Part 1: Got Arguments? Navigating the Wild, Wild West of Social and Political Discourse

We've all been there: Our beliefs are challenged or attacked. We're not sure of what to say or how to say it. Or, we encounter verbal bullies who kick rhetorical sand in our faces, and we're left feeling angry, defeated, or helpless. 

This was an old advertisement for the Charles Atlas body building company. 

As an argumentation and critical thinking instructor, I tell my students on the first day of class that I'm hoping to change their lives. How? By teaching them the tools for constructing sound arguments and dismantling fallacious ones. Constructive argument is the genesis and remains the backbone of Western civilization and democracy. Without arguments, our society has nothing left...except fists, sticks, stones, guns, and bombs--in that order.

Obviously, we live in increasingly contentious times and amidst massive ideological divides regarding politics, democracy, collectivism, multiculturalism, the role of government, etc. We see the pettiness and viciousness in today's political and social discourse. We experience the growing hostility toward faith and religion (particularly Christianity) in the public square. Our secularist society has become antithetical to principles of faith while demonizing organized religion. Not surprisingly, our LDS religion, along with its doctrine, faithful members, and Church leaders feel increasing pressure as societal battles move us closer into the hostile crosshairs. Using sophisticated forms of reasoning and argument, totalitarian ideologues are gaining momentum in attempts to overpower and silence religious and/or dissenting voices in the public square and in public policy making.

Interestingly, there are British and European authors such as Melanie Phillips and Douglas Murray who write about Europe's vigilant protection of the rights of Muslims and incoming migrants while turning a blind or critical eye toward the rights of citizens and Christianity. I mention this to underscore the various ideological divides here and in Europe that question the legitimacy of European and American institutions--and as mentioned in a previous post--the basic tenets of Western civilization.
Similar to today's vitriol and power struggles, the ancient Nephites had skillful political, religious, and military leaders (Nephi, Jacob, Mormon, Moroni, Teacum, Pahoran--to name a few) who fought for righteous purposes. In the end, the Nephites still succumbed to domination and eventual extinction. Why? Perhaps there were not enough skilled and righteous leaders to sustain a cohesive Nephite society. Repeatedly, groups of Nephites were swayed and overpowered by the arguments (and the sheer ferocious rage) of their adversaries. Power-hungry men such as Kishkumen, Korihor, Sherem, Zeezrom, and the organized Gadiatons were also intelligent, articulate, skillful--and very creepy. And they won. I wonder if historical outcomes would have been different if more Nephites had had the courage of their convictions or could have articulated constructive arguments in defending their rights, their liberty, their religion, and their civilization.

Today, we encounter similar rhetorical and argumentative methods and reasoning in attempts to dismantle our liberties. We must learn from Nephite mistakes and losses. We must not be shamed, seduced, or silenced by sophisticated persuasive techniques. We can articulate and implement effective defenses of our liberties while promoting and exemplifying constructive and civil dialogue.

So, dear readers, are you struggling? Do you feel helpless, fearful, anxious, or voiceless amidst today's cynical and strident social and political discourse? Read on...

Philosophy Versus Sophistry

I've discussed in previous posts how critical thinking and argumentation are their own art forms and skill sets. Learning them requires discipline, humility, fortitude, restraint, courage...and practice. Like acquiring wisdom, critical thinking is a life-long process. It's hard, but doable. Even more, learning and mastering argumentative skills is incredibly empowering when used for promoting and defending righteous purposes.

Obviously, the internet and social media are particularly effective communication and organizational tools in promoting unity or dissent; fostering knowledge or propaganda; national and global connections or divisions, and infinite ways to promote good or evil.

A few days ago, Elder Quentin L. Cook posted the following on his Facebook regarding our power to influence on social media:

As you scroll through your news feed or watch social media stories, you may see things that are not in alignment with what you believe. You might consider voicing your opinion but wonder, 'If I can't win this discussion, is it really worth raising my voice?' I wish to reassure you that yes, it is worth it. Raising your voice creates a pause in the conversation that emboldens others to raise their voice in support of what you are saying. To you who are young, I ask you to do your part to defend your faith. We should always be kind and generous to those with whom we come into contact--both in face-to-face or online interactions--but please be bold in standing up for your beliefs. When you speak candidly and with love, you can accomplish a lot of good in the world.

