Saturday, October 01, 2005


Rules of Engagement

If we disagree, will you still respect me in the morning?

A recent column by Bill Tammeus in the Kansas City Star got my engine started, and I was off down a familiar path.

How can we agree to disagree? How can we respect each other even if we know in our heart of hearts that the other is wrong? To what extent are we entitled to respect? Do opinions that are manifestly ill-informed, poorly thought out, products of prejudice, arrogant, hateful, childish and so forth: do those opinions deserve respect? How can we know we are not committing the same sins we accuse others of?

Today we see the democratization of punditry. The Internet and Blogging phenomena allow common people to voice their opinions in ways not seen before. But does this improve the quality of the dialog, or is it mere pooling of ignorance?

In such an environment, it seems to me more important than ever that we have some standards to judge and evaluate expressed ideas and opinions.

Fortunately, thinkers reaching all the way back to Aristotle discovered many common flaws in rhetoric, identified them and codified the study of these errors. The subject matter used to be called "rhetoric" and I understand it was commonly taught in high schools beginning with the middle 1800's, but it has not been taught at that level within my lifetime. In college, the course is usually identified as "Intro to Logic" or 'Logic 101."

Fortunately for us, many useful resources reside on the web to sharpen our logic skills. For example, Tim van Gelder's Critical Thinking on the Web, and Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum Project. This last one compiled by Loren Miller, who taught "Logic 101" to yours truly some thirty years ago. Some of these even allow submission of your argument for analysis.
(For those unfamiliar with the terms, "argument" is not something you engage in with a spouse. It means a developed, reasoned idea: a thesis supported by statements).

I'd also like to note the existence of many well written and fun-to-read books on the subject. (I'm sorry I can't recommend any titles - it's been thirty years). Just ask a librarian.

Having said all that, I always remember what Thomas Hobbes said in Leviathan, "... as to the faculties of the mind, . . . Howsoever [men] may acknowledge many others to be more witty, or more eloquent, or more learned; yet they will hardly believe there be many so wise as themselves: For they see their own wit at hand, and other men's at a distance. But this proveth rather that men are in that point equal, than unequal. For there is not ordinarily a greater sign of the equal distribution of any thing, than that every man is contented with his share."

In addition to the rules of logic, I also ask: is the position one of love? That is, does the argument spring from love, a desire to help others, to "love thy neighbor?" Will the results of accepting the idea be loving? Is it hurtful? Or does the idea spring from ego, selfishness, greed, anger, hatred, fear, contempt, etc, etc? Sort of my version of "Is it good for the children?' Or perhaps, "Would Jesus advocate this?"

So we have both a rhetorical standard and an ethical standard.

Now I believe that each and every human being deserves respect. The golden rule still applies. But I distinguish the person from the opinion.

If, considering the well developed rules rhetoric, I find an argument poorly formed, badly reasoned, ill-informed, flawed, or whatever, I feel no restraint in saying so. An attack on an argument is not an attack on the intelligence or character of a person. Really poor arguments do not merit respect.

The uncritical acceptance of absurd, extreme positions on issues troubles me. Even more troubling is the acquiescence of highly educated people, people trained in critical thinking. Sometimes the news consists mainly of ad hominem attacks of political opponents on each other. We need to speak out more strongly against this, to make it clear we want reasoned dialog instead of mudslinging. These people are Harvard and Oxford graduates. I want them to act like it.

So, a poorly reasoned, ill-informed, hateful or arrogant position should be rejected. Errors should be called to the attention of the author. If the response is a counterattack on the person pointing out the errors, then that should be taken as evidence of the characters of the individuals involved.

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