Against Temper Tantrums

Featured image is Argument Over A Card Game, by Jan Steen.

Remember South Park Conservatives?

At some point, the whole political and social spectrum bought into the cult of authenticity. The sloppy and spontaneous, the vulgar and unrestrained, are more truly human, have more integrity, than the polished, disciplined, and polite. Or so the story goes.

That the elites who believe this still feel the social pressure to be somewhat polished and polite is no object here—if anything, it merely heightens their admiration for those able to break the chains of decorum.

This is one of the great imbecilities of our age. For one thing, it mistakes mere childishness for some higher virtue, some deeper connection with nature. For another, it merely substitutes one script for another, and pretends to have done away with artifice as a result.

Purgatives and Provocations

What I liked about Graham’s aggressively provocative post on aggressive arguments reminded me of Martha Nussbaum’s The Therapy of Desire. Nussbaum explored the art of ancient philosophy, in which the masters presented themselves as healers of the soul.

Aristotle did not believe practical philosophy was of much help to those who had not already had sufficient life experience of a certain sort. In other words, you had to help yourself before the philosopher could help you. At that point a dialectical method was employed, meaning a great deal of back and forth, give and take relationship, rather than a straightforward administering of medicine. This, in short, is a more passive approach.

Epicurus, on the other hand, put the philosopher in a relationship to their discipline more recognizably like doctor and patient.

Epicurus said, “Let us altogether chase out our bad habits, like evil men who have long done us great harm.” Purgative arguments, repeatedly applied, are the doctor’s remedy of choice for deeply entrenched habits of believing and valuing. At the same time—since the teacher is not a one-sided character and his “devotion to his techne is many-colored”—he will mix in with his harsh medicine some good-tasting stuff, for example, some “plentiful words of praise”; and he will “encourage  her to do good things”.

In both this and Graham’s piece, I am reminded of negging. You insult or troll or directly attack what is cherished in order to soften up the other person, rather than to rile them up.

For Graham, the point is to shake us out of our dogmatic slumber:

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.

This is the core of his post, and a very important point.

I have written a great deal about prejudices, and their role in both fostering and subverting understanding. The most direct way to confront the ones you may not have even known you had is to experience something that subverts them—a situation, a novel or work of art, or an argument.

Graham and I are on the same page, as far as this goes.

But I find the rest of his argument wanting.

Scalpels Over Cudgels

South Park conservatism was, as I said above, an absurd proposition from the start, based on the false idol of authenticity. We can acknowledge a role for aggressive arguments without regressing to the schoolyard. We can “stomp on nerves” with cutting wit or direct confrontation, and still behave like adults.

And so I cannot get behind the call for “more fully embracing screaming plebeianism,” as throwing a temper tantrum is not actually productive of good debate, confronting one’s biases, or any such thing. It’s one thing to give a fiery speech or provocative argument, quite another to merely scream or spout profanities. We have far, far too much of such nonsense already, a fact that Graham acknowledges at the beginning of his post.

If our general guidelines go too far in the direction of demanding respectfulness, without acknowledging the value of insults and more aggressive styles, this should be understood in its proper context. It is all relative to the foul septic tank that most of the conversation web has seeped into.

Aggressive arguments and, yes, even insults, do have their place in an environment that encourages good conversation to flourish. But action movie tropes aside, a polished boxer will never lose to a street brawler in a fist fight. If “all argument is a fight” and “the goal is to win,” then we ought to take rhetoric, the art of such combat, more seriously than we do. Sinking into South Park-isms is the exact opposite of this, and that is exactly what Graham is indicating we should indulge in. Four letter words lose their shock value very quickly, even in passive aggressively polite academic settings.

We need more temperance, polish, and discipline—not less.

One final thought: it may be that the game of making arguments has, as its in-game goal, to “win”. But even if that is the goal of a given game, that is not the point. More is gained in the playing of this game than we obtain from mere victory—as Graham implies by comparing it to “an economic competition” rather than “a street fight.” In the course of an argument we may discover that we are the ones whose prejudices turned out to be distortive, and so we “lost” the argument but gain something far greater than the victor.

