Of course, there’s nothing new about bad arguments, but a particular class of bad arguments seems to be getting more common. This is why I distinguish a “weak” argument from a “soft” argument. Weak arguments fail to prove what they promise, there are gaps in the reasoning, objections and counterexamples are not adequately dealt with. A weak argument tries to convince but fails. By a “soft argument”, I mean an argument that “isn’t even trying” because the arguer doesn’t really expect his claim to be contested. So there will be flagrant contradictions in reasoning, grossly question-begging formulation of questions, obvious objections not dealt with, and the like. The arguer will be smart enough to do better, but will not feel the need, because the point of the argument is not to convince. The point of the argument is to signal assent to the dominant view while presenting a facade of independent reasoning.
Each age has had its official orthodoxies, but none before ours has on the one hand been so intrusive in hunting down minor heresies and on the other hand so insistent that its triumph is that of free-thinking. This then is the golden age of soft argumentation, when everyone must affirm the same beliefs but must pretend to have come to them freely. The obvious example today is the Little Homo Bluegrass Player Moment, wherein a public figure who had previously supported the heterosexual definition of marriage comes around to support gay marriage. The reasons given are always excruciatingly bad–generally even worse than arguments for gay marriage by its longtime supporters–and bad in the signature “soft” way, that a week before his capitulation the public figure in question would have himself had no trouble demolishing the argument he would end up giving the next week. But this is not the point. The point is that when he goes before the cameras to make his allegiance to Sodom, he knows that he will be facing a friendly audience. There will be no awkward questions. After all, it would be silly for sodomy advocates to force politicians and writers to openly admit their cowardice when a little allowance for face-saving lets their ranks grow so much faster.
For the past century, the majority of arguments that (despite all empirical evidence) there is no average IQ difference between races have been of the soft variety. How often have I read some appalling howler (e.g. skin color per se doesn’t affect intelligence; whites and blacks are genetically identical because evolution is “too slow” to have caused any differences) and sensed that the author was daring me to contradict him. He flaunts his illogic in front of me, knowing that if I speak up and point it out, I’ll be condemned as a racist and never listened to again. He humiliates me by forcing me to abide nonsense.
Not that soft arguments are unknown to previous ages. Whenever there is a proposition that everyone (or at least everyone respectable) believes and yet an argument for it is demanded, the temptation will be there to cut corners, even for an otherwise strong thinker. I, for example, regard Thomas Aquinas’ Five Ways of knowing that God exists as the weakest part of the Summas. Some of them are really bad. It doesn’t bother me that Thomas didn’t invent any of these arguments; it’s that he doesn’t even bother presenting them well, and only the first argument (from motion) seems fleshed out enough that the obvious counterarguments are dealt with. God has decided to punish Saint Thomas by having his sloppiest piece of writing be the one most often included in anthologies. Let that be a lesson to all of us. But we misunderstand Thomism if we think that the Five Ways are some sort of key or highlight. Really they were a formality (after all, everybody already knows there’s a God!) that Thomas wanted to get out of the way before he could move on to the questions that really interested him–and on those he is consistently good.
As I grow older, I grow more humble. Arguments end when one side dies off and their reasons are forgotten. I’m not sure that I would even win a debate for civilization against an intelligent proponent of barbarism. After all, I haven’t heard his arguments; they might be really good.
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