Monday, February 21, 2005

Intellectual Biowarfare

There are a lot of cheap and dishonest tactics that people use in the course of a debate. But without a doubt, one of the worst of these is "The Strawman." For the uninitiated, this is when you misrepresent your opponent's position so that his argument is easier to defeat. It works best when your opponent is unable to correct your misrepresentation, such as when he is not in the room and is unaware of how you have characterized his reasoning. That's the cheap part (that dishonest part is when you lie).

It's always a sad moment when The Strawman makes an appearance. To the informed audience, it's the moment when the advocate admits that his position cannot stand on its own. It's sort of like saying "your argument is so good that I wish I was arguing with someone else -- so let's pretend that I am." And consider the value of the victory so achieved. I mean, I could be heavyweight champion of the world if I could select all of my opponents. But, would it mean anything?

Given what this technique says about those who employ it, it is initially surprising that it gets as much plays it does. Yet, not a day goes by without Rush and Hannity beating the shit out of some liberal strawman. Even Bush makes a point of trotting out this rhetorical canard from time to time. So, it makes me wonder. If using it makes you look bad and, since it only works when the opposition is absent, it converts no one, what's the point?

Well, it turns out that there is one.

Have you ever used the phrase "a germ of an idea" or described a quickly spreading intellectual concept as a "thought virus?" If so, you're probably already primed to view the spread of ideas and opinions through the lens of the germ theory. If not, it's really very simple. The transference of ideas from one person to another is closely analogous to the spread of a biological infestation. As with an infectious agent, ideas spread person to person with exposure. The factors that control the speed and efficacy of transfer, such as the strength of the idea and the hospitality of the host, likewise parallel the biological model.

However, the similarities don't stop there. Just as you can develop resistance to viral infection through exposure to a weakened strain of the virus, exposure to weak arguments makes you resistant to the full strength version. This is what is referred to as inoculation. In the biological manifestation of this phenomenon, your body develops antibodies when first exposed to the weak strain, thus preparing your immune system for the full-scale assault that might come later. And while the details of conceptual inoculation are not quite so clear, the resulting effect is the same.

And so, with this information, the true function of The Strawman is laid bare. The fact that this technique has no persuasive power is irrelevant because it is, by design, focused on allies rather than on opponents. It is a method of preaching to the converted, with the intention of cementing their allegiance.

I cannot say with any certainty whether everyone who employs this technique is aware of the inoculation effect. There are certainly times when an opponent's argument is distorted because it is honestly misunderstood. At other times strawmen are constructed simply to create an easily defeatable opponent. But once we move out of the amateur ranks, you can be certain that the effect is known. When national elections turn as they do on the smallest sliver of the electorate, is essential that each side avoid attrition by any means necessary. If that means stooping to what is, in effect, brainwashing, then that's the game were playing.

We often lament the state of political discourse in this country. But even as we protest, we remain largely unaware of how low we have sunk. There was a time when I fantasized about cornering a “dittohead” and converting him with the power of logic and charm. Experience has shown me what a fool's errand that was. Until we discover a method to pierce through this encrusted layer of intellectual antibodies, no real discourse between the right and left can occur. And while we wait for such a discovery, we must inoculate our own just to stay in the fight.
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