Logic: A Forgotten Principle of Discourse.

What should discourse have that it often lacks? Logic is not “what seems reasonable” or “what feels right.” Like chess or mathematics, it has a strict set of formal rules. We use logic to show the connection or lack of connection between concepts. It is machinery into which we put our perceptions and values. Used correctly, it has an important role in quality discourse, but it is not the totality of discourse. Logic bears on how we express ideas, but it does not determine the ideas we express. When we make meaningful arguments, there must be proper and improper ways to interpret and understand what we say. If we do not make the boundaries of our statements clear, they may be interpreted liberally. The more possible interpretations a thing has, the weaker its effective force as an argument. (Note that excellent fictional prose or poetry often lauds multiple interpretations. Also note that arguments of formal logic are a very different sort of poetry.)

This touches on the greater abuses of statistics and imagery in everyday arguing: statements that sound large but are undefined and unbounded. You may tell me a tremendous-sounding statistic, but without context. You may show me a striking photograph, but without significance. All too often, we are given a sound bite or image and expected to “see” some inherent rightness or wrongness. Good arguments are more than only conclusions; they explain what is being asserted and upon what grounds such an assertion could or should be believed. (Some may cringe at my glossing over the “belief is not closed under implication” issue. I sympathize, but just go with the shorthand.)

Perhaps the greatest threat to good discourse is assuming the speaker advocates the opposite of what he argues against. (e.g., when I criticize the way “privilege” is used in debates about race or gender theory is bad, people assume that I favor oppression of others or fail to see it.) This makes it hard to have clear and careful discussion about sensitive (emotionally charged) topics. By making assumptions about the position of the speaker, we forbid constructive criticism- and therefore the growth- of progress on important issues. Avoiding logical fallacies is not a neat academic trick without relevance to daily conversation. Just as the rules of mathematics or science or language can help us in real ways, logic can help us better understand ourselves and each other, and make progress in debates and discussions, and avoid misunderstandings and unintended offense.

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Pigeon Syndrome

“Arguing with people on the internet is like playing chess with a pigeon: no matter how well you play, the pigeon will just knock the pieces over, defecate all over the board, and strut around like it won.” Amusing because we can all relate to it, but is this reflective of something deeper in society? People seem to lack the patience and interest to explore issues deeply and thoroughly. Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death) pointed out that the Lincoln-Douglas debates consisted of a series of speeches that lasted several hours as the senatorial candidates argued for their platforms in great depth and detail, as large crowds sat and listened and thought about the arguments before them—contrast that with today’s political rhetoric of superficial sound bites.

Many times I’ve heard people ask a legitimate question: “Why do people do that? Why does that happen? What can’t this be done?” I used to try to explain the answers, but consistently found that people will lose interest in any answer in about 50 words or 5 seconds. They care enough to ask the question, but not enough to put effort into finding answers. On the internet, people are quick to get defensive (usually in an offensive manner), but are more inclined to write “stfu” or “tldr” rather than engage in any kind of meaningful, interesting, or critical discourse. I think it’s sophomoric to dismiss the [non-] interlocutors as “not smart enough”  to keep up with a discussion on why stealing farm in League of Legends is irritating and unhelpful or a thread criticizing the way rape is viewed or discussed in society. I think most participants can understand the words and learn the relevant concepts, especially when they have Google, Wikipedia, and Dictionary.com at their fingertips throughout the conversation. Rather, I think they are more inclined to hide in ignorance than dare to learn something new because of fear and shame.

I think one factor holding people back from seriously exploring questions as adolescents and adults (notice that young children don’t have this problem nearly as often) is their embarrassment at not already knowing the questions they ask. Increasingly, we are deciding our questions are rhetorical because we are ashamed to find that there are answers to our questions and we just don’t know them yet. This approach has the added incentive of allowing us to be lazy.

A Relevant Image:

http://xkcd.com/386/