Argument Clinic: Strawmanning With John Cleese


Is this the right room for an argument?

Is this the right room for a strawman argument?

John Cleese gives an inadvertent demonstration of how to strawman. It’s rather embarrassing to see one of Argument Clinic’s idols as a subject for dissection, but we must follow the path of intellectual honesty, and break out the flensing-knives.

Perforce I will have to present this as a commentary on video, so we’ll time-code the commentary on the left side, then provide detailed analysis on the right.

Timecode
0:00 So far, so good! Cleese is doing an error-free performance.
0:03 1984 splashes up on screen. Implication: orwellian totalitarianism ahead. Without even saying anything, yet, the strawman argument has begun.

Implication is: “political correctness” (as yet undefined) is totalitarian, brings 1984-esque orwellian nightmares.

0:11 Cleese: “I’m offended every day. For example, the British newspapers offend me with their laziness, their nastiness, and their inaccuracy.”

This bodes well. Cleese is offended by inaccuracy, laziness, and nastiness. Thus we can be sure that he is not going to be engaging in any of that sort of behavior himself. My body is suffused with relief.

0:17 Cleese: “But I’m not going to expect anyone to stop that happening.”

I see a pile of straw, and a bunch of twist-ties. Cleese has begun collecting straw and is now wrapping twist-ties around it. What could he possibly be doing? Oh, he’s making a little idol out of the straw!!

Cleese has left himself wide open for counter-attack, and it’s only 18 seconds in. Picture him being interrupted, “What are you talking about? Is someone expecting the newspapers to stop being lazy, nasty, and inaccurate? Is there an actual proposal that newspapers be forced to behave differently?

0:18 Cleese: (continuing) “I should just simply speak out about it.”

Now, Cleese is patting himself on the back for speaking out against that which annoys him. Thus, he sets up this situation:

  • I’m OK because I am simply speaking out about things.
  • (unknown others) are not OK because – what? Apparently they are trying to stop others from speaking out.

Cleese has formed a leg and an arm out of straw and is now trying to make a torso.

0:19 Cleese: “Sometimes, when people are offended, they want someone to just come in and say ‘right, stop that.'”

right

Now the torso is complete. Cleese appears to have built a strawman of someone who is going around telling people to be quiet.

This is a fairly typical move for the anti “political correctness” set: the term is used as an undefined label, which forms the torso of a strawman argument about people who are silencing others. At this point, we recommend you disable your irony meter, or place it in a protective faraday bag. Because Cleese appears to be about to ask people to be quiet about asking people to be quiet.

That, of course, is one of the many parries that can be employed here. The first parry is to direct your opponent toward an endless quagmire of detail:

Who’s saying that? Not me! If someone is saying “stop speaking” obviously a) you haven’t been stopped because you’re whining about ‘political correctness’ and b) I don’t advocate curbing anyone’s speech, so we’re on the same side.

A more meta- parry is to attack the substance of their approach:

You appear to be setting up a strawman argument. So before you go any further, maybe you should define your terms and give me an idea who you are actually talking about.

0:34 Cleese: “As a former chairman of the BBC once said, ‘there are some people one would wish to offend.'”

There is also a snarky option:

We are on the same side! Let us build and burn strawmen together! Please pass me those miniature nazi armbands, I want to dress my strawman up as a fascist.

0:40 Cleese: “The idea that you have to be protected from any kind of uncomfortable emotion is one I absolutely do not subscribe to.”

Me either! We are on the same side! Pass the lighter fluid! This is so fun!

Oh, by the way: who exactly is advocating that people need to be protected from uncomfortable emotion? What is the name I should give my strawman, here?

1:01 Cleese: “If people can’t control their own emotions, then they have to stop trying to control other peoples’ behavior.”

That’s wonderfully profound-sounding. But, who are these people? Who is trying to control my behavior!? What name do I put on this strawman I have made, so I can ignite it and watch it burn?

