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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