Sunday, March 07, 2004

You’re a wimp if you disagree with me

I have been thinking about what I wrote about the Forbes article recently, trying to decide why that article came as such a revelation to me. It is not, after all, as though the argument of that article says anything really new. I’ve read things like it dozens of times before. I think what happened is, I finally managed to get straight in my head the difference between rational impact and emotional impact. Some arguments are really good arguments; they convince through the sheer power of rationality. Others are not good arguments, but they may convince anyway by appealing in subtle ways to something in us besides our rationality.

The “stop whining” motif has little or no intellectual oomph behind it. (“Whining” can mean noting that something is wrong that needs to be made right; if so, it is refusing to whine, refusing to notice or to point out, that is the morally problematic position.) But “you are a whiner” still has the power to invoke self-doubt in its hearers. That self-doubt has haunted me in the rooms at the back of my mind, and I needed to get it out in the open and confront it.

The philosopher Mary Midgley made the general point much better than I can. She writes:

William James pointed out how we often dramatize an argument as a clash between tough-minded and tender-minded attitudes, between partisans, as it were, of science and sympathy. This habit chronically infests and distorts certain philosophical controversies, particularly about such tough-seeming but confused positions as determinism, hedonism, egoism and behaviorism. Role-playing of this kind paralyzes our thinking because it makes thought seem unnecessary; the positions are ready-made for us. Once they have imagined themselves to be tough-minded, people are quite liable to accept the loosest and most vacuous ideas uncritically, provided they are put forward in the right contemptuous tone of voice (Beast and Man, p. 122).

Republican arguments that liberals need to “stop whining” are another example of precisely the same faux-tough-mindedness, as are libertarian-flavored economic arguments. Go ahead and read, say, Ayn Rand, B. F. Skinner, and George Will. They’re writing about utterly different topics (egoism, determinism, conservativsm), and they would all violently disagree among themselves about most issues. But I get the same feeling from all three. “I am right, and if you can’t see how right I am, it is because your emotional attachments to beliefs that feel nice are getting in the way of seeing the hard, cold truth about the world.” It can be difficult to get past that veneer to tackle the real arguments at stake. But over time, people get over feeling afraid of the power of this appeal, and analyze the content of the arguments. And once that happens, many of the arguments prove to be pretty stupid. Skinner was, it turns out, wrong about almost everything. Rand was a borderline nutcase. We shall see what time makes of George Will and his ilk.

This isn’t just ad hominem. These people share a real intellectual defect: a willingness to believe (on some level) that because something sounds harsh and difficult to hear, it must be true. Many of us share that tendency, to some extent. I do. It’s important that we resist it -- though not to make the opposite mistake, of course! But we need to remember that the rightness or wrongness of an argument is something very different from how tough it makes us feel to believe it.

“You’re a wimp if you disagree with me” is not an argument, though it is often deployed as one.

I read Beast and Man before, in graduate school. I remembered it as one of my favorite books, so I pulled it out again lately and started rereading it. It’s damn good. Read it if you have any philosophical bent at all. It’s about human nature in its relation to the nature of animals. Her argument, in brief, is that humans are animals, and that we need to stop denying that, because denying or ignoring that fundamental aspect of human nature has done a great deal of damage to our scientific and philosphical self-understanding -- and, of course, has helped us ignore the damage we have done and continue to do to animals and the natural world. Midgley is not by trade an animal-rights advocate, or indeed anything in the political field, but a philosopher, and a very good one.

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