Tom Hitchner on refuting the argument no one is making

Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia

Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia

Yesterday, New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia announced that he was going to rehab for his addiction to alcohol and would miss the playoffs. Pretty much everyone applauded his choice. You’d have to be a real jerk, even by the standards of Yankees fans, to say that Sabathia should put off addressing his problem so he could pitch the postseason.

But wouldn’t it be great if someone did? I could refute the hell out of that argument. Virtually every person of sense would agree with me, and I could take the moral high ground while savoring that feeling of eviscerating someone else. And if no one of consequence actually says Sabathia should keep playing, I could still put a beating on that straw man:

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Tom Hitchner has written a fine essay about this phenomenon and why it surely does no one any good. Central to his consideration is a peculiarity of the internet age: If you can’t find any professionals who are advancing a stupid argument, someone on Twitter is.

Here’s Hitchner on the search for bad ideas to disagree with:

Right-minded writers were not waiting for what I would call, at the risk of being elitist, real people to express despicable opinions about Sabathia. The mere existence of the opinion among a few Internet users was enough to bring out their indignation.

If you want to use the internet for its main purpose, broadcasting your moral superiority, you could say its inexcusable for Hitchner to dismiss ordinary Twitter users as not real. But he’s right. Whatever public discourse is now, it puts sportswriters with 30,000 followers and eggs in different divisions. Pretty much by definition, people with 14 followers are not listened to.

Except, of course, when the Washington Post republishes their opinions to hundreds of thousands of people. Back before we had global access to the written opinions of morons,1 this was a rhetorical fallacy: the straw man. Making up a bad argument in order to refute it was generally considered unhelpful, since the purpose of discourse is supposed to be to reach some kind of truth, not to show how good you are at discoursing.

It’s unnecessary to refute an argument nobody believes. But with 316 million monthly active Twitter users and 500 million tweets a day, somebody out there believes whatever. It’s the old saw about monkeys and typewriters. If you want to be right for a few hundred words, just think of an awful argument and search for the Twitter user who expressed it.

Let us call this practice egg manning. The epistemological question is whether it differs significantly from straw manning. There’s something wrong with making up an argument to say it disgusts you, but is it just as bad when that argument has been advanced by an actual person?

For the majority of internet users, the answer is yes. The internet is a vast, democratic medium that allows individuals to tell the world their opinions, but pretty much every successful social media site is based on shutting people’s opinions out. You’d have to read 5 million tweets a day to see 1% of Twitter. Facebook only shows you posts from your friends, plus memes disseminated by radio stations. An internet that did not operate on this kind of exclusion would be the equivalent of a CB channel with 300 million people talking at once.

In this context, finding a bad argument to disagree with is functionally equivalent to bringing that argument into existence. The difference between egg manning and straw manning is the coincidence that someone actually thinks your straw man is right. But that person is not part of the discussion until you seek him out. You’re still the one who brings that bad argument in.

Egg manning has another pernicious effect: it encourages us to practice judging others. That’s something Twitter already does way too much, as your boy Fredrik deBoer has pointed out:

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There is a certain class of argument that is not just epistemologically but morally wrong—the argument that confers badness on the person who believes it. By extension, it confers goodness on the person who refutes it.

I suspect that category of argument has expanded lately. There’s value in refuting popular, wrong arguments. It’s not to my taste, but I’m willing to concede there might be moral strength in calling out people for believing wrong stuff. But looking for unpopular immoral arguments—the kind of arguments that need a search bar to find—so you can publicly rebuke them is the worst kind of piety. It’s the intellectual equivalent of being a pharisee. Punch your weight, as Hitchner says.

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