How Not to Argue: Begging the Question

Pretending that no debate exists or is possible between reasonable people may be my least appreciated debate tactic, because it’s such a cheap trick. It’s a moralistic trick as well as a fault of argumentation. And yet it draws in third parties on your side, which is really the whole point of being unfair to your opponent(s) in these cases.

Let’s take an illustration that I’ve seen quite often, an argument, well more of an assertion, that consists of complaining about the rude, mean people who just don’t play along with the approved terminology of “political correctness,” which simply means “being polite,” as far as you’re concerned—that’s “you” the hypothetical complainer. (NB: This is just an example of a tactic promoting a position I’m neither arguing for, nor against, at least in this post.)

Is the cheat quite clear, here? It’s the deeply disingenuous pretense that those people already subscribe to the same interpretation of “political correctness”: that it simply consists of politeness. They aren’t debating anything in that case. They’re simply misbehaving. So you-the-complainer don’t have to listen to their opinion, and you’ve pretended away the debate.

Of course, in reality, the debate is about whether “political correctness” is more about thought policing, than mere “politeness.” Those who think the former don’t share the same premise, and they (actually do) dispute yours. THAT is what the debate is about—NOT about how impolite those people therefore are, under your moral judgment, for violating your terms of “political correctness.” What PC stands in for, operationally, is the whole debate. And in fact, let’s briefly note that using this end-run tactic supplies a supportive, albeit anecdotal point to the “thought-policing” side!

No matter what you personally think is irrelevent, and that isn’t the point at the moment; it should still be possible to engage in a debate by admitting it exists, NOT by pretending it is already resolved and people who disagree with you are all bad people. That eliminates the agency of others entirely and insults their intelligence.

Of course, SOME people who disagree may behave rudely in their manner, besides. This is entirely beside the point that denying their substantive disagreement by dismissing it, and presuming the matter resolved, is fallacious argumentation* that proves nothing… except that there is more than one way to be rude.

Rinse and repeat for climate change, and a batch of other hotly contested issues. Be fair to your opponents’ positions, and be sure you’re representing them adequately. If you can’t debate the best possible version of their position, it’s because you have something to learn from it after all.

* The original referent of “begging the question” is the logical fallacy of petitio principii, a form of circular reasoning. There is also an aspect of an ad hominem fallacy at work in this case.

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