On Disagreement: The How and the Why

Hello, and Happy New Year to all of you who stop by and read what I write here at HDE. I have been traveling across the south over the holidays, which is why posting was so sparse, but now that I am getting back into the flow of things at home again I plan on picking right back up where I left off.

I’ve been a little bit out of the policy loop lately and, with the world holding its breath to see how the health care law is going to perform in early 2014, I figure now may be a good time to write a little bit about something that’s been on my mind lately, and that’s how we (as a society of bloggers, thinkers, and writers) share ideas and conduct our disagreements with one another. To cut to the chase a little bit, I’ve been thinking more about this since Paul Krugman has been posting to his blog lately on the topic of “zombie” and ideas, and on using “snark” in general as a means of conducting public debate. I generally have taken a different approach toward snarkiness, so I thought I’d take this opportunity just to share my thoughts.

Before I continue, I’d also like to acknowledge the fact that, unlike myself, Paul Krugman is a very public figure, especially for someone in academia. And, although I’ve worked hard to cultivate even the utterly modest following I currently enjoy as a blogger and a newspaper editorialist, the criticism I receive as a result of what I write in those capacities just pales in comparison to the sort of widespread scrutiny that bears down upon someone who has as much of a platform as Krugman. In addition to the hate mail and personal confrontation he must endure, he is the subject of countless articles and even entire blogs that are dedicated to making him out to be a hypocrite, a charlatan, a know-nothing, a liar, and worse, and so it’s worth pointing out that it isn’t exactly fair for someone like me, who for the most part is not exposed to much of that, to say how he should and shouldn’t respond to it.

And that is exactly why I won’t. I am, after all, merely using Paul Krugman as an example of the sort of debate tendencies that I’m interested in discussing, and there are obviously plenty of public figures on any side of any debate who employ identical tactics, sometimes to a much greater extent than Krugman does. Instead of trying to put myself in the shoes of each of these people, and to contextualize my criticism within the atmosphere of their careers, past and prior debates, etc., and to come down one way or another as to whether or not their debate tactics are appropriate or effective or efficient or justified, I’m simply going to stick to what I know. I’m going to briefly write about why I have consciously spent the past year trying to distance myself as much as I can from combative styles of writing and debating, and how pleased I have been with the results. I can’t say which approach is right or wrong for any other writer, but I am happy to share my own experiences, and, in so doing, can hopefully benefit at least a reader or two.

Before I go on, I should also note that I don’t think that my writing style has ever been all that antagonistic by general standards. There certainly have been times, however, when I have flippantly dismissed thinkers or ideas, and I think that falls in the same category. In most cases–take, for example, arguments for raising the minimum wage–I didn’t dismiss the advocates because I felt I was unfamiliar with or threatened by their ideas. In fact, it was quite the opposite: I felt I’d read so many arguments for raising the minimum wage, and knew them and the rebuttals to them so well, that there was little need to respond to or engage with the minimum wage advocates. (I’m going to use the minimum wage as an example throughout this post, but don’t let it distract you–it’s simply so I’m not speaking in generalities; think of it as more of a placeholder than anything else). The problem with my line of reasoning here, I’ve concluded, is that it borders on abdicating the responsibility that I take up to inform others each time I decide to write on a topic in the first place. I do to a certain extent write to shape my own arguments and clarify my own views on things, but the greatest part of my motivation comes from a desire to share with others the ideas and arguments that have most influenced my way of thinking. When I write, I am usually trying to convey ideas and explanations to readers who’ve not yet been exposed to them, and this generally works best when I am very familiar with the topic at hand, i.e., when I have seen and read it so many times before that, although I do not need to respond to it for my own sake, I am in a particularly strong position to do so for my readers.

