just scream at each other?  No.  But probably more screaming is good for us.

Sharp argument, barbed snark, one liners, insults, can and often do lead to sweet talk and understanding.  It is not the case that in an argument (any more than an actual fight) if one party pulls a gun, the other will pull a nuke.  There is an intuition we have that if person A gives offense, person B will up the ante, and both will end up in a prisoner’s dilemma.  In this view, anything nasty starts a race to the bottom of the shithole.  That strikes me as a cynical view that forgets that there is more than one way to fight.

One can respond to aggression with ever nastier aggression, sure.  Or one can respond with passive aggression.  For every British imperialist there is a line of Gandhi salt marchers.  It is important to embrace and invite British imperialists to the table.  Violent comments are often the first sputters of something that has not been broached before. Transgressing commonly held beliefs is like a breakup.  There is no good way to do it.  It is uncomfortable, but people are not cowards who cannot handle being dumped.

We generally recognize the the benefits of resolving issues—even issues that are being spat at us—and the value of defending our reputations at an insult.  Screaming matches are exhausting and no one can keep them up forever.  So screaming matches often evolve into passive aggressive battles to gain the moral high ground.  We cannot have passive aggressive argument—sweet talk—to the exclusion of shit-giving direct aggression.  They rely on one another.  Without journalists and television pundits, scientists and humanists have no claim to superiority.  Without coddled and cotton mouthed academics, journalists and television pundits have no claim to keepin’-it-real superiority.

Allow me propose a hypothesis: all argument is a fight and that the goal is to win, but it is a fight more like economic competition than a street fight.  Like market exchanges, one party may win more handsomely than the other, but both get ahead.  We seem to have characterized some arguments as non-aggressive not-fights because we are terrified that aggressive argument is zero sum, a street fight.  We are (maybe reasonably) scared that aggressive arguments lead to fists, or to taking our ball and going back home to our epistemic camp.  But that is not the case! Argument, even the “you’re acting just like your mother” kind, is for the most part prosocial and positive sum.

George Lakoff points out in Metaphors We Live By, that a foundational metaphor in America is that Argument Is War.  Take these examples:

  • “His criticisms were right on target.”
  • “You disagree? Okay, shoot!

We all seem to intuitively agree that argument is a fight.  The question then becomes why rational agents would continue to fight, to argue, if argument a zero sum assurance of mutual destruction.  The answer seems pretty simple: it’s not. And so we ought to be less afraid of argument.

Both sides of an exchange, even an aggressive exchange, in the marketplace of ideas inevitably concede points in order to gain others.  Sometimes people concede points in more humble and direct ways, “I take your point, and…”  But even the interlocutor who is too freshly disabused to admit error takes the lessons home.  Poignant phrases haunt him until he reasons them through.  He leaves behind arguments he’ll never make again, and gives his opponent bits that she will digest later.

Not every argument can or should be polite and disinterested.  In fact if we take the metaphor of market exchange seriously, when we put people to debate who have no interest in the outcome, and who want to avoid high stakes exchange, we impoverish everyone.  We elites ought to not just ensure and protect a society where Donald Trump can sound off like a racist sack of dicks, or where Larry Flynt can show up to the Supreme Court with his balls wrapped in an American flag.  We ought to accept, welcome, embrace, and encourage it.  Even and especially on the internet and more so on campus.

Such is my purpose in making this point, again, to academics on the internet.  I once argued on a different blog that, “no one was ever persuaded that slavery was inhumane without a conversation that started with a lot of profanity.”   I stole the point from Jonathan Rauch, who argues (as a homosexual Jew pleased with the outcome of debates over homosexuality and Jewry) that bias and bigotry are not a hindrance but the foundation of enlightening discussion.   Gay kisses on church steps carried as much semiotic significance in the liberation of homosexuals (if not more) than did smoking-coat debates about sexual history.

Offending people is a skill and an important one.

Our most cherished beliefs are precognitive.  They go unaddressed and unannounced because we are already on the same page as our friends.  These priors live in the nerve complex in the gut and spinal cord.  Attacking them makes us feel sick to our stomachs. They arouse anger and stumbling-over-our-words disbelief.  We are often at a loss to justify or articulate these deepest beliefs.  That is precisely why we must offend one another into justifying and articulating them.  We cannot achieve an intelligent and empathetic society without stomping on nerves.  We need to be badgered and insulted and zinged into accounting for ourselves.  From insult there results understanding.

