Arguing past each other

By devin, 24 November, 2017

Consider the "strawman" logical fallacy (wonderfully illustrated in video here):

  1. Person A presents her argument (call it A).
  2. Person B voices his disagreement with argument S (an exaggerated or incorrect version of A).

I think it's good that we teach people about the strawman fallacy in school, but it gets really annoying when you're in an adversarial argument and one or both sides devolve to just calling the other person's argument a strawman. It's tedious, and hard to resolve. Words are ambiguous, and especially when we're coming from a place of disagreement, it's hard to agree on a characterization of an adversary's argument.

Sidebar: something I love to hear (and say) in an argument is: "Let me state your argument as I understand it, and you can tell me if I got it right". This is such a great phrase to hear; it means the person saying it is actually listening and interested in a constructive dialogue.

OK, back to my main point.

I think there's a new logical fallacy floating out there in the world. Logical fallacy is probably the wrong phrase for what I'm about to describe, but it certainly is a variant of the strawman fallacy.

There is a class of argument that is incredibly hard to resolve, because both sides are arguing past each other. When people write articles, tweet, and often even argue in person, the debate isn't advanced at all because the arguments are not really relevant to the opposite side.

I want to illustrate this through an example, so let's talk about cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation (like many terms/issues of our day) has an astonishing number of variant definitions. I just did a quick search of the twitter hashtag and came up with a few demonstrative facets of the issue:

The arguments get vitriolic. Though I could never characterize all the view points in this argument, I think the core problem is that people are arguing past each other.

To illustrate my point, I'll share my stance on this topic. I believe we should view cultural appropriation (i.e. people referencing and participating in cultures they don't belong to) as a good thing. My reasoning is this: if we enforced “no cultural appropriation” too zealously, we would never have fusion restaurants. That is, cultures are improved by integration and mixing. Oktoberfest is a festival celebrated in my hometown in Ontario, but its origins are undeniably German. At one point, Germans were immigrants to Canada (in fact, during World War II one town in Ontario was renamed from “Berlin” to “Kitchener” because of mistrust and racism against Germans). But now, their culture is beautifully integrated into Canadian culture, and thousands of people enjoy a festival together because of that mixing.

But at the same time, I’ve never been subject to the “death by a thousand cuts” of daily, casual racism. And seeing people casually, gleefully wearing costumes that reinforce false stereotypes about your culture can’t be fun. I don’t know the root of all the hurt, but I know that if I was wearing a costume and a friend asked me to change it because it offended them, I would. I probably wouldn’t be happy about it and might even argue (hey, I’m not perfect) but I’ve proven to myself in the past that I’m willing to listen, particularly to people that I care about.

Of course, when it’s someone yelling at me anonymously on the Internet, I’m way less likely to be receptive to their argument. And I think ultimately that’s the issue – people aren’t listening to the other side. On my side, they don’t care enough about the hurt their cultural appropriation is causing others. On the other side, there are individuals advocating for segregating cultures and races, preventing the happy, creative outcomes that arise from cultural mixings (e.g. my mixed race friends 😉).

I can’t help but reveal my slant on this issue, but I hope you as a reader can still appreciate the meta point I’m trying to make. Both sides of this issue are articulating a logically consistent argument, but they aren’t really listening to the other side.

Another exacerbating factor, of course, is that in my statement of my position above I had to define what cultural appropriation even meant in order to articulate my stance about it. This is a problem because a) most people arguing these topics don't even bother to precisely define these things and b) often the definitions are misunderstood for various reasons.

I’m tempted to say that this applies to other debates, like abortion, whether Lindsay Shepherd was fighting for free speech rights or reinforcing cruelty, or even the broader debate about gendered pronouns. But through the process of writing this I’ve found it’s not easy to articulate the two sides of these multi-faceted arguments. Perhaps that’s the real issue – the arguments are so complex, and have so many sides, that you can’t easily distill just two sides.

But as always, the real solution is for people to listen to each other more. The best way to do that is twofold: have these arguments in person rather than online, and seek to understand those who disagree with you.

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