1:08 Cleese: “When you’re around super sensitive people, you cannot relax and be spontaneous because you have no idea what’s going to upset them next…”

Fortunately neither of us is super sensitive! So you can relax! I can call you a “plummy-arsed failure at Argument Clinic” and you can call me “a snarky nobody” and nobody will step in and try to stop either of us. In spite of the fact that we’re sitting here in a pile of lighter fluid-soaked strawmen in nazi uniforms, nobody has done any totalitarian, Orwellian, anything. Is Cleese saying that he’s afraid I am going to suddenly jump up and start oppressing him? I’m quite the former fan; I’m enjoying this – it’s an embarrassing performance but it’s not offensive and I’m not hitting the “stop” button except to transcribe.

One strategy in this battle might be to sit back and let Cleese go on for the entire 2+ minutes then, near the end, ask him “Who on Earth are you complaining about?”

1:15 Cleese: “And that’s why I’ve been warned recently, ‘Don’t go to most university campuses.’ Because the political correctness has been taken from being a good idea, which is ‘let’s not be mean, particularly, to people who are not able to look out for themselves.’ That’s a good idea, to the point where any kind of criticism of any individual group can be labelled, um, …. ‘Cruel’.”

labelled

I appreciate that Cleese recognizes that the mechanism in action here is labelling.

So, is the problem of political correctness that people are labelling some speech as “Cruel”? Is that it? And that John Cleese can’t relax and be spontaneous because of fear that someone is going to label his speech as “Cruel”? I thought that’s partly what you built your entire career out of, but what do I know? It seems to me that we’ve got the embarrassing spectacle of the man who scripted and performed “How to Irritate People” complaining that people may label him as “Irritating.”

One basic come-back to this would be: “are you complaining that students’ sense of humor has perhaps grown too sophisticated for your comedy?”

1:50 Cleese: “all comedy is critical. Even if you make a very inclusive joke, like, ‘how do you make god laugh?’  – ‘Tell him your plans.’ Now that’s about the human condition, it’s not excluding anyone.”

Please pass more straw. I am going to name this next strawman ‘Andrew Dice Clay’ because that’s how funny that joke was.

But we must note: Cleese begins to bring in another pile of straw labelled ‘Inclusive’ness.

Standard parry: “Are you saying that someone is advocating stopping non-inclusive humor? I’d like to know who that is.”

There are humorists, like the aforementioned Andrew Dice Clay, who experienced career downturns because they weren’t very funny. As Cleese is not being very funny, here. Nobody silenced Clay, or is silencing Cleese – they just chose how to spend their money as they saw fit.

Imagine if I opened a food cart that sold “Food that tastes bad” – after the first reviews of my alum/capsiacin chili hit Yelp, I might find my clientele dropped to pretty much zero. That doesn’t entitle me to complain that I am being silenced by food critics. I made a mistake, as Andrew Dice Clay did, in the selection of my target audience. I can complain all that I like that it’s hard for me to be relaxed and spontaneous with my menu selection, but it’s not that I’m being oppressed – I’m being ignored by people who have chosen something else.

2:16 Cleese: “All. Humor. Is. Critical.”

As someone whose entire life has been held up to critique, I expect Cleese to understand that. And to understand that it’s a give and take.

Critique is not control. Repeat after me: critique is not control.

It is beginning to sound suspiciously like one of my comedic idols is complaining that he’s afraid to go to universities because someone might complain about him not being funny.

If that bothers you, John Cleese, you might want to stay off Youtube, too.

2:19 fonzie-jumped-shark
2:19 Cleese: “If we start to say ‘Ooh! Ooh! We mustn’t criticize or offend them’ then the humor’s gone. With humor goes a sense of proportion. And then, as far as I’m concerned, you’re living in 1984.”

  1. ‘Mustn’t criticize’ destroys humor
  2. Destroyed humor destroys sense of proportion
  3. Destroyed sense of proportion –> 1984

Rewinding a bit: nobody said ‘mustn’t criticize’ – in fact, we’re both doing it. Cleese said his bit, I said mine, and now The Commentariat will critique me in turn. I will not prevent people from criticizing my precious words, as Cleese did not prevent people criticizing his. Therefore humor is not destroyed. Therefore a sense of proportion remains. Therefore, no 1984. Whew.

