“Give Them An Argument, at times, reads like an instruction pamphlet on how to use logic to defeat our political opponents, a social democratic version of Sun Tzu’s Art Of War, and, in that sense, Burgis might have more in common with his overzealous conservative opponents that he might realize.”
An annoying yet recurrent theme of today’s culture war is that flimsy half-baked arguments can seem exceptionally logical, or even obvious, if aimed at the right people with the correct amount of indignation and sneer. Due to the perverse incentives of the political landscape, more is to be gained in making our opponents look like blithering idiots than in formulating coherent arguments that stand on their own legs. Not only is this paradigm incredibly frustrating on an interpersonal level, it is unsustainable for warring factions of partisan enmity to argue from completely different premises in a society that most of us agree is in serious need of change.
Entering this fray strides philosophy professor and fellow Quillette contributor Ben Burgis with his latest book Give Them An Argument: Logic For The Left. At 111 pages, Burgis presents an exhibition on the fundamentals of logic from an explicitly democratic socialist perspective without stretching the reader’s attention span. In direct response to the excesses of the online Right and the Ben Shapiro’s of the world, the book challenges the hard boiled claim that the Left has chosen to embrace feelings over facts and has become nothing more than a hotbed of emotional reactivity. Without shying away from partisan alliances, Burgis makes a strong case that no political ideology has a monopoly on logic, while also forcing us to reconsider some of the higher resolution arguments of the hard Left that have yet to be buried under social justice-themed identity politics.
Burgis’ book arose from frustration with his fellow progressives’ reluctance to engage with conservative appeals to logic and reason, which have become quite prevalent online. Although Burgis believes this reaction is understandable, given that many of the Internet’s logic bros are prone to engage in bad faith faith arguments and prefer to level their snowflake interlocutors than to charitably interpret their arguments, Burgis understands the best and only way to change minds is to engage opponents on their own terms.
Give Them An Argument rings of an impassioned plea for leftists to argue more effectively and persuasively in the battle of ideas; it also serves as a strategic manual to better formulate arguments in our contentious media ecosystem. But one needn’t be convinced by the polemics to appreciate the essence of the book. Whether or not we agree with Burgis on the efficacy of worker co-ops or the viability of nationalized medicine, there is much to be gained from political buffs of any stripe by engaging with its content, either through sharpening our rhetorical tool set, developing ways of articulating ideas more convincingly, or just getting a better handle on how good arguments ought to be structured.
Logic, as Burgis tells it, is, “the study of the ways in which premises of arguments can support their conclusions—or, in the case of arguments that commit fallacies, the ways in which they can subtly fail to support those conclusions.” Among the fallacies discussed is Reductio Ad Absurdum, where conclusions we draw in one context would logically imply accepting conclusions we would reject in another context. One example might be if we were to say that skin color doesn’t matter, but racial diversity is really important. Or if we were to say that identity politics is wrong, but white people are under attack in this country. Neither set of claims abides by a consistent moral framework. To commit a Reductio Ad Absurdum is to have our cake and eat it too, at the expense of logical coherence.
Another is the Composition Fallacy, when we assume that if some part of a larger whole has a particular property then the whole must have that same property, or on the flip side the Division Fallacy which imagines the whole to be reflective of the smaller part. For example, if we assume that the existence of upwardly mobile individuals within a society is a prima facie justification for structural inequality we would be committing the composition fallacy, or conversely, if we argued that the existence of structural inequality means that individual initiative is without merit, then we would be committing the division fallacy. The book is full of these handy logical fallacies and their practical application to modern politics.
Towards the end, Burgis puts forward a set of principles that operates as the moral fulcrum of the book. I appreciated this segment more than the bulk of logical fallacies, personal anecdotes, and Jacobin style polemics because it sheds light on where he’s really coming from and what the book is truly about. To name just a few of these precepts. Don’t equate being good at critical reasoning with being smart: being quick on our feet does not necessarily make us right; Mind the gap between “is” and “ought”: describing reality is not the same as prescribing it; Counterexamples are your friend: Enough said. But it was the final principle that really cemented my appreciation of his book: Slow the hell down. “Learning the names of some fallacies is easy,” Burgis writes. “Learning to reason well is hard. You really need to give yourself time to sit with arguments to think about how they work and whether the pieces fit together in a persuasive way. That’s the only way to do this well.”
Finally, the precept that really hit home for me was to remember that inconsistencies can be resolved in multiple directions, followed by one the most cogent series of sentences in the entire book: “That just means you got something wrong—that you hold a set of beliefs that can’t all be true. That tells you nothing in itself about what you got wrong. Just because the person making the argument that convinced you that you’re being inconsistent has his or her own ideas about how to resolve that inconsistency, that doesn’t mean that this is the all-things-considered most plausible way to resolve your views.” In other words, having an inconsistency in your belief system exposed is not the end of the world. It is really just an opportunity to understand our own position more deeply, to tighten up the relationship between premise and conclusion. I think the fear of inconsistency and hypocrisy has much to do with why online political engagement is so toxic, leading us to project our insecurities onto other people with the accompanying pigeon holes and straw men. If we could let go of that fear by recognizing that inconsistency opens up space to make better arguments, our conflicts might be more interesting and productive.