And not all conversation-games have some sort of victory as the goal. For most, the goal is simply the playing itself.

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16 thoughts on “Against Temper Tantrums

  1. This is a solid challenge and of course I agree that the bits and pieces we collect along the way, during an argument, the process itself, is what’s important here. So I will definitely follow up with something more in depth.

    Right away, I wonder if the issue I’m struggling with here is that a kind of insincere “mere decorum” looks observationally equivalent to well crafted rhetorical scalpels. And so we see in highly formal ideas markets a lot of posturing in the mode of interested debate, when people are in fact bored to death, withering their emotional resilience, and avoiding the important issues.

    Passive aggression, pleasantries, and politeness are ways of avoiding conflict. Psychologists call it “indirect speech.” And that’s largely functional for flirting with and poking at people’s boundaries without bulldozing and ruining the opportunity to engage and learn.

    But indirect speech also serves some pernicious ends, like reinforcing ingroups. Take sarcasm. You laugh when you know I’m saying something that contradicts my actual beliefs because you enjoy being part of the same community with me, *wink, nod.* You also understand when I talk about “urban sociology” that I’m talking about (1) black and brown people in big cities, and (2) probably think their problems are attributable to formal institutions and historical oppression.

    So indirect speech and politeness can be in the first instance I mentioned a really important way to avoid pissing on everyone’s sacred totems indiscriminately. But it can be in the second instance a way people maintain epistemic communities without doing any actual rhetorical or analytical or ethical work.

    I’ll think this through and post something on 4chan with your home address soon.

    1. Lately I’ve flirted with the idea that most of what we care about has very little to do with formal appearances, and everything to do with the spirit of the thing. Just like there’s no such thing as a perfectly specified contract or law, because it can always be interpreted in bad faith, so too with most social relations. There are certainly very fun knock-down, drag out, profanities-laden arguments. There are also obviously suffocating cases of decorum. The reverse is also true, though, I think.

      It’s funny that you mention indirect speech, because I’ve been drawn more and more to that for what I consider an _honesty_ of that form. Namely, the indeterminacy and openness of all language and meaning; indirect speech, properly done, *owns* that indeterminacy rather than attempting to sweep it under the carpet, which (I believe) a great deal of direct speech engages in.

      Have you read or heard of Arthur Melzer’s Philosophy Between the Lines? It includes a fascinating discussion of direct vs indirect, high vs low context speech.

      Anyway, I think we approach this in a similar spirit—even if we’re wrestling with or focused on different dangers. As someone who isn’t actually in academia, I mostly am just retreating from the vitriol I see every day on the web. I can understand tearing your hair out if reserved, polite, passive aggression is the main way discussion is conducted.

      1. That’s all real smart. Let me take it in pieces.

        “There are certainly very fun knock-down, drag out, profanities-laden arguments. There are also obviously suffocating cases of decorum. The reverse is also true, though, I think.”

        True. I just don’t know how to distinguish between the two instances, so here I am stuck making category claims about all decorum. I wonder if the difference is in the intent. If you’re using decorum and padded speech to get someone to open up about their beliefs, great. If you’re using aggression to goad someone into opening up about their beliefs (and you’re going to actually listen when they start talking), great. If you’re using aggression or decorum to shut other people up and clear space for your own views, not so great.

        I still don’t know how we would recognize the difference between the two. Maybe it depends on whether the other party, after some testing with the different tactics, actually responds by opening up. So if you start jabbing at someone, say, and they don’t open up — that’s probably a good sign to switch to padded speech and soft tones. If you’re using soft tones and padded speech and they’re not opening up, time to switch to goading. If you keep bulldozing with either tactic, you reveal that you’re using indirect speech to be a stifling dick who doesn’t want to learn.

        I guess it’s all about consent and skillful ideological bargaining. You’ll get more out of the transaction if you can do it on terms the other party is comfortable with.

