It is a common enough occurrence. In arguing with someone, as a controversial view is supported, even more controversial reasons are given, to be followed by more and more controversial commitments. A regular strategy in what might be called normal argument is that arguing parties trace their reasons to a shared ground of agreed-upon premises and rules of support, and then they test which of their sides is favored by these reasons. But disagreements one might call deep are those wherein shared reasons are not easily found. And consequently, it seems that under these conditions, argumentative exchange is doomed to failure. Robert Fogelin famously argued that "the possibility of a genuine argumentative exchange depends … on the fact that together we accept many things." Deep disagreements, consequently, "cannot be resolved through the use of argument, for they undercut the conditions essential to arguing."
Of late, our interest in deep disagreement has not been purely academic. With Donald J. Trump winning the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election and the rise of the alt-right movement in American politics, we found that we faced very real cases of what had seemed a sheer theoretical posit. In particular, the intellectual movement of the self-styled "neo-reactionary right" and the "Dark Enlightenment" seemed to be exemplary. We have been on record as what we've called Argumentative Optimists in the face of deep disagreement, so our theory now has a test case.
2. The Dark Enlightenment and the Cathedral
When we started reading around in the neo-reactionary corpus, we found ourselves in what felt like an upside-down world – all the dialectical elements of the argument were familiar, but none of the premises presented as truisms seemed remotely plausible. The journalist James Duesterberg captures his experience first reading the literature of the Dark Enlightenment:
Wading in, one finds oneself quickly immersed, and soon unmoored. All the values that have guided center-left, post-war consensus … are inverted. The moral landmarks by which we were accustomed to get are bearings aren't gone: they're on fire.
This Alice through the looking glass experience is something that those in the literature expect. But the writers in this genre have no plans on showing their readers the way back to the world they'd left behind. In fact, this break with the world of liberal norms is one of the core commitments of the neo-reactionary program. Importantly, we, all those who have not stepped out of it, have been brainwashed by a quasi-religious political superstructural institution ruling the Western world – what those in the neoreactionary movement call The Cathedral.
We all have had moments when we feel that those with whom we disagree not only reject the point we are focused on at the moment, but also reject our values, general beliefs, modes of reasoning, and even our hopes. In such circumstances, productive critical conversation seems impossible. For the most part, in order to be successful, argument must proceed against the background of common ground. Interlocutors must agree on some basic facts about the world, or they must share some source of reasons to with they can appeal, or they must value roughly the same sort of outcome. And so, if two parties disagree about who finished runners-up to Leister City in their historic BPL win last year, they may agree to consult the league website, and that will resolve the issue. Or if two travelers disagree about which route home is better, one may say, "Yes, your way is shorter, but it runs though the traffic bottleneck at the mall, and that adds at least ten minutes to the journey." And that may resolve the dispute, depending perhaps on whether time is what matters most.
But some disagreements invoke deeper disputes, disputes about what sources are authoritative, what counts as evidence, and what matters. Such disputes quickly become argumentatively strange. And so if someone does not recognize the authority of the soccer league's website about last year's standings, it is unclear how a dispute over last year's runners-up to Leister City could be resolved. What might one say to a disputant of this kind? Does he trust news sites, television reporting, or Wikipedia entries concerning the BPL? Does he regard the news sites and the league website as reliable sources of information concerning this year's standings or when the games are played? What if our interlocutor in the route-home case doesn't see why the quickest route is preferable to the shortest? Maybe our traveling companion regards our hurry-scurry as a part of a larger social problem, or maybe wants to enjoy the Zen of a traffic jam. Sometimes a disagreement about one thing lies at the tip of a very large iceberg of composed of many other, deeper, disagreements.
