Monday, August 31, 2015

Deviled Argument

Hello, kiddies. The meds are working once more, which means that once again, Uncle Jeremy is clicking on most gears. And those gears can grind. So, while I promise nothing, if I keep getting annoyed, you keep getting blogs.

Stepping away from social issues (sort of) let's talk about argumentation. Specifically, let's talk about the annoying tendency of those who are, or wish to appear to be, intellectuals to take a negative stance without having an actual stance. Some may call this the "Devil's Advocate" position, but that is a lie.

Just like cake.
See, Devil's Advocate is defined thusly:

In common parlance, a devil's advocate is someone who, given a certain argument, takes a position they do not necessarily agree with (or simply an alternative position from the accepted norm), for the sake of debate or to explore the thought further. - Wikipedia
 What we're actually talking about is "I disagree with position x. Debate?"

Now, that seems reasonable, and you may notice that I've fallen into doing this myself in the past. Why? Well, it's a great position to be in. After all, you don't actually have an argument to make, you just have to continue disagreeing with whatever anyone says. You force your opponent (if anyone is stupid enough to take on that challenge) to debate with themselves.

Pictured: someone stupid enough.
Here's how this conversation tends to go:

"I disbelieve/don't agree with/do not want the thing. And, go."

"Here's a number of reasons to support that thing" or "can you clarify that position?"

"I will restate my initial claim of disbelief, bolstering it with further comments of disbelief, but I will provide no talking points or sources for my beliefs."

"I hear your bolstering as a potential position, and seek to address it."

"I will tell you I disagree with you, and restate my initial claim of disbelief, my initial bolster, and bolster it with further comments of disbelief, but I will again provide no talking points or sources for my beliefs."

And so on, up to this point:

See the problem? It's the debate equivalent of  "why are you hitting yourself?" There's no sound position, no logical response, no way to actually talk about the issue, because there is no issue. Poor Sap is being asked to defend a position without anything to defend against. Because the devil in this case doesn't have a differing position, all Poor Sap can do is argue pros, and hear in response "well, I'm not convinced, what else do you have?"

Let me give you a concrete example. Back when I was a journalist, I got into a debate with a co-worker. Nothing earth shattering, just one of those fun nerd questions that come up when nerds get bored: "are teleporters ethical?"

We went back and forth for two hours. Every time I thought I'd made a point, the argument would change. It was like shooting a moving target that changed shape, color, size, and distance while zigzagging at apparent random. And when I'd finally started to get recursive, so confused that I couldn't keep my points straight, I asked to go back to square one.

"Ok, so I'm lost. What, in fact, is your position on this?"

To which my coworker replied, "Oh, I don't have one, really. I just wanted to see how you'd defend yours."

Are you entirely serious.
See, it could be argued that that was a Devil's Advocate. If my coworker had taken a position. If you have no position other than, "the opposite of whatever you're saying right now" you're not debating, you're playing grade school playground head games. "I know you are, but what am I" sort of thing.

Which brings us back to starting a debate solely based on broad disagreement. So, what's my position on this?

1. Don't call for debate just to hear someone talk, unless you're up front that, "I have no position, but would like to hear arguments made for/against this thing."

2. Don't call "nope" and then ask to discuss, but then use your declaration of "nope" as your sole argument. That's like yelling, "Fuck you!" into the wind and then sticking your fingers in your ears and walking around chanting it under your breath so you don't hear any of the responses.

3. If you want an actual debate, have a position. Again, if your position is "not whatever you say" then the argument is not only one sided, it borders on trolling.

4. If you're just yelling to yell, don't phrase it as a call for debate. You don't look any smarter by calling "my opinion" a "debate."

5. If you want to debate, just to debate, and don't want to come from a defined position (in other words, if you want a conversation) lead with that. There's nothing wrong with, "I don't like thing x, but I'd like to talk to people who do." At least then we know that the conversation probably isn't going anywhere, and that you're either trolling or exploring. But either way, we know going in that it's going to be us saying things, and you either asking questions or rejecting the things we say, and we can make that decision.

So. Stop calling it devil's advocate. It ain't.

Stop calling it debate. It ain't.

Call it what it is: stirring the pot to see what happens.

And then stop freaking doing it.

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