So, where do we start? Let's begin with the philosophers and sophists. In a nutshell, sophists originated in ancient Greece and specialized in using tools of rhetoric and philosophy. They presented themselves as teachers of wisdom and even spoke for others in return for payment (think lawyers). Today, sophistry is generally defined as the use of fallacious arguments with the intent to deceive. Although all types of persuasion involve some sort of manipulation, today's sophists seek power, self-aggrandizement, and unrighteous dominion by engaging in self-serving manipulation. This involves distorting virtues such as love, compassion, and generosity. 

Think in terms of Lucifer's Plan versus Jehovah's Plan in the pre-existence. Lucifer claimed he was acting out of love and in our best interest. His plan, however, involved egalitarianism and salvation through forced compliance. No moral agency or free will allowed. Still, the appeal of certainty is attractive to all of us on some level. Writer and philosopher, Stefan Molyneux, in his book The Art of the Argument, explains the idea of certainty, dogma, and free will. (Note: Molyneux is a controversial figure. I don't agree with a lot of what he says. Still, as a teacher of argument and its structure and methods, I believe Stefan offers valuable observations.) Certainty is oddly comforting but also a form of tyranny.

We all thirst for certainty for the simple reason that certainty allows us to move forward. I am certain that I know how to climb stairs, so I can think about other things while doing so. Having certainties is like the foundation to a house. You can't really build a place to live until the foundation is complete. There are two ways to achieve certainty; dogma and philosophy. Dogma is by far the easiest choice, of course, while it may give you the illusion of certainty, it does not give you the reality of knowledge. Dogma arises, like most dysfunctions, from a greed for the unearned. Dogma results from investing certainty in a conclusion, not a methodology. In fact, dogmatic people usually end up extremely hostile to the philosophical methodology of reason and evidence. We must build our certainties on the rocks of philosophy, not the sands of dogma. If you choose philosophy, you must pass through the valley of the shadow of death called 'uncertainty,' or doubt before arriving at the sunlit plains of certainty. In the field of morality this is called 'humility.' Uncertainty can be unpleasant, but it is the fiery doorway we must crawl through to arrive at legitimate knowledge. Philosophy is the process of moving patterns of experience into universal absolutes, which apply in all places for all time.

In return for the security of certainty, Lucifer wanted all the glory. The scriptures teach that during our pre-mortal lives we learned to recognize the difference between philosophers and sophists. The evidence: We are here in mortality while one third of the hosts of heaven are not. Now, in this life, we must once again learn to distinguish between true and false philosophies and arguments.

We must also learn to recognize distortions of truth and righteous principles for unrighteous purposes: Genuine truth versus manufactured truth; hatred or oppression versus manufactured hatred or oppression; democratic free will versus forced compliance under the guise of free will, etc. Remember that forced compliance can be encouraged and enforced through government agencies, peer shunning and shaming, threats to one's employment, etc. Forced compliance under authoritarianism is often postured using virtues such as love, fairness, compassion, equality, etc. 

Below are observations from the aforementioned writer and philosopher, Stefan Molyneux. (Again, like all philosophers, writers, and commentators, he has controversial opinions.) The columns below stress the significance of argumentation while helping to make the distinction between philosophy and sophistry. Again, imagine, dear readers, how the pre-mortal sophists and philosophers used the following ideas and persuasive methods to convince souls to follow the Plan of Salvation with its emphasis on free-agency or the forced compliance of Lucifer's Plan.

Philosophy and Philosophers

Pursue truths

Loving and loves truth

Begin arguments with a blank slate and builds a case carefully, consistently, and rationally.

Their methodology relies on objectivity, rationality, empirical evidence, sound reasoning.

Welcomes disproof. (Just as you welcome a GPS telling you that you have overshot your destination.)

Studies arguments.
Studies reason.

When rationally contradicted, philosophers express gratitude.

If you disagree with a philosopher, he/she moves on in peace.

