The limits of argumentation

As I write this essay, it is still undecided whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will be President [Editor’s note: turns out it was Trump]. Regardless of who wins, though, it is obvious that argumentation and debate will suffer. I won’t be so bold as to say that national discourse has never been worse, or that these debates were the worst of all time, because that’s a tough statement to make. I will say, however, it is really, really bad right now.

In order to illustrate this, I’ve taken and edited a segment from the third presidential debate. I’ll put it up for you, walk you through it step by step, and then comment on exactly why it’s such a poor example of how to argue.


WALLACE: “First of all, where do you want to see the court take the country? And secondly, what’s your view on how the Constitution should be interpreted? Do the founders’ words mean what they say or is it a living document to be applied flexibly according to changing circumstances?”

CLINTON: “..I feel strongly that the Supreme Court needs to stand on the side of the American people, not on the side of the powerful corporations and the wealthy. For me, that means that we need a Supreme Court that will stand up on behalf of women’s rights, on behalf of the rights of the LGBT community, that will stand up and say no to Citizens United, a decision that has undermined the election system in our country because of the way it permits dark, unaccountable money to come into our electoral system.

I have major disagreements with my opponent about these issues and others that will be before the Supreme Court. But I feel that at this point in our country’s history, it is important that we not reverse marriage equality, that we not reverse Roe v. Wade, that we stand up against Citizens United, we stand up for the rights of people in the workplace, that we stand up and basically say: The Supreme Court should represent all of us.”

WALLACE: “Mr. Trump, same question. Where do you want to see the court take the country? And how do you believe the Constitution should be interpreted?”

TRUMP: “We need a Supreme Court that in my opinion is going to uphold the Second Amendment, and all amendments, but the Second Amendment, which is under absolute siege. I believe if my opponent should win this race, which I truly don’t think will happen, we will have a Second Amendment which will be a very, very small replica of what it is right now. But I feel that it’s absolutely important that we uphold, because of the fact that it is under such trauma.

I don’t think we should have justices appointed that decide what they want to hear. It’s all about the Constitution of — of — and so important, the Constitution the way it was meant to be. And those are the people that I will appoint.”

Let’s take this step-by-step. Wallace, the moderator, asks a question pertinent to this election. Given that the next president will have a lot of say over the Supreme Court, and given that Supreme Court Justices are appointed for life, it’s important to know by what criteria the candidates would choose a Justice.

Wallace limits them to two options, which isn’t necessarily the best idea. First, he asks them “what direction they want the court to take the country”. In doing so, he assumes that they are choosing Justices based on what they think the Justices will do, rather than who the Justices are. In other words, he assumes this is a results-based judgment, rather than a value-based judgment. This bothers me especially because judges are supposed to be impartial, and so, presumably, a good judge’s opinions should only be dictated by the facts. If a judge’s opinions can be predicted by the candidate, then I’m not sure they are a good judge.

Second, he asks if the candidates believe in a “living” or “originalist” interpretation. The simplest way of putting this is if the judge should interpret the Constitution based on the founders’ intentions, or if there are other factors which should go into it. This is a more complicated question than it sounds, because it’s not simple to determine the founders’ intentions (the infamously confusingly-worded Second Amendment is a perfect example), and it’s not clear what constitutes changing times. For example, neither Democrats nor Republicans existed in 1789, but the idea of political parties would not be foreign to the founders. Have times changed or not?

Also, again, there is no room in Wallace’s question to defer to the Justices. The Supreme Court Justices are supposed to be the utmost authority on the Constitution, which means that they should be the ones deciding on the interpretation of the Constitution. Wallace is representing “living” vs “originalist” as an opinion question, which it shouldn’t be.

But that’s enough with Wallace’s question. Overall, it’s not terrible, and a candidate could presumably raise the points I talked about, especially the idea of judging Justices based on their virtues, rather than their expected rulings, and then deferring to their experience.

The candidates do not. In fact, they do nothing of the sort. Both use this question, as they use all questions, as a chance to raise talking points.

Clinton uses the first part of the question as a chance to list the opinions she has. These are not controversial opinions: people over corporations, women’s rights (unspecific, of course), LGBT rights (unspecific), and no to Citizens United (which, at last, is a controversial opinion, although not in her base).

The second part of the question she, again, uses as a chance to list the opinions she has: marriage equality, abortion, workplace equality. These are more controversial opinions. Then she concludes by saying, “The Supreme Court should represent all of us,” which is not remotely what the Supreme Court is for. In fact, the judicial branch is not representative, unlike the executive or legislative branch. This was a very deliberate choice on the part of the Founding Fathers.

This isn’t new to anyone, though. Everyone knows that nobody answers the question in the debate, and that the moderators’ questions are mostly for the moderators to try their best to impress America with how intelligent they are. What is more interesting is what precisely the candidates are attempting to do, if they are not trying to answer the questions. They are dog-whistling.

An actual dog-whistle is a whistle that emits at a frequency only dogs can hear. If you blow one, a human won’t hear anything, but a dog will hear a painful, high-pitched sound. The dog instantly pays attention. These answers are designed to do the same thing. Clinton says certain words which are designed to make her followers pay attention, and make them believe that she believes in their paradigm.

A paradigm is the way in which you see the world, or at least a certain segment of the world. For instance, in high school physics, you learn a Newtonian paradigm, in which every combination of objects and movement is put into a “forces diagram”. Aristotle, as you might know from a previous essay of mine, may be considered the inventor of the scientific paradigm. At this point in our democracy, with the proliferation of news sites and self-contained bubbles, political affiliations also have their own paradigms. When a liberal or conservative hears certain news, they can fit this news into what they already “know” about the world. These paradigms are mental shortcuts, in other words.

