Ideological Fight Club

Julian Sanchez offers an antidote to poisonous political discourse that reads like a hybrid of the Ideological Turing Test and steelmanning (the opposite of strawmanning – deliberately trying to improve your opponent’s argument and rebutting that attack).

I offer a modest proposal for American universities. All freshmen should be required to take a course called “Offense 101,” where the readings will consist of arguments from across the political and philosophical spectrum that some substantial proportion of the student body is likely to find offensive. Selections from The Bell Curve. Essays from one of the New Atheists and one of their opponents, and from hardcore pro-lifers and pro-choicers. Ward Churchill’s “little Eichmanns” monograph. Defenses of eugenics, torture, violent revolution, authoritarianism, aggressive censorship, and absolute free speech. Positive reviews of the Star Wars prequels. Assemble your own curriculum—there’s no shortage of material.

For each reading, students will have to make a good faith, unironic effort to reconstruct the offensive argument in its most persuasive form, marshaling additional supporting evidence and amending weak arguments to better support the author’s conclusion. Points deducted if an observer can tell the student doesn’t really agree with the position they’re defending.

Only after this phase is complete will students be allowed to begin rebutting the arguments. Anyone who thinks it’s relevant to point out that the argument is offensive (or bigoted, sexist, unpatriotic, fascistic, communistic, whatever) will receive a patronizing look from the professor that says: “Yes, obviously, did you not read the course title? Let’s move on.” Insofar as these labels are shorthand for an argument that certain categories of views are wrong and can be rejected as a class, the actual argument will have to be presented. Following the rebuttal phase, students will be randomly assigned to a side for an in-class debate.

I’d love to see someone try this.  The main danger I see (aside from the obvious PR problems) is students becoming too enamored of their own sophistry.  The proper response to the power of persuasive speech is fear and a desire to find some techniques that make you most vulnerable to true arguments while boosting your immunity against common fallacies and tricks.

In college debate, it’s easier to show off when you’re arguing an outrageous proposition (I have not too fond memories of “R: Don’t Fear the Reaper”), and it can be tempting to want to give the wildest speech you still mostly agree with instead of making a case for the most important belief your opponents need to change their minds about.  Of course, that means it can take more artistry to argue in favor of the obvious but important, since your audience starts out seeing a call to ordinary virtues as cliche.

The thing I like best about Sanchez’s curricula is the acknowledgement that your horror or offense isn’t necessarily of use to your opponents.  It’s good to recognize bad things as bad, but just declaring your allegiance to the forces of good doesn’t help your opponent be converted.  The students don’t get to allow themselves the catharsis of congratulating themselves for not being racist/sexist/hateful/ignorant/etc in the particular manner demonstrated by their opponent.  The energy of revulsion can’t be dissipated by labeling the other side as offensive, it has to be channeled back into the fight.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://rustbeltphilosophy.blogspot.com Eli

    “The students don’t get to allow themselves the catharsis of congratulating themselves for not being racist/sexist/hateful/ignorant/etc in the particular manner demonstrated by their opponent. The energy of revulsion can’t be dissipated by labeling the other side as offensive, it has to be channeled back into the fight.”

    So…in other words, it’s basically the thing that I’ve been arguing for, only for some reason you’re insisting that people become sophists along the way. Tell me, again, why my version isn’t strictly superior to this one?

    • http://rustbeltphilosophy.blogspot.com Eli

      Also, while I’m here, Sanchez says this in his concluding paragraph:

      “There’s value in developing the capacity to respond dispassionately to those beliefs, so that even when we decide not to exercise it, it’s a choice rather than a reflex.”

      In the interest of symmetry, shouldn’t you (and he) also want to do this the other way around? Some people struggle to respond dispassionately, but there are other people who struggle to respond passionately. Wouldn’t it also be nice if we developed that capacity in our students, so that their dispassionate responses are chosen rather than reflexive? Or, y’know, are you just biased for some reason towards “the tone [you'd] use if [you] were evaluating papers from an experimental physics journal”?

