Watching the U.S. Presidential Debates is a good way to begin despairing about the future of the human race. Luckily though, they may unintentionally trigger a few thoughts or reflections about how we discuss and debate in our societies.
The polarisation of the different American political camps is surely one of the more baffling elements of the race. It seems as though both sides have created opposing trenches from which to shell each other’s positions.
Interestingly, many of these shells are not packed with arguments and evidence. They are rather pscyho-analytical in nature, and seek to identify (or more likely: assert and claim) why someone might hold the beliefs of the other party.
“The Republicans are in bed with the rich. But Americans still vote for them because the poor see themselves as temporarily embarassed millionaires!”
“The Democrats are all about free handouts, they are jealous of those with success and want to pull them down to their level!”
And other claims worthy of side-eye.
This post isn’t about politics (relax :)), because this tendency is not unique to Democrats and Republicans. The tactic of psycho-analysing your opponent has permeated much of our society and debate. Christopher Hitchens even pointed this out in his memoir:
“I had become too accustomed to the pseudo-Left new style, whereby if your opponent thought he had identified your lowest possible motive, he was quite certain that he had isolated the only real one. This vulgar method, which is now the norm and the standard in much non-Left journalism as well, is designed to have the effect of making any noisy moron into a master analyst.” — Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22: A Memoir
Hitchens opined that while communism lost the fight of the favored ideology in the world, its method of argument and inquiry (searching and critiquing others’ motives) is now thriving. And again, it’s not just in politics:
“Religious people believe in God because they’re afraid to die and they want to feel like someone is there to look after them.”
“Atheists are simply scared of God and they want to believe in anything bigger and more powerful than themselves”
“The sheeple of the world don’t want to open their eyes to the conspiracies of the powerful because they all have too much to lose”
“Conspiracy theorists have a Dunning-Kruger complex and want to feel that they’re in a special group of enlightened people”
It’s easy to see why this happens. By identifying a motive we can turn a debate from an intellectual disagreement between equals, to a diagnosis of mental illness. We don’t have to deal with your silly arguments anymore, because we’ve just asserted (through mind-reading) that they’re based on irrational emotions! And so we can discard our opponents’ thoughts.
Ironically, if just one side of the debate was doing this, it might be very effective. But precisely because this mode of argument is so easy, everyone can utilise it to condescend the other point of view. The left and the right, atheists and theists, skeptics and conspiracy theorists; they all have a story to tell about why it is the other side that is so clearly deluded and psychologically compromised.
The truth is that since everyone is making similar (un-provable) assertions about the opposing mental states, these sounds have lost any chance of bringing us closer to the truth.
Both sides claim to understand the psychological motives of the other.
Both have no real evidence to show for it.
Perhaps one side is even correct.
But there’s no way to find out without a clinical trail, and so any discussion of each other’s motives is necessarily vacuous and self-congratulatory.
The hardest part of not going for this low-hanging debating fruit, is that your observations of a person’s motives may very well be true.
Consider the case where someone has lost their child in a gruesome car accident, and afterwards they started believing in the reality of paradise.
It would seem obvious in this case that the esoteric belief is a direct result of this grave psychological trauma, and to engage in psycho-analysis. It only seems like a basic rational observation of cause and effect.
Nevertheless, pointing this out is in fact counterproductive.
It will positively prevent you from convincing the other person (because you’re not taking him or her seriously as an intellectual equal, and this will show).
It will instate the toxic habits of pseudo-intellectualism and amateur psycho-analysis in your own mentality and that of your allies.
And ultimately you’ll be burning a lot of debating time on something indistinguishable from white noise.
None of that is very rational.
Let’s all try to avoid this pseudo-intellectual habit, and focus on the arguments instead.