Apologetical Weapons: Retortion

The precepts of careful or traditional thinkers – these two categories being mostly coterminous – are generally hedged about with qualifications, distinctions, and definitions. They are not usually sweeping in their generality. Usually, they do not reduce everything to just one sort of thing.

Trained philosophers, even of a nihilist, secular bent, usually hedge their bets this same way.

Notice all the qualifiers in the foregoing: “usually,” “generally,” “mostly.”

Not so for modern utopians. Utopians are almost always intoxicated by some grand, glorious and beautiful vision, so that they tend to make sweeping statements of perfect generality. This tendency makes them, and their ideas and proposals, quite vulnerable to a rhetorical technique known as retortion. Retortion applies a doctrine to itself, to see whether it survives the treatment. If it does, the doctrine is more likely sound. If not – well, then it is dead. A doctrine that does not survive retortion is autophagic: self-devouring.

Most moderns are utopians. It’s not our fault; it’s how we were raised. The tradition of the modern era, into which virtually all of us were inculcated from birth, is utopianism. So moderns – and I include in this category all the readers of the Orthosphere, and all its writers, too, no matter how distasteful they find the label – are chthonic utopians, and are therefore prone to making perfectly general statements.

It’s a dangerous move, and to be avoided at all costs.

Allow me to provide some illustrations.

Perhaps the simplest is the classic cant of every sophomore: There are no absolute truths. It seems so wise, right? Or, at least, it once did, until we all learned to ask, “Is ‘there are no absolute truths’ absolutely true?” If so, then it is false; if not, then it is false. So, there are indeed some absolute truths.

Another classic: “We ought to tolerate all points of view;” which, of course, follows directly from the supposed truth of “there are no absolute truths.” OK; the proper response of the traditionalist, or indeed of anyone not an idiot, is “So, I guess we ought to tolerate the point of view that we ought not to tolerate all points of view.”

Here’s another good one: “All texts are instruments of the reproduction of power relations in society, and therefore unreliable as guides to truth.” OK; so, then, “Is the text, ‘All texts are instruments of the reproduction of power relations in society, and are therefore unreliable as guides to truth,’ itself an instrument of the reproduction of power relations in society, and therefore unreliable as a guide to truth?”

Then there’s the hallowed cosmopolitan syncretist refrain, “All religions are guides to truth.” Hm. What about the religion that – like any self-respecting religion – insists that it, and it alone, is the sole guide to truth? If it is wrong, then it is not a guide to truth; if it is right, then the other religions are not. Either way, the perfectly general statement is eviscerated.

You see how this works. No doubt you can multiply examples. Have fun with it. But remember: be nice! If you enjoy yourself too obviously while employing retortion, you’ll only antagonize your interlocutors, when what you want is to make them stop for a moment and think. Best, then, to adopt a doleful tone and a downcast countenance as you slowly, delicately insert the knife.

About these ads

34 thoughts on “Apologetical Weapons: Retortion

  1. I’m not so sure that all of these really work.

    “There are no absolute truths.” — Since this is what people say, rather than simply “There are no truths,” it would appear that they do not consider “absolute truth” to be a redundancy. “There are no absolute truths” need not be simply false; it could be true-at-the-moment or true-for-us or whatever it is that such people have in mind when they talk about non-absolute truths.

    “We ought to tolerate all points of view.” — Tolerating a point of view is not the same as agreeing with it; if anything, mere “tolerance” implies disagreement. So there is no contradiction in tolerating a point of view (such as the point of view that we ought not to tolerate all points of view) which you yourself disagree with.

    “All religions are guides to truth.” — This is not the same as saying that all religions are completely true, which is obviously self-contradictory. There could be much that is true in a religion, and it could still be a “guide to truth” in some sense even if that religion teaches (ex hypothesi) incorrectly that it is the only guide to truth.

    • I think your understanding of “absolute truth” is a little off. There can be no such thing as “true-at-the-moment,” unless you mean something like “my car is parked at 39th and Broadway,” i.e., that statement is true right now and will be false another time. But that it’s true right now means it will always be true for that moment. Even after I move it, it is an absolute truth that my car was parked at 39th and Broadway at that time. Likewise, “true-for-us” simply means it is true that we believe X to be true. Again, properly conditioned, that’s pretty much an absolute truth.

      Re: tolerance, of course there is no *necessary* contradiction in tolerating viewpoints that don’t tolerate tolerance. Kristor’s pointing out the suicidal absurdity that comes from it: i.e., European liberalism is driven by tolerance to accept the illiberal Islam that will inevitably destroy it. This is self-contradiction *in a sense,* at least.

