When I was a child I made a horrifying and thrilling discovery: I could win arguments regardless of whether—on the grand scale—I was right or wrong. I could occasionally argue people older, wiser, more intelligent, more knowledgeable and more correct than me into the ground. Through what precise combination of word trickery, semantics, persistence and bull-doggedness I do this, I don’t quite know, but I had both discovered this and been informed of it by the aforementioned ‘older-wiser-more-intelligent’ ones.
It was thrilling because it made me feel clever and powerful, like the person with a gun or a heavy fist faced against a person who is weak and unarmed. Like I had a secret weapon. It was horrifying because it meant that I could easily get away with technically correct rhetoric unsupported by truth, reality or anything otherwise helpful.
This is by no means a singular talent/vice. Lots of people discover over time that they can do this. Some are better at it, some are worse. But honing this ‘skill’ is a dangerous and idiotic enterprise because one may end up actually believing the dreck the mouth spits out. Whenever I may have won arguments this way it is the functional equivalent of a lawyer getting a murderer off on a technicality: a win by which all lose.
Why explore this troublesome talent of mine, when it is in fact nothing but the first-cousin-once-removed of being able to lie well? Because I think that if I’m going to deride something, I should first acknowledge my own tendencies so as to show that I don’t criticize from any great distance, but rather from terrible proximity.
Something that galls me almost more than some mere bad argument is overstating the case of the opposition. It’s a brilliant, cheap tactic, really. It works most times out of many, and it’s got enough truth in it that it doesn’t feel like quite the cheat that it, in fact, is. I mean, the opposition is opposed to you, aren’t they? Does it matter that I make them seem more populous or more vitriolic than they actually are? Does it matter if I misquote them ever so gently so that to accuse me of misquoting just makes one sound so petty? Must context matter so much? How relevant is it that I inflate the flaws of their argument to highlight the merits of mine?
Note: inflating the flaws of the opposition is not the same thing as exposing them. It just isn’t. If the opposition is wrong—if their argument is dead on arrival---then honest debate will make that known without any enhancement. The healthier, more muscular argument will win.
What planted this frustration in my mind? Well. Anthropology, actually. Small wonder that the (wishfully objective) study of humans falls prey to this, I suppose. Anthropologists do this willy-nilly, and a certain series of academic studies were the particular instigators of this line of thought for me…but you know what? Everyone does this. It’s really hard not to. It’s instinctive. Doesn’t make it any less of a cheat. We slowly, carefully build the opposition into some fire-breathing dragon, so that when we destroy it we seem a sword-bearing knight on behalf of the truth (although, I should add that anthropology would tend to shy away from that last word).
Side note: Now I like anthropology (sometimes). There must be many a good anthropologist walking the wide globe just now. But the disease of ‘overstating-the-case-of-the-opposition’ plagues the discipline, as it plagues many others.
Point being? We shouldn’t do this. Moreover we don’t need to. So. To all (anthropologists and the rest of us): take note that when you try to distort the fury or size of your opposition to make your own argument seem stronger than it may truly be, one can’t help but suspect that your argument isn’t strong at all!! Take it from someone who truly understands the inclination toward the tactic—it leads to shoddy victory.
Let the argument stand unaided. If it can…it will.