Looking at my past two months of blogging, I seem to be talking a lot about critical thinking–i.e. how to argue. Why break the pattern now? My bloggy friend Coyote also likes talking about how to argue, and today I would like to borrow one of their ideas.
So, here’s the problem. Suppose I have a friend who just did a thing that annoyed me–they linked to a news story where a celebrity they dislike was swindled out of their money. To me, this is victim blaming–con artists often rely on victims being too embarrassed to admit they were swindled. So I vent by writing something on Twitter or Facebook about how much I hate victim blaming. But I don’t want to specifically call out my friend so I keep it general. My friend sees and cheerfully agrees with my post, but fails to realize that I was talking about them; they thought it was about sexual assault or something.
As Coyote put it:
If you want to tell people “this belief is wrong” or “this practice won’t do what you think it will” then the first step is making sure you can precisely and accurately describe the belief/practice in the first place, where “accurately” here is assessed by your audience (not you), because if nobody can see themselves in the flawed behavior as you’ve described it, then your criticism might as well be addressed to nobody.
If you want to criticize someone’s behavior, then it’s really important that they are able to realize, “My behavior is the target of criticism”. There are two main failure modes. One is if they nod along, and fail to realize they were being criticized, as in my example. The other type of failure, is when readers can’t tell whether you’re talking about them. If you’re talking about them, then you’re mischaracterizing them, attacking straw men. If you’re talking about someone else, then you failed to be specific enough for readers to understand that.
Coyote uses the term “interpellation” to describe the process by which someone realizes they are being talked about. Although, that seems to be a bastardization of a Marxist concept, so I’m not sure I like the word. Anyway.
Last month, I talked about one-sided dichotomies, which is when we say there are two sides to an argument, except it’s only one side saying there are two sides. There is nothing inherently wrong with a one-sided dichotomy, but it is worth understanding, especially for the purpose of arguing effectively.
One example of a one-sided dichotomy is essentialism vs non-essentialism. The essentialist viewpoint holds that there is an underlying truth to questions like “Am I a woman?” or “Am I asexual?” and it’s all about trying to understand that underlying truth so that people can label themselves correctly. My non-essentialist viewpoint is that while there are underlying truths, it’s entirely up to us which of the underlying truths “woman” or “asexual” refers to.
I feel pretty strongly about non-essentialism, and I might want to argue against essentialism. But here’s the difficulty: essentialists rarely call themselves essentialists. It’s a one-sided dichotomy. So in order to argue effectively, I need to describe essentialist beliefs in such a way that essentialists (who do not call themselves essentialists) realize that I’m talking about them. And that’s hard.
Some people think that the core skill of arguing is logic, or logical fallacies, or something like that. No. The core skill is mental modeling. What does it feel like to be an essentialist? How would an essentialist react to what I’m saying?
Here’s a final proposition that I leave for the comment section to consider: “Interpellation”, or whatever we call it, was the primary obstacle faced by atheists arguing against religion.