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Posts Tagged ‘half-truths’

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, “anyone 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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I don’t believe in motivational speakers – those who claim that they can help you find love, or make you happier, healthier, or richer if only you take control of your life and pay them. But that doesn’t stop me from being fascinated by them. The motivational industry is such a hodge podge of airheaded optimism, pseudo-science, and half-truths that it reveals like nothing else the lengths to which people will go to find a shortcut to their goals.

At first, you might think that these New Age entrepreneurs have nothing in common. After all, they are all offer advice in different fields. Yet even when you look at them, the resemblance to each other is amazing.

Often, they even physically resemble each other. All too often, their clothes and the houses they are fond of filming themselves in have the bland taste of the aspiring middle class. The women among them have shoulder-length hair, often of that ash-blond color that you never see in nature, while the men sport mildly unruly surfer dude haircuts that suggest that they might have had an athletic past. Both sexes are tanned and seem to have had one face lift too many, leaving them with smiles that last a little too long, and show an alarming amount of gum. Both, too, have the unctuous manner of funeral directors – the types of postures and gestures that are never quite in sync with their body language.

Personally, their politeness always tempts me (purely in the interests of scientific research, I assure you), to see how long I can insult them until their facade collapses. I never do, but I am uncomfortable around most of them because they are so determined to project a Stepford Wife-like niceness that they are social hypocrites, and you can never be quite sure what they are thinking.

Yet even those who escape the physical stereotypes generally pitch a philosophy that resembles Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking or Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.

This philosophy can be summarized as the belief that, if you feel good about yourself and project an air of confidence, you will succeed in whatever you are trying to do. To help you develop faith in yourself, the philosophy offers inspiring quotes (often ripped wildly out of context), and suggests that followers practice various forms of affirmation (repeated statements of their goals and general worthiness ranging from prayers and mantras to repeatedly speaking or writing declarations of it), The variations and the jargon are as endless as the speakers themselves, but the underlying similarity rarely changes; the perennial best-seller The Secret is a typical example of the belief system.

The trouble is, the only studies that suggest that any form affirmation leads to success either show a weak correlation or else are poorly designed, which makes their conclusions questionable. In fact, the result of teaching self-esteem in school for the last few decades are starting to seem like adults who expect to be rewarded simply for trying, and who become easily discouraged.

Such results fit well with my personal experience as a long-distance runner, when I found that being confident going into a race slid easily into over-confidence and losing. Pessimism and fear were actually more useful, because they encouraged me to think of tactics and stay alert.

When faced with contrary scientific evidence, motivational speakers and their disciples rarely respond by modifying their views. If anything, they are apt to ignore such results. If cornered, they are apt to launch into a condemnation of science and its narrow mindedness.

Yet, strangely, at the same time, the motivational industry is always eager to evoke science to create an air of respectability. Usually, however, their science is painfully outdated and simplistic, like the Myers-Briggs personality indicators. More often, it is not real science in the least, but pseudo-science – fringe beliefs like crystal healing that offer the appearance of science, down to the specialized terminology, but that lacks the rigor and testing procedures of true science.

Not that such limitations bother the speakers and their listeners – the appearance of science only needs to be superficial, since the point is to borrow the credibility of science, not to adopt its actual practices or criteria for truth. What the motivational industry is really concerned about is creating a closed belief system that can never be questioned or debunked, because no real standards apply.

I suspect that the reason that the motivational industry is structured this way is that the truth is very simple. Except in cases of glandular disorders and other medical conditions, the way to lose weight is to eat less and exercise more, and find a balance between these two necessities that helps you to keep the weight off. Similarly, any real effort to teach people to successful would have to acknowledge that what is involved is acquiring skills, careful planning, and some luck – and that having money and connections doesn’t hurt, either.

But such answers are not very satisfactory for people looking for quick answers and minimal effort. Nor are they nearly as simple as affirmations. They are more qualified, and carry no guarantees, and who is going to pay for something that complicated?

In the end, all the motivational industry can supply (other than a way to spend money with very little to show for it), is a series of half-truths. Yes, a visible lack of confidence can work against you, but that does not mean that confidence is all you need. Yes, prayer might help you focus your mind on what is about to happen, but it the focus that is likely to prove useful, not the magic of divine intervention on your behalf. And, yes, science makes mistakes, and scientists can be as petty as anyone – but that doesn’t mean that science isn’t usually a more reliable way of interacting with the world than cultivating your self-esteem.

If anything, the motivational industry is constantly threatening to descend into either irrelevancy or farce. I know of one alleged relationship expert (with troubled relationships of their own) who preaches that the way to find a happy marriage is to settle for someone who is agreeable, a suggestion that is not going to be very satisfactory to those who want a particular person, or is dreaming of passion and true love. Still another suggests – with every sign of sincerity – that redecorating your bedroom is a key to finding a glamorous new lifestyle. In other words, in the case of the motivational industry, there is continual reason to believe that the emperor is not only buck-naked, but doing a lap dance.

What fascinates, frustrates, and frightens me is that, despite the ease with which the motivational industry can be debunked, millions continue to believe in it. Apparently, the desire for simple answers is so strong that nobody notices that the motivational speakers themselves are as flaky as phyllo.

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