America’s battle is yet to fight; and we, sorrowful though nothing doubting, will wish her strength for it. New Spiritual Pythons, plenty of them; enormous Megatherions, as ugly as were ever born of mud, loom huge and hideous out of the twilight Future on America; and she will have her own agony, and her own victory, but on other terms than she is yet quite aware of. — Thomas Carlyle, 1850.

Make of it what you will.

Stephen Fry on arguments between cousins

My previous post on winning arguments unfairly reminded me of a blog posting by the actor, writer, wit, and all-around bon vivant Stephen Fry. In this post,  (scroll down to “Getting Overheated”) Fry discusses how Englishers and Americans differ when having an argument. While he and his fellow Englishmen love a good hearty tussle of ideas, he finds Americans discomfited by the idea of argument or debate of any kind.

I was warned many, many years ago by the great Jonathan Lynn, co-creator of “Yes Minister” and director of the comic masterpiece “My Cousin Vinnie”, that Americans are not raised in a tradition of debate and that the adversarial ferocity common around a dinner table in Britain is more or less unheard of in America. When Jonathan first went to live in LA he couldn’t understand the terrible silences that would fall when he trashed an statement he disagreed with and said something like “yes, but that’s just arrant nonsense, isn’t it? It doesn’t make sense. It’s self-contradictory.” To a Briton pointing out that something is nonsense, rubbish, tosh or logically impossible in its own terms is not an attack on the person saying it – it’s often no more than a salvo in what one hopes might become an enjoyable intellectual tussle. Jonathan soon found that most Americans responded with offence, hurt or anger to this order of cut and thrust. Yes, one hesitates ever to make generalizations, but let’s be honest the cultures are different, if they weren’t how much poorer the world would be and Americans really don’t seem to be very good at or very used to the idea of a good no-holds barred verbal scrap. I’m not talking about inter-family ‘discussions’ here, I don’t doubt that within American families and amongst close friends, all kinds of liveliness and hoo-hah is possible, I’m talking about what for good or ill one might as well call dinner-party conversation. Disagreement and energetic debate appears to leave a loud smell in the air.

Studying for the GRE

I've stopped updating my previous blog, Oddments of High Unimportance, after Google's Blogger-bots thought I was a spam-blog and prevented me from making posts for about 2 weeks. They finally decided I was for real and basically republished the blog, adding a "9" to the first part of the URL. This has the charming side-effect of breaking links to all of my old articles. Now, Oddments was my first blog and it was a place to just pin to the wall various Web and other ephemera that crossed my path. I messed about with blogging but was never a serious, dedicated blogger. However, I did take the time and trouble to write some longer posts now and then, and it would be a shame to lose them.

So I thought I'd rescue two of those posts, on what I learned from studying for the GRE in the summer of 2006. My commitment to the GRE project surprised even me, I must say; I knew it needed to be done and I took the steps needed to do it.

V:800 Q:640: http://highunimportance9.blogspot.com/2006/08/v800-q640.html

Rating my GRE study materials: http://highunimportance9.blogspot.com/2006/08/rating-my-gre-study-materials.html

Winning Arguments (Unfairly)

The following notes are from a 1982 book by Daniel Cohen called “Re:thinking: How to Succeed by Learning How to Think.” (Bookfinder link – this book is WAY old, people!) It struck me at the time I read it, sometime in the mid-90’s, as a coherent summary of the mind literature extant in 1982 for a mainstream audience, along with basic primers on logical fallacies and the like.

It’s rather interesting to read notes on a book that predates the computer and internet revolutions. In many ways, the brain’s hardware and software hasn’t changed all that much, and his advice and tips, particularly on creativity, ideas, and handling “information overload,” echo through lots of the “25 Ways to do/be/have X” posts the blogosphere is littered with.

What struck me the most from my notes were the following tips on arguing and how to unfairly win arguments. Cohen spent a bit of time in his book dealing with logical fallacies and illustrating how to break out of one’s default thinking habits. Arguing as a way to change other’s thinking habits never work, Cohen says; he characterizes them as street fights and asks the reader to consider the following before starting an argument:

  • I’m not going to change anyone’s mind and I’m probably not going to learn anything.
  • Can I walk away from this?
  • If I win, what will I win and what do I stand to lose?
  • If I lose, what do I lose and what do I stand to gain?
  • Do I know what we are really arguing about?

But if you find yourself in an argument, Cohen provides a handy checklist of ways to unfairly win an argument–or, if you’d rather, how others may pull these gambits on you. I’m unfamiliar with classic debating strategies so these may be old-hat, but I found it quite interesting to review in this political season, as the Reps, Dems, and Fox News pull these tricks in press releases, media statements, chatter-TV, and the like.

  • Appear calm. Decry the opposition for his “emotionalism.”
  • Well-directed show of anger can be effective as it puts the opposition on the defensive.
  • Be sure of facts if the opposition knows something about the subject; stick to generalities and attack the opposition on trivial errors.
  • Ask the opposition to cite sources–and then discredit the sources.
  • Ask the opposition to “define their terms” and then attack the definitions.
  • All-or-nothing: extend the opposition’s point to the logical (but absurd) extreme.
  • Claim the opposition has misstated your case, which puts him on the defensive.
  • If you’re trapped in a misstatement, claim your words have been taken out of context.
  • Deny inconsistency. Bring your previous statements in line with what you’ve just said.
  • Distract the opposition with a side issue.
  • Damn the alternatives.
  • Justify your position by insisting it’s necessary because of the evil deeds of the opposition.
  • Personal attack. “I never argue with such people.”
  • Be gracious, as it makes a good impression on the audience.
  • A tie is better than a loss. “You and I are basically in agreement.”
  • Declare the question not yet settled and that more investigation/thought/time is needed.