Hand me the lighter would you?

When I describe ‘political correctness’ as a ‘whine’ – this is what I mean. Cleese doesn’t actually present an argument. He vaguely hand-waves about something something someone said universities complain something something therefore we must fear 1984.

Strategically, Cleese has left himself vulnerable to so many counter-attacks it isn’t funny. My favorite would be to (as usual) “go meta-” and point out that he started talking about people telling people to stop talking, never finished making that argument and then switched to people complaining, in order to equate complaining with orwellian dictatorship. How can he defend that as intellectual honesty? Big Brother’s dictatorship is manifestly worse in every respect than “people complaining” and Cleese can be expected to know that. Therefore he can be expected to acknowledge that he’s blowing things a bit out of proportion.

John Cleese is a man who has made his life out of criticizing others, mostly humorously. He appears to now be complaining that he fears he may be subject to critique, himself.

What would an effective critique of “Political Correctness” look like? First, you’d want to define the term narrowly enough to avoid quagmires of linguistic nihilism. I’d try to avoid the label entirely, but it might look something like: “Political Correctness is causing problems – and by ‘political correctness’ I am referring to the practice of complaining about things that offend you.” Then I’d get specific with a few concrete examples of the behavior that I felt was inappropriate, and why. “Fear of complaining makes some of my favorite comedians look foolish because they fearlessly complain about fear of complaining. For example, John Cleese did a video on youtube in which he complained a great deal without any substance behind his complaints – clearly, he’s just afraid of complaining, so he complained about it.” Then I would distance myself from the problem by wrapping myself in a Cloak Of Righteousness: “As a life-long proponent of free speech, I support anyone’s right to complain about anything, even complaining about people complaining about people complaining, so if you wish to complain about this, the comment-box (below) is open.”

Comments

  1. says

    Oh, man *head gently thumps on desk. repeatedly* It’s so damn disappointing when someone like Cleese chooses to not get it, and rails away at a straw stuffed dead horse. Fuck.

    No one can stop with the Nineteen Eighty-Four speak (understandably), but people like Cleese are determined to pretend we aren’t heading straight for that in reality land.

  2. Siobhan says

    Cleese: “If people can’t control their own emotions, then they have to stop trying to control other peoples’ behavior.”

    That’s worth an entire essay in response all by itself. I see this and think:

    Premise one: One can’t form a positive self-esteem if one constantly inundated by hostility.

    Premise two: Intellectual wankery that expresses hostility against trans woman is incredibly popular.

    Conclusion: Trans women are inundated by hostility.

    So if I express any kind of existential dread or distress at Article #39,201 debating the humanity of trans women, I’m now being chastised for “censoring” the conversation. Heads you win, tails I lose.

  3. Dunc says

    It’s unfortunately rather widespread – quite a number of the comfortably-off, middle-aged, slightly-past-it, Oxbridge comedy set have taken to whinging about “political correctness”: John Cleese, Stephen Fry, Rowan Atkinson… I’m sure there’s more. I guess it’s a way to try to remain relevant and edgy when you’re sitting in your massive country house with your collection of classic cars and your enormous pile of money, in between shooting commercials for stair lifts, incontinence pants, and funeral insurance.

  4. says

    Caine@#1:
    people like Cleese are determined to pretend we aren’t heading straight for that in reality land.

    Your point is head explodingly correct! Worrying that someone at a university might tell a comedian that they’re not being funny, while ignoring the growing police-state …. way to miss the memo, Cleese!

    “people have warned me to avoid some universities” while “people are talking about rounding up immigrants” is a fucking travesty of the highest form. Oh, dear me, did I just inverse “dear muslima” John Cleese?

  5. says

    Shiv@#2:
    So if I express any kind of existential dread or distress at Article #39,201 debating the humanity of trans women, I’m now being chastised for “censoring” the conversation. Heads you win, tails I lose.

