Ideological Fight Club

Ideological Fight Club November 1, 2012

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.

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