      • I think it’s not Wm Jas who has the mistaken understanding; rather, he’s pointing out that anyone who refers to “absolute truth” probably has some sort of weird understanding of what “truth” means — otherwise, that would be a redundancy.

        I recall reading an article a few years back in which the author was
        trying to parse “That may be true for you, but it’s not true for me” and introduced the suitably ugly neologisms truformi and truforyu since the speaker clearly didn’t mean just “true”.

    • @ Wm Jas, re absolute truths: People who say “there are no absolute truths” generally mean “there is no such thing as a truth that is true regardless of perspective, and that is true no matter whether anyone thinks it true.” There is for them nothing but true for me or true for you. But this is just to say that there are no truths at all, properly speaking, but rather only different perspectives. And this means in turn that “there are no absolute truths” is not true, properly speaking, but rather only somebody’s untrue perspective.

      @ Wm Jas, re tolerating intolerance: The liberal insistence upon tolerance is in practice totally intolerant of disagreement. “All doctrines must be tolerated” contradicts “some doctrines must not be tolerated;” those who believe the former proposition to be true cannot therefore abide its contradiction. So, “all doctrines must be tolerated” is itself intolerant, and so it can’t be tolerated; the doctrine is autophagic.

      @ Wm Jas, re syncretism: I would argue that a cult that does not understand itself as having penetrated uniquely to the heart of things, so that it is uniquely informed by and expresses the ultimate truth, is not properly speaking a religion, but rather is merely either a philosophy or a practice. Properly speaking, then, however many doctrines it may share with other religions or philosophies, a religion must insist that its basic, essential and unique doctrines – the doctrines that differentiate it from all other religions and philosophies – are uniquely true. A cult that does not insist that it expresses some such unique doctrines does not really exist. But this insistence entails a corollary insistence, that the essential doctrines unique to other religions are ipso facto false. And a religion that is wrong about the ultimate truth cannot function as a guide thereto.

  2. Another apologetical tool I like to use is applying someone’s stated principles rigorously and look at the insanity that would result. This usually works well with liberals, because it demonstrates the hollowness of the unprincipled exception.

  3. Liberalism is suicidal per se. Its suicidal absurdity does not derive from toleration of Islam or other alien religions. Dostoevsky was prescient about the tendency of liberalism towards suicide. His “Demons” is all about how older liberalism is the father of nihilism

    • …and also the utter impotence of conservatives to stop society from throwing itself under the juggernaut of revolution. Dostoevsky would have hated our modern pseudoconservatives most of all.

  4. You have to be careful though: “All religions are guides to truth” typically means all religions are partial guides to truth. Similarly with the other statements, there are often unstated reservations.

    • Indeed. Deploying retortion often surfaces those reservations, clarifications, hedges, whatever; call them “exceptions” to the general principle. That’s when you have an opportunity to find out whether the exceptions are principled, or not.

      • People have a striking tendency to deploy things without reservations until called on them — and then continue to do so when out of range of the person who called them on it.

  5. “Another classic: “We ought to tolerate all points of view;” which, of course, follows directly from the supposed truth of “there are no absolute truths.” OK; the proper response of the traditionalist, or indeed of anyone not an idiot, is “So, I guess we ought to tolerate the point of view that we ought not to tolerate all points of view.””

    I don’t think this is usually how it plays out. Implicit in “We ought to tolerate all points of view” claims is usually the addendum “… unless they are intolerant, this claim itself being the exception.”

    This isn’t really incoherent. If only it were that simple.

    • Anthony, you are correct that this is how they will try to qualify their claim. But it won’t do. Their claim plus their qualification thereof runs as follows:

      A. We ought to be intolerant only of intolerance.
      B. A is an intolerant point of view.
      C. According to A, we ought not to tolerate A.
      D. Since A is intolerable, we are forced to ~A: We ought to be tolerant even of intolerance.
      E. Intolerance is OK.

      • So, you’re saying that they will argue thus:

        A. We ought to be intolerant only of intolerance.
        B. A is an intolerant point of view, but we ought to follow it anyway because if we don’t, that will discommode me.
        C. So, I hereby grant A an exception of coverage by A.

        But this is precisely not argumentation from principles. It is an unprincipled grab for power.

  6. (This is usually justified by pragmatism. “If I, liberal, were to tolerate everything, it would undermine itself, leaving us with much less tolerance than just the limited kind of intolerance outlined above. Therefore, it is a principled exception.”)

  7. “But this is precisely not argumentation from principles. It is an unprincipled grab for power.”

