Honest Expression vs. Audience Responsibility

I always get a bit bored waiting to teach my late afternoon class, since I've done most everything that I can do (lies!) between now and then. As good a time as any to write on the blog.

A good friend of mine sent me this link where Stephen Fry argues that British people are more into having robust arguments than Americans. The author of the linked blog post tends to agree with Fry, and in a why that is almost comical itself. He relates the story of a dinner with very religious attendees where he decides to announce that he doesn't think God exists. Here's the best quote:
But looking back, why should I have felt bad about saying what I honestly felt and which was not a personal attack on any one? I had not called anyone an idiot or punched them in the face. All I had said to a group of religious people was that I did not believe that god existed.
His choice to voice his view is defended by a strange, albeit implicit, philosophy. He seems to see argument as based on an intrensic, knowable, and internal good intent/belief that should be expressed. He is confused why this upsets his listeners as he did not verbally or physically assault them. All he had "merely" done is present living proof that their belief system wasn't true.

That's all. Oh wait. . .that's pretty serious. Unfortunately this person is governed by an impoverished theory of language's role in our lives. It's an unfortunate, yet common idea that somehow honesty and directness not only trump your responsibility toward others in argument, but are better ethically than that responsibility.

It's a real disadvantage to our communicative opportunities when people approach situations of argument, claim and response, or discussion from the point of view that language and words are not real, that they are secondary in intensity and scope, and that they are inert and harmless expressions of a reality kept elsewhere. Ignorance of the role that words and language play in the co-construction and negotiation of our shared social reality inevitably lead to moments that, although are not physically violent, are violent none the less. Since he didn't punch anyone, why are people upset with him? Perhaps he did symbolically punch them. He failed to adapt what he was saying for the audience he was addressing. If one honestly feels they should express themselves by swinging their arms and they punch someone inadvertently, they should apologize.

Why should he feel bad about making others feel bad when he honestly expresses his belief? Perhaps its because somewhere he recognizes the importance of style in ones argument. Without it, a simple claim about a belief can be seen as a devastating personal attack, shutting down the interlocutor's ability to see a point in continuing the argument. When one effectively argues, attention must be paid to both management of the persuasive moment as well as the quality of argument and refutation. What baffles me is how he can feel wronged when his statement that God does not exist could easily be interpreted as a direct personal attack on his listeners' belief system.

This brings up the first responsibility in any general argument - your fidelity should be toward making the persuasive moment sustainable, keeping open the possibility for assent to your claim by careful attention to your ethical treatment of your listener/audience/opponent.

Of course, none of this applies in formal debate, which is why formal debate is such a bad model for how to argue informally. In a formal debate, the first responsibility is gone concerning your opponent. But in terms of the judge or audience, that obligation still rests on you. As a novice many of us probably automatically addressed our arguments to our opponent, but were quickly corrected to address arguments to the audience, or judges. This is the first step in the recognition of this important obligation.

Our noble scientist here is legitimately perplexed why the expression of his belief made others uncomfortable. It is because he was inattentive to this obligation. Since he clearly knew that his audience was deeply religious, what could be served by making such a huge, harsh statement? Perhaps he felt good about expressing his view. One must serve the argumentative situation as much as serving conviction in order to be effective.

An argumentation model that proposes no apologies for expressing honest belief is not a very good one. It is a model that gets many shouting voices without rejoinder. Adaptation of one's honest belief into a form that can facilitate some molding, working with, or even some desire to entertain the idea seems necessary.

Of course there will be moments where incommensurability appears. But we shouldn't invite those moments with our first utterance. This poor guy needs to recognize that words can be as violent as a punch (and I think he somewhat does since "calling someone an idiot" is immediately mentioned as well). In these cases, the ethic is one where you know that the expression will hurt the other person, but they must hear it. These cases are somewhat rare, and are often twisted into justifications to pronounce one's beliefs honestly and directly without care for the listener.

Maintaining that liminal potentially persuasive space is incredibly important if one wants to engage in productive argumentation like Stephen Fry seems to want as he's quoted in that post. But if you want grandstanding and to make yourself feel better about your ideas, go with honest and direct pronouncement. The trick to good argumentation is nuance and attentiveness to every moment, not worry about the metaphysics of "good argument" or fidelity to some ancient moral subjectivity of laying bare the soul no matter the effect. The view of argument from rhetoric is one of negotiation, which comes with it the most important postulate - that when advancing a belief one risks giving it up if the rejoinder is persuasive enough. One puts oneself on the line quite literally in an argument - and such openness should be treated with care.