The fact that this article shall not pertain to RS itself should be of no concern to anyone, for if you are here to read the Times, you presumably either use the forums or the internet in general. As such, the wisdom I am about to impart to you will be of far greater use to you in your online travels than anything that has ever appeared in this esteemed periodical.
My concern shall be the exposé of commonly used techniques in arguments which, although used in the context of the outside world, have become all the more common in the impersonal, cloaked, anonymous world of the internet, and – because all the methods I am about to highlight are essentially ‘underhand’ means – are deplorable. Schopenhauer, quite rightly wrote, “The tricks, dodges, and chicanery, to which they [men] resort in order to be right in the end, are so numerous and manifold and yet recur so regularly.” It is my intention to enable you, the reader, to be able in future internet debate to catch the tricksters, and as such, prevail over their chicanery.
I: Proof & Associated Fallacies
Proof is, as far as internet debates are concerned, a very dirty word. It is a word which lives in the mud and faecal matter of the vernacular. An opponent who asks for proof, like an impertinent child, belies only their own desperation and cynicism. Some particularly dense opponents may even make a habit, refusing to accept even well-known statements without some form of evidence. Imagine if people acted like this in real life: conversation and debate would never get anywhere in any reasonable length of time, we’d all be scuttling off to collect evidence every two seconds. Like ants. Aside from being a monumental waste of time for the honest debater forced to collect the evidence, it also betrays a weakness on the part of he who asks for the evidence, for asking for ‘proof’ – except for the most dubious of statements – is little more than an attempt to divert an argument. It might reasonably be called ‘stalling’.
Furthermore, it is exceptionally lazy for people on the internet not to be able to fact-check for themselves, and then attempt to invalidate a statement and ask for said proof after they have found no evidence for it themselves. A debater is not a baby to be spoon-fed, even if he wishes to be.
Conversely, proof can be used by a debater to further undermine proper argument. One use is what Schopenhauer calls “Finding an instance to the contrary.” Thus, if I make a general statement that pertains to reality in most cases, and my opponent finds one contradictory instance, and cites it as a means of derailing my argument, it is not valid. Yet a single ‘proof’ could be used, and understood, as having this effect. The flipside of the same coin (The Coin of Tricksters), as also highlighted by Schopenhauer, is that “A faulty proof refutes his entire position.” The idea that one error, found in either a proof provided or a proof acquired, can deconstruct an entire proposition (assuming it is not a very simple one) from the base up is absurd, yet all too common. It is imperative that such nonsense claims are refuted, and many of the other elements of lazy and childish recourse to ‘proof’ treated with deserved contempt.
II: Ignoratio elenchi
The term is often translated as ‘ignorance of refutation’, and is once again a favourite of internet-debaters. All too often, people use this technique on the Times discussion thread, much to my annoyance. Ignorance of refutation essentially involves making a point that does not pertain to the topic at hand. For example, in the discussion of my September article about player to player reverence, someone accused me of bias for only implying God in the Abrahamic sense. Often, these sorts of tactics serve as diversionary, moving the discussion away from certain areas of discussion (sometimes people disguise their ignorance of refutation well, and it can be hard to tell). More often than not, however, ignorance of refutation stems from ignorance, and in discussions those who do not have a firm grasp on the subject matter tend to be those who use such a technique.
Many cases of ignoratio elenchi may involve a degree of ad hominem attacks – i.e., personal attacks as a means of derailing someone’s argument. Once again, people responding to Times articles make frequent use of this technique, in the hope that they will somehow undermine a particular point through the highlighting of personality flaws etc. This is more common in real-life, because ad hominem attacks are both a last resort method and, usually, a spontaneous emotional response. The lack of immediacy in internet interaction reduces the frequency of such attacks, and fortunately as a technique they are both more recognisable and more widely derided than most of the other tricks I am highlighting.
III: Generalised Statements
In the context of any argument, generalising a particular viewpoint – usually the opponent’s – is a lethal form of, for want of a better term, victory by overpowering. Generalising an argument creates an opportunity for misrepresentation and other such techniques for quasi-outwitting an opponent (in reality, verbally beating them into submission). A notable example arises in political debate, where one’s views might be generalised to fit in with a broader ideological schema, irrespective of the factual accuracy of such an accusation.
Once more, generalisation can be used when presenting an argument as well as when attacking one. For example, if one presents a general point without enumerating, this too can be a little more than an attempt at circumventing the need for accuracy. It is a sign of weakness on the part of the generaliser. In essence, then, all forms of generalised argument – whether someone is attempting to generalise yours, or presents their own in generalised form – are unacceptable in proper argument.
IV: Association Fallacy
Association fallacy is similar to the above trick, in that it involves a degree of generalising, as well as assumption-making. A neutral, and somewhat implausible, example of an association fallacy would be something along the lines of “A and B make the same point, A is an out-and-out racist; thus, B must be too.” Of the two sorts of association fallacy (guilt and honour by association), it is the former that is the most common, especially on the internet, where attempting to besmirch someone by making a hasty generalisation somewhat linked to their point can be done quite easily, especially in more sensitive areas of discussion. Guilt by association is most commonly used as a method of attempting to discredit an opponent, as per many of the methods highlighted. As with most ad hominem attacks, it can be easily dismissed as an absurdity and often is. But if, alongside refuting such efforts, one can also point out the ludicrous nature of guilt by association, one thus strikes a double blow to the weak opponent (for all who resort to association fallacies must be weak debaters).
The inverse, honour by association, also warrants a mention. It is commonly used as a means of validating a particular point. Thus, if my view is also shared by some revered figure (à la Churchill), I may attempt to use this connection to make it seem somehow better. This is quite clearly stupid and, in all but a handful of cases, does not pertain whatsoever to the correctness of a certain point, and one must always be vigilant of honour by association: for it is a quieter, sneakier snake than its inverse.
V: Appeal to Pathos & Ethos
The final form of conniving I’d like to discuss pertains to key aspects of rhetoric: the appeal to ethos and pathos. There is a notable difference between the two. Ethos refers to the characteristics or beliefs of an epoch or community. Pathos is, broadly, an appeal to emotions and sympathies. Thus, when our government abhors a repressive tyrant, it is an appeal to ethos, because their form of rule goes against our commonly shared democratic values. On the other hand, if a charity tells us the story of one starving child, it is an appeal to pathos.
Such techniques are quite negative as means of argument in an internet context, because they often lack reason and justification, and are instead rather covert means of influencing people. If A attempts to appeal to pathos in a statement, rather than justify his opinion dialectically, then it does not say anything about the validity of the statement. Instead, it shows A to be a rhetorician (read: manipulator) of great skill. Ethos and pathos, as means of winning support, thus rely on cloaked, disguised arguments, a de-emphasis of the dialectic over rhetoric (a practice long since criticised), and such attempts in arguments should be exposed and subjected to the greatest ridicule. Emotions and morals have no place in reasoned discourse and debate. It is imperative that one keeps this in mind at all times.
The tricks I’ve highlighted are but a few used across internet arguments. The five I chose were those I felt most relevant to our forums, having seen examples of them everywhere where discussion is in progress. It saddens me to see people resorting to the methods I’ve highlighted. Panache, reason and bombast appeal far more to me as honest means of debate. I retain my optimism – perhaps ill-placed – that our community can benefit from this enlightenment, that it can transcend the rest of the internet rabble. Our forums must tower above all others, and the art of argument is a vital part of this.