Friday, October 19, 2012

Argument Cop-Outs, Part 1

As I have mentioned in a different place, my two candidates for the three most frequently heard argument cop outs are: (1) "Let's just agree to disagree", (2) "You're just arguing semantics", and (3) in the relevant contexts, "Never discuss religion or politics."

Now let me (try to) make myself crystal clear from the outset. As to statements (1) and (2), I do not hold that every usage instance constitutes a "cop out" (statement (3) needs special attention). To be sure, such might seem to be tantamount to holding, for instance and highly implausibly, that there is no context in which a legitimate "semantic argument" could take place (I think that there are such contexts), or that there is no point in a dispute at which both disputants ought to retreat (I think there certainly are such points).

What then do I mean to criticize? Let me attempt to explain.

Let us consider in this installment, statement (1).

"Agree to disagree" is, to me, often used in a most disagreeable way (no pun intended). For example, it is often used as a conversation-stopper. This statement is (in my experience) frequently heard very early on in so-called "discussions" that, for all intents and purposes, are really better described as "trading opinion announcements".

Person one may announce: "My opinion is that blah." Person two may then counter-announce: "My opinion is that not-blah." And, without further ado, one person then hurriedly exclaims: "Let's just agree to disagree."

Alternatively, the statement might be used as a dispute blocker, in what I sometimes refer to as "drive by 'philosophy'," that is, philosophastry. In this setting, statement (1) is used as soon as one party realizes that the other will not be content to merely trade opinion announcements, but seems bent on actually delving more deeply into an issue.

So, here, person one may say: "I think such-and-so, because, after all, nyah" (where "nyah" may actually serve as a profferred reason). And then person two may reply: "Actually, not-such-and-so, because not-nyah. Moreover, blah, blah, blah." And person one, then realizing that he may be forced to think about such-and-so, may wish to forestall this eventuality by interjecting (1). (Of course, there could be other reasons, but I am setting justifiable cases aside, presently.) If used in this way, "Let's just agree to disagree" might be functionally equivalent to the obviously unutterable statement, "Don't confuse me with the facts, my mind is made up."

If two discussants (in the same discussion) are possessed of a healthy desire for truth, and if both hold (the very reasonable notion) that beliefs (of both parties) can only be fairly tested (as to their truth) in the crucible of open debate, then we would surely say that, in the situations sketched (albeit too briefly and comically), it is far too early in either exchange for the interlocutors to resign themselves to the thought that they are – more or less – stuck in a permanent state of disagreement.

To "agree to disagree," after little more than noting where their beliefs differ, seems to me to be the manifestation of a very cynical or even defeatist attitude with respect to the possibility of rational dialog. It's arguably a form of misology. But, in any case, it's facile.

(Of course, in some contexts, "Let's just agree to disagree" could conceivably be employed as a veiled boast or a threat. The idea might be that one disputant thinks himself so capable as to "warn" the other that he or she ought rather just drop the issue at hand rather than be outmatched in debate. I set this possibility aside as well, for present purposes.)

"Agreeing to disagree", while perhaps sounding like the "tolerant" and "high-minded" thing to do when two people are faced with disagreement, in actuality just short circuits the process of analysis and stunts the potential intellectual growth of both participants. It replaces the drive for knowledge with the ambition to be left alone to one’s opinions – however ill-grounded.

This is not to say that, in the course of discussion, a time (however temporary) never comes whereupon there is nothing further that can be added by the discussants, until, that is, they retreat to their studies to conduct additional research or whatever. But, it is to say the brief exchanges that seem (in this author's experience) to frequently precede (1)'s usage, do not even remotely bring one to such a time.

For example, in the cases surveyed (again, admittedly hastily), it would be premature, and inaccurate (at least, in my opinion), to say that either terminates at a point in the exchange at which the parties have exhausted all that there is to say that is pertinent. In fact, in my view, it is likely that the issues have yet even to be minimally outlined.

I hope briefly to discuss statements (2) and (3) in later installments.

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