Arguing with Children

The other day the New York Times ran an op-ed about Greta Thunberg, the teenage environmental activist. The TL;DR is that activism, particularly the activism of Ms.Thunberg, is “at odds with democracy.”

Many on Twitter wondered how attempting to persuade people to take an interest in an issue could be undemocratic. It seems, if anything, just like how you do democracy.

What the author really means, however, is that her argument methods are no good. He writes:

Her politics rests on two things. First is simplification. “The climate crisis already has been solved,” she said at a TED Talk in Stockholm this year. “We already have all the facts and solutions. All we have to do is wake up and change.” Second is sowing panic, as she explained at the World Economic Forum in Davos last winter.


Normally Ms. Thunberg would be unqualified to debate in a democratic forum. Since a 16-year-old is not a legally responsible adult, she cannot be robustly criticized and, even leaving aside her self-description as autistic, Ms. Thunberg is a complicated adolescent. Intellectually, she is precocious and subtle. She reasons like a well-read but dogmatic student radical in her 20s. Physically, she is diminutive and fresh-faced, comes off as younger than her years, and frequently refers to herself as a “child” — about the last thing the average 16-year-old would ever do.

Kids her age have not seen much of life. Her worldview might be unrealistic, her priorities out of balance. But in our time, and in her cause, that seems to be a plus. People have had enough of balance and perspective. They want single-minded devotion to the task at hand.

Pointing out in an argument with a child that they’re a child and you can’t really argue with them is pretty much the same thing as arguing with them, only it’s way more dishonest because it’s patronizing, self-contradictory, and itself pretty much fallacious. For, in the first place, you’re actually arguing with them, you’re just not doing it right by calling into question the truth of the premises or the logic of their conclusions. Instead, you’re pointing out that they’re children who, because of their fragile nature (I won’t even point out the other thing he mentions–see how I can be ironic too!), cannot be criticized by adults.

Still more perplexlingly, and equally ironically, the author argues that drawing negative conclusions about people’s behavior is not allowed:

Increasingly, climate agitators want action, not distraction. That often requires demonizing anyone who stands in the way. In July the climate editor of the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad complained that Paris’s declaration of a “climate state of emergency” on July 9 had not been accompanied by a ban on automobile traffic in Paris or by a dimming of the lights on the Eiffel Tower. In Germany the word “Flugscham” is one of the last year’s more interesting coinages. It means not fear of flying but shame of flying, and of the pollution it brings about. The German economist Niko Paech urges shaming people for booking cruises and driving S.U.V.s, too.

I’m supposing that the people making such arguments should be ashamed of themselves. Geez. It’s pretty much an inescapable feature of disagreements that the people with whom you disagree are doing something wrong. That’s just the way it’s done. When the disagreement concerns actions, then it follows that the claim will be that doing that action is wrong, and so should not be an action that is done. Pointing this out is just how you do arguments in a democracy. Maybe, just maybe, the extremity of the wrongness is exaggerated. If so, that’s something that’s pretty easy to point out.

To end on a rather more general note, this is another example of what Robert Talisse and Scott Aikin call the Owl of Minerva problem. The argument is so often not about what to do or what to believe but about what are legitimate arguments concerning what to do or what to believe.

Sadly, sometimes it’s pretty easy to have an argument about first order issues. Even Greta Thunberg, a mere child, can direct you to that.

Argumentative clutter

A while back, not that long ago actually, you couldn’t escape memes about Marie Kondo, the Japanese de-cluttering expert and reality TV personality. The most famous one was to ask, about any object that you have laying around your house: does it spark joy? If it doesn’t, then you get rid of it.

Over at Philosophy15, run by our own Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse, they run another version of the “Owl of Minerva Problem.” Here’s the video (it’s a two-parter, this is part I):

A common stoic-type (Scott can confirm this) argument against extra stuff (one that I unsuccessfully employ all of the time) is that stuff just creates the need for more stuff. There’s a version of the this in Boethius’s Consolation.

Interestingly, this works for arguments as well, though there is no Marie Kondo here to help you. The better you get at arguments, the more argument furniture, rugs, tchotchkes you gather in the form of argument vocabulary, fallacy names, etc. In a sense, gathering this stuff is what it means, in the minds of many at least, to be good at arguing. The problem is that it gets subsumed into arguments such that you then have to gather more of it–more second (third?) order vocabulary, and so forth, to manage the misemployment of fallacy vocabulary, for instance.

