Tuesday, September 12, 2006

My Rules of Intellectualism

or: The Five Principles that I wish I had Known in High School when I was Busy Picking Silly Debates that Got Nowhere and Accomplished Nothing and Acheived Absolutely No Clarity and were Really Just There to Keep Me from Going Out of My Mind from Boredom.

1) Shut up. No, really. Just close the mouth. That's better. No, you can't talk yet. Just hush...that's better.

You don't always have to be fighting, to be picking your next argument, to be analyzing and counteranalyzing for weaknesses and talking points. Just listen. What are they saying? No, really, explain it to me. Can you formulate their argument? Can you flowchart it? Can you chop it and dice it and toss in a couple of its implications and a handful of its premises?

Let them finish. Your question on the first sentence shouldn't be an excuse to stop listening to the rest of it. Especially when it's not really a question, but a snarky attack at some flaw in their reasoning.

2) Be clear. Focus, as Michael Medved would say, like a laser beam. You don't need to go into the whole windup, with rant and example and clever turn of phrase. If there's nothing that you disagree about enough to be able to simply swoop in on a discrepancy, then do you really disagree or are you just arguing out of principle?

Stop talking past each other, orating at each other, tripping each other into little vicious circular tangents of semantics or nitpicking. Find the core difference- the b'mai ka mafligei- and fight about that. That ought to be quite enough.

3) Boil down. Alright, you've got the actual point of disagreement. Is that based on something else? A premise you don't share? An assumption that you're not willing to make, or that you think is obvious? Almost every argument falls back to one or more other arguments. Get as far back on the Hydra's neck as you can.

Bickering about the rule about knee socks? Isn't it really a debate about the importance of mandating religious standards versus personal independence? Or maybe it's a fight about religious tolerance versus believing in only one legitimate path? Or maybe, just maybe, it's really just you not wanting to have to go buy new socks? Boil it down, redefine.

4) Pick and choose. You can't fight everything that you and your co-debater disagree about in one setting. Stick to your topic and its immediate premises. The person who supports knee-socks may also be against your learning Talmud, but you don't have to start duking out everything about every belief. If it's directly relevant, than there you are. But don't bring it in just because it's always irked you and you really want a chance to get into it. There will be other chances. There are always more chances.

5) Know when to stop. Sometimes, there's nothing left to fight about. You've boiled things down to a premise so basic, an logical jump so obvious or (for the other person) so ridiculous, a difference of opinions that are so firmly held that you're never going to get anywhere. Ever. Maybe, possibly, if the other person isn't quite as smart as you, you can trap them, puzzle them, or race beyond them, but you will never convince them.

Or maybe you've boiled your differences down to something that really isn't that big a deal at all. You would do X 49% of the time, I'd do it 50%. You are slightly less in favor of Y. I value Z a bit more than W, but they very rarely come into conflict.

It's okay to stop. I mean, yes, it means you might just have to find something else to do with the last five minute of your recess, but that's okay too. And another twelve hours of point and counterpoint, jab and foil, nitpicking and example aren't really going to do anything. You don't have to 'agree to disagree', but it's okay just to agree to stop arguing and talk about the weather.

The only other point that I would have is more a rule of morality than of debate, but I would still like to mention it, because it's important. Obvious, but important. Don't debate people that you dislike, and don't dislike the people you debate. Arguing should be a way of connection, not an excuse to vent all your dislike of an idea/principle/system/theory onto the head of the perfectly lovely person that happens to be supporting it. And if you don't like the person you're fighting, you're going to be associating their flaws to their position and vice versa, making it difficult to have a really intelligent debate and virtually impossible to ever accomplish anything in your argument


Mike said...

What's the fun of arguing during class if you follow these rules. Sure you don't get anywhere, but good defense shuts down a good offense any day.

e-kvetcher said...

As cliche as it sounds, I've always loved the poem
"God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference."

Although what I cannot tell from your post is what is the point you're trying to make.

I can see several possibilities. One is almost like the ancient Greeks, the Sophists, who idealized the art of the argument. The argument was the thing. If your goal is to perfect your debating skills that is one thing...

Or perhaps your goal is to understand a complex concept. In this case, you want want to present your premises to the other person, make sure they understand them the way you intended them to be understood, and allow them the opportunity to identify weaknesses in your understanding or reasoning.

The hardest part is if your goal is also to convince someone else of the validity of your position.

Halfnutcase said...

arguing can be fun, and is a good way of connecting at times.

but seriously this makes it a civil argument, wheres the fun of that in class? something might actualy get done, and we can't have that.


(i do this regularly in class and used to drive my teachers mad with it in school.)

Mike said...

My class of choice is JH which is basically a Torah history class. An example is given by the fact that he took the idea that Paul was a plant from the Rabbi's as a plausible idea.

anonym00kie said...

great post.. its taken me a long long long long time to learn this.. but its been so pleasant since :)

Tobie said...

Mike- Well, granted. This is more inspired by insane amounts of frustration at arguments in comment threads. People, I think, are truly trying to understand one another's opinion and arrive at some kind of a truth, but they are entirely, absolutely, and maddeningly incapable of actually talking to each other instead of at. I really want to go up to each and every one of them, shake them firmly, and tell them to shut up, start listening, and stop ranting.

E-Kvetcher- I think that the goal is somewhere between all of these. When I have a genuine difference of opinion with somebody, I think it's useful to understand one another, which not only makes everyone happy and friendly, but gives you a perspective to possibly question your position. But this can only take place when you're actually effectively arguing, not just when you yell at one another. In this sort of argument, convincing would be done by the other person realizing that they don't actually support one of the premises, assumptions, or facts their idea is based on. Which they can't do if you never actually boil it down to them.

HNC- True. I had one ninth grade history class- and may I be forgiven for this- in which I would argue constantly, picking up on small details that the teacher mentioned off-hand, just to keep myself from falling asleep. I was the only person who ever, ever participated in that class and I think that the teacher would have preferred it if I didn't.

Anonymookie- Thanks!

dbs said...

Wow. Yes, I wish that I had known all of that in High School too. Well said.

I guess that I'd add one more thing that took a lot longer to learn. For quite a few people, the important points are emotional, not intellectual. They may give you arguments which don't add up rationally - or even fly in the face of fact. They aren't cheating, they're playing a different game than you. You are the ultimate analyst, - you're intellectualizing about intellectualizing. (You really are such a Brisker - chakira's and all.) To communicate with them and make your point, you will have to look into what they are feeling, not saying. (I appologize if this makes no sense as written.)

Shanah Tova

Tobie said...

True. My points work in an ideal world, when you can remove all of the emotional underpinnings and so forth. In other words- when arguing with Briskers ;) (If even then)