Women’s rights, marriage equality, Citizen’s United, Roe vs. Wade. Clinton uses these terms and quickly makes her opinion known on them. She’s not trying to convince anyone. She is merely reminding her supporters of whatever groundwork has already been laid in their minds in building these paradigms. In the case of Citizen’s United, she is attempting to bring followers of another paradigm, the corruption of money in politics paradigm (represented best by her erstwhile opponent, Bernie Sanders), into her fold.

There’s no reason why all of these issues have to be tied together. In fact, it’s easy to imagine someone who supports only one of these, or two of these, or three of these. But they are tied together in the current Democratic party, and so Clinton makes an appeal to her followers to also tie them together in their mind. If they do, they will have a united opinion on social issues, and be a potent force in politics.

Let’s turn to Trump. Trump is sloppier than Clinton in these sorts of debates, and so his dog-whistling isn’t nearly so sophisticated. He really only gets two across: the Second Amendment, and an originalist interpretation of the Constitution.

Again, Trump has no need to explain in detail what he thinks about the Second Amendment, or convince anyone of his point of view. The current conservative view of the Second Amendment is that it supports unlimited gun ownership by any citizen, and that fits in really nicely with the generally distrustful viewpoint of the Republican Party. Gun ownership is the ultimate in independence, in freedom from unnecessary intervention, and in distrust of the unknown. The idea that the Second Amendment is “under siege” fits into the distrustful narrative as well, because it promotes a mentality of people trying to take what’s rightfully yours.

The originalist interpretation of the Constitution works as a dog-whistle only because of a historical accident. Trump’s campaign is built on nostalgia: “Make America Great Again”. It’s a very certain sort of nostalgia, for an era in America unquestionably dominated the world and white men unquestionably dominated America. This era never really existed in the way Trump imagines, but that doesn’t matter. Clinton’s campaign is not based on moving forward into the future, but Trump’s campaign is based on the past, which is normally what conservatism is based on (it’s in the name, after all). Originalism serves as nostalgia.

So Trump, with his combined Second Amendment and originalist dog-whistles, appeals to his followers to remind them of the conservative paradigm, and convince them that he is in line with it. Again, the two do not have to be together. In fact, they probably shouldn’t be, given that the conservative interpretation of the Second Amendment is not in line with the founders’ intentions. But they are.

I’m disappointed with these debates because I believe they are emblematic of the state of discourse in our country as a whole. It is very, very difficult to argue if two people share different paradigms. It’d be like arguing art with a colorblind person. You two are experiencing things in fundamentally ways, and you are understanding things in fundamentally different ways. Your only hope would be to try to understand things from each other’s perspectives, which is hard enough if you make a legitimate effort. If you don’t, like Clinton and Trump, then it will not happen.

This situation is made worse by the fact that our paradigms don’t just color how we understand the world around us. They also color what facts we accept about the world around us. Before the Internet, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times had different paradigms, represented in their opinion sections and in the way their reporters would interpret news. But they accepted the same facts and news almost all of the time. Now, websites like BeitBrart (I refuse to help their name-recognition) deliberately promote different and untrue facts, which are accepted by conservatives because they fit in comfortably with their paradigm. The intersection between paradigms has to be facts. If it’s not, it’s like arguing art with a colorblind person, except you’re arguing about two different pieces. You won’t even know why you’re disagreeing.

Clinton and Trump here are attempting to represent and embody two different paradigms. The most generous interpretation is that they therefore represent and embody two different ways of looking at the world, and two different systems of opinion. The more realistic interpretation is that they also represent and embody two different sets of facts, as shown by how many times they call each other liars during the debate.

Given that that’s the case, the only way left for them to argue, and for the audience to judge their arguments, is arguing about each other personally. There, at least, there is common ground. We can agree about who seems better prepared for the debate, and we can also agree on who seems a better person, if we can manage to agree on facts about the candidates. The country is actually more unified on individual ethical standards than ever before, strangely enough. Epithets like racist or sexist would have been embraced proudly by previous Presidential candidates, like George Wallace or Andrew Jackson. Now they are denied vehemently.

Does this agreement show hope for the country as a whole? Maybe. In order for debates and the national discourse to progress, we need to agree on a common set of facts based on evidence and we need to acknowledge our separate paradigms. If conservatives or liberals insist on only one way to interpret the world, they will be continually baffled by their neighbor’s refusal to do so. Furthermore, we need to critically examine our own beliefs, and make sure we know what they are based on. We don’t need to be Descartes, and dive deep down into the foundations of our knowledge, but if supporting the Second Amendment is important to us, for instance, we need to make sure we know why we think that. Then, we can apply our standards of knowledge taught to us by philosophers, and examine our assumptions, deductions, and inferences.

I’m not sure what will happen until then. I fear another blow-up, like the riots of 1968, or even an attempted revolution. Trump’s paradigm is especially frightening to me, as his facts and understanding could easily lead to atrocities. For instance, if you take him literally when he says that most Mexicans are murderers and rapists, you would want to deport Mexicans, forcibly if necessary. You would want another Trail of Tears.

By the way, if you’re reading this, and agreeing with me, one thing you might consider is Socratic questioning, like this example here. Ask your friends why they believe what they believe, or even strangers. Ask them about their definitions, and the basis for their facts and opinions. You don’t have to disagree. Just make them think. People today are friendlier than they were in Socrates’s time, and, unless your friends are particularly vicious, they will probably not put you on trial.

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