We’re currently finishing work on the manuscript for our forthcoming book, Why We Argue (And How We Should), so we’ve been thinking a lot recently about argumentation. We’ve been especially concerned with how arguments can go wrong. When evaluating an argument, one of the central questions to ask is whether the stated premises support the proposed conclusion. When the premises fail to provide the right kind of support for the conclusion, we often call the argument (and its form) fallacious. Fallacies are so pervasive precisely because they are cases in which it looks as if the stated premises provide propose support for a proposed conclusion, but in fact they don’t. Take, for example, a simple textbook fallacy, that of asserting the consequent:
If Bill’s a bachelor, Bill is male.
Bill is male, therefore Bill is a bachelor.
The trouble with an argument of this form is that it presents an invalid inference — the premises, if true, don’t guarantee the truth of the conclusion. So even were the premises and the conclusion true, the proposed argument fails. Note that the failure is a matter of the proposed argument’s form rather than its content. The objective of fallacy detection in the formal mode is to reveal cases in which the truth of the stated premises fail to provide the proper kind of support for the conclusion.
In the formal mode, we also can identify different degrees in which premises provide support for a conclusion. The highest degree of support that premises can provide for a conclusion is the guarantee of its truth, given the truth of the premises. Arguments that manifest that feature are called deductivelyvalid. But note that deductive validity does not depend on the stated premises actually being true. That is, with a valid argument, the conclusion is guaranteed to be true, if the premises are true. Accordingly, an argument can be deductively valid even if every one of its stated premises is false.
Thus we require an additional metric of formal success. It would seem that an argument that is both deductively valid and has premises that in fact are all true would be bombproof. Such arguments are called deductively sound. Notice that deductive soundness encompasses deductive validity in that every sound argument is valid. A deductively sound argument is a deductively valid argument that has true premises. Since a deductively valid argument is one that guarantees the truth of its conclusion provided that its premises are in fact true, it should be no surprise that deductive soundness is often considered the gold standard for argumentative success. Every deductively sound argument actually establishes the truth of its conclusion. Who could ask for more than that?
In the wake of the first Presidential Debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney, two assessments have come to be widely accepted. The first is that Mitt Romney handily won the debate. The second is that Mitt Romney’s key claims in the debate were demonstrably inaccurate. Neither assessment taken on its own looks particularly noteworthy. But when they are affirmed together, they sound dissonant.
Here’s why. Debates are argumentative settings where one’s performance should be assessed on the basis of the relative quality of the arguments one presents. The quality of an argument depends on the truth of the information presented as premises and the relevance of that information to its conclusion. So if we know that an arguer is employing premises containing important inaccuracies, we should not judge his or her arguments as successful. Therefore we should not think he or she did well in the debate. Yet this is precisely what the conjunction of the two prevalent assessments of the Presidential Debate contends: Romney won the debate, but his central arguments were failures. There’s the dissonance.
We can anticipate what our critics will say: What Pollyannas these guys are! They may then continue: Academics are so naïve!Political debates aren’t about arguments, but rather cutting a striking pose, displaying one’s personality, connecting with an audience, and making one’s opponents look dumb. The critics might then raise the example of the Nixon/Kennedy debates in 1960, where Nixon was considered the winner by those listening on the radio, but Kennedy won with those who watched on TV. Nixon looked tired, but Kennedy looked, well, like a Kennedy. This leads our imagined critics to conclude: Winning over an audience, looking “presidential,” taking a commanding tone — that’s what political debate is really about. Everything else is just Ivory Tower chatter. And so goes a popular interpretation of democracy’s deliberative moments. This is a resolutely cynical stance concerning democracy, and in fact it takes its cynicism to be a kind of virtue. Let’s call it “just is” cynicism.
Democratic politics is all about argument. Hence, with the US election season upon us, expect commentators from across the spectrum to begin offering familiar lamentations regarding the sorry state of our popular political discourse. Often these critiques express a yearning for a mostly fictitious past in which opposing candidates addressed their differences of opinion by means of calm and reasoned discussion rather than with attack-ads, smear campaigns, and dirty tricks. One popular way of posing the complaint is to say that in contemporary US politics, we have lost our collective sense of civility.