One quick example of that. The Harry Potter Problem, so I call it, is the employment fallacy names (expecto ad hominem!) in place of ordinary language critique of argument. The Harry Potter problem only arises because we have a second-order vocabulary.

Anyway, back to the main point: you can get rid of stuff, lead a more simple life. This is not an option with arguments, even though the cause of the problem is pretty much the same. We’re stuck with the clutter. The only solution is more clutter.


I don’t agree with this, but. . .

In the wake of the 2016 Presidential election there were countless takes about how it was a repudiation of elites and liberals who didn’t take working class white people‘s concerns seriously. In the ensuing years, enterprising journalists from every corner have done the Cletus Safari, as Ed Burmila calls it, where they venture into some diner in a dying Midwestern Rust Belt to hear the denizens’ concerns over immigration or political correctness. After years of this kind of reporting appearing in the New York Times and all, some newspaper editors seem to believe that if you live in the Midwest, you’re white (and maybe eat 10-egg breakfasts at a diner). One political editor at the New York Times said as much.

Now there seems to be an argumentative version of the Cletus Safari. Tom Scocca, writing today at Salon, identifies the form. While the journalistic version consists in filling the pages of the paper with reporting on the thoughts and impressions of all of those forgotten people no one hears from, the argumentative version summons these impressions into a point of view that occupies some important dialectical space. Scocca writes:

At the end of June, after the first round of Democratic presidential debates, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens got criticized for writing this passage:

What conclusions should ordinary people draw about what Democrats stand for, other than a thunderous repudiation of Donald Trump, and how they see America, other than as a land of unscrupulous profiteers and hapless victims?

Here’s what: a party that makes too many Americans feel like strangers in their own country. A party that puts more of its faith, and invests most of its efforts, in them instead of us.

They speak Spanish. We don’t. They are not U.S. citizens or legal residents. We are. They broke the rules to get into this country. We didn’t.

This was straightforwardly in the spirit of what the accused El Paso gunman would write, about “defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.” But Stephens, a self-styled Never Trumper who claims to be offended by the president’s vulgarity and bigotry, didn’t believe he had written any such thing. In a follow-up column, calling his critics “Jacobins” and their complaints “preposterous,” and comparing himself to the target of Big Brother’s Two Minutes Hate, he explained that people had willfully misunderstood his effort “to channel the negative way ‘ordinary people’ might have viewed last week’s Democratic debates.”

Like Nixon, Stephens was simply expressing racist ideas that he supposed belonged to someone else—some figure, or mass of figures, offstage, whose point of view deserved a respectful hearing. He was writing, that is, in the dominant mode by which white nationalist ideas are presented in America: as a second-order concern, or, better yet, a third-order one, a warning that liberals, by denouncing racism, run the risk of offending or provoking the people who hold those racist views (or views that may seem, to a snobbish and uncaring coastal elite, to be racist, when in fact they reflect the reasonable or at least understandable frustrations or fears of the people who hold them).

I often think that all argument is really meta-argument. Your moves are moves about moves in arguments as much as they are moves within an argument. The straw man (hollow man version actually) illustrates this point nicely. It’s like you’re saying: “By bringing up these racist ideas, I’m not asserting them, I’m merely making sure the argument we are having is conducted with respect to both sides.” Stephens should get extra points for invoking the very meta “free speech” defense, where a criticism of a view is conflated with the idea that the view shouldn’t be heard at all.

It’s all extra meta because Stephens casts himself as adjudicating the middle ground between people with racist ideas (not him!) and other (equally made up) people whose sole obsession is political correctness and silencing free speech. It’s a double straw man, with Stephens right in the reasonable middle.

Interestingly, this move–the straw man argument invoked to establish a bothsiderist meta position, was identified by Whately in his 1855 Elements of Logic. Aware that spectators of arguments often don’t pay careful attention to what they’re seeing or hearing, it is often enough, as he points out, to suggest there is some view without having to put it into any particular detail. The point of invoking the unattended or ignored view is not to examine it, but to force conciliation or some kind of draw in the minds of the onlooker (pp.241-242).

*I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted, thanks for listening.