Tag Archives: Scott F. Aikin

Spitballing

Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse have a nice piece up at 3Quarks Daily about the constraints of certain argument contexts. They write:

In the real world of political talk, getting the last word is often what counts most. This is especially the case where political talk is conducted in the limited space between commercial breaks.

The limitations of time and space are also a problem for real life, but that’s another story. The time constraints (John Stewart, by the way, had a great segment on this on the Daily Show–“CNN leaves it here” or something, but it’s long gone.) In that segment, people would start conversing, then CNN would run out of time, despite having a 24-hour span of time in which to develop arguments. You’d think, but you’d be wrong, that they could develop this stuff in depth.

Anyway, back to Aikin and Talisse. They call this “spitballing” and it works like this:

The derailing strategy we have in mind may be called spitballing. At its core, spitballing works as follows: One makes multiple contributions to a discussion, often as fast as one can think them up (and certainly faster than one can think them through). Some contributions may be insightful, others less so, but all are overtly provocative. What is most important, though, is that each installment express a single, self-contained thought. Accordingly, slogans are the spitballer’s dialectical currency. As the metaphor of the spitball goes, one keeps tossing until something sticks; hence it helps if one’s slogans are tinged with something disagreeable or slightly beyond the pale. As the spitballer’s interlocutors attempt to reply to what he has said, the spitballer resolutely continues spitballing.

Here is how this plays out over time:

Consequently, the spitballer controls the discussion by derailing any attempt to scrutinize what he has said; thus, in a very real sense, he always speaks unopposed. Meanwhile, public conversation is dominated by counterfeit ideas; popular political discourse is crowded out by a mode of exchange that merely mimics dialogue; and the pressing political issues that face the nation remain undiscussed.

The spitballer trolls in real life. You can’t evaluate what the spitballer says because there is no way to fix on it. Here is another thing. The spitballer relies on the requirement of charity for us to pick out the best of the many views. But even then, he can always claim we’ve straw manned him. And he can always call upon his minions to iron man what he’s spitballed.

Smack Down!

The Huffington Post, despite much promise, is a huge disappointment.  One reason is that the editors characterize any kind of discussion as a "battle" and any kind of response to  criticism as a "smack down" or "slap" or somesuchother expression. 

Now some have argued, wrongly I think (irony alert), that Philosophy is to blame for this adversarial culture of argument.  This is what critical thinking and logic courses teach, they allege, so it's no wonder we have this language of argument filled with metaphors of war and sports.  Scott Aikin has a discussion of that topic here

But I don't think that's really the case for Philosophy.  Speaking somewhat anecdotally, philosophers deploy critical analysis (including "the fallacy technique") to uncover the silliness of HuffPo style "debates."  Here's a good example from this morning's HuffPo.  It's an article which the front page calls "Barney Frank Smacks Down George Will."  The actual article, however, is actually appropriately titled "Barney Frank, George Will debate Pot Legalization".  This includes a video here.

I think this is actually a fun exchange.  Frank argues that self-regarding behavior of adults is their own business, Will plays the conservative end of the conservative side (not the libertarian end), arguing that the jury is still out on these things, and that "liberalism" is averse to facts.  Even if Frank had successfully dismantled the dishonest structure of Will's pseudo libertarianism, I wouldn't call this exchange a "smack down."  Come to think of it, I'm not even sure what a "smack down" is.