Thursday, August 28, 2003

We’re Doomed

I’m sometimes amused and sometimes dismayed by the mesmerizing effects of cute little arguments, but that doesn’t discourage me from making up my own:

People normally model their opinions on those of authority figures since they are usually not in a position to make an independent judgment even if they were motivated enough to try. Unfortunately, different authorities say different things. One solution is to parrot a party line, but that solution is, as it were, energetically unfavorable. An unambiguous and stridently stated point of view may have to be defended, a most unwelcome cost. Another common option is to hold several inconsistent beliefs at once—self contradictory propositions, unlike matter and anti-matter, can and do coexist indefinitely so long as the brain is kept at a fairly low temperature. The most common dodge, however, is to assume that the truth always lies between. This strategy has several advantages. It assumes that all differences of opinion occur on a continuum between polar opposites, thus sweeping 99.9% of the unwanted complexity of the universe under a handy rhetorical rug. Above all it is sweet and reasonable and blessedly vague. It is also highly exploitable.

The genre conventions of American journalism assure that every public issue will be presented as a conflict between two opposing positions. Under these circumstances, the more irrational of the two sides will always win no matter how idiotic its contention. Indeed, if you don’t give a damn about truth or fairness, you are well advised to strike the most extreme stance you can. The audience may not buy your thoroughly crazy ideas, but it they split the difference, you still win a partial victory and also make it possible to extend your success at the next occasion by further establishing the legitimacy of your zany ideology. Your opponent, handicapped by scruples, will not be able to counter your tactics by a countervailing exaggeration. His or her caution and good manners will simply be perceived as weakness.

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