    No, it is saying something like:

    A. We ought to be tolerant, except of intolerance that doesn’t get its rationale from the protection of tolerance in general.
    B. A is intolerant, but we should allow it, because if we don’t other modes of intolerance will undermine tolerance in general.

    (where ‘in general’ is understood to mean ‘for the most part’, say)

    • How is this different in any important way from saying, “For the most part, it is a good idea to be tolerant of those with differing opinions”? Which is certainly true, perhaps indisputably so; but, therefore, as truistic, somewhat vacuous as a moral guide. I mean, qua guide, “for the most part” leaves totally open the question of when it is *not* good to tolerate a divergent opinion. It begs the whole question.

      • Well, it’s a little more specific (tolerance of intolerance is allowed only when that intolerance gets it rationale from the protection of tolerance in general).

        … Regardless of what people say on this, though, it usually doesn’t play out this way. The people parroting the tolerance line will be brutally intolerant of certain intolerance, but not of other intolerance, where usually the distinction lies not with the above but rather with whether they agree with the political views expressed, or more specifically whether they view the intolerant view as a genuine threat to their own political views (beyond just the value of tolerance). So, in practice it is usually not very principled, and more a personal (or perhaps more accurately, tribal) strategy.

        Technically, though, a principled case can be made.

      • I’m not able to parse your first sentence. Are you getting tangled up in double negatives, or am I?

  8. It’s simpler to think in terms of computer code:

    1. If intolerant, then …
    2. Is intolerance to protect tolerance in general?
    3. If yes, then tolerate intolerance.
    4. If no, then don’t tolerate intolerance.

    4. then calls 1., which exits with 3.

    • I see now what you have been saying, thanks. But, when we run the algorithm, step 2 is where the decision is made. And in practice, the agent running the algorithm – call him A – will be intolerant of every perspective that is less tolerant than his own. If there is another, even more tolerant agent B, B will not tolerate A. C, who is more tolerant than A or B, will not tolerate either of them. The population as a whole will be driven almost instantly to the general level of tolerance of points of view that is set by the tolerance level of the most tolerant member of the group, Z. Z will not tolerate any viewpoint but his own.

      The logic has operated to generate a totalitarian tyranny, in which only one perspective is tolerated: that of discrimination against anyone who discriminates against anyone. It still seems autophagic to me.

  9. Ya, it can lead to a ‘tyranny of tolerance’ – I think that’s right. Speech codes on college campuses are an example of this occurring.

    I like the word ‘autophagic’ to describe the process.

    • Your expressing this in terms of an algorithm was extremely helpful. It prompted me to think of the logic of the principle of toleration as an iterative operation, which, when implemented, would lead to certain states of affairs.

  10. Pingback: The Thinking Housewife › On the Art of Retortion

  11. Kristof and Anthony are overthinking this.

    Just say “to tolerate view A means not to undertake violence against people who believe A merely for believing A”.

    It does not mean you don’t speak out against people who believe A, it doesn’t mean you have to voluntarily give them money, it doesn’t even mean you can’t actively ridicule people who believe A, you just can’t hurt them just for believing A. (It also doesn’t mean you can’t hurt people who both believe A and undertake violent acts themselves, possibly because they believe A.)

    So even if A is an intolerant view, the absolutist position, “We should tolerate all points of view”, can be held.

    As indeed it is in practice, as witnessed by the existence of countless intolerant groups, websites, and radio hosts.

    • “to tolerate view A means not to undertake violence against people who believe A merely for believing A”

      This is not what people mean, though. When the campus bureaucrat says we ought to be tolerant of x point of view, they don’t just mean ‘we shouldn’t undertake violence against people who have x point of view’. Obviously we shouldn’t – undertaking violence is already illegal!

  12. I agree with Dave.

    I usually explain my understanding of the word “tolerance” this way: you’re free to be as foolish or as sinful as you like — and I’m free to think and say that this is exactly what you are.

    To tolerate something doesn’t mean to condone it. Let alone support it, financially or otherwise.

    Nor does it imply an obligation to ameliorate any of its natural consequences. “You made you bed, now lie in it” expresses an attitude that’s compatible with tolerance.

    (That isn’t to say anything against doing charitable work to relieve the suffering of people who have made a mess of their lives. But I think it’s important to keep in mind that it’s they who have made the mess, and that our charitable work might actually make things worse if they’re not ready to repent and mend their ways. Viz. the well-known consequences of many government welfare programs.)

    Tolerance doesn’t necessarily mean being nice to people whose behavior we dislike. No one has the right to never be offended. But being courteous and exercising restraint is usually the most prudent, commendable way to deal with others — even when they’re being boorishly and provocatively “transgressive.”

