Argumentation, Comedy, Language, Logic, Myth, Politics, religion, Rhetoric, Speech Genres
It’s been a long time since I read Lakoff and Johnson’s book Metaphors We Live By, but I was recently thinking the internet has surely added a lot of good material for some of its central themes. The the notion of argumentation as warfare comes to mind. In that book, they advanced the notion that a lot of the metaphors people use for argumentation are those associated with warfare and violence in general. This is certainly born out by a number of things you can see on the net.
To see what people say about argumentation on the internet, it would seem that the world of debate is tremendously violent. Everywhere one looks, one finds destruction in the wake of a rhetorical flourish. Case in point? “Pres Obama Brilliantly Destroys a Loaded FOXNews Question” in this clip. Go Bama! But wait a minute? Is that an accomplishment? How do you destroy a question anyway? Loaded or unloaded, do you bash them? Crush them? Hit them with a mega-devestating incinerator photon torpedawhomper Bomb? Not to worry, cause our man Obama gets some here. He totally destroys Trump in this speech. In this video a “60 Minutes Host Destroys Barack Obama On Syria.” “Dawkins destroys Muslim Morality” in this video. But don’t look now! “Rupert Sheldrake Destroys Dawkins Dillusion in Banned TED-x Talk.” …er (sic). Apparently the author of this book is content to merely “refute” him. (Merciful soul!) Bill Nye destroyed Ken Ham. Ken Ham took the Science guy down with him. …totally destroyed. Sam Harris kicks ass here. Ben Carson “demolishes liberalism entirely in this clip from The View. Hillary Clinton destroys things too! Oh no, Rand Paul destroyed her! He destroyed Donald Trump too! But wait a minute! Donald Trump destroyed Paul. Mutual destruction, just what I like to see in the GOP.
Hold the phone.
In this video Cenk Uygur “destroys, degrades, demolishes, desecrates Antonin Scalia.”
Destruction, degradation, demolition, AND desecration? That’s it. Uyguyr wins the prize. he can just drop the mic now. He totally wins the violence as war meme for the day. Apparently the man is a veritable engine of rhetorical terror. Behold his verbal prowess and tremble!
Okay, so I know how to belabor a point, right? Well, I’m just getting started really, so please bear with me. The point here is NOT that argumentation is really a form of warfare, but rather that many of the ideas we attach to argumentation are derived from the world of violence. The metaphors we use when talking about argumentation are, as Lakoff and Johnson pointed out, borrowed from the world of war. We could use other metaphors, and sometimes we do, but when we approach this subject for some reason or another violence just keeps pushing its way to the front of our tropic tool-kit. And really, what else would we expect Violence to do? He’s a pushy bastard. That’s why we call him Violence.
What has me thinking about this today isn’t really the metaphors, per se; it’s the stories used in this case to convey them. Each of the links above provides a little mini narrative describing some argument as though it were a decisive victory in battle. Reading the links in question, we can practically hear the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan echoing in the background.
To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.
Is this what every arguing argutizer really has in mind all along, an effort to achieve a victory so complete he can hear the lamentations of the women mourning his poor vanquished victim?
But of course we want other things too. We want to show that we are smart. We want others to see our point, perhaps even to accept some truth that we regard as important. Sometimes we may want to learn ourselves, perhaps fleshing out our ideas in the effort to present them to others. We might even hope to learn more from another party by pushing them a little, getting them out of their comfort zone in the hopes that what they then tell us will be a little more worth listening to than what they say when the world feels like a warm moist hug.
Sometimes an argument leaves us with a narrative about conquest and destruction. That’s fair to say. But sometimes it leaves us with narratives about personal transformation, mural respect, learning, realization, …and, oh the fluffy! It burns!!! I’m really uncomfortable pleading the merits of such wholesome and earnest values, but honestly, they too play a large role in the construction of argumentation. Often these values are the more serious reasons for engaging in argumentation. Officially they are the reason we produce arguments in the classroom, for example, though someone might be excused for thinking the real reasons may at times be closer to those of argumentation as warfare. (I’m reminded of references to the ‘silverbacks’ in scholarly halls, people who contribute great thoughts to be sure, but also folks who are prone to pounding their chests and roaring at others whenever they feel the need.) One often feels a certain tension between these motivations, at least I do.
