Friday, August 4, 2017

Cogito Zero Sum

What do we really mean when we say we’re “entitled to our opinions”? So many questions have been asked over the past year with the hope that the answers to them may help us better understand how our dangerously absurd political moment came to be. But this question is way more revealing than most.

I’ve been fortunate enough to design and teach my own college courses exploring, from literary, historical, and philosophical angles, the many complex processes that led to a Donald Trump presidency. But, as a teacher of argumentative writing, I’ve also been given a window through which to observe some of those processes in action, to see how their effects manifest in the peculiar ways people—namely, my students—think and act. In classes where argumentation is the center of gravity for everything else we do, my students and I begin every term by discussing whether or not, in our classroom and in the world at large, we are, in fact, entitled to our opinions.

On a purely literal level, the first implication of this common refrain is that, no matter how out of wack your opinion may be, you’re entitled to have it—no one can physically stop you. Sure. That’s reasonable, if kind of banal. (You can physically punish or silence people who have certain opinions, but can you actually stop them from having the opinions in the first place?) But, as it’s generally understood, the second implication of the phrase is more troublesome.

As Patrick Stokes, Senior Lecturer at Deakin University, explains it, the phrase suggests that you’re “entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth.” As if there’s a social law that says all opinions are equal and all deserve, by right, to be treated equally. This is where lines start to blur—when opinions themselves are seemingly given their own protective rights—and the common refrain that people are “entitled to their opinions” absorbs into itself the pseudo-noble cliché that we must always “respect other people’s opinions.” For Stokes, the obvious problem is that this kind of customary treatment devalues the ways that opinions are supposed to earn serious consideration through logical argumentation, persuasion, rigorous research, and expertise. When these are thrown out the window, people start to expect that their views deserve to not only be taken seriously, but to also be protected from serious challenges, because, well, it’s their opinion.

As Stokes argues, this shared belief that every opinion has an equal claim to being right or true leads to the twisted state of things we have today where, say, anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories or climate change denialism are given plenty of media time and mainstream consideration even when it can be shown that some of their claims are verifiably wrong and have serious negative consequences. Stokes, in other words, is on to something here, but the problem goes much deeper. This prevailing situation hinges less on differing opinions that claim, by their own merits, to be “serious candidates for the truth” and more on the ways that opinions have been given cultural and political protection in the “free market of ideas.” Opinions have been subsumed under the various and more totalizing categories of identity, which are understood to be “off limits.”

Looking back on this tumultuous election year, it seems clear that our political culture is marked, at the micro level, by the fusion of a given person’s opinion and what they perceive to be their singular, permanent, and authentic self. (I know that sounds like highfalutin, farty, pseudo-philosophical B.S., but just bear with me for a minute.) Like race, wingspan, or nationality, a person’s political opinions are now treated as if they are hardwired into their being—they are part of one’s fundamental, seemingly unchanging essence. When I talk with many Trump supporters, for example, or staunch Democrats, they share a striking tendency to describe themselves as individuals who are anything but malleable. They seem to deny that their journey to becoming who they are today might have involved being convinced and even reshaped by the things they’ve chosen to politically affiliate with. Instead, theirs is a story of homecoming. In response to the question, “Why do you support X?” I’ve heard countless personal parables from people who, like every children’s-book character ever, detail how they discovered a place where people like them belonged. (...)

Moreover, it makes sense that the endgame of this process isn’t to justify the righteousness of an argumentative position but to assert that position’s right to exist in the social museum of tolerance. For instance, most of my new students understand that a basic requirement of argumentative papers is to include something called a “counterargument.” So many of them simply take this to mean that they must acknowledge that other viewpoints on the matter at hand exist. At the beginning, students can rarely conceptualize how such counterarguments may derive from conflicts with the logic or evidence bolstering their own arguments; instead, nine times out of ten, they can only imagine these counterarguments coming from assumed interlocutors who quite simply think differently than they do.

In their assigned classwork, students are pushed to express what is otherwise a general condition for social actors today, who daily demonstrate the leap from I-think-therefore-I-am to I-am-therefore-what-I-think. It is really no wonder that, from classrooms to social media pages to newsrooms, strong challenges to individuals’ argumentative positions feel more like personal, existential attacks than anything else. Even if others are responding to your viewpoint with researched facts and deductive reasoning, the idea that they are arguing against your viewpoint in the first place means that they are challenging the very tissue of who you are.

by Maximillian Alvarez, The Baffler | Read more:
Image: Rene Descartes, Wikimedia Commons