We all agree that civility in political argument is an increasingly scarce good. Yet it’s not clear precisely what civility is. On some accounts, civility is equivalent to conflict aversion; one is civil insofar as one is conciliatory and irenic in dealing with one’s political opponents. Civility in this sense seeks to deal with disagreement by disposing of it. Civility of this kind is little more than a call for compromise at the expense of one’s own commitments. Hence this kind of civility might be inconsistent with actually believing anything. To be sure, compromise among clashing viewpoints is frequently a fitting avenue to pursue once argument has reached an impasse. But when taken as a fundamental virtue of argument itself, compromise is vicious.
Another prevalent account of civility is focused on the tone one takes in arguing with one’s opponents. The thought is that when arguing, one must avoid overly hostile or antagonistic language. On this view, a paradigmatic case of incivility is name-calling and other forms of expression overtly aimed at belittling or insulting on one’s opponents. Now, there is no doubt that maintaining a civil tone when arguing is generally good policy. But a civil tone is not always required, and there are occasions where aggressive language is called for. Argument is a form of confrontation, one with words instead of weapons, and any norm that prevents argument from displaying the critical edges of disagreements undercuts what inspires the argument to begin with. Furthermore, it is possible to fail at proper argumentation and yet maintain a calm and respectful tone of voice. In fact, under certain circumstances, one patronizes one’s interlocutor precisely by sustaining one’s composure. If civility of tone has a purpose, it is to maintain conditions under which proper argument can commence; thus it is not itself a component of proper argument.
The website LandoverBaptist.com has posted headlines that run from the goofy (“What Can Christians Do to Help Increase Global Warming?” and “New Evidence Suggests Noah’s Sons Rode Flying Dinosaurs”) to the chilling (“Satan Calls Another Pope to Hell” and “Trade Us Your Voter’s Registration Card for Free Fried Chicken from Popeye’s”). The site is designed to parody the racism, scientific illiteracy, and religious bigotry widely attributed to American fundamentalist and evangelical Christians. But, judging from the site’s posted mail, it seems that the general public does not recognize that the site is parodic. Most email responses begin by chastising the authors for not knowing the true meaning of Christianity, for having misinterpreted some quoted Bible passage, or for being hypocrites with respect to some point of contention. Very little of the posted mail actually confronts the owners and writers at Landover with what they are doing: presenting a grotesque, overblown, and bombastic parody of Christian religious life. LandoverBaptist.com’s mail bag has entries from its first days, and there has been a consistent failure on behalf of the writing public to recognize that the site is a parody. What gives? Poe’s Law (Wiki).
Nathan Poe is widely credited for formulating the eponymous law. He first noted a particular difficulty in an entry on a Christianforms.com chat page regarding creationism:
Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won’t mistake (it) for the genuine article.
This is to say that unless there are unmistakable and explicit cues that one is being ironic or sarcastic, many parodies are not only likely to be interpreted as earnest contributions, they will, in fact, be indistinguishable in content to sincere expressions of the parodied view. The law can be fleshed out in a few ways, but the following thought capture the core of the Poe’s Law: For any webpage which parodies religious extremity, if the webpage has no overt cues of its status as parodic, no appeal to the page’s content can distinguish it from that of a webpage with sincerely expressed religiously extreme views. That a webpage is filled with Biblically-inspired scientific illiteracy, racism, or sexism doesn’t mean that the poster sincerely believes such things; the page might be a parody. Yet the problem is that this works in reverse as well. Blatant errors and blinding ignorance may mean that the poster is truly an immoral idiot. For every crazy thing on LandoverBaptist.com, there’s something just as (or maybe more) crazy on Godhatesfags.com. Looking just at the content, one cannot tell the difference between them.
Now, our objective here is not that of determining whether Poe’s Law is true. Our interest rather is in the effects of accepting it as true. What happens to interpersonal argument when disputants generally accept Poe’s Law? What are the effects of believing that a parodic expression of an extreme view is indistinguishable from a sincere expression of an extreme view?
To get a handle on the issue, consider first the straw man fallacy.