You may flee a philosopher because you fear the truth.

Motivated by love and truth, knowing that truth is required for love.

The enemy of philosophy is not ignorance, but sophistry.

Philosophers are genuine thinkers out in the world using real arguments to approach real truths.

Philosophers do not condemn but educate. Condemnation comes only after repeated education is denied or avoided. Education allows us to differentiate the ill-informed from the openly malevolent.

Learning how to reason, how to identify fallacies, frees us from the power of sophistry--it dissolves the live-stock fences of false words, and wards off wolves with a wag of the tongue.

Rational thinking dissolves the chains of human bondage. It frees us not only from sophistry, but it even frees the sophists from the worse devils of their own corrupted natures. Refusing to believe a liar frees you from his lies, and it also helps free the liar from the power of lying.

Rational thinkers understand that the sophist not only fails to bring an argument, but also that the sophist knows he/she is failing and destroying the capacity of people to argue, all for the purpose of enslaving their minds and gaining power and resources.

Philosophers know that people who are good at verbal abuse and manipulation prefer sophistry to philosophy for obvious reasons. Sadists and sociopaths prefer sophistry.

Philosophers know that, as a species, if we are stripped of argumentation, stripped of reason and evidence, told that everything is subjective and there's no such thing as truth, these lies do not stop our endless decision-making processes. Instead, we are forced to make those decisions and abide to arbitrary laws without reason or evidence. 

Sophistry and Sophists

Pursue control and power

Seduces with the hidden goal of self-profit under the guise of love and virtues.

Begins arguments with an end goal--which cannot be honestly stated--and works backwards to figure out what needs to be said to gain your bamboozled acceptance to their pretended positions.

Their methodology is not objective (relies almost exclusively on subjective feelings). Not rational, not empirical but rather seductive, manipulative, and often vicious--especially when you seek to expose the mendacious machinery of their linguistic theft.

Denies, resents disproof.

Studies the effects of arguments.
Studies people.

When rationally contradicted, sophists manifest resentment and rage.

If you oppose a sophist, he/she uses guilt, shame, and intimidation and/or summons allies to hurt or destroy you.

You flee or appease a sophist because you fear the sophist.

Motivated by a cowardly greed for unearned resources.

The pursuit of a dishonest goal by dishonest means.

Sophists produce counterfeit arguments; they resemble real arguments--designed to mimic genuine arguments as closely as possible--but they are not real arguments.

Counterfeit arguments use pretend values to destroy real values, just as counterfeit currency uses pretend money that ultimately destroys real money.

Sophists do not educate but condemn--to deny education through ostracism. The sophist who screams accusations at an opponent is attempting to turn their opponent into a pariah, into a person perceived as base and evil, to be rejected, avoided and condemned. The sophist is not attempting to integrate or educate, but to isolate.

Sophists win by attacking individual philosophers while pretending to praise the concept of philosophy as a whole.

Rejection rather than analysis--hateful ostracism rather than truth--rage rather than constructive argumentation. The sophist does not create arguments or responds to arguments, but destroys arguments.

Sophists destroy the capacity to debate by creating categories of exclusion (often under the guise of inclusion) designed to shut down conversation and grant victory to the shrill and the angry. The sophist expands his market by sowing resentment, he breeds failure which breeds more resentment.

Promising people acceptance if they obey or comply--and abuse if they don't--is not an argument.

Projection is the essence of the sophist. Sophists who wish to destroy rights must march under the banner of rights.

Sophists provoke resentments through cowardly and provocative language which is the essential skill set of the sophist. The sophist runs among the people claiming that "reason" is simply a tool of exploitation by the unjust and that "rights" are just claims upon the forced labor of others, and that "justice" is smashing things until you get your way.

Sophists often create a pseudo-intellectual realm of insults and manipulation which baffle the less intelligent and frustrate the more intelligent, so that the sophist's skill set, which is based on verbal abuse rather than careful reasoning can win.

In the absence of argumentation, sophists resort to tricks and intimidation and seduction and force and manipulation in a world that does not respect argumentation.

