The nature of argument

One of the key demands made of a democratic community is that it must be capable of critical argument. Nobody can be sure that an idea, or a policy, or a proposal has merit until it has been properly tested in debate. However, as Monty Python pointed out (or not) some time ago, conducting an argument is not the same thing as hurling abuse. And yet that increasingly is what it has become, at any rate in certain political quarters.

Right now I am visiting the United States. It is an interesting time to do so, as we are just into the Republican Party Convention. Perhaps unwisely, I spent a little time this evening watching the proceedings on television, and the sum of the speeches, interjections, interviews and commentary was simple enough: Hillary Clinton is a crooked liar. That’s all you need to know, and let’s not assess the evidence too much, it confuses the message.

But before those who dislike the Republican Party and maybe feel superior to the United States get into their stride, the last few days have seen bucketloads of abuse thrown around in Britain also, a good bit of it at the Conservative Party; in fact, there is a popular hashtag on Twitter that reads #Toryscum. I am not an apologist for the Tory Party, but I cannot help noticing that all too often its detractors detract less with reason and more with vilification.

Political debate is becoming increasingly coarse, and all too often those conducting it seem to assume that they will fare best if they succeed in attacking the bona fides of their opponents rather than the merits of their opponents’ arguments. The result of this is popular cynicism, which in turn corrodes democratic processes.argument

Of course there are some politicians who deserve censorious denunciation. But not all of them do, and not even all in a particular party with which you or I might disagree. Real argument is more intellectually laudable than personal abuse. In fact, abusive anger is never attractive and rarely appropriate, in whatever setting we might be tempted to apply it.

I’ll probably go back to watching the GOP tomorrow. I have asked my family to prod me if I mutter anything abusive.

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4 Comments on “The nature of argument”

  1. Vincent Says:

    There’s a presupposition on your part that people are/should/do listen to argument.
    So lets take the USA for the moment. What is it the biggest thing that’s pissing people off. I feel it that they feel socially unsafe. All the past certainties have been removed taking them back to a 19th century level of instability. And like back then a small cohort are well off and protected by the system.
    And that’s what you’ve got to get too. People will only listen to argument if they feel the argument connects.
    Take the instance of Obama’s medical care. Why didn’t that fly. For something so simple that should’ve been a no brainer to explain, I with a Instrument from the NUI on the wall still don’t know how the hell it works.
    Education, the great leveler, supposedly. Has turned for those at the bottom into a massive sinkhole of pointless debts. Where people took degrees in subjects they were told were needed only to discover they were sold a pup.
    But the core question I feel you are asking is ‘will Trump win ?’. I think he will. I said on here that the UK would leave the EU. And while not claiming sage wisdom similar conditions exist in the US. Remember Obama was the great white hope for the working class. And it turned out he was worse than useless to them. And they see HRC as being an arch insider and so not of them.
    Ask yourself this. When you started in the uni game what you entered was quite unstable. Now that instability is compounded, if not downright engineered to be more unstable than it is. How then given all life’s inputs then and now do you not see why argument isn’t heard. And you are actively trying to help things.


  2. You are assuming that the purpose of an argument is to convince, either one’s opponent, or at any rate a bystander. Not so. The purpose is to declare one’s group allegiance. This is not absurd in a democracy, where it is irrational to vote in the hope of influencing the outcome, but rational to do so as an affirmation of commitment.

  3. cormac Says:

    I don’t understand the sentence “But before those who dislike the Republican Party and maybe feel superior to the United States get into their stride…”
    I heartily dislike what the GOP has become, but there are many things about Americans and their country that I admire. If there is a connection betwen the two, it is *because* there are very many things about the US I like that the rise of today’s form of republicanism is such a disappointment – in particular the public denial of well-established facts (from the reality of anthropic climate change to the success of Obama care) by senior members of the GOP on the basis of their ideology

  4. James Fryar Says:

    Any argument or debate has to take place within some sort of framework, which is why televised debates have chairs and moderators to keep things in check. The media are seen as being the check and balance for comments being made by candidates in party nominations and presidential elections but clearly, given the biases in US media outlets, they’re not doing their jobs particularly well.

    I thought there were regulators to ensure balanced coverage who could force media outlets to retract statements or make apologies when breeches occur? I thought there were election commissions to ensure fair play?

    I think, what’s happening around the world, is the complete failure of regulatory bodies to have enough bite to stop the nonsense. I mean, seriously, if someone gets up and says I’m a crooked liar I’d be demanding that they demonstrate proof or face legal action for slander. Political candidates don’t have that luxury because it would damage their campaigns, but that doesn’t imply that oversight committees shouldn’t be clamping down on unfounded BS. In the national interest …


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