For Argument’s Sake

This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday December 5 2011

Critical Thinking

Recent encounters in the blogosphere led me back to my shelf of books on critical thinking. The most accessible of these is philosopher Nigel Warburton’s Thinking from A to Z.

Current usage of the term “liberalism” is an example of what rhetoricians term “lexical ambiguity”. A whole book could be written on how this applies to liberalism but I will deal with that in another article.

Lexical Ambiguity

The word “argument” itself is an example of lexical ambiguity. In common parlance, an argument can be a rowdy fracas, in which all reason is abandoned. In philosophy, an argument is a set of reasons supporting a conclusion. This is in contrast with an assertion which is an unsupported statement of belief. Asserting something loudly does not make it true.

Anthony Weston’s A Rulebook for Arguments would provide a useful guide to writers and politicians or indeed anyone whose mental health, and the sanity of those around them, would be improved by clarity of thought.

Lexical ambiguity occurs when a word with more than one meaning is used in the same sentence. One often finds that people are discussing totally different topics using the same words so there is no chance of agreement. “Discrimination” can be a good thing when it comes to appreciating art, but a bad thing when practising racial injustice. When Dr Johnson saw two harridans shouting from their respective doorsteps, he said they were “arguing from different premises”. A character in a Flann O’Brien novel dismisses an argument because it was made on “licensed premises” i.e. the disputant was probably drunk.

I examined the subject of critical think on a blog some time ago using as a peg arguments about Israel. This brought out quite a variety of comments in which people allowed sloppy thinking to muddle their arguments.

Tu Quoque– the Companions in Guilt Ploy

Defenders of Israel tend to use a category of rhetoric known to philosophers of critical thinking as tu quoque or “the companions in guilt move”. This is brought into play in order to dilute the force of an argument by demanding a spurious consistency that the arguer may not feel is germane. Some people use it  to excuse bad behaviour on the grounds that other people also behave badly. Just because many people do something that is wrong , that does not make it right or less dangerous – for example, the defence that everyone has driven while under the influence of drink. First of all not everyone really has done so and, more importantly, it would be very dangerous if everyone took that as permission to drive under the influence.

One often hears in Sri Lanka a refusal to accept criticism of human rights failings because the critics are American or British and are guilty of worse crimes. I have argued this way myself. In my defence, I believe it is not the same as Israel’s tu quoque. Israel’s defenders say if you are going to criticise us you must also criticise the Arabs. Sri Lankans are saying look at the beam in your own eye and prove your “credible allegations”.

Straw Men

Another stale old rhetorical device is  the straw man. You set up a caricature of your opponent’s viewpoint and knock it down. There is this lefty, bleeding heart, NGO, do-gooder, who hates Israel and turns a blind eye to the iniquities of Arabs and Muslims and Arabs just love to kill innocent children.

Are Hamas bombers to be condemned because they are, in killing innocent children, adopting the low moral standards of Israel? Or does it mean that, just because Palestinian terrorists kill innocent children, that Israel should refrain from killing innocent children? Israel seems to have failed morally on that score.

Opinions divorced from facts or knowledge.

Voltaire said  “prejudice is opinion without judgement”. Opinion without knowledge, truth or logic can also foster prejudice. An adage often touted on blogsites is “Opinions are like #*!eholes. Everyone has one and they all stink”.

I have long felt a general dismay at people putting forward opinions without the knowledge to back them up and proceeding with specious arguments based on faulty logic and fallacious premises.

People who are blogging clearly have access to the internet. A few minutes on Google and Wikipedia should prevent basic  errors of fact.

The Cambridge philosopher, Jamie Whyte wrote: “You are entitled to an opinion in the epistemic sense only when you have good reason for holding it: evidence, sound arguments and so on. Far from being universal, this epistemic entitlement is one you earn. It is like being entitled to boast, which depends on having something worth boasting about.”

Confusion between explanation and approval

I had to state  quite plainly that I do not believe that historical and contemporary acts of violence against Palestinians by Jews justifies the blowing up of Jewish children in pizza parlors. Nevertheless, the explanation of current terrorist actions has to take account of the terrorism and ethnic cleansing involved in the foundation of the state of Israel. The actions of the Jewish paramilitaries have a bearing on the current situation and help to explain Palestinian discontent.

When I tried to explain in another article how Tamil militant separatism took hold in Sri Lanka and described stated Tamil grievances, I was condemned by some as a terrorist sympathiser. Explanation is not the same as justification or approval. When I explained the government viewpoint I was condemned as a government lackey.

Truth Matters- National Myths

In their book Why Truth Matters Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom write:

“History is not simply a narrative about the past; it is a research-driven form of empirical enquiry. Mythic or invented or ‘wishful’  history is thus not history at all, but a different thing – a branch of literature or story-telling. History is not propaganda, myth-making or a self-esteem inflation device, though it has often been pressed into service for those tasks. History is highly interpretative, to be sure, but it is always, when done properly, grounded in evidence. The questions are empirical ones, and the interpretation is of evidence, not of daydreams or fantasies. There has been quite a lot of glorious past-invention in the name of history recently”.

How the Buggers Lie to Us

Sam Leith has a new book titled You Talkin’ to Me? Leith argues that the advertising copywriter is no less a rhetorician than the statesman, they both employ persuasive words to fulfil their own ends. Leith’s own title is an example of a trope known as erotema, a figure of speech where something is asserted by asking it as a question. It also demonstrates the use of the demotic by charlatans such as Tony Blair. “You know I’m a straight kind of guy, don’t you?”

When he was our hope for change, Obama’s signature rhetorical figure was “anaphora”, or the repetition of words or a phrase at the beginning of a clause or sentence – although his monumental “Yes we can” was its opposite, or “epistrophe”.

Obama’s rhetoric all seems a bit feeble now. Fine words butter no parsnips and solve no economic crisis. Understanding rhetoric is probably the most vital tool any of us can possess that we can have some inkling of how they are shafting us.