    Complaining about free speech is (ironically) a popular silencing tactic.

    Basically, that’s Cleese’s entire point, except he is strawmanning “free speech” being restricted when in fact the problem is that some universities have chosen not to book some un-funny comedians. The horror. The horror.

  6. Dunc says

    people like Cleese are determined to pretend we aren’t heading straight for that in reality land

    In fairness, he did found (and continues to support and promote) The Secret Policeman’s Ball, which has been quite significant in galvanising support for Amnesty International and human rights in general.

  7. mcbender says

    I described this post to my partner as “in which my disappointment and laughter attempt to murder each other”. You’ve got some great turns of phrase in here that really amused me, but I never really enjoy seeing people I otherwise respect take a downturn into blithering idiocy (this ‘political correctness’ business seems a common path they take, too).

  8. invivoMark says

    Cleese: “All. Humor. Is. Critical.”

    Puns aren’t.

    Et tu, Stephen Fry?

    Fry, Laurie, Cleese, Atkinson, Martin Freeman, Ricky Gervais… plus all the American ones… probably all famous people have at one point said something horrible and wrong. There are no heroes.

  9. Pierce R. Butler says

    Not to defend the fusty fighters against the dreaded Pee Cee, but I gather that certain British institutions (perhaps in the spirit of the UK’s legendary libel laws) have gone quite a bit further with the quixotic quest to avoid “offending” selected sensitivities.

    Of course, since Cleese dulls his own blade by neglecting to name any names, or incidents, or anything, standing up for him becomes an exercise in footless, feckless, futility. Maybe John Oliver will be kind enough to offer him a refresher on cutting-edge satire.

  10. says

    You don’t have to look very hard to find examples of agreements being torn up in the face of threats from what is indistinguishable from the mob. Milo Yiannopoulos is a tedious, stupid, bore, but as far as I know there was an agreement in place to have him speak at Berkeley, and it should have been honored, *especially* in the face of threats from the mob.

    Cleese and the rest of his lot are probably just looking out for their paychecks, pushing back against the tendency to allow a few angry voices void existing contracts. But heck, maybe they’re taking a moral stand as well. It doesn’t much matter.

  11. says

    Andrew Molitor:

    Milo Yiannopoulos is a tedious, stupid, bore

    Yes, he’s all those things. You also handwaved just how dangerous and unethical he is. You also handwaved his followers, many of them fascists and nazis. Yiannopoulos harassed and threatened people, then set his fans on them. Yiannopoulos outs transgender people, and guess what his mob does to them? One of his fans shot someone. Fucking SHOT someone.

    How in the fuck you’re happy to stick by your ennui-laced assessment, I don’t know. Yiannopoulos is a clear and present danger to people who are already oppressed and marginalized. I know it’s really serious nice to be a white dude, riding high on privilege, but really, you could try to remember those of us who don’t get the privileges of that little club.

  12. says

    Do not try that “well, you’re white, so you don’t know what you’re talking about” shit out on me.

    I considered replying in more detail, but why? Once the “white privilege” card is out on the table, the discussion’s pretty much over anyways.

  13. says

    Andrew Molitor:

    Do not try that “well, you’re white, so you don’t know what you’re talking about” shit out on me.

    Little late for that, ennit? As dodges go, not great. It does confirm my earlier comment though.

  14. says

    I’m dodging nothing. I’m not the one trotting out bankrupt arguments identical to the ones brought against rap music and d&d, after all. I’m simply not interested in talking to intellectual lightweights who drag out silly arguments, and then try to slam the door on discussion with a “I am under the impression that you are white, and will therefore use that as my unanswerable rebuttal to everything you say from here on out” — which you just did.

    I decline to talk to you, but not because I fear your terrifying “shut up, white boy” rhetoric. I decline to talk to you because you’re not interesting.

  15. Pierce R. Butler says

    And here we see why the Resistance® will have tremendous difficulties in achieving the unity everyone seems to agree will be necessary for success in, um, resisting.

