Monday, December 23, 2013

A Note to Some of My Argumentative Friends.

This comes up so often that I've decided to just write a blog post so I can link to it when necessary. In a moment you may see why that's ironic.

I'm a bit opinionated and stubborn. However, it's well within my power to make changes to my beliefs based on reflection and debate. One of those major changes was to drop my Republican political party affiliation and formally identify with the Libertarians, as I came to realize that certain of the Republican party planks were not Constitutional (though this says nothing about my personal religious beliefs).

It's honest and open debate that makes the difference, and that means people airing some sincere disagreements. That doesn't mean we have to "hate" each other, or that we're "enemies" or "opponents". I truly believe that nobody gets into politics because they have an earnest desire to ruin the nation. We have different ideas about how to get things done and make things better. However, I do believe that some of those ideas, through lack of foresight and unintended consequences, or misplaced values, do have the effect of ruining the nation.

That's why we debate. We air those differences, talk them through, and respond to notable problems that we point out in each other's positions. It's important, though... vitally important... that for such a discussion to mean something there has to be a living mind behind those positions. There cannot be a debate between two recordings.

The Problem:

I've noticed a growing tendency in modern communication (on Usenet, various forums, and Facebook) to "argue" by means of links. I'm not talking about posting a link for comment... starting a conversation by saying, "Hey, did you guys see this?" I'm talking about reading an opinion by a live person that you're supposedly "conversing" with and responding by throwing a link at them, as if that's your response. Apparently you may believe that this brings gravitas to "your" rebuttal. That whatever (hopefully) famous or notable person you've cribbed is "there by your side, taking your part".

They're not.

Or perhaps you simply think that they've expressed your own opinion better than you could have... that somewhere in a 40-minute clip of Bill Maher, or a 5-page article from the Mother Earth News there's a point that's exactly the point you want to make, and that if only I'd watch it or read it then I'd see the light and repent of my wicked ways.

I won't.

Here's why:

I'm not there to argue with Bill Maher or Rush Limbaugh... their arguments are often severely flawed: not only the arguments of these particular individuals, but most pundits in general. They are almost invariably "playing politics" as a team sport,  and their arguments are consequently so twisted as to be no contribution at all to a debate based on actual issues. It's too "important" to them that the other side not gain control. So they exaggerate, oversimplify, appeal to emotion, and otherwise use whatever logical fallacies are at hand that they believe to be effective in influencing opinion.  But they're not making valid arguments. It's only when they stop broadcasting opinions and start sharing with someone who can immediately catch out the fallacies that they become interesting. This is why it's so entertaining when Jon Stewart and Bill O'Reilly or Penn Jillette and Glenn Beck meet face-to-face.

I am so sick of pointing that out that I simply don't do it much any more.

You see, when you just toss in a link to an article without any explanation or context on how it supports your point, what you're communicating to me is that you have no point, so you're substituting this other guy's instead. This immediately makes you the least interesting person in the room.

At that point there's no need to respond or give a fig about your opinion.... you don't have one. I do. If I want to argue with Joe Blogger or whoever you linked me to, I'll do it on their site and argue with them about their opinions. But you...? You just bowed out of the conversation. You've announced that you have no skill in the liberal arts of rhetoric or logic. You're the least interesting person in the room. You didn't make a point, you didn't convince anybody, you didn't do a thing but tell us of your lack of use.

The other reason is that quite frankly I've probably seen that opinion already. And I've been thinking about and arguing my positions for about 40 years now, long enough to not be intimidated by the fact that some dude on a TV show said something. He's just a dude on a TV show. I'm not talking to him, I'm talking to you.

The Caveat:

I'm not talking about situations where you point to actual factual evidence of something. If I claim the price of widgets is skyrocketing, and you've got a link to Widgets Magazine that refutes it, that's evidence, not someone else's opinion. Use it. If there's a breaking news article that materially changes the facts of the case we're arguing, use it.

I'm not talking about your own blog posts, or links to previous comments where you've already addressed a point. If that's still your opinion, use it. A lot of times an answer is way too complicated and I'll move it here for formatting and space, for instance. You can do that... it's still your opinion.

I'm not talking about an appeal to authority that legitimately bolsters your opinion where you put that in context and point out the purpose of the link. For instance, "I'm not alone in thinking the Trask Act is unconstitutional. Professor X of the Xavier Institute has made a study of it, and has reached the same conclusion. Here's his report: [link]." or simply, "Dan Blogger argues my point better than I could:"

I am talking about just chucking links in as if they were responses. That's pretty much the same as not contributing.

So there's my advice, which -- if you follow it -- will make you a lot more effective in any online forum. If you'd rather not, then OK. Maybe you like being the least interesting person in the room.

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