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.

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