That means welcoming profanity and offense—in all of its glorious and mischievous fuckery—into polite society.

Questions remain here.  How much fuckery is optimal?  Relentless fuckery does in fact produce a screaming match or ultimately a fist fight.  How much empathic listening in the mode of National Public Radio’s Terry Gross or your high-school guidance counselor is necessary to thin the salt in the intellectual soup?  Can we effectively toggle between being aggressive and charitable, between being insulting and polite?  These are questions worth arguing over, aggressively.  A world of, “dignified sweet talk or shut up,” is both impossible to achieve and anyway undesirable for people who are interested in empathy and learning.

7 thoughts on “An Aggressive Argument for More Aggressive Argument

  1. In my personal opinion, a good argument is enriching. It makes you ok with confrontation. It is impossible to be in a world without opposing views. Why on earth would anyone want to live their even if it were? Nothing would ever improve, no one would ever want to tell someone there is a better way to do anything. Me and my dad used to debate things all the time, just for the sake of debating. It has made me able to get my point across, and unafraid of telling someone if i feel like they’re wrong. Unfortunately i live in a world where people are afraid to tell me if they think they’re right. I want my views and opinions challenged. Make me tell you why i think the way that i do. Yell, show the passion you have for your way of thinking. Without the passion, how can I consider changing my thought process? If your not willing to passionately defend your stance, then it must not be as good as mine.

    1. Yeah I share that disposition (obviously). But I do understand not everyone is like me in those communicative preferences. In the spirit of your first point there, I definitely want to be around people who are different from me. It’d be pretty boring to be around only people who enjoy only eviscerating debate. I’d just like to see everyone be a little more open to it, and move the mean of the distribution of aggressive arguments a little to the right. Cheers!

  2. I think that there’s a pretty important distinction between A. aggressive and B. challenging. In your blog entry you kinda blur the distinction.

    There’s really no guarantee that an aggressive argument will challenge your views. But by definition, a challenging argument will challenge your views. If it doesn’t, then it wasn’t that challenging.

    Or… maybe you aren’t so susceptible to challenging arguments? I’m pretty sure that we can’t all be equally susceptible to challenging arguments. Just like our bodies can’t all be equally susceptible to challenging exercises.

    You seem to appreciate diversity. If you like diversity then you should love the idea of people having the option to choose where their taxes go. If you don’t love this idea… then your interest in diversity is purely superficial. You like diversity in theory… but not in practice.

    Maybe you think that diversity can be effectively represented? If so, then your thinking is super wrong. Diversity can never be effectively represented. There has been, and only will ever be, one exception…

    “Do I contradict myself?
    Very well then I contradict myself,
    (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

    1. Please try to reign in the extent to which you bring up this scheme for direct choice in how tax money is spent. When the topic of the post is relevant to that question, fine. But it certainly is not on topic here. This comment overall is on topic enough, but I just want to remind you, for future comments, that it’s our policy here to not let off-topic comments through.

    2. There’s no guarantee any kind of argument will change someone’s mind. I like rattling people’s cages and having mine rattled, so I’m looking for reasons to believe that it at least sometimes changes people’s minds. (It’s definitely changed mine. ) I haven’t seen a lot of explicit defenses of rattling cages, so I thought I’d take a shot at one.

      Not toally sure what you’re getting at with tax policy. But if I’m sensing your point, I think the question of whether government taxation on net increases choice and diversity is an interesting thing to argue aggressively about! Cheers!

  3. I love this post.

    Another benefit of “fuckery” is that it can be extremely honest. Few things are more annoying than hearing a bunch of academic-types trade barbs on the sly, as if dressing them up in formal wear makes them no longer barbs. If all we’re doing here is insulting each other, then let’s at least come clean about it.

    1. Means a lot, thanks. And yeah, you’re right. Books could be written about the insincerity of passing off condescending and patronizing rhetoric as intellectual and emotional charity. *fist bump*

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