  • http://reluctantliberal.wordpress.com Reluctant Liberal

    Maybe I’m being too pessimistic, but I think most American freshman lack the critical thinking ability to participate productively in something like this. I also think a small minority would actually be convinced of appalling beliefs like racism or a positive opinion of the Star Wars prequels.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thecrescat/ The Crescat

      You’re not pessimistic at all. Most college freshman do indeed lack critical thinking skills.

      • Brandon B

        The point would be to develop those critical thinking skills, right? This looks to me like it’s supposed to be a learn-by-doing sort of class.

    • Ryan

      The purpose of freshman level classes is to teach college freshmen critical thinking and the like. If they could already do it, we wouldn’t have a need for a class on it. The class as properly taught, would teach them those skills and use this exercise as a method of forcing them to really practice them. Sure, freshmen by and large don’t have too many critical thinking skills, but if they can’t learn them(and I think most can), it’s better to find that out early on and let them stop wasting time.

    • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

      I agree with a lot of you that this course is supposed to teach those critical thinking skills, but I don’t think it would do so. The students would still not learn much from this course. Many would strive for a passing grade (or whatever is the lowest grade that still achieves what they need from this program) and would not really aspire to learn what was more broadly being taught. I’ve been a TA for several courses which students felt–whether rightly or wrongly–that they were being forced to take, and I can tell you that engagement was low. Yes, there are some students who would not be there otherwise but nonetheless learned a lot (and probably also enjoyed the course), but these were in the minority. I’d like to see this course offered, sure, but if you force students to take it, I can tell you right now what their conclusion will be: people who make philosophical arguments are just making stuff up. (That’s their existing opinion, based on eavesdropping on intro science students. This course’s flirtation with sophistry would make it worse.)

    • http://branemrys.blogspot.com Brandon Watson

      I have to agree with Reluctant Liberal here. This is not, in fact, a critical thinking class, nor is there any reason to think that students in this class would develop any relevant critical thinking skills in such a class. This is a learn-how-to-argue-anything-no-matter-how-outrageous class. No one who doesn’t already have significant critical thinking skills should be allowed anywhere near such a class. The emphasis on persuasion should set off alarm bells for anyone who thinks that this has to do with critical thinking as such: critical thinking is not about persuasive arguments but having a good sense of reasoning, in the sense of being able to compare arguments to other arguments, draw distinctions among various features of arguments, and out of extensive experience with arguments identify relevant strengths and weaknesses of different kinds of reasoning.

      For very specific purposes (building of very specific skills, like developing skills relevant to charitable interpretation) it might make sense to do something like this course, on a smaller scale; but here as elsewhere we have to beware of what is really the overwhelming danger when talking about critical thinking or rationality in general: taking specific kinds of activity, like a debate, or like an exercise in building a strong opposing argument, or like a particular kind of argument game, and assimilating all of reason to that. The problem with that is that the specific kinds of activity only get their value from the fact that they are deliberately and artificially constructed to meet certian artificially specified goals. That way lies lunacy, not critical thinking. A class like this could only be relevant to the development of very specific critical thinking skills, and even then could only do so for students who already had fairly developed critical thinking skills already.

    • http://ikeepmymemorieshere.blogspot.com/ Ruth Ann Pilney

      True, indeed!

    • jenesaispas

      Over here in England/Wales we have a pre-university qualification (an A-level) in Critical Thinking I can’t speak for how good it is though…

  • Ted Seeber

    Justice For All is a pro-life group that does *specifically* this. They have a training manual in it that they send out for free, though to encourage *actual* thought, they send it to you only a piece at a time. I’m working my way through their 25 questions with my wife.

    You can get the training manual by filling out this form:
    https://spreadsheets1.google.com/viewform?hl=en&formkey=dE9GOHVLdXV2UXFYaTFfcy1qYXowOWc6MA#gid=0

    Which actually starts a real-life e-mail conversation with Stephen Wagner, who wrote the book.