Increasingly I am inclined to think of the tension between different rhetorical styles in terms of the narratives folks hope to tell about the arguments in question. Whether successful or not, at some point an argument passes into discursive history. It then rests in the background of subsequent discourse, taking on the form of the texts, ideas, quotes, and general resources others may use to communicate. They may recount an argument (or perhaps resurrect it in dead horse form just for the purpose of kicketation). As often as not, arguments make their appearance in later discourse in the form of stories like those referenced above. We talk about how Chomsky blew Skinner away on the nature of language (or perhaps he didn’t). We speak of the conflict (‘shedding more heat than light’ as one of my professors put it) between Masrahl Sahlins and Gananath Obeyesekere. Sometimes we simply say that one theory replaced another or that a given approach has become the standard in the field. Whatever else happens in such commentary, it transforms the point of an argument into a moment in a narrative. In many cases, I’ll warrant, this is hoped-for pay-off in producing an argument, that it will pass into the positive themes of a story. Maybe that story will be about how Bob kicked Joey’s ass on a random topic, or maybe it will be a story about how this or that idea came to be the dominant approach to a given subject.
Dominant? I’m back in the language of violence again. er, …perhaps the received wisdom in a given field? Anyway…
My point is that much of what people do in the course of pursuing an argument can be thought of as an effort, not simply to prove the truth of a claim as logicians might tell us, but to lay the groundwork for any number of stories one would hope to see told at some later time. Why do I think this is important? Not so much because it helps us understand the production of any particular argument, and certainly not because it helps us grasp the nature of academic argumentation (or any argumentation conforming to the normative ideals of my logic texts). What strikes me as important about this is that it helps to understand conflict with argumentative styles falling outside those norms. It helps precisely because it denies the centrality of those norms and reminds us that the effort to provide an objective case for the truth of a claim is just one of the many reasons someone might field an argument. He could also do so because he wants to hear the lamentations of your women.
I’m still belaboring the point, aren’t I? Thus far, it feels like I am painting too much in broad strokes, but wait! Oh! There’s another good metaphor for argumentation. Painting!!! Wouldn’t rhetoric be that much more colorful and that much less painful if we could construe arguments in terms of visual media? To make it work though, it needs to be generative. We need to be able to spell out the details of argumentation in painterly terms. Perhaps we could a prepare the canvas in reference to issues of context or outline a theory. Hey! We do ‘outline’ theories. We also sketch out the details of a position, make too fine a point of some things, and even speak of prevarication as erasure. Argumentation as art works. …but apparently not as often as warfare.
Artsy asides notwithstanding, what has me up at this undogly hour is the prospect of looking at the transition from an argument to a narrative in more detail. What happens when a genre defined in terms of premises and conclusions passes into the form of a genre defined by characters, plots, and events? What happens when relevance and logical support is transformed into dramatic tension? Are there regular patterns? If so, can they help us understand some of the details happening on either end of that transition?
There is plenty of interesting material out there. Election year political debates are a great example of this. Candidates do not approach these debates as an academic might. They are not trying to prove a point so much as provide an audience with a reason to vote in a certain way. The candidate with the most compelling argument for a given policy may not be the one who impresses voters the most. A large part of what determines this will be the way the arguments play in subsequent speech. A candidate, for example, who handles the details of a legal issue thoroughly may find himself resonating far less effectively than one who fielded a better sound bite in the same debate.
Obvious example is obvious.
Less obvious material? Internet trolls could perhaps provide us with a fair number of examples, but I think pure trolling is just the tip of the ice-berg. That kid who was too busy laughing at your avatar pic to care that your argument was sound will probably be as proud to tell the story of the encounter as you are, perhaps more so. Likewise the old fart who, hey that’s me! (Nevermind that example, we’re moving on…) If I’m ever tempted to use the phrase ‘social justice warrior’ in contempt it’s when I meet someone who seems more intent on claiming moral high ground over certain issues than addressing any number of objective concerns. You could absolutely prove a point to such a person and the only story they will tell about you is that you proved yourself to be a bad person for doing it. But of course one also encounters plenty of people happy to sneer and smirk at the the discomfort of others, especially anyone stupid enough to give a damn about the underprivileged. To let such a person know that you care about any given issue is little other than to tell them how to hurt you. They too will tell a tale about any argument you have with them. Your own tears (real or imagined) will figure prominently in the stories they hope to tell about you.
