Friday, July 21, 2006

Be As Simple and As Trusting

Usually when we want to win an argument we throw jargon statistics lists history and volume into our onslaught of logic. This is especially in academia where we have perfected and become reliant on the habit of evidential persuasion. In this form of exposition we treat evidence and logic as a force to be gathered mounted and released in a barrage that cannot be outfaced. We believe that against enough shrapnel the fortress will fold.

There is another popular very successful and contrary strategy of persuasion. I call it successful because of its ability to sway the masses – not because of its ability to sway the discriminating or deliberate reasoner. This strategy is the simplification gambit.

Then I find myself wondering how much an issue can be simplified before key elements of the quandary are compromised or discarded. I find myself cringing when a politician preacher or peer looks to emotion as the main impetus to a belief. But some speakers are quite skilled at appealing to our basic values. When Bill Clinton looked at the camera and told us about the hardworking single mother who was struggling to raise her children and he closed his eyes and bit his lower lip then told us how much he wanted to be a part of a government that worked to help this mother’s family survive, we had to consciously decide why we disagreed with his desire (if in fact we found ourselves wanting to). For those who disagreed with him were certainly evil right?

The appeal to emotions is related to the “thus" formulation I’ve mentioned before. We certainly share certain values and beliefs and those beliefs lead us to see some things as necessary and some things as harmful or perhaps wrong. Do values ever lead us to see some things as unnecessary?

But with all the current noise and trouble alerting us to the world-views that surround us we find ourselves asking, if not demanding, that the other viewer move - back away from the modes beliefs assumptions values or statistics that have contributed to his or her stance. We call these influences biases and we claim that they are adulterating an honest perspective.

I’m not seeking to build up the claim that all views are biased therefore all views are equally valid – I’m wondering about the point at which our demand for an objective evaluation falls into the pit of valuing naïveté over judiciousness.

“Out of the mouths of babes” – not usually used to win an argument. It’s a phrase usually reserved as a reaction when a child has said something we believe to be insightful, nuanced, prophetic, true. Why call attention to a child’s opinion? I read an article about a public official who offered a prayer in a public setting. Among those present were many who insisted that this was the dangerous act of an establishmentarian. The newspaper article – seeking to convey the importance of this event (for why else would the article have been disseminated to all the wires and thrust into the headlines in North Dakota) included several quotes. In addition to the usual wailing of the ACLU the writer included the comment of a child in attendance. “I don't know; it just felt wrong” said the young sage. Why would this quote have been included? I’m not sure but I’ll take a few guesses at what message the writer was hoping to convey.

a. Everybody’s opinion should be quoted.

b. Notice how baseless is this child’s opinion as evidenced by the lack of developed argument.

c. What a strange thing that a child would have interest in political/state matters.

d. Anyone who believes this was a violation of the separation of church and state is as unsophisticated and uninformed as a child.

e. Anyone who doesn’t believe this was a violation of the separation of church and state is less sophisticated and informed than a child.

It's probably a combination of a couple of these - with a few more intended messages besides. And although I cringe at this maudlin appeal to the simple and therefore (allegedly) unbiased and fundamental purity of a child's unwizened wisdom, I know that none of us reaches a view by accepting only honest challenges to presumptive perspectives. Can we fault a child for not yet reaching our biased perspective, informed as it is?

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