  16. says

    @Pierce I am working on a project in which I seek common ground of a sort with conservatives, on a one-to-one, common man to common man basis, and while it is jolly tough sledding, I can tell that it is *literally true* that it is much easier than to find common ground with other leftists who feel it is their duty to chastise me for insufficient ideological purity.

    The rifts within the left are, literally and in concretely measurable ways, wider and deeper than the rifts between right and left.

  17. John Morales says

    [meta]

    I know it’s really serious nice to be a white dude, riding high on privilege, but really, you could try to remember those of us who don’t get the privileges of that little club.

    Do not try that “well, you’re white, so you don’t know what you’re talking about” shit out on me.

    !

    Andrew, that’s a straw dummy.

    The sentiment against which you should be railing is that you should not leave non-white non-dudes aside from your considerations, not that you don’t know about what you speak.

    I decline to talk to you, but not because I fear your terrifying “shut up, white boy” rhetoric. I decline to talk to you because you’re not interesting.

    FFS! NO, there’s no declination there; rather the opposite. And you’re evading Caine’s thrust.

    (You have successfully achieved evasiveness)

    The rifts within the left are, literally and in concretely measurable ways, wider and deeper than the rifts between right and left.

    This is not a rift within the left; it’s you becoming defensive.

    (Another achievement!)

  18. chigau (違う) says

    Andrew Molitor {note: I know how to copy/paste}
    chuigua is a first.
    Have a Tim’s rim for a beigne.

  19. polishsalami says

    I would say that Cleese is exaggerating, he’s being vague, but I don’t think he’s strawmanning in the strict sense of the word. Cleese should be worrying more about the techno Panopticon than a few placard-waving uni students.

    I was skeptical about the tactics being used against Milo (though I have no problem with a little rioting from time to time), it actually turned out pretty well. Raising his profile goaded the anti-Trump conservatives to dig deeper into Milo’s history, and they struck gold. It was also amusing to see Bill Maher own himself in spectacular fashion.

  20. Johnny Vector says

    “chuigua” is a first.

    Also, hilariously self-referential and circularly meta.

  21. says

    This is, essentially, a broadside directed at the entire Argument Clinic concept, for which I apologize in advance to our generous host. Male pronouns throughout because fuck it, and also I am largely talking about males. Women and others certainly do this stuff, but in the main, it’s men. I will take no offense if this comment vanishes with or without explanation.

    It’s jolly good fun to attack the formal structures of your opponent’s argument, but ultimately it serves no purpose whatsoever. Yes, you make him look like an ass in front of your friends, but you look just as much an ass to his, so it’s a bit of a wash. You’re not learning anything, you’re not growing. You’re not persuading anyone. You’re just making the other fellow, and his friends, a touch angrier than they were.

    It gets worse. Logic is a poor stick to lean on. Every time I see some remarks about a philosopher who wanted to, or perhaps still hopes to, put Ethics or Politics or whatever onto “firm logical ground” I have to laugh. You can’t even do it for set theory, bub, your program is doomed before it begins. At some point, mathematicians have demonstrated conclusively, you simply have to thrown down some definitions, some axioms, and go for it. What you get out isn’t actually Truth with a capital T, though.

    It gets even worse than that. Putting together a structurally perfect argument is, for all intents and purposes, impossible. It’s simply too much work to fill in all the little gaps. A rigorous mathematical proof (at least a non-computer generated one) is a persuasive sketch of an argument, with enough detail that it can be checked, bit by bit. If you think your argument in favor of a guaranteed minimum income is airtight, you are kidding yourself. So how does it serve you, really, to point out the flaws in the other guy’s argument? The fact that he lacks the skill or will to poke holes in yours is not evidence of their absence. They’re there all right. Mathematicians, interestingly, attack another mathematician’s proof by trying to fix it. Hold that thought.

    Ok, so some chap throws up a strawman and you knock it down. Good for you, high fives all around. Well, except when it turns out it wasn’t straw at all, but a fellow named Bill and there’s a series of newspaper articles about him and then you scramble around while the other chap’s friends point and laugh at you. But let’s suppose you knocked it down. What have you accomplished?