An obvious objection to this point is that such an approach to public discourse is inefficient: if we follow it all the way to its conclusion, then our best and brightest thinkers will spend all of their time working on responses to the same basic arguments over and over again. At a certain point, we need to just discard those tired old canards and get a move on the more important things, don’t we? I personally can’t get on board with this approach, because it’s just not that difficult in the Internet age to refer readers to previously written posts on the most basic and easily refuted ideas. And the burden obviously doesn’t fall individually to each and every blogger–I generally refer readers to well-written posts by greater writers than myself when it comes to quickly responding to basic points, since the blogosphere is a sort of open commons and since those individuals are more adept than I am. Ultimately, it is easiest to refute basic ideas you see over and over again, and it gets easier over time, as more and more refutations accrue online, so I don’t buy that we should squash the basics by responding with sarcasm. In my opinion, blogging and writing is about informing, and I don’t see how that’s better served by opting out than it is by explaining.

Moving on, I’ll admit that it is frustrating to try and have a nuanced conversation when a party to that conversation is pushing an idea so far out of bounds that it threatens to derail the entire exchange. If I’m involved in a debate on the minimum wage, say, and someone else at the table is aggressively advocating for a $1,000/hr. increase, it’s difficult to argue that we’re really having a serious conversation on the issue of the minimum wage. I’m still not certain, however, that a sarcastic reaction to that argument is necessarily going to help the situation. We know from our daily lives that name-calling and ridicule rarely promote a serious exchange of ideas, so this to me seems like just stooping to someone else’s level. On top of that, it again fails to inform. If the $1,000/hr. increase is so ridiculous, shouldn’t we be able to say why–if not for the polemicist at the table, at least to clarify things for our own readers and listeners? After all, simply calling the polemicist names might tell our fans that they shouldn’t listen to his ideas, but they still don’t really know why. It seems to me that this approach trades one form of ignorance for another, and it isn’t obvious to me that the second form is somehow more innocuous than the first.

This is starting to get long, so I’ll wrap things up. There are two other reasons why I have been so pleased with skewing away from combative argumentation, and I think that they will actually be fairly straightforward and unsurprising to most readers. The first of these is that combative debate breeds combative debate and ultimately leads to a loss of respect for one’s intellectual opponents, a subsequent closing of the mind, and increasingly serious holes and flaws in one’s own arguments. (If you feel that, on most issues, you totally cannot identify with a position held by roughly 200 million other people, and that they must either all be evil, stupid, or disingenuous to hold those positions, then you are truly doing yourself no favors when you refuse to even think through their arguments). I have found, in trying to represent my opponents’ views as faithfully as possible in my own writing, I have often deepened my understanding of them, gained more respect for them, and have found even greater conviction and confidence in new and improved versions of my own views. Have I been perfect? Certainly not–there is always room for improvement–but I’ve been better,  and I hope to continue that trend. It’s also helpful to remember that we are all generally working toward many of the same goals. It may be a healthier economy, better job options, a wealthier society, a more robust health care system, or any other number of things, but oftentimes the end is the same; it’s the means of getting there on which we disagree. This is a useful point to keep in mind when writing. A little perspective can go a long way.

The final point is, quite obviously, that no one has ever changed their mind on an issue as a result of someone else referring to them as a zombie or a cockroach. At least, I know that I haven’t. I’ve written enough on controversial issues and been involved in enough casual conversations to know that, by the time words like these come out, people are generally just preaching to their respective choirs. But you’d be surprised–getting an enthusiastic, “you really told them!” style e-mail is far less gratifying than a thoughtful “I’m not sure I agree, but I never looked at it that way before.” The latter are far harder to come by, but they feel more earned, mean far more, and are much more memorable.

This finally brings me back to the title of this post, which is “On Disagreement: The How and the Why.” The “how” is, obviously, what I’ve been discussing, but the “why” doesn’t have to do with the roots of our disagreements. It has to do with why we as bloggers and thinkers and writers devote so much of our time and energy to all of this. I can’t speak for anyone else but, if it were just about taking jabs and racking up high fives from my own personal peanut gallery, I would’ve stopped doing all this stuff a long time ago.

As I mentioned before, all of this is my own, personal experience, so mileage may vary. It might not mean much to anyone else, and we’ve all got our own styles. I suggest that you do what works best for you. But, if you’re still figuring out what that is, setting aside snark for a post or two may be worth a try.

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One Response to On Disagreement: The How and the Why

  1. Howling Fantodz says:

    Speaking of tearing down weak arguments, Stefan Molyneux does a great job in his recent post: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WvlbMOGQico

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