Thursday, February 21, 2008

Logical aggression

I spent some time recently exploring a number of pro-war blogs, and posting comments challenging some of the opinions expressed there. The results were discouraging. Though I tried to be respectful, I experienced some unpleasantness. On another occasion, when I pointed out a flaw in reasoning, the blogger just repeated his claim. More than that, I was appalled by the generally nasty tone of much of the writing. I also experienced what is sometimes called the "echo-chamber" of like-minded political blogs. There's precious little interaction between opposite sides of the divide, and what interaction there is tends to be extremely unproductive. Why does there seem to be so little room for logical argumentation?

I imagine there are several reasons. But here's one that comes from a pacifist perspective. I've been reading Choosing Against War: A Christian View by John D. Roth, and I'm especially interested in Chapter 4, "A case for pacifist humility". In a section on epistemological humility, Roth writes:
Since the European Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, reason has been the foundation for most political discourse. And it has typically been the way Christians have argued about doctrine and engaged in missions as well: gather your evidence, marshal your Bible verses, make a tightly constructed rational argument, anticipate all the loopholes, and the powerful logic of the persuasive Christian point of view will, in effect, force your discussion partners to concede the point. ... As such, rational arguments for Christianity very easily become subtle forms of coercion.
Although Roth refers specifically to "rational arguments for Christianity", I think his point generalizes: logical argumentation can very easily take on a coercive character.

Nobody likes to be forced to do something, much less believe something. And yet logical arguments are often employed for just this purpose. A logical argument says if you accept these premises, then you must accept this conclusion. The only logical avenues of escape are to challenge the validity of the argument itself (in case there is an error of logic) or to challenge the premises. But people often try other avenues of escape: introducing a different issue or argument, or behaving aggressively. Where does the aggressive behaviour come from? On the face of it, it would seem to reveal nothing more than immaturity or bad manners.

But if the logical argument is employed with aggressive intent, or if it is interpreted that way, then it is not surprising that an aggressive response is elicited. In other words, even if one's motives are not at all aggressive, the argument may be interpreted as an attempt at coercion. And in all honesty, how often can any of us say that we have no aggressive intent? How often do we not have a desire to "win"? To demonstrate our intellectual or moral superiority? Even if we "take the high road" and scrupulously avoid the slightest hint of an insult or sarcasm, how often are we free of any competitive frame of mind?

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that one should abandon one's beliefs, or one's desire to advance them. Nor am I suggesting that logical argumentation is inherently coercive. But I do think that productive engagement is unlikely when there is a perception of logical aggression.

So what could work?
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8 Comments:

Blogger dm said...

Roth forgot to mention "and burn them alive if they still refuse to yield to your argument." Historically of course, the church was always ready to fight - someone somewhere always needs smiting.

I think the key to your generalization of Roth's point lies in "argue." It is by nature contrary - and when you factor in the human ego, presto! You have aggression. Where is a good Vulcan when you need one?

3:42 PM, February 22, 2008  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

I doubt he forgot to mention the burn-'em-at-the-stake approach to conflict resolution. Roth is a Mennonite, and historically the Mennonites faced brutal persecution. But I believe he's referring to more recent times (post-Enlightenment) when folks weren't so smitten with smiting.

I agree that ego is part of the issue: I certainly saw that on some of the pro-war blogs I visited. And I realized that my own ego was getting a little too involved!

But you've really opened up a can of worms bring Vulcans into the picture. Of course Mr. Spock was only half-Vulcan (I'm giving myself away here). But the notion that someone could function without emotion or ego seems utterly implausible to me. It seems to me that emotion and ego are essential to free will.

7:42 PM, February 22, 2008  
Blogger dm said...

Maybe there is hope for humanity after all - Vulcans learned their logic and self control over time - originally, they were more like their close cousins, the Romulans - an emotional and warlike race.

(I'm so embarrassed right now!)

10:13 PM, February 22, 2008  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

I had forgotten about the Romulans! But I don't buy the notion that the solution to our aggressive behaviour is to suppress our emotions and become coldly "logical". Some of the most abhorrent human acts have been almost robotic, like the bureaucratic efficiency of the Holocaust.

3:56 PM, February 24, 2008  
Blogger Raywat Deonandan said...

Nick, I have nothing to say about the content of yet another interesting blog post. But I do think the fellow on the left looks less like he's waving a fist and more like he's got a tremendous boner.

2:25 PM, February 28, 2008  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

The image is a projective test. I just thought they were having an argument over whose tea is was. By knocking over the cup of tea, which they could have shared, they both lose: a pretty steep price.

8:38 PM, February 28, 2008  
Anonymous stephen nally said...

Hi Nick, just discovered your blog. Very good. The one approach that I have occasionally tried is to ask questions rather than try and persuade. Let them justify their views (aggresively if necessary). It will at least make them think for a second. eg "So how many American soldiers have died so far?". Or simply ask "Does 'Thou Shalt Not Kill' apply in Iraq". "Where does 'Turn The Other Cheek' apply?"

1:08 AM, April 01, 2008  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

That's an interesting suggestion, Stephen. In a way, it shows more respect for the other person's autonomy by letting them try to provide an answer rather than force an answer on them.

7:42 AM, April 01, 2008  

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