instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, August 18, 2008

Sophist softies

Suppose a man knocked on your door one evening and said:
Hello. I'm here to abduct your family and sell them into slavery.

Now, I know that many people, people of good will, believe this is wrong. I understand that, and I respect their opinion.

At the same time, many others are equally convinced of the need for slaves, particularly when our own government can't guarantee that hard-working families will have time to clean their own houses.

For my own part, I have thought long and hard about this difficult issue, an issue that doesn't admit of simple answers. And I've come to the decision that the right thing for me to do is to be a slaver. But a new kind of slaver, one who does not vilify those who disagree.

I may be wrong. But my heart tells me what I must do, and though I will reach across the old battle lines on this issue, I will not compromise my principles.
Would this speech sell you on the goodness of being abducted and sold into slavery?

If so, you really shouldn't be on the Internet.

But, if not ultimately persuasive, it is full of words some find almost irresistible sweet.

I've written before about the effect those four little words, "I could be wrong," can have. They're so... so reasonable, aren't they? Anyone could be wrong, everyone is wrong at one point or another. Admitting it is an act of someone open to discussion, and openness to discussion is -- in some eyes -- an indispensable virtue.

If someone tells me he could be wrong, then I may well say to myself, "Here's a fellow I can work with. I can support him where we agree, and I can reason with him where we disagree."

In other words, "I could be wrong," can sound like, "I can become whatever you want me to become." And who doesn't like the sound of that?

New to me in this campaign cycle is the magic in expressing respect for those who disagree. Even when the disagreement is recognized by all parties as insurmountable, expressing respect earns respect.

And not merely the respect due to someone who, objectively speaking, has only granted for the purposes of his speech that the people who disagree with him aren't all idiots. Saying you respect those who disagree with you -- whether you do respect them or not -- can help persuade some numbers of those who disagree with you to support you, and even to invent new arguments supporting you on the very subject they disagree with you about!

How come this?

I don't know for sure, of course, but the only way I can make sense of this is by supposing that there are people for whom the process of discussion is more important than the conclusion.

Why would that be? Maybe because you can't be wrong if you don't reach a conclusion, and if you're never wrong you must be awfully clever. Maybe because people who are sure in their conclusions and don't respect those who disagree are so disagreeable, and some people want to be as different from them as possible. Maybe because they're in the grip of a crippling epistemological theory that denies that anyone can actually, you know, know anything for certain. Maybe because the people they admire have always been able to talk and talk and talk and talk about things, then start all over the next day. Maybe they were educated in an environment that rewarded sophistry. Maybe they're still in such an environment.

Maybe I'm wrong about all this.