Once upon a time I wondered what life would be like if I didn’t follow the news. What if, as Simon and Garfunkel once suggested, I got all the news I needed on the weather report?
My guess is it would be rather like my new resolution not to read the comments sections of other people’s blogs — that is to say, a bit happier and a lot less stressed.
Speaking as a cat owner, I can say comments are the fleas of the internet blog, first, insofar as, by their very nature, blogs tend to attract them, and second in that one is inclined to pay them attention exactly in proportion to how irritating they are.
Partly this is the vanity factor. People don’t post comments on blogs in order to learn things. They post so as to show how wise they are, or how stupid someone else is. I know. I’ve done it.
But there is also the fact that although blog comments provoke many arguments, very few people know how to argue. And that not only makes them even more irritating — it makes the business of responding entirely fruitless.
In this connection, I’ve recently been directed to a superb little book which I think should be required reading for anyone who aims to be still at school after 16. It is by a chap called Anthony Weston, and the title is A Rulebook for Arguments (ISBN 0-87220-552-5, £3.95 on Amazon).
Weston writes in the Preface,
This book is a brief introduction to the art of writing and assessing arguments. It sticks to the bare esentials. I have found that students and writers often need just such alist of reminders and rules, not lengthy introductory explanations. Thus, unlike most textbooks in argumentative writing or “critical thinking,” this book is organized around specific rules, illustrated and explained soundly but above all briefly. It is not a textbook but a rulebook.
And so it is for just 87 pages, during which he covers things like Arguments by Example and Analogy, Deductive Arguments and composing an essay. It is not without faults, but compared with the careless assertions, illogicalities and fallacies that typify your average blog comment, it is a philosophical masterpiece.
Weston’s aim is that essays could be marked simply with a reference to ‘Rule 6’ or some such infringement, rather than having to put an explanation in the margin every time, and I am tempted to begin doing the same with blog comments. That way I could also avoid the problem of personal involvement — it’s not me, it’s Weston, I would be saying.
My experience, though, is that most people don’t realize there are such things as rules to arguing. Our educational system and culture encourages people to have opinions, and assures them that their opinion is something to which they are entitled. Beyond that ‘reason’ is treated with suspicion or, more often, blank incomprehension. A ‘logical’ argument is thus thought to be one that appeals to ‘logical facts’ and few people can cope with the notion that an argument may be both logical in form and wrong in its conclusions! (Surely what is ‘logical’ must be right?)
For many years I used to fence as a hobby, and one thing you learn early on in fencing is that an inexperienced fencer is more dangerous than an experienced one. An experienced fencer will respond with some predictability to your own moves. An inexperienced one will poke your eye out.
The same applies with reason. The hardest thing to argue with is not intelligence but stupidity. And in the world of blogging, Proverbs 26:4 takes precedence over 26:5: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself.”
Revd John P Richardson
19 August 2007No comments will be posted without a full name and location, see the policy .