    Well. You won. More exactly, you made the other guy lose.

    Most likely the strawman was a proxy for some more deeply held belief the other fellow holds. Maybe if instead of being a pedantic dickhead, you’d dug in a bit and figured out that the other fellow had some deeply held belief that was driving this, you could have made some progress.

    Debate club operates by trying to destroy the other guy’s argument. Discourse operates by, paradoxically, trying to fix the other guy’s argument, to discover what he actually means, what he’s actually driving at.

    Let’s suppose that the other chap throws up the Welfare Queen. You can start in going on about how they’re so rare as to be irrelevant, cite a few studies about how little cheating there actually is, call the guy Hitler and hit the Ignore/Ban/Unfollow button. It’s high fives all around, and you’ve done nothing but boost your own ego a little. At this point you’re basically a not very successful bully, unsuccessful because you didn’t actually make the other guy feel bad.

    Suppose instead you dig in, and realize that the other chap actually is using the welfare queen as a stand in for his belief that charity destroys the work ethic. This is a commonly held, and untrue, belief. If you instead engage on that level, perhaps you can cite some studies that do indeed talk about the damage that charity can inflict on the psyche. I think, for instance, that there are studies that show that long term charity causes the recipient to tend to lose certain skills necessary to long term employment.

    Great! Now you have found common ground with the other chap. Charity has negative impacts, although you disagree slightly on the details. He’s wrong about the welfare queen, but you didn’t even talk about that. You’re interested in what he’s right about, and lo, you have found something. Now you can maybe discuss how one might mitigate the negative effects, while still being charitable. You might even make the other chap think that welfare, with suitable mitigations, might, just might, pass muster. You might make the other chap think. Who knows, the other chap might share some ideas about charity that you’ve never heard from his pastor or whatever. It hurts the first couple of times, but being made to think doesn’t actually harm your brain.

    All because you decided that maybe making the other guy lose was not going to be your sole mission today.

    Food for thought.

  22. John Morales says

    Andrew,

    for which I apologize in advance to our generous host.
    […]
    I will take no offense if this comment vanishes with or without explanation.

    Such defensiveness!

    (You’re making a comment on a blog, not Speaking Truth to Power)

    Ok, so some chap throws up a strawman and you knock it down. Good for you, high fives all around. Well, except when it turns out it wasn’t straw at all, but a fellow named Bill and there’s a series of newspaper articles about him and then you scramble around while the other chap’s friends point and laugh at you. But let’s suppose you knocked it down. What have you accomplished?

    I know what you’re attempting to express, but were you to translate what you wrote into symbolic logic you would end up with a contradiction. See, you can’t both say that some chap throws up a strawman and you knock it down and that it turns out it wasn’t straw at all, at least not literally.

    (What have I accomplished here?)

    Debate club operates by trying to destroy the other guy’s argument. Discourse operates by, paradoxically, trying to fix the other guy’s argument, to discover what he actually means, what he’s actually driving at.

    So? Are you suggesting that the two are mutually-incompatible?

    I put it to you that I can use debating techniques whilst discoursing.

    But yes, I get you’re noting these are only techniques, not ends in themselves.

    (Duh)

  23. John Morales says

    [meta]

    PS I can’t resist noting that, technically, a strawman argument is one where the arguer knocks down the strawman, rather than the person pointing out the fallacious nature of the argument.

  24. John Morales says

    PPS

    Male pronouns throughout because fuck it, and also I am largely talking about males. Women and others certainly do this stuff, but in the main, it’s men.

    You don’t need to justify your laziness.

    (Yes, I’m inferring that inclusive language is effortful language, for you — and you do have tradition on your side)

  25. says

    Andrew Molitor@#28:
    This is, essentially, a broadside directed at the entire Argument Clinic concept, for which I apologize in advance to our generous host. Male pronouns throughout because fuck it, and also I am largely talking about males. Women and others certainly do this stuff, but in the main, it’s men. I will take no offense if this comment vanishes with or without explanation.