When the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the loser. Intellectual slander is the rage of those who wish to have the power to influence social discourse, but who lack the intellect, the training, the will or the maturity to productively engage in such debates.

To clarify, Stefan uses the following example. (Please note: Neither Stefan nor I are minimizing the seriousness and reality of bigotry and racism. Stefan uses these particular invectives for illustrative purposes because these accusations have become very commonplace in social and political discourse. One can substitute any slur or accusation in the example below.)

If you call someone a racist without clear evidence of racism, you have lost the argument, because you have made no argument. Starting with condemnation--or praise, for that matter--is not an argument, but an attempt to inflict a conclusion in the absence of evidence. It is a moral condemnation. If we call someone a racist without first arriving at a consensus about the definition of racism, or proving that his behavior conforms to that definition, (and proving that he is aware that he violates that definition through his behavior), then we have committed a grave injustice, and revealed our own sophistry. 

Stefan continues his comparison between philosophers and sophists: 

The sophist wins by attacking individual philosophers, while pretending to praise the concept of philosophy as a whole. By pretending to advance rational and objective arguments, the sophist relies on the perceived value of reason and evidence--of philosophy--in order to support his counterfeit arguments. By attacking an individual philosopher, the sophist gains 'victor' and resources in the moment, while undermining the value of philosophy as a whole. The sophist gains immediate relief from disproof, but at the cost of driving philosophers out of the sphere of social influence. 

He argues that today's intellectuals are actually anti-intellectuals:

If you look at modern intellectual movements closely, you see that they are all founded upon a rejection of the argument. Why does someone NOT have to listen to your arguments?

His answer: They don't have to listen because you belong to a "non-oppressed" group; it's about the group, not the individual. Stefan claims that this anti-intellectual movement works to silence others based on identity and not on arguments. For instance, if a person argues from a place of what intellectuals perceive as "privilege," then the "privileged" person's argument is null and void. Moreover, those with privilege don't even have a legitimate place at the table of ideas--again, because of who they are. Their ideas are irrelevant; their identity is all that matters. Another form of identarianism includes gender and sexual orientation. For example, many feminists argue that men have no right to an opinion or argument on topics like abortion because they lack the "lived experience" of being women. However, women who identify as transgender are invited to the table of ideas regardless of whether they have a uterus or their ability to procreate. (I have written extensively regarding identitarianism and their methods of argument in previous posts about academia.)

Intellectuals have invented a "cone of silence" spell designed to work on anyone who questions their delusions. Rejection rather than analysis--hateful ostracism rather than thought--rage rather than the argument.

He concludes:

Society jeers at the reasonable and cheers aggressive hysteria. The irrational mob charges from victim to victim, hoisting thinking heads on spikes as clear warning to anyone who might even think of trying to put two cogent thoughts together. Many raised in such a world are sophists out of desperation--by default almost...  Bullies who cause trouble are transformed into victims, while their actual victims are labeled oppressors and exploited. Imagine a world where the truth-shredding viciousness of verbal abuse no longer decided the day. Imagine a world where learned and nimble minds could peacefully and positively meet in reason and reality. Imagine a world where teachers welcomed criticism, where social solutions were proposed rather than enforced, where choice rather than submission was the norm, where unrepentant broken-record fools were excluded from social discourse, rather than vaulted to the highest pinnacle of cultural enforcement. Imagine a world where virtue was as easy as complying with the rationality of those around you, where we no longer had to speak with caution for fear of the mob, the pitchforks, the destruction of our reputations. Imagine a world in which the argument quenched the torches used to set fire to our souls for the simple crime of asking a question, or bringing to the fore an unpopular, essential truth. Imagine a world where virtue did not put us on a suicidal course of confrontation with general prejudice. The argument is the gateway to a paradisical world.

Stefan uses strong language, I know. But he speaks out of necessity as do I. Dear readers, I hope this post has offered some clarity in helping to differentiate between methods of arguments--especially in determining public policies.

In my next post, I'll detail some of today's prevailing philosophies prescribed by influential academic intellectuals. Again, I write in efforts to empower those who desire to increase the effectiveness of their argument and voice.

Here's to civil arguments rather than verbal brawls,