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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

"The important thing is that you get to feel superior to both..." - a frustrating, dangerous meme

This is a meme that I am heartily sick of.

In Ron Lindsay's post about prostitution on the CFI site yesterday, he addresses what he sees as rival preconceptions that hinder the debate. One of the first comments is:
The important part here, is that Ron gets to tell everyone they are doing feminism wrong: the pro sex workers and the anti-sex workers. Well done!
Just great. Although Ron is a friend of mine, I wouldn't comment on just this one cynical remark. The problem is that this kind of remark has become a recurrent motif on the internet, hindering the efforts of anyone who searches for common ground, tries to clarify issues, attempts to understand the underlying causes of polarisation on issues, and so on.

Often when we are looking at current controversies we will see polarisation, with both of the main sides making assumptions that lack solid empirical support. Often we'll find that both sides are engaging in tribalism, and thus giving a free pass to dubious arguments (while punishing opponents). Often both sides are engaging in propaganda exercises: attempting to deceive us and/or manipulate our emotions, rather than appealing to our intellects with relevant evidence and cogent logic. Often both sides are, at least to some extent, displaying a certain amount of conceptual confusion and/or trading on equivocations (and the reasons for this may be apparent - they may, for example, include the genuine complexity of the issues and their hot-button emotional salience for those involved in the debate).

Attempts to cut through all this and obtain some clarity - without prior commitment to one or other of the main rival tribes - are valuable. It's difficult to do this, both intellectually and socially (since it can be a good way of becoming distrusted, and perhaps even demonised, by both sides of an argument).

We need to encourage more of it, and to find ways of rewarding people who are prepared to attempt the task. But so often, instead, we get cynical comments, such as the one I quoted, to the effect that the person doing this is merely finding a way of feeling superior to other participants. Give me a break.

This meme is frustrating, discouraging, anti-intellectual, and even dangerous, since it punishes a socially valuable impulse.

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