    I’ve already sent him my critique that his information on ectopic pregnancy is a bit outdated- but only a bit.

  • Alex Godofsky

    My meta-objection to this is that it sort of begs the question. A lot of people think “that’s offensive” really is a legitimate argument. A lot of people don’t actually care about free speech. These people would object to the premise of the course.

    I think the course would be good because those people are wrong, but many of the people this course is targeting wouldn’t attend in the first place. “Just make it mandatory” isn’t a great response because you probably have to convince those people that it should be mandatory.

  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

    Actually teaching students how to think is a good idea. Not sure this is the right approach but most graduates in accounting, engineering, medicine, comp science, etc. don’t take much in the way of philosophy at all. That leaves them thinking they are smart and being respected by society but in actuality not being able to spot the common logical fallacies. So our public discourse is dominated by table pounding, proof by example, ad hominem, and many other fallacies. Why not, when even the intellectual elite is convinced by bad arguments why bother finding a good one?

  • Lukas

    Related: Trivium School, a classical 7-12 school, has students present a junior and senior thesis topic. They are supposed to give a thesis statement, two objections to the thesis, and a response to those objections. Here’s an example:

    http://www.triviumschool.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=17%3Atrivium-senior-thesis-night&catid=1&Itemid=10

    • Ted Seeber

      I am amazed- that this is amazing. I had to do this at my public school as well. Of course, I was in AP English and AP History.

  • Anonymous
  • Jim

    I feel like the other danger is that some freshmen might actually become convinced by some of these offensive arguments. So many freshmen will take a course on politics, read one book (or a few highlighted passages), and think “My eyes have been opened! I’m so enlightened, wake up sheeple!!!” And the handsome and shy high-school graduate has morphed into the loud-mouthed college know-it-all.

    • Emily

      You can’t really prevent that, though. It happens a lot (e.g. my Ayn Rand flirtation in high school – it was exciting for a few months). And then life happens and usually people grow out of it.

  • Andrew Brew

    A couple of you (Reluctant Liberal, Jim, I’m looking at you) have expressed the fear that students might be persuaded by these arguments (and start liking Star Wars I or something).

    I take it you are saying that in is a bad idea to expose people to arguments supporting conclusions of which you disapprove. Am I understanding you correctly?

    If so… Really???!

    • http://rustbeltphilosophy.blogspot.com Eli

      Two things.

      1: don’t you also think that it’s a bad idea to expose people to AT LEAST SOME arguments supporting conclusions of which you disapprove? In other words, is there literally NO conclusion so heinous that you would never want people to argue for it?

      2: it’s not JUST being exposed to the argument that’s the problem. It’s being exposed to it AND ALSO being forced to pretend like it’s any good. And, again, isn’t that something that you yourself would say is a bad idea, at least sometimes? How long have you spent trying to earnestly and unironically reconstruct the arguments for slavery, for instance?

      • keddaw

        1. No. If there is a bad idea to which you can’t construct a sufficiently powerful counter-argument then perhaps it’s not actually a bad idea…

        2. Getting into the mindset of a proponent of an idea is the best way top work out which arguments they might actually find convincing enough to drop it.

        • http://rustbeltphilosophy.blogspot.com Eli

          Re: 1, HAHAHAHA yeah right. I mean, “sufficiently powerful” for what? To convince everybody who hears it? To convince enough people to make sure that there are no untoward consequences from their false belief? You might want to take a look around you, pal – at least a quarter of American adults disbelieve in evolution, around 40% believe in psychic powers, and a fifth of us haven’t even caught up with heliocentrism. If you think that any of this makes creationism or ESP or geocentrism “not a bad idea,” you’re nuts.

          Re: 2, you didn’t answer my question. Just how long have you spent “getting into the mindset of” people who advocated for slavery?

    • Jim

      No, I was more just finding ways to make fun of college know-it-alls.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X