“…And as our experts demonstrated, Defendants’ extraction of water from their illegal secret well caused the flow of the Johnsons’ spring to decrease by half, forcing them to ration their irrigation and causing them $200,000 in damages from lost produce sales. The plaintiffs rest, Your Honor.”
“Thank you. Counsel for the defense, you may proceed. Call your first witness.”
“No witnesses, Your Honor. Just ignore everything all those guys just said.”
“Because they’re obviously biased against my client. The defense rests.”
Silly, right? Nobody would litigate a case that way. Then why do so many of us who should know better operate that way in our public discourse?
Reasoning together is hard. Invariably, sooner or later someone comes along with evidence and reasoning that conflicts with a cherished idea of ours, and we can’t immediately see where he’s wrong. At that point, we have three choices: We can change our minds. We can carefully listen to our opponent’s argument, closely examine each of its parts and how they fit together and see if we can find an error.
Or we can look for a way to dismiss the messenger. If she’s a bad enough, stupid enough, or crazy enough person, we tell ourselves, surely she can’t have anything useful to say. We don’t need to waste our time with her.
As a missionary, I often had fellow Latter-day Saints ask for us to be led to the “honest in heart” As much as I, in my missionary days, didn’t like being politely told “nei, takk” by roughly one-tenth of the Icelandic population, I liked even less the implication of the “honest hearts” phrase that the people who were unpersuaded by our message were dishonest. If Joseph Smith declined to blame anyone who did not believe his history—because, as he said, it was so remarkable that if he had not experienced what he had, he would not have believed it himself— we shouldn’t either. The Spirit blows where and when it wills, and it is not our place to judge whether a person is resisting the truth, or simply and sincerely unpersuaded for now.
The Latter-day Saint tradition frowns on “contention,” and truth be told, we sometimes give it plenty to frown about. Disputes over points of doctrine and interpretation can get heated. When that happens, it’s not uncommon for one party to rear up and declare that if you don’t agree with interpretation … you obviously “don’t have the Spirit.” Probably owing to a secret pornography habit.
As with all errors, these dismissal strategies are built on grains of truth. As both Scripture and philosophy remind us, human reason can easily be influenced by human frailty: “[U]nto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure, but even their mind and conscience is defiled” (Titus 1:15). “Reason is … the slave of the passions” (David Hume, “Treatise of Human Nature”). We all see “through a glass darkly,” with lenses shaped and warped by our experiences, our interests, our desires, and our biases. It can be very hard indeed to correct for these distortions of our reason.
But wise men do not build on mere grains of truth. Unlike bedrock, grainy, sandy soils make poor foundations. One dangerous sinkhole with dismissal strategies—with dismissing an argument because its maker is “biased”—lies in the conclusion “Because you are biased, your argument must be wrong, and I must be right, and you should be ignored.”
The adversary process of American litigation is a useful antidote to that error. One learns that it is possible for someone to be biased—and also 100% correct. Of course, counsel for his client is “biased.” That’s what she’s paid to be. And yet if she marshals compelling, irrefutable evidence—she’s right, notwithstanding her bias.
A biased argument may well be wrong. Indeed, the more bias that has crept into someone’s thinking, the more relevant facts he may have overlooked, and the more strained the conclusions drawn from his cherry-picked evidence will likely be. A badly biased argument is a great big fat target—a hanging curveball just waiting for a halfway competent response to knock it into the cheap seats. Once we do engage, we become bound by the obligation to do so fairly and honestly.
Once we do engage, we become bound by the obligation to do so fairly and honestly.
Sometimes, that’s just easier. When we just know something with every fiber of our proverbial being, dealing with the same challenges over and over again can be tiresome—“exhausting,” to use a fashionable trope. Certainly, we have no obligation to engage every last person shouting from his soapbox. Yet once we do engage, we become bound by the obligation to do so fairly and honestly.
The bestselling author Robin DiAngelo has made her career on a powerful dismissal strategy. In her book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, she argued that white people experience instinctive defensive reactions when questioned about race or being made to contemplate advantages they may have because of their ancestry. From a grain of truth—the indisputable fact that human beings tend to react defensively to criticism—is built a dogmatic system under which asserting innocence is made proof of guilt. As a result, the criticism is made infallible. There is nothing that can be said, and no quantum of evidence that could be shown, to rebut the presumption. Disagree with DiAngelo, and ipso facto, you’re wrong. Dismissed. “That’s some catch, that Catch-22.”
There is no shortage of dismissal strategies on the market today. A news story portrays your favorite politician unfavorably? “Fake news.” (Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. Show your work, as your math teacher used to say. Identify what’s false.) Someone asserts facts contradicting your conclusions? Hit her with a trendy neologism ending in “-splain,” customized to whatever personal characteristics she has different from yours, and write her right off. Or, if an argument is particularly effective, you can simply brand it a “dog whistle,” insist that your opponent is really, secretly, making the case for something much uglier than what he’s actually saying, and base your response on the case against that ugly thing instead.
What all these dismissal strategies have in common is their diligent avoidance of truth—of addressing a truth claim on the merits. This is not a problem for postmodern Critical Theorists who, like Pontius Pilate, cynically ask “What is truth?” and license themselves to construct whatever “truth” may be socially useful. Those of us who are required to accept that something called Truth actually exists—however hard it may be to find and sift from the dross of our bias— don’t have the luxury of that shortcut.
When we avoid confronting truths, even uncomfortable truths—we make ourselves liars. We lie to our listeners, and just as important, we lie to ourselves. In the law of fraud, a lie does not require an active falsehood. Fraud can also consist of the concealment of facts by someone who has a duty to disclose them. When we strive to conceal facts from our own minds, we defraud ourselves—and also, those whom we may influence with our willfully incomplete understanding. Nothing good ever came of a lie. Our present toxic, contentious cultural moment has come to pass chiefly because we are losing the ability to reason together.
Our present toxic, contentious cultural moment has come to pass chiefly because we are losing the ability to reason together.
Our present toxic, contentious cultural moment has come to pass chiefly because we are losing the ability to reason together. That we must be right is beyond question. To borrow from John Locke’s wry observation about religious sectarians’ frequently selective use of rational argument, “as far as Reason will help [us, we] make use of it gladly.” But where it fails, we defensively deploy dismissal strategies to avoid having to question what we “know.” We straw-man our opponents’ ideas—the better to absolutely destroy them—and “vanilla wash” our own. We conceal our doctrines’ more extreme, potentially unpopular aspects, suggesting that only the unreasonable or invidious could possibly disagree with us.
And we wonder why we hate each other so. (It’s probably the other guy’s fault.)“Anger enters an argument when reason leaves it.” If we intend to keep our Republic in anything more than name, we must return to understanding each other as fellow citizens, to engage fairly and honestly, and not as enemy populations to wage propaganda warfare against. That doesn’t mean overlooking real differences. It does require addressing the actual differences—not caricatures or disguises. It requires a commitment to “play the ball, not the man” and refuse the easy dodge of dismissal strategies.