As I am unable to search for my old posts and I see myself referring to this in the future, I thought it’s a good idea to post this as a page easily accessible on the side.
I discovered “debating” as an extracurricular activity in university, where I joined the debating team and got to participate in several tournaments first competing, then judging. It is an experience I miss and I can hardly replicate today. Most debates you can engage in online are dumb and inevitably devolve into personal attacks.
why and how
So then, why bother? I can’t think of a better way to have your opinions or views critiqued. With a worthy opponent, my views may be not just challenged, they may actually be changed hopefully for the better, and that is a wonderful outcome. Secondly, I’m not too keen on winning, but I’m always curious as to what causes people to adopt certain beliefs, especially when different than mine.
I’ll now quckly go through the most annoying fallacies, why I don’t like’em and how I generally respond to them.
It never ceases to amaze me how deeply embedded this fallacy is especially among the young (and not only). Maybe it’s because in their quest to affirm themselves, they realize that their resume is rather short, so they tend to put a high price on what they have least: authority, reputation, respectability. Maybe part of it has to do with “the rise of the expert” and how mass media pushes forward all kinds of “experts”, which is mocked by The Daily Show with their “Senior Black Correspondent” and similarly ludicrous titles.
It may also be that inundated with information, most of us have difficulties distinguishing between “true sources”, “PR exercises” and mere “time-sinks”. Yet we need to assess such sources individually, otherwise we expose ourselves to the risk of being a product of a mono-culture. And isn’t that how consent is manufactured?
The problem with sending me in a debate to “read a book” or to “titles” without explaining how that’s related to our topic is that it may mask a misunderstanding of the subject on your part. It’s also a showstopper for the debate: I cannot know if that’s merely a cop-out on your part, so I probably won’t read an entire book only to decipher your meaning and if I happen to have read it, I might still not understand which part and how is related to what you’re trying to say. Unless you make the effort to contextualize your quote and to explain how it fits into your argument, you might as well not bother with listing your bibliography; listing a bibliography in any academic paper for instance, without actually quoting in the text, is also considered plagiarism.
If I have read or know the source, I should still not discuss it, as that would validate your ipse dixit. Indeed, it’s very difficult to move on after something of this sort.
Dismissing a source of opinion or thought because it’s not authoritative enough is a sign of “intellectual turpitude” (sic!). You might argue that a poor source cannot produce reliable facts / data, but a debate should not be about facts, it should be about how facts are interpreted. If you want to prove a source wrong it’s incumbent on you to go about it as you would disprove any other idea, irrespective who said it. And the reason why you’d use someone else’s words is first to recognize other people’s work and secondly because you do not need to reinvent the wheel if there already is a fully functional one in the backyard of your global village.
Finally, if you feel that some facts are not well known and the opponent needs to inform themselves, Wikipedia is probably the best possible source and it is authoritative enough. Its advantage does not rest in how authoritative it is, but rather in that it is not behind and paywall, so that it can easily be checked. If there are doubts about the authenticity of the information presented there, one can go in the article bibliography and check the sources for veracity. There’s not point in providing a source that cannot easily be accessible or that nobody has heard of. Wikipedia is the lowest common denominator.
The second most often encountered fallacy is the personal attack. It is often combined with ipse dixit, as in “you’re an idiot, therefore your ideas are wrong” or “that person’s a nobody, therefore I’m not even going to consider what they’ve said”. In a debate, some people interpret any critique, even when aimed squarely at their ideas, as a sneaky way of you saying “you are not good/smart/intelligent/cultured enough”. Hence, their need to get back at you and the attempt to save their “reputation” in their peers’ eyes.
It may also be that without making it personal, some people may feel that a debate lacks flavor and that with no emotional investment it’s not worth it. Yet passion might sometimes translate in patience - I find that if I attack too strongly, my opponent might completely abandon the fight themselves, which is not an outcome I wish for.
This is particularly difficult to respond to, because you can only respond in kind, with a similar personal attack. If you ignore it and focus on the constructive part of their argumentation, they might get the impression that they hit a “weak point” and continue hammering it. Besides, people who resort to personal attacks don’t usually have any arguments left, cf. Margaret Thatcher:
I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.
I tend to abandon a debate after a personal attack. It can go nowhere but down.
In this fallacy, your opponent might sometimes argue that “everybody thinks this, therefore it is right” or, in combination with ipse dixit, “I have more followers than you, therefore I’m right”. Obviously, this cannot be an argument, unless we are discussing a direct observation. It comes from our deeply ingrained need for acceptance and to be part of a larger group, which in not a distant past correlated strongly with our survival. An even dumber form is “that can’t be right, because nobody believes it”: you cannot know what everybody believes, and even if you somehow did, that’s not an argument.
I thought this would be more enlightening with a few examples that exclude the possibility of a reply:
- Orwell sucks and so do you (which isn’t surprising, considering people who read Orwell nowadays think anything expressing anti-authoritarianism must automatically be capitalist libertarian). Again, what was there to debate? Your false application of fallacies, was, and you’ve been refuted.
- There was no argument to be made. Are you this insecure? Saying “I want to fight libertarians” and getting “you can’t win, you’re lacking in knowledge and logic” in response isn’t a fucking argument either, it’s an assertion. So fuck the fucking fuck off. Also, your egregious ignorance of the subject matter is very elucidating where it concerns your reactionary replies. Also, I’m not a Trotskyist. I read Marx and analytic Marxism and Marxist social theory.
- I made a silly post about wanting to fight libertarians you tosser. Lighten the fuck up. How long have you been following my blog? I’ve posted an inordinate amount of rigorous argumentation contra libertarian ideology; and have been doing so since last summer. Check the archives.
- if you REALLY believe you live in a world where character is revered and people who aren’t in your close network of friends/acquaintances actually judge you based on your actions, thoughts or beliefs, you are terribly naive—and obviously ignorant of the relevant subject matter. Go read some books on feminism. Or something.
- Oh, for fuck’s sake. Who fucking cares what this bloody twat with a youtube channel says? Is she some scholarly authority? (..) And thank you for wasting my time.
- greece v turkey
- friedman in chile
- abortion vs taxation
I’ll leave it to the reader to identify in what category each one falls in. I might add more later, but for now, this should suffice.
I tend to “attack” on multiple fronts. Debating is much like a chess game and in chess I prefer not to focus on a single attack.
My ironic style may sometimes appear “arrogant” or too sexually suggestive. I don’t have taboos - if you do, let me know in advance. If you think I crossed the line, call me on it and tell me why. I don’t mind some ironic attacks as long as you are not hateful or too negative / depressing. Perhaps the simplest test is to ask yourself if I can reply by responding to substantive/constructive criticism/argumentation.