Saturday, January 25, 2014

If a theory (or belief system) is slipperier than an eel, maybe it's just bullshit...

Your maxim of the day, foul language and all. Growing up in a very religious, strongly right-wing, conservative world, I have often had the misfortune of listening to people spout utter nonsense, and then twist themselves into logical pretzels to maintain those irrational stances when confronted with reasonable counter arguments.

The Biblical genocide argument is always “fun”, for instance.

The Bible's accounts of genocide weren't really genocide.  
How is wiping out entire people's not genocide? 
Okay, they were genocides, but it was merited. God gave the massacred people's lands to Israel, therefore it was just.
So God is above his own laws? He can kill people to take their stuff, and that somehow is not murder?
Well, of course God wouldn't wipe out a civilization to steal the inhabitant's land; they were bad people!
Even the babies? What about the fetuses (because, we all know that those are “people”...)? The little kids?
Why do you hate God so much?!?

It's like off the cuff hermeneutics. But these slippery eel type arguments transcend religion, and find a hallowed place in our political arena. I'm sorry, a niche of batshittery in the political circus. The longer you argue, the more you see that your opponent is playing a game of logical hopscotch: as soon as one line falls, they have another, and then another, and another. Oftentimes, you'll see that the lines are either ill suited to exist in conjunction with one another, or else completely contradict one another. The arguer will do anything, no matter how poor an overall argument it makes, to “prove” a sufficient number of little points, here and there, in order to convince themselves that the main point is valid; and as soon as one point is knocked down, they will move onto the next. There is a lot of completely unjustified “connect the dots” type thinking (“People died in Benghazi. Obama deliberately killed those people!”), but this doesn't much matter either, because they are absolutely convinced of the conclusion. The premises and inferences that lead them to it are negotiable. In other words, we're talking about belief, belief attempting to find validation through the use of reason. But reason is tangential to, not central to, the argument. Reason is simply a tool with which to convince other people of and placate their own intellect regarding the belief; but the belief exists and persists regardless of reason.

Often, the tiny points seem (and even are) logical. This is the trap, the twisted beauty, of the strategy, though. The Sean Hannity's of the world don't win people to their side by feeding them an exclusive diet of bullshit. They win people to their side by presenting them with random facts, and then making bullshit inferences, like a connect-the-dots picture of duplicity. Yes, President Obama is black; and, yes, he has discussed racism. But, short of some damned compelling evidence to the contrary, you can't just assert that he is a racist. The thing is, that damned compelling evidence is never forthcoming. Those reasonable premises are presented as if they are the inference. In fact, suggesting that a person talking in a mature, polite fashion about wrongs they've encountered is racism is just batshit crazy. But if you question the inference, the argument almost always comes back to the premise, or some other equally unconnected premise. It's very much shifting the goal posts...any time one line falls, just move onto a new position. And, maybe, loop back around eventually, because why not?

As tempting as it is, it's oftentimes an ineffective strategy to take umbrage with the subpoints – even when they're god awful (like “Obama's a fascist socialist communist dictator!”). If they don't hit you with the one tactic, they'll hit you with another: if they lose the subpoint, they'll move onto another one, and you'll be stuck in an endless hopscotch game, leaping from tangential point to tangential point; and, if the subpoint was valid, there's obviously no point arguing it. In fact, right or wrong, as far as the overall argument is concerned, if the inferences are horrible, then the premises don't much matter. The premise that Obama is a Christmas hating socialist is logically less problematic than the inference that brings us to alien existence.

At the end of the day, though, if a belief system requires ample mental gymnastics simply to be consistent; if believers have to invent a field like hermeneutics to cook up interpretations that seem less insane than the obvious and accepted meanings; if they have to constantly shift the goal posts or hop from one point to another to convince themselves that the argument has a leg to stand on...maybe it's time to take a long, hard look at that belief. Because, the slipperier an argument, the more often it seems that it – or at least the reason for believing it – is just bullshit.

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