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Monday, October 6, 2014

Two kinds of odious arguments

There are two kinds of arguments that I find distasteful. Both are in wide use among people with whom I am in sympathy with, most of the time, on the academic liberal left.

--With cut-and-dried situations, people who throw endless nuance and irrelevant detail into the mix to try to complicate things unnecessarily. Thus, with a plagiarism case, "everyone does it, where's the line?, students need to plagiarize a little to learn to write, we should look at their intentions, postmodernism, blah, blah, blah." If it's a child pornography case, "the culture is to blame, because women in beer commercials are young; the user of this pornography is hyper-conforming to cultural norms, blah, blah, blah..."

--People who ordinarily would see everything as infinitely nuanced and complicated, and in most other contexts would be inclined use the first kind of argument, turn around and decide that in other situations there is no nuance at all. The answer is clear and self-evident for everyone to see. If you don't agree with them, you are a horrible person.

Both forms of argument are intellectually lazy. You should apply exactly the right amount of nuance to each situation as is required. You shouldn't use nuance to muddy the waters, but to clarify situations.

But, of course, the question is to know what situations need to be complicated and which ones needs to simplified. I think it was the physicist Feynman who advised, "simplify everything to the exact degree necessary, and no further." But nobody knows how to do that very well. That is precisely where the difficult intellectual work is located.


Thomas said...

This is an important issue to me. I think Christopher Hitchens says somewhere in Letters to a Young Contrarian that the function of an ideologue is to make something that is really simple complicated, and something that is really complicated simple, whatever the powers that be require at a particular time.

It's been a long time since I've been impressed with someone who says "It's more complicated than you think" or "Look. It's simple." I've been trying to come up with a charming way to explain to them that's it's actually a very rude thing to say in a conversation, so you have to be careful with it. It shouldn't just be a knee-jerk rhetorical strategy.

A good conversation is one in which we presume we're operating at the right level of detail (degree of complexity) and all parties are interested in the details themselves.

Vance Maverick said...

Wikiquote refers us to "Quote Investigator", who traces it to Einstein via Roger Penrose, Roger Sessions, and Louis Zukofsky, three names I never thought I'd type together. (Bolstered by Scroggins.)