“An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.
No it isn’t.”
The other day, I found myself once again engaging in an argument with some random internet bonehead. This seems to happen to me with ridiculous frequency, and I think I may be starting to understand why. This particular bonehead tried to tell me that ad tracking leads to ‘identity theft’ (the quotes are to illustrate my general disdain for the term. What is commonly referred to as ‘identity theft’ is most usually simply credit card fraud. Nobody ever showed any interest in buying insurance against credit card fraud, though).
Anyway, when I first encountered this idea, I did what I usually do when I come across an idea that seems a little odd to me – I researched it a bit. I discovered some interesting things: that ‘identity theft’ has actually been on the decline (at least as of 2007, the latest figures I could easily find), that slightly less than 12% of ‘identity theft’ occurs online, and that law enforcement agencies recommend conducting business online as a means to prevent ‘identity theft’. I explained to bonehead that I didn’t share his fears regarding ad tracking, and he basically told me that I’m wallowing in my own ignorance and that if I could achieve the lofty heights of his superior knowledge, I would be quaking in fear just as he was. This time, I pointed him to the information I had learned earlier, asked him to explain it, and asked him to point me to one single documented case of ‘identity theft’ that had been attributed to ad tracking. His response? Once again, I’m accused of idiocy based solely on the fact that I will not accept whatever he says at face value. Did he actually attempt – in any way – to back up his statements? Nope. So I called him on it. His response to this was the best of the lot. Told me he wouldn’t ‘pander to my demands’ (really – he used the word ‘pander’), told me that I should go out and find his proof for him (I’m not making this up), that I was calling him a liar unless he offered up some proof (I called him no such thing. I didn’t call him a bonehead, either. I just think he is one) and, finally, that he was wasting his time by discussing something with a person who calls him arrogant (yup, I did call him that. Call me crazy. I can’t help but think a guy who tells me to do the necessary research to back up his idea is just a wee bit arrogant).
Anyway, this latest encounter with an internet pundit got me to thinking. Specifically, about the nature of argument. As I always seem to be doing these days, I spent a fair amount of time thinking it through with an eye toward it being A Discussion I Will Have With My Son.
I am not, by nature, an argumentative kind of guy. I do, however, like a good argument. These two statements are not contradictory. They only conflict with each other if you don’t understand the nature of arguments. Michael Palin (quoted above) quoted the definition of argument, virtually word-for-word, from the OED. In a nutshell, an argument is much the same as any other form of discourse between humans: it’s simply an exchange of ideas. The problem some people have (and the place where misunderstanding creeps into the mix) is that, in the case of arguments, the ideas being exchanged are opposing and often seemingly contradictory. I say ‘seemingly’ because it is difficult for some people to wrap their brain around the idea that opposing points of view can be (and quite often are) equally valid, equally ‘right’, and equally ‘correct’ (or ‘incorrect’, if your worldview demands it). An argument is not a competition (when competition is added to an argument, it becomes a debate), nor is it a conflict. Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop people from thinking that an argument is something that you ‘win’. So far too many ‘arguments’ get treated as some sort of conflict, a conflict that needs to be ‘won’ by proving one’s own point of view to be the ‘right’ point of view. Sadly, insecurity often drives people to believe that the only way to be proven ‘right’ is by pointing to someone else as being ‘wrong’ (this often becomes intertwined with the irrational fear that admitting to your own mistakes causes your penis to fall off). Those who are subject to this confusion usually collect what they perceive to be the Holy Grail of arguments: the endgame. The verbal equivalent of checkmate. The Statement With Which There Is No Arguing. Sometimes, they’re quite effective (“You’re not a woman, so you can’t possibly understand”), but usually they’re just sad and transparent (“I’m not going to pander to your demands of sourcing information on such cases”). In any case, they all just indicate that someone has either run out of ideas, or they have realized that their position is indefensible but find themselves emotionally unable to abandon it. Some people have a very hard time letting go of an idea once they have embraced it.
One of my favorite Professors at college explained scientific theory thusly: “Start with an idea. Then do everything in your power to punch holes in that idea. If it stands up to that onslaught, hand the idea to all your colleagues and have them do everything in their power to punch holes in it. If your idea also stands up to that onslaught, then you might – just might – be on to something.” I took that explanation to heart, and I apply it to every new idea that comes my way. Upon first encountering an idea, I scrutinize it and decide whether to embrace or reject it. Now – if you are the person who happened to present that idea to me, and if you (for whatever reason) wish for me to re-examine my initial decision about the idea, then you would be well advised to give me a reason to do so. If you are unwilling (or unable) to bring anything to the table aside from your initial idea, don’t be surprised when I fail to take either you or your ideas seriously. I do not – and will not – apologize for this behavior on my part. I feel that it is every thinking being’s right and duty to question ideas. Unquestioned ideas are dangerous. They are the stuff of which tyranny is made. Even – especially – tyranny of the self-imposed variety.
When I attended Oxford, a classmate and friend of mine took a class on Parliamentary Debate. The class divided in half and debated a variety of issues, and they opened up a couple of their debates to the general public. I attended these public debates, and they were vastly entertaining and informative. The topics of debate were chosen carefully, so that there would be as little ‘right vs. wrong’ as possible. The idea was to teach a set of skills, not to prove a point. Debate is pretty much just formal argument. It is a competition, with a winner and a loser. A debate is not won, however, by proving oneself ‘right’ or ‘correct’, nor by proving one’s opponent ‘wrong’ or ‘incorrect’. Either of these, given the nature of debate, is impossible to do. The way a debate is won is by presenting your own case more effectively than your opponents present their case. An argument is ‘won’ (if there absolutely has to be winning involved) the same way. It is not ‘won’ by mindlessly repeating your initial statement. It is not ‘won’ by mindlessly contradicting the statements of those who disagree with you. It is not ‘won’ by asking someone else to back up your statements for you. And it is definitely not ‘won’ by failing to present a case at all.