March 19, 2014

From C. P. Snow’s “The Two Cultures: A Second Look”:

It seems to me that engaging in immediate debate on each specific point closes one’s own mind for good and all. Debating gives most of us much more psychological satisfaction than thinking does: but it deprives us of whatever chance there is of getting closer to the truth.

From Thomas Frank’s “Broken English“:

Take this business, now a sort of epidemic, of presenting everything as an “argument.” People in the land of professional commentary no longer believe things or propose things or even assert things; they argue them.

I’m familiar with this particular cliché formation because in the early 1980s, when my friends and I were high school debaters, we talked this way all the time. Arguments were what allowed us to keep score back in those days: one team argued for something, the other team argued against it, and the argument was won or lost. But high school debate was a game — a game for teenagers. The point wasn’t for an individual debater to believe any particular argument and win the room over with the radiance of his faith; it was for him to be able to argue anything. Insincerity was essential.

For the commentator class, the usage has a similar distancing effect. It’s a kind of shortcut to objectivity, and suggests that the pundit in question doesn’t actually believe something — oh heavens no — but is merely reporting that the belief might be held by someone, somewhere. So when Nina Easton appears on Fox News and says (in a sentence I have chosen for its utter averageness) that “one could argue that Barack Obama’s smartest political move was putting Hillary Clinton in his Cabinet so that she wasn’t outside with Bill Clinton causing mischief,” she isn’t actually asserting this as the truth. She’s only reporting that one might assert this, were one so inclined.

Snow states his belief — makes his assertion — in the context of an essay that is, more or less, about an earlier lecture of his that was also printed as an essay. He is deeply and primarily concerned with “getting closer to the truth”; as he puts it, his aim is to “see what modifications I should make if I were going to give the lecture again.” He admits some doubts and adds some qualifications, but on the main, after measured reflection, stands by his work, and aims “to provide not an opinion but an answer.”

Snow thought long and hard about his lecture in the first place, and continued to think long and hard about it after delivering it, and he stands behind his thinking. This can be contrasted with what Thomas Frank, in the same piece from above, goes on to lament a few paragraphs later:

Taking to the NPR airwaves in September 2012, the author Junot Díaz described a character in one of his own books like this: “What we’re left with is a character who, for the first time in his life, I would argue, is capable of being in a normal relationship.”

Here we seem to be witnessing a deliberate and extraordinary divorce of speaker from subject. After all, who knows the development and the mental state of Díaz’s character better than Díaz himself? He labored over this short-story collection for sixteen years. Surely he can indulge in a little straight talk about his own creation without carefully leaving himself a rhetorical escape hatch.

Granted, an essay or lecture that makes a case for particular policies is qualitatively a very different animal from a short story, or from an extemporaneous remark about a short story in the context of an interview. But it would have been trivially easy for Snow to litter his writing with the kinds of ‘escape hatches’ Frank bemoans.

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