Sunday, August 21, 2011

No, I won't call you intellectually honest.

Here's a gimmick I keep seeing repeat over and over. In fact I'm seeing it happen over at Ed Feser's blog - Ed being a philosopher I admire greatly, and who has explained Aquinas, Aristotle, and metaphysics in a tremendously accessible way.

The short of it is this: Erin MacDonald was tapped to be the little philosophical junkyard dog of Jerry Coyne, and was relied on to attack Ed's book "The Last Superstition". MacDonald mangled the arguments badly, made it clear he didn't even understand what Ed was talking about in large part, insulted him personally more than once (complete with nazi comparisons). Ed easily parried these, and proceeded to stomp MacDonald intellectually. There's some back and forth between them, but that's the sum of it from where I sit.

So at the end, Ed shows up on MacDonald's blog to reply. MacDonald - who at this point is pretty much clutching for any credibility he can get - merely responds to Ed with something approaching courtesy, even while pretty much defending all of his past, and very recent, BS. And Ed posts an update on his blog that he's having a conversation with MacDonald that's semi-polite, and that MacDonald has 'graciously and honorably offered to bury the hatchet' and that Ed happily accepts his offer.

I'm going to repeat: I like Ed's blog. I like his thoughts. But accepting this offer was ridiculous. It's not merely that MacDonald did not deserve to be treated graciously, and that Ed took the high road and decided to be gracious anyway. It's that MacDonald is clearly a bombastic punk who thinks nothing of lecturing people about concepts he barely grasps all while acting like an internet pissant. Why pretend otherwise? Why give him credibility? Why throw up the false image of this person as, golly, a swell guy deep down?

I won't read Ed's mind here - the man can do as he pleases on his blog, and act as he wishes. I will read my own mind, though, and I can say that I understand the temptation to do this. I've done it myself, repeatedly. Sometimes it was because I just didn't want to have an eternal back and forth with someone, so I was willing to put things aside for peace. Other times I thought I was doing the mature thing, even the Christian thing, by downplaying the lies, slander and obfuscating I saw, and praising the person in question.

In the end, I got tired of bullshitting. Worse, I started to realize that this was the ultimate escape hatch for anyone of even moderate note online - say whatever you want, lie as much as you want, bullshit as much as you want. If the heat gets to you, just humbly offer an olive branch to your critic, or act semi-civil for thirty seconds. What's he going to do? Tell you to piss off? Why, he'll be thought of as ungracious!

I run into this even now. I'll, against my better judgment, get into it with someone online. I'll watch - even document! - their inconsistencies. Their backtracking. Their redefining their words. Their unprovoked insults. Their equivocations. And when I finally point out that they are exactly what they are - a bullshitter - it starts. They say that they assume that I argue in good faith, so surely I can do the same for them? I reply, no, because I've watched you discuss, I've seen you engage in this crap repeatedly - I've seen it firsthand! - and clearly they're not arguing on the up and up.

They're speechless. Suddenly, they insist that I more or less MUST say they argue in good faith, because they're insisting they do so and they know better than me. I point out their track record and say I have to call it as I see it, and that a man doesn't magically get treated as honest merely by insisting - despite evidence to the contrary - that he's honest. They point out I'm being uncivil and that I MUST acknowledge their intellectual integrity, because... they never explain this part, it's apparently some Internet Law I'm unaware of. I say I could care less if I'm being uncivil. I see things as I see things, and I'm not going to pretend otherwise just so everyone can continue chatting happily.

Maybe that's it. I don't really care about making sure the conversation train stays on track. In fact, I think it's important to make sure some trains don't leave the station anymore. I don't think that when Stephen Hawking goes off on subjects he knows nothing about that the proper reply is to praise his ass off for his past physics speculation then gently explain why a person may disagree with him. I think the proper reply is, 'You don't know anything about this topic, clearly, so please keep your mouth shut and stop acting as if you're an authority here. You're just an ignorant plebe shooting your mouth off when it comes to God, and it shows.' A few of those in the right place at the right time, and we'd actually be able to move forward in conversation.

But it's not about moving forward. It's not even about intellectual rigor very often. It's about making acquaintances and being pleasant and keeping the damn eternal conversation going, and any bumps in the road are meant to be dealt with using some indignation - temporary, always temporary - before everyone sits down and agrees we're all intellectually honest again. Or worse, before we act like suckers and praise the intellectual honesty of those who actively questions ours.

Ah well. This was a bit of a rant, but I felt it had to be said.


Ilíon said...

"... In the end, I got tired of bullshitting. ..."


But, there is also a very serious (and potentially morally corrupting) hidden danger in making the “civil” or “nice” pretense in the first place. When one decides to do what one incorrectly imagines to be (or, perhaps, willfully deceives oneself to be) “the mature thing, even the Christian thing, [to do,] by downplaying the lies, slander and obfuscating [one sees], and prais[es] the person in question”, rather than honestly faulting him for his willfully chosen error(s), then the logic of the illogical and false choice one has made will inevitably pull at one to oneself engage in further obfuscation with respect to that person’s behavior. One will almost inevitably begin to attack (and perhaps viciously so) those persons who are not inclined to wink at the other person’s willful error(s).

To describe the situation it more bluntly, and in an old-fashioned way: “each lie must be protected by yet another lie.

Crude said...

I had a feeling you'd agree with this one. ;)

And of course, it's not like I throw this out for anyone who disagrees with me. I've run into many people who disagree with me about things, who argue to the contrary - even passionately - and in the end there was no dishonesty or malice on their part that I could see, and therefore no accusation of that came from me. I've run into people who had actual misunderstandings, and I know that a misunderstanding can happen without a person being actively dishonest.

But yeah, there really are BSers out there. And in the Cult of Gnu, there really are screechy little wannabe footsoldiers of Dawkins who purposefully mangle arguments, who misrepresent, who are flat out dishonest, all in the hopes of advancing their little cause. And I think it's a mistake to eternally react to those BSers as if they were pure-hearted debating angels.

I think Vox Day once commented about what he saw as a common Christian habit of going 90% of the way in an argument, but faltering at the precious 10% - meaning, if I understood him, that many Christians were willing to show the flaws in a Cult of Gnu member's reasoning, to show the illogic and the dishonesty, but not seal the deal by summarily dismissing the atheist himself as an out-of-his-league hack when they're in fact behaving like one. Which, according to Vox, is exactly what's needed if they're ever going to learn.

I more and more see the wisdom in that.

Ilíon said...

I had considered using Mr Reppert's "sexism" thread as the basis of a "Stupid Socialist Tricks" post; not so much his OP (though, as you and others have pointed out, that was bad enough), but the hysteria to which we "cavemen" treated.