Thursday, October 12, 2006

Debate Baiters

debaters in wigs, John Hopkins Magazine
As I began high school, a very bright teacher discussed Randism with me, from the perspective of having experienced what I was in over 20 years before. She ended up sighing many times, smiling a few and telling me that she knew I was smart and balanced enough to outgrow it.

Even those who do not identify with Rand and have not read her works can show the leached influences. Her thinking has truly percolated through America. Those such as Alan Greenspan and other disciples or disciples of her disciples have aided this tremendously.

The most obvious symptom of this thinking is incessant niggling correction. The premise is that when you build an argument, it is like so many blocks. If you have a misplaced or faulty one, everything will collapse -- your whole work is thus worthless.

So it is common for a Randist, Objectivist, Radical for Capitalism or the like to interrupt a discussion or lecture to "correct" some minor point. Typically, this is done with enthusiasm, self-righteousness and entitlement. They must not let the speaker present a whole premise if even the tiniest statement is (to them) flawed.

This not only takes a long time and distracts all from the importance of the issue at hand. It annoys the vast majority of folk, who have a tolerance for ambiguity and who can let someone lay out an argument before discussing it.

There is an even sillier and less intellectually sound debate style, common in New England. Particularly in prep schools and the Ivies, silence-the-other-guy is acceptable debate. It has two simple forms -- iterate your position until you wear them out or make your point as loudly and firmly as you can. Intellectually, either is weak, but they can be effective in stopping discussion so you can claim victory.

To oversimplify, the quibblers tend to be rightwingers, while the shout-and-repeat sorts identify as liberals. If either is your sport and form of discussion, you can easily find magazines, broadcast shows and blogs to let you indulge in these games.

Alas, we see the quibbling, niggling sort epitomized in Rand-style debate in academics all to often. Invariably when a scholar produces a major work, the nippers and gnawers feast. They pick points, no matter how incidental to the big ideas, to disprove or at least denigrate.

You can say that if they fine-tune the work in question, scholarship advances and the knowledge of the subject expands. You can also say they are ill intended, likely because they are incapable of such a leap of ideas themselves. They pick, pick, pick because it is the best they can do.

Perhaps here we have lost the taste for such debate games. We choose not to play either.

On occasion, we shall reject comments that want to play, that want to engage us and other commenters in niggles. The commenters may indeed feel and maybe even think that those little points are worth the electrons. There are many places where they can lay those down and receive a welcome.

This rant must surely fall in my harrumpher class.

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Ryan said...

I had to stop reading when you incorrectly used the word "or." If you can't obey simple rules of grammar, why should I believe anything you type?!?

(Obviously the above statement is a COMPLETE joke.)

massmarrier said...

Oh, believe a matter of FAITH.