        “It’s funny that you mention indirect speech, because I’ve been drawn more and more to that for what I consider an _honesty_ of that form. Namely, the indeterminacy and openness of all language and meaning; indirect speech, properly done, *owns* that indeterminacy rather than attempting to sweep it under the carpet, which (I believe) a great deal of direct speech engages in.”

        Nice point. Again the difference in whether one is being honest or dishonest in their use of indirect speech will depend on their intent. And I guess that can only be known in a particular situation. If the other gal is sitting there feeling humiliated and dismissed by the indirect juking, because she wants to be direct, then you’re probably using indirect speech dishonestly.

        “Have you read or heard of Arthur Melzer’s Philosophy Between the Lines?”

        I sure as hell will now.

        “As someone who isn’t actually in academia, I mostly am just retreating from the vitriol I see every day on the web. I can understand tearing your hair out if reserved, polite, passive aggression is the main way discussion is conducted.”

        Bro. Honestly it really boils down to this for me. When I spend too much time on the web I get bored and annoyed with the simplistic screaming just like everyone else, turns me into swami pudra. When I spend too much time on campus, the cloying insincerity and careful tip-toeing around the already-insignificant-minutiae makes me want to scream. I really just want to get my head around what a good working conversation looks like. Talk is really, really hard.

  2. Insults in an argument are called “ad hominem” attacks. They attack the messenger not the message. Insults and ridicule harden the (opposing) attitudes of your audience, if you still have one. Even if your argument is intellectually solid, those who disagree will disagree more if you insult them. Argument is not about winning, it’s about persuasion. If you insult, you will not persuade another human to your way of thinking. Address the argument, not the arguer. I can’t see the point in any other approach…?

    1. Incorrect. Ad hominem is only when you argue that an _argument_ is incorrect because of a character flaw in the one making the argument. To insult the one making the argument is not automatically ad hominem, not even most of the time. To say that believing a particular argument is idiocy is to attack the folly of the argument itself.

      I think Graham made a good case for why insults have their place, when the setting is right. Sometimes a stagnant situation requires a wrecking ball to crack through. It should not be the default or most common approach, I do not think.

      1. To say that believing an argument is idiocy is to say that the person advancing the argument is an idiot. It’s an insult, pure and simple.

        Wikipedia: “argumentum ad hominem is a logical fallacy in which an argument is rebutted by attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person making the argument.” That says it better than I could (or did). 😉

    2. Hi patternchaser,

      Before I defend ad hominem further, lemme note that I’ve been through a lot of character assassination in my profession (sociology). So I don’t misunderstand how destructive it can be.

      On the other hand, let’s try to understand where ad hominem actually comes from. It might be a reasoning thing, rather than an irrational substitute for “real” argument. Most high-school English teachers tell us that ad hominem attacks are what come out when people run out of other arguments. That’s the “substitute” version of ad hominem.

      But what if ad hominem is complementary to more substantive and polite claims? What if it comes from essentially the same mechanism as more substantive and polite claims? I think what we’re really seeing here is that an attack on a person is an attack on their broadest set of first principles.

      It’s not technically incorrect that things like brains, compassion/empathy, discipline / work ethic, charity, sobriety, honesty, are necessary conditions of a good argument. It’s also not technically incorrect that insulting someone as stupid, crazy, dishonest, lazy, hateful, are ad hominem attacks. It’s ALSO not technically incorrect that people turn to these inferences about their opponents more often than those inferences are ACTUALLY the problem with the other side’s argument.

      So I think that we can admit that ad hominem is often misused and misused in a way disproportionate to whatever has offended the insult thrower — and still maintain that it is an effective, technically correct, and justified form of argument in some cases.

  3. It sounds to me as though the two of you are talking past each other somewhat. I know a few people who are allowed to hear my side of an argument and say to me, “You’re f—ing crazy!!!” And we’ll all laugh. But if most people say this to me, the conversation ends there and never begins again.

    I think a lot about “spending too much time in one’s own head.” When we spend too much time in our own thoughts, we lose the countervailing voice that keeps us sane. In that kind of a situation, it’s valuable to have someone hear your point of view, blink in disbelief, and tell you very directly, “That is basically insane.” To be sure, it’s uncomfortable to have to hear it, but sometimes we all do need to hear it.