Such games aren’t limited to the net, of course, but the anonymity of online discussion seems to bring it all out so much more. It’s part of a general pattern of behavior one sees in public disagreements, especially those involving people from very different walks of life. All too often both parties in an argument will come away thinking they have won. In each case, what they actually come away with is a story that relates their victory. It would be easy to think this is because people simply don’t see their own errors, to think that only one of the stories about a given argument would be authentic, but that’s not usually the case. As often as not, the difference occurs because each side had a different sense of the win-loss conditions to begin with.
Yes, the notion of ‘winning’ an argument is already a problem.
The problem isn’t always that other speaking styles compete with those we might think of as more sound argumentative practice. Sometimes the alternative approaches are genuinely interesting in themselves. For example, sometimes an argument is encased in a legendary narrative, which of course makes possible a kind of indirection or an argument by allusion. One may simply refer to the story as a means of suggesting an argument about real world matters. My favorite example of this remains the separation of men and women in Navajo lore, though I suppose one can also see it in conventions of scriptural quotation among Christians (where it almost always takes on the quality of an authority argument). In each of these cases, the significance of an argument appears to be filtered through the significance of a set narrative that defines and shapes its meaning in ways you couldn’t get from a direct analysis of the argument itself. That argument appears as a brief moment in a stream of storytelling, and for some at least its possible significance will always be tied to that very narrative.
When I used to post on Christian Forums, I recall a number of instances in which the arguments of atheists were described in terms of malevolent supernatural power. Realizing I was among the demons described in these narratives, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of anger and irritation. I also found it fascinating. These were people who measured arguments in terms of spiritual warfare. They measured such arguments in terms of powers not premises and faith instead of relevance. This is argumentation as war, to be sure, but in this case, it’s a war between demons and angels. Where I might havedescribed an argument on that forum in terms of proof and evidence, to the practitioners of spiritual warfare those same arguments became stories of a struggle with evil. In the abstract, that isn’t really too surprising, but I must say that it was odd to see just how that general theme played out in the details.
The Storify app would seem to be relevant to my thoughts at the moment? …Still not gonna use it!
Comedy strikes me as a particularly perplexing example of this problem. Stand-up comics produce arguments all the time, but of course their primary job is still to make people laugh. Often we laugh because the argument seems to make a good point in a clever and interesting way. At other times we may laugh because the argument is clearly absurd or irrelevant. The shear audacity of an obvious fallacy can be damned humorous if one isn’t expected to take it seriously. In such performances, our priorities shift and we may approve arguments which might otherwise seem foolish or genuinely asinine.
My tendency in such cases has always been to assume the comic doesn’t really mean it, but as I get older (and as some of my favorite comics do the same) I find at times these jokes are meant more seriously than I might have hoped. Victoria Jackson would be one particularly morbid example of this problem. What might have been a funny act, at least to some, appears less an less to be an act at all. Honestly, I think the same of Ted Nugent. I know he’s not a comic, but in his old television appearances I can’t help thinking his tone was tongue in cheek, that he at least realized he was taking some liberties with reason. I don’t see that when he speaks anymore. I see the same reckless leaps of lack-logic in Nugent’s speech, but he no longer seems to be in on his own joke. Its as if his reasoning has become so committed to the service of a personal narrative that it couldn’t matter anymore when he is wrong, not even enough for a wink.
How did I get onto Nugent?
My point is that in comedy argumentation and jokes are bound up together in interesting ways. Which takes priority over which just isn’t always that clear. Sometimes the strength of an argument carries the joke itself, and sometimes it’s the lack of that strength that makes us laugh. So, which is it in any given case? That’s not easy to tell. The guy laughing beside you may be thinking ‘that is so true’ even as you are busting a gut because it’s completely ridiculous. In either event, we are less likely to evaluate the work of a comedian in terms of the cogency of his reasoning or the truth of his assumptions than the cleverness of his words, his timing, projection, etc. With some clear exceptions, we can see this in the stories people tell about the work of comics.
On the other hand, the work of a good comic does bring us back to the argument as war metaphor. If an act is done right, we might well say of the comic that he killed it! I wonder if stand-up comics ever want to crush their audiences, to see those who came to a show driven before them, and to hear the lamentations of their women?
I’ve probably overdone that line, haven’t I?
Yes, I have.