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Saturday, October 04, 2008

Political discussions, trust, and logical argument

As a basically conservative "small-ell" libertarian in Silicon Valley, I'm surrounded by Obamaphiles - when I'm not encountering people further to the Left - who basically want to grind those who oppose them into the dust. Needless to say, it's hard to have a political conversation without being thrust into a situation where name-calling or other "categorization behavior" begins, and any hope that you can actually have an interesting discussion ends.

This is particularly painful for me, since I like to talk about politics and ideas, and have always felt that one's politics is informed by one's life experience, and that the religious view that one's politics are Right and one's opponents are Wrong is silly. In a large, complex world, policies will always be unsatisfying, inelegant muddles, and perspectives of small-state types like me and gung-ho, let's Use The Government to Solve Social Problems types like most honest progressives will be useful.

One thing I do try to do is to avoid logical fallacies in political discussions. This is hugely difficult, since political arguments are always rhetorical, and driven as much by personalities (Bush/Cheney/Rove is Hitler! Obama is a Commie!) as by any actual policy or philosophy discussion.

One other thing that's even harder to deal with is political humor. At the risk of appearing humorless, my feeling is that political humor is hugely rhetorical and manipulative, driven by stereotypes and logical fallacies buried behind a veneer of "trying to be funny", which makes it all OK.

Sorry, I'm not laughing. Political humor, which is the way many people - especially younger people - shape their political opinions these days, is a very serious business and drives a lot of the political tribalism that I find so dangerous.

Another dimension is the use of rhetoric as argument. One of the key points of logical argument is separation of the argument from the person making the argument, so that it is a fallacy to say that "Policy X is wrong because Bush/Rove/Obama advocated it" (a variant of ad-hominem) or it flip-side "Policy Y must be good because Really Smart Guy Z that I Really Like advocates it" (argument to authority).

In ideal logical argument, proper names are simply not used. It's all about the arguments and the fact base underneath the arguments.

The Question of Hypocrisy

The most seemingly powerful rhetorical argument one can make is hypocrisy. And it can't be denied that if someone makes one argument one day and puts a completely opposite argument on the table the next day for the purpose of political convenience is being a hypocrite and should lose credibility in the world of political punditry. But their arguments themselves still stand and should be refuted - or not - as arguments, and not simply discounted because they were advanced by a hypocrite.

I am well aware that logical argument is seen by many post-modernists, post-structuralists, critical theorists, etc as being an invalid way to argue, because logical argument purposely ignores the reasons why someone advances an argument. But the "why" shouldn't matter! If the argument is invalid, it will be shown to be invalid by a better argument. It shouldn't matter whether the person making the argument is an Asian woman or a gay black man - or holds General Motors stock.

Once you toss logical argument, with its common set of rules and clear definitions of validity that are available to all sides of the argument, into the ditch, all that's left is a thousand variants of "might makes right". The Greeks figured this out 2500 years ago, and they're still right.

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