    So Graham is right: setting a moratorium on all such statements has a stultifying effect on honest conversation. And Adam is right that we ought to have some manners. But it is a fine art to know when it’s time to say “You’re f—cking crazy!!!” and have a good laugh, and when it’s time to be subtle. We can’t think of clear rules in advance, because getting along with people is a complicated affair.

    The other thing that came to mind when I read this post is that you are severely underrating authenticity. In light of the passing of the great archon of authenticity, Prince, I might write a post about this. In the meantime, you might be interested in these:

    1. I agree with basically everything you said here (except on authenticity, but I’ll delay any remarks until I’ve read your posts 🙂 ).

      In subsequent conversations with Graham I feel like we came to be on the same page for the most part. In terms of what you’re talking about—having someone you can personally trust to call you out, even crudely—I completely agree, though I think it’s a bit orthogonal to the issue here. In this case, at least as I understand it, we’re mostly talking the public arena; even if public is a small academic conference or something.

      I definitely think we need correctives against being in our own head, in a big way. I think what Graham was pointing to was the need for correctives against bad equilibriums within public conversation communities. When your conversation group is stuck in nothing but passive aggressive remarks without direct confrontation, it’s probably time for someone to go in and take a sledgehammer to established decorum.

      1. I guess a key point for me is that sometimes the only thing that will force us to second-guess ourselves is a crude comment from a distrusted outsider. But maybe this is a function of the fact that I often require more bluntness from people.

      2. My purpose in writing this post, it would seem not successfully achieved, was to show how one could be cutting and even blunt without being childish.

      3. For me the real meat of my argument, which I could have really draw out more/better/good, is that sometimes an insult just fucking sticks to you like glue. In my more tangential daydreams there still reverberate key phrases from ex girlfriends, advisers, friends — shit that just haunts me. Since I’m honest and (maybe a little too) self critical, I feel the need to dive into WHY those phrases hurt my feelings so badly. Almost always it’s because a person has put their finger on some set of emotions and reasons that I was already conflicted and felt badly about. This, to me, opens up a genuine opportunity for learning.

        Now, I don’t want to propose that that is the only, main, or majority way we ought to persuade one another. But I want to rescue its value lest we all miss that opportunity. It is a dangerous game to play. It is really harder to piece together and observe people’s motivations, emotions, and first principles such that you can effectively identify a raw nerve of theirs. It is really hard to, moreover, make that insult stick in a way that is germane to whatever substantive topic is at hand. Usually ad hominem is poorly done, irrelevant (e.g., throwing someone’s divorce in their face when their opinions on tax policy are at issue), and therefore just a waste of time.

        But I think most routinely aggressive people would on some reflection have to admit how much they really enjoy nailing a good insult that sticks to someone and makes them think. And I think routinely passive aggressive people would on some reflection have to admit they enjoy sliding an insidious insult under the door crack of their interlocutor’s mind for the same reason.

  4. Here’s a thread that I recently created in an orchid forum…

    In that thread I included a link to my blog entry on the topic of creating better orchids for Mediterranean Climates. So far there’s only been two responses. Here’s one of them…

    “Link = pointless blithering.”

    Would I delete this response if I had the power to do so? No, of course not. I’m not an idiot. I would never delete comments that I consider to be worthless. Just because I fail to perceive the value of a comment doesn’t mean that everybody will be in the same boat as me. Regulating comments is all about hubris. And hubris is all about failing to understand the value of difference.

    Was this individual’s comment aggressive? Eh. It was certainly negative. Which is perfectly fine… except for the part where it completely lacked any specific substance. He didn’t follow with “… because…A, B and C”.

    Kinda like that olde time commercial… “where’s the beef?”

    So I wouldn’t want to encourage aggressiveness or attacks. I’d want to encourage more substance. Aggressiveness can be substantial… but more aggressiveness in no way, shape or form guarantees more substance.

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