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Archive for October 23rd, 2012

The older I get, the more I become convinced that most debates are a clash of half-truths. Instead of one point of view being right and the other wrong, almost always each has a limited validity. Necessity or pragmatism may mean that I need to choose a side, but my support is increasingly nuanced and qualified by context.

One of the latest examples of this perspective is my reaction to a discussion on the Geek Feminism Wiki. In response to a guest post, one commenter mentioned that they were put off by the amount of swearing in the post. A second commenter immediately said that the first was using a tone argument, and others quickly joined in.

A tone argument, for those who have never heard the phrase, is one that, rather than addressing what is said, focuses on how it is said. Feminists, for example, are frequently told that they might convince more people if they used a politer tone. Logically speaking, such an argument is irrelevant to a discussion, which means that, by invoking a tone argument, the second commenter was discrediting the first, condemning the objection to swearing as invalid.
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What nobody in the ensuing discussion seemed to consider is that both positions might be true depending on context. Yes, by the highest standards of logic, a tone argument is a fallacy. How an idea is expressed does not alter how convincing or accurate it is, and complaining about the tone is basically an emotional appeal – often effective enough at swaying an audience, but unfair in any attempt to have a rational discussion of the issues.

Yet, at the same time, when you consider rhetoric as an art, the way the classical Greeks and Romans did, you would be rash to deny that tone is completely irrelevant. A writer or speaker who prides themselves on being ethical would avoid relying only on a tone argument, but no writer or speaker of any skill would refuse to think of tone as a useful support for whatever they were arguing. If nothing else, the chosen tone would vary depending on the audience. Usually, too, it would vary depending on exactly what response the writer hoped to encourage in the audience.

However, this does not mean you have to practice double-think and believe that both are simultaneously true. Instead, it means that you have a Schrodinger’s cat sort of situation, in which both perspectives are true, but only until you consider the context.

In the case of the argument about swearing and tone argument, the context depends on the motivation of the original comment. Was the disapproval of swearing meant to derail the discussion? Then it was a tone argument, and deserves not to be tolerated. But, if it was a meta-discussion, a discussion about the discussion, then it becomes a valid commentary, and bringing up tone arguments becomes an effort at derailment in itself.

What complicates this example is that, within the context, which is happening is difficult to determine. The written word is generally less subtle than the spoken word, and, unless I am mistaken, the first commenter is not well-known on the Geek Feminism Wiki, so anyone likely to read the exchange probably has no idea what their opinions might be.

Since the commenter writes that, β€œanyone with a strong point should be able to make it without swearing,” I suspect it is a meta-comment about technique. However, the comment is too short for me to have any strong confidence in that verdict.

Personally, that lack of certainty would have been enough for me to hesitate to mention tone arguments. However, choosing a side is always quicker than considering the possibilities of all sides.

The trouble is, once you support the idea that tone arguments are a fallacy that is particularly used against women, then your position can quickly degenerate in an either-or position in which any mention of tone is something to avoid, regardless of the circumstances. In the same way, insisting that mentioning tone is no more than a matter of technique, you can just as easily condemn the idea of a tone argument as being overly punctilious.

Even worse, taking either position as your own means that you can descend into an endless argument in which there is no right or wrong, not because they don’t exist, but because you are ignoring the circumstances that would determine them.

Increasingly, that is what I notice about many arguments – not just the utter impossibility of ever reaching a conclusion that might satisfy everyone, but, beyond that, the crushing futility of exchanging half-truths. After all, a half-truth is also half a lie.

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