Sunday, 29 March 2009

Being reasonable as an offence against reason.

The ABC in Australia has started an interesting little panel question-and-answer program called, unsurprisingly enough, Q&A, in which highly experienced journalist Tony Jones moderates a panel of guests and fields questions from the website (in real-time, even) in text and video, and from the audience.

On it, this week, were Federal Minister for Telecommunications and Messing With it, Stephen Conroy, and also, among the others, way-far-right-wing newspaper columnist Andrew Bolt.

These two were key for two reasons: One, Conroy got sent more questions than Q&A had ever received on anything, ever, and never managed to give one straight answer in half an hour, and, two, Bolt is a warped travesty of a stereotype of a pundit.

The man managed to use most of the tools of illogic available to his kind: Misrepresenting his opponents and their arguments, warping the argument to suit himself, ignoring any counter-claim that he doesn't feel up to answering, cherry-picking facts, being annoyed when people throw him different cherries, and using the word "moral" as though it had an objective, concrete and unwavering meaning.

All of which would merely serve to provide one side of a debate, and prompt some good back-and-forth, were it not for the greatest sin of all:

Being reasonable.

You see, there is honour in honesty, and honesty in self-righteousness, and truth in bald statements. Yet being reasonable is to use the forked tongue of an insurance salesman to do the devil's work.

Beware, at all costs, these phrases:

  • "I don't want to appear [racist][sexist][whatever] but..." - This means that they're about to, but want some sympathy for being honest or for raising a painful point which people may sympathise with, at least a little bit. Be honest. Or, if you realise that you have to skirt tricky shores, be carefully exact.
  • "While I do concede that point..." - This is tricky, and can be used honestly, of course it can, but it often means "I don't agree with you, and I'm going to try and make you appear narrow-minded and stupid by being narrow-minded and stubborn."
  • "Surely nobody would argue that..." or "Nobody is really arguing that..." - This is usually used to make their side of the argument look more moderate, but can also mean that they are trying to discredit your position before you have a chance to state it. They are almost always wrong, and are avoiding the issue, which is what they are arguing.
  • "All I am saying is..." - There is no all you are saying. You are saying. This is often a weasle way out of listening to the details, coming up with a counter-argument, or indeed paying any attention at all. When you present the five reasons why science has settled on a position, and they say "All I am saying is...", they're not interested, so give them up as a lost cause. If you really believe that you have been misrepresented, say so. Acknowledge that they may have honestly misunderstood, and try and do something about it. If you want to scale back on your certainty, say something like "At present, I believe..."
  • "I haven't heard anything to convince me otherwise..." - This usually means "And I won't, because I refuse to listen to it." This is tricky, in light of what I said in the point above, so pay careful attention. It may be useful to assay a couple of the most common arguments, and see if they recognise them or not.
  • "Surely..." - Often expressed as "Surely you can see that..." or something similar, this is the most economical way of combining most of what is listed above, and is shorthand for "I'm a reasonable human being, I recognise my faults, and realise that I may be wrong. But I'm not, because I'm right, and you're wrong. Because I said so."
Here's a good, short tip: If they make your head hurt, appear to be saying only a third as much as they actually are, and you know they're wrong but can't quite work out why, then look for the above statements. They may well be using other tools of illogic, but if they appear to be baffling, then they're invariably piling on the bullshit.

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