    My right to associate with people of like mind and interest also implies the right to disassociate myself from others who do not share the same interests, ideals, etc. Tolerance, as I understand it, does not mean that anyone has the right to force their way into a group or institution whose defining beliefs they reject. Yet we have seen many such institutions (e.g., churches, the Boy Scouts, Georgetown University) subverted by people who joined for the express purpose of challenging those defining beliefs — and this was done under the false flag of “tolerance.” But what true tolerance would require in cases like this is that the creation of alternative institutions would be allowed. Subverting the existing institutions is actually a example of intolerance, because its intent is to eradicate, not allow, any institution based on those beliefs.

    (Apologies if this repeats things that have already been said. I haven’t read all the other comments yet, but felt like jumping in anyway.)

    • Yep, I should have read first. Profuse apologies for completely missing the point of this article and the accompanying comment thread!

      As it happens, I put up a post on my own blog earlier this morning, touching on many of the same points raised here re: truformi and truforyu. You can read it there if you like (shameless begging for blog hits!), but I don’t think it says anything that others haven’t already said and probably better than me.

  13. “This is not what people mean, though. When the campus bureaucrat says we ought to be tolerant of x point of view, they don’t just mean ‘we shouldn’t undertake violence against people who have x point of view’. Obviously we shouldn’t – undertaking violence is already illegal!”

    No, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t express that you disagree with x point of view.

    It is a grey area; I think that the bureaucrat usually means is “we shouldn’t verbally abuse people who have x point of view (either)”. Verbal abuse might, in some cases, be viewed as a form of violence; it relates somewhat to the “hostile environment” and “captive audience” ideas that come up in sexual harassment suits.

    Now, I’m not sure whether we’d want to amend the definition of tolerance to prohibit verbal abuse based solely on someone’s belief, or say that prohibiting verbal abuse is an additional constraint to tolerance.

    Either way, the 1st Amendment protects most forms of verbal abuse, so therefore there can’t be laws against it, but that doesn’t mean other organizations can’t have rules against it.

    Laws against discrimination for employment, college admittance, etc., also fall outside that definition of tolerance. So if you are inclined not to hire someone because they believe x, or because they are of a certain race, you’re not necessarily being intolerant. I think that’s right, since laws against discrimination are based on very specific criteria anyway, not some general principle of tolerance.

  14. We could also do it this way:

    For all points of view x such that x says nothing about whether or not to tolerate any points of view:

    Consider the class of points of view c of the form:

    c = “[we should not tolerate the point of view that]^n x”

    That is, with n copies of [we should not tolerate the point of view that].

    Then propose: we should tolerate all points of view of the form c such that n is even (including 0 of course), but we should not tolerate any points of view of the form c such that n is odd.

    Now, this may miss some cases, such as interleavings of the copies of “we should not tolerate the point of view that” with other material. So we may have to close the class of points of view we tolerate under some sort of concatenation.

    But I think it at least handles the basic case.

  15. To subject this to retortion:

    Call the above guideline A.

    Guideline B: We should not tolerate any point of view that entails that we should not tolerate any point of view that A says we should tolerate, and we should not tolerate any point of view that entails that we should tolerate any point of view that A says we should not tolerate.

    Guideline C: We should tolerate any point of view that neither guideline A nor guideline B says that we should not tolerate. (May not be necessary; see below.)

    Call the conjunction of guidelines A, B, and C the “tolerance principle”.

    Now what does the tolerance principle says of the negation NT of the tolerance principle? It says unequivocably that NT should not be tolerated.

    To see this, note that NT entails (not A or not B or not C).

    not A entails, of course, that there is some point of view y that we tolerate or do not tolerate against the guideline A, in which case guideline B is violated, so NT by virtue of negating A will not be tolerated.

    not B entails the same thing; that there is some point of view y that goes against guideline A, and hence guideline B is violated, so NT by virtue of negating B will not be tolerated.

    not C entails that some point of view not covered by A or B is not tolerated. But the only points of view not considered by A or B are ones with copies of “we should tolerate the point of view that”, possibly interleaved with copies of “we should not tolerate the point of view that”, and points of view that do not mention toleration; all such points of view will entail some point of view covered by A, (and so C might not really cover any cases that B does not cover), so this version of NT will not be tolerated either.

    However, of the statements we started with, “We should tolerate all points of view” will in fact not be tolerated, while “There are some points of view that we should not tolerate” will be tolerated.

  16. Pingback: Evil is Autophagous « The Orthosphere

  17. Pingback: There’s No Such Thing as Women | The Orthosphere

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s