    I invited complaints about my complaining about Cleese complaining about people complaining. I don’t think it would be fair to complain if someone complains.

    The meta-point “why argument clinic” is not that I’m pointing the finger of derision. If I were doing that, I’d just be freestyle snarking; I’m trying to offer some ideas about how to argue honestly and why arguing honestly is usually a good strategy. Perhaps I’ve been being too subtle in my agenda: where there is a choice between a move that’s a simple debater’s argument versus something that challenges the opposition, I am trying to favor substance over rhetoric. I like to think that’s a thread through the entire series: rather than labelling, I encourage people to deal with facts. Rather than simply slagging someone off by calling them a term that invokes splash damage, I try to explain why a factual head-shot is more effective.

    Yes, I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek but I’m deadly serious. And, I’ve been using the effort invested in writing the series as a time to reflect on my own habits of speech and argumentation. Selfishly, I am trying to teach myself. If I succeed in improving my own honesty in discussion, it’s all worthwhile, and if anyone else finds this useful that’s a bonus.

  26. says

    I applaud! Writing, for public consumption, is the best way I know to learn something (barring teaching in a classroom, perhaps). Hold my beer and watch this, I’m about to do just that ;) Let’s see how it goes!

    I will repeat myself, expand in a slightly different direction, and then (probably) let the whole thing rest.

    Logic is a poor stick to lean on.

    In any kind of discussion of debate, the biggest problem is usually that there are no clearly articulable premises or conclusions in play. Not only does nobody state either clearly, they could not if forced to. So, clear *that* away and you’re miles ahead of the game in terms of intellectual honesty.

    If you have a clear set of premises and a clear conclusion, to be honest you can probably just squint at them for a moment and see if the latter follows from the former. Humans are amazingly good at estimating this. If you want to, you can construct the argument that connects them, and that too would be a marvelous bit of intellectual honesty. Check it out with friendlies and so on. But your first guess is, surprisingly, going to be right a lot of the time anyways.

    Now the rubber meets the road and maybe you’re going to try to persuade someone. Be clear about what you’re trying to do. Are you trying to persuade someone? Are you trying to have your logic checked by friendlies? Are you trying to win an award or a degree? All these things require quite different approaches.

    If you’re trying to persuade someone, for instance, logic and rhetorical correctness have almost no place in the program, except behind the scenes to convince yourself of the correctness of your position. Storytelling is a good place to start. And note, there’s not a hell of a lot of daylight between the strawman fallacy and certain story structures. Which is, most likely, what Cleese is up to above (but see below for the awful truth about me and the video).

    Where disagreement exists, it is almost invariably in the premises anyways.

    I admit that I feel there’s only so much John Cleese a man can be asked to consume (women too, although their limit is on average somewhat lower, and I have no knowledge of the Cleese-Limits for transfolk and others) and so I have not actually watched the video. But I know the theme. Blah blah new puritanism is sweeping the world, someone ought to do something about it, etc and so on. Witty remark. Somewhat persuasive but alas fabricated story. Everyone who says things likely to offend someone seems to have made one of these damned videos, and the program is largely the same every time.

    Cleese’s premise is (probably) that there is a new puritanism sweeping the world, and he’s wrong. There are individual episodes here and there. Society’s needs are, perhaps, changing, evolving, and that it how it always has been and always shall be, but this does not constitute “sweeping.” His argument may be flawed, but his conclusion (such as it is) does indeed follow from his premise. A new puritanism sweeping the world would be awful, and it would behoove us to do something about it. Attacking his argument is not useful, because the premise and conclusion will still match up. From her perspective he may be intellectually dishonest in the details, but he’s “right” in the larger sense that his conclusion follows from his premise.

    The correct, and intellectually honest, point of attack for an opponent is, usually, his premises. On the other side, the correct path to intellectual honesty for John is examine and correct his premise. The details of the argument he’s deploying here are really very minor in the grand scheme of things.

    That said, sure, being able to write down the argument that gets you from A to B is useful step!

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