The Death of Argument?

In the recent Radical Feminism vs Trans-Activism case, Chimamanda had said “The assumption of good faith is dead.”

For the rules of engagement (argument / discourse / dialogue) good faith is the essential ingredient that cannot be defined in terms of rules of content.

Essentially my point being that once bad-faith, or even just the suspicion of bad-faith, enters the dialogue, there isn’t really any option other than pausing to reset good-faith. Without it, no amount of sceptical, critical-thinking, and formal rules of objective-logic over the form and content of an argument can lead to meaningful agreement or progress. (Slightly different if it is a genuinely controlled “debate” with pre-accepted voting on binary outcomes, or the manipulation and critique of objective data in a closed / repeatable scientific context – but most of real life isn’t.)

Having declared the death of good faith, Chimamanda proceeds to fight outrage with outrage, and shows little mercy for her (younger) adversaries. (See AJ Owens comments here.)  When I wrote of it, I said we had to take the truth of the 3-part story “in good faith” – which presupposes that, as a “good” writer and campaigner, she was generally a follower of good rules of engagement – and there was a “good-faith” reason for deciding to go on the “attack” as the best form of “defence”. But fighting bad-faith with outrage (however justified) is more war-war, less jaw-jaw.

It was interesting to contrast Ayesha Hazarika response to the fall-out from the Maya Forstater case. Once that appeal was “won” too many GenderCrit-RadFems have been gloating and, sensing blood, “attacking” the “losing” TransActivists – perpetuating the “hateful” “anti-trans” impression. Polarisation is always against an opposing position rather than towards any agreeable conclusion. Ayesha chose not to engage in such a punch-up and took some flak for not overtly declaring the GenderCrit position, remarking on “women kicking lumps out of each other” on both sides.

Good for her. I’d like to think I maintained the same sense of decorum.

In real life, truth is nothing without reconciliation (the restoration of good faith), hence “truth and reconciliation”.

A J Owens (Staggering Implications) had already picked this up in Chimamanda’s initial outraged response in his comment on my initial post on this. And in fact he pointed out he’d already  written the Death of Argument around cancel culture generally, before the Chimamanda case emerged:

The Death of Argument:

Worth a read, he’s right,

[Even in enlightened rational argument]
“[It] is a mistake to put our subjectivity and immediacy aside. The only way forward is to engage it. But not on its own ground!”

“Not on its own ground!” (*)

Once the debate is distorted by subjective animosity, there is some reactionary attention-grabbing value in expressing (more) outrage – activism – but it isn’t the route to enlightened progress.

As ever it’s not a choice between objective and subjective, winning and losing binaries, but an integrated conversation.

All of us, hopefully?


[Post Notes:

(*) Aside – the same remark from Dennett in Bacteria to Bach and Back when trying to change the argument on consciousness … “if you debate on your opponents’ terms, you have already lost”. There is a meta-objective in setting the right argument.

And – a day later – Stephen Mumford on ad-hominem positionality in the same argument. Ad-hominem being one of those no-no rules that demands an interpersonal reset before worthwhile argument can progress.

Also from last week, this Performative Outrage piece from Jesus and Mo:


Hat tip to Stacey Kennedy on Teeside SitP Facebook.]

3 thoughts on “The Death of Argument?”

  1. I think I get your “not necessarily a bad thing” point now.
    It’s OK to include subjective emotional stuff in the conversation, provided you don’t let it replace the conversation.

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