Despite my fawning praise thus far, I do have a bone to pick with the good professor. A premise that pervades the book—and seemingly Burgis’ thought in general—is that, “it is dangerously naïve to believe that political disagreements always or usually boil down to people with the same goals talking past each other or failing to be calm and civil enough to reason together about how to get there. We have different goals because we have different values and, at the base of political conflict, different interests.” (Emphasis in original). There is some contention on this point.
There is no shortage of tech giants who support social justice causes because of the moral capital it allocates, nor of working class people who prefer a capitalist society because of reasons pertaining to personal belief, work ethic, or tradition.
I think what Burgis is getting at here resembles Marx’s concept of “ideology” or false consciousness, which refers to how the values and interests of people in society who hold disproportionate economic power are necessarily in conflict with those who do not. But this ultimately short shrifts the disagreements that exist among people who hold disproportionate access to resources and power, as well as the disagreements that exist among those who do not. If the fundamental conflict of interests in society were between those with economic investment in the status quo of capitalism and the noble radicals who fight for the working and lower class, we would expect to see political agreement and disagreement move in accordance with class stratum. But we tend not to see that. There is no shortage of tech giants who support social justice causes because of the moral capital it allocates, nor of working class people who prefer a capitalist society because of reasons pertaining to personal belief, work ethic, or tradition. People do things for different reasons (we’re complicated), not all of which can be accounted for by zero-sum socioeconomic power struggles. Interestingly, this is an observation more or less made by intersectional feminists: we all have intersecting identities that inform our experiences in different ways and thus can’t be boiled down to just one particular value or interest. In other words, human beings are a collection of contradicting identities and competing values, and our strained complexity makes it almost impossible to have our interests line up perfectly with one particular identity bloc.
Now, a Marxist might be inclined to argue that segments of society are going against their own interests by voting this or that way, but who could be trusted to determine what those interests are besides those people themselves? I’m not entirely comfortable presuming that college-educated elites who deride capitalism in the Ivory Tower know better than the working class people they claim to speak for, nor am I inclined to doubt the sincerity of Democratic politicians or their corporate sponsors who take up the progressive mantle. The larger point here is that more than just wealth and political power are at-play in determining our respective worldviews. Social, moral, and cultural capital are crucial as well, which is why many conservatives are keen to point out that social justice ideology often emanates from the elite stratospheres of culture. Moreover, there is also a wealth of data that would suggest that human beings diverge in their psychological disposition in ways that can determine their political outlooks, which ought to have us question whether it would even be desirable to have one side win out over the other if we are, in fact, just wired differently.
Moreover, her studies found that the warmth we feel towards our political group is not necessarily tied to shared views on policy, which would belie the idea that political orientation lies at the root of our divide.
It is certainly the case that there are some real conflicts of interest that are irresolvable, such as the debate between climate change activists and climate deniers on anthropogenic global warming—or between someone with a membership to a teachers union and someone who advocates for charters. But there is good reason and research to doubt the claim that most of the political divide arises from essential differences on policy positions. In her impressive work “Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity,” Lilliana Mason carefully unpacks the nature of our political divide and uncovers some counterintuitive findings. According to her research, political identities are weak predictors of policy preferences, suggesting that polarization has less to do with genuine differences in values or interests and more to do with the snowball effect of political tribalism and in-group bias. Moreover, her studies found that the warmth we feel towards our political group is not necessarily tied to shared views on policy, which would belie the idea that political orientation lies at the root of our divide.
Even if it were true that we have conflicting interests, it’s not obvious that we are always in a position to know what those interests are or how they will best be served. Surely, most all of us want health, wealth, and happiness for ourselves and loved ones. The deeper conflict, it seems to me, is between opposing visions of how the world works to serve those common interests, as Thomas Sowell suggests in his renowned book A Conflict Of Visions. We have common interests, he contends, but we have different understandings of how those interests ought to be met that correspond to our respective visions of how reality operates and what human beings are like. For example, both the Left and the Right, broadly speaking, value the principle of freedom, but the term has very different meanings depending on our political persuasion—whether it be freedom from external coercion or positive freedom to manifest our potential in the world. (Interestingly, Burgis co-wrote a Quillette piece on this exact subject).
Of course, I would agree with Burgis that it’s naïve to assume our personal values are universal—or that if only we could collectively awaken to our common humanity, we would all join hands and sing “Kumbaya.” I also agree that we all have biases that are not always reconcilable. But I fear the belief that any effort to uncover shared values—or to find common ground on important issues that affect us all—is merely a thinly veiled facade covering less savory intentions actually reinforces that paradigm in the real world. This is to say that if we believe it’s true and act on that belief, it becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Further, there have been numerous studies that show how having greater levels of education tends to reinforce our political bias rather than check it, implying that if we believe politics is dog-eat-dog warfare, then such an attitude will likely be confirmed through our interactions. It makes more sense, in my view, to assume that we have similar interests and values but different understandings of how they are to be achieved—because such a belief would encourage the utility of dialogue. I don’t see how it’s possible to productively engage with someone who has different interests than me, but it is possible to engage productively with someone who has a different vision of society than me. The distinction isn’t arbitrary; it’s the difference between a mortal enemy staring us down from across the battlefield and a fellow traveler in a complex world who happens to have contrasting beliefs.
Give Them An Argument, at times, reads like an instruction pamphlet on how to use logic to defeat our political opponents, a social democratic version of Sun Tzu’s Art Of War, and, in that sense, Burgis might have more in common with his overzealous conservative opponents that he might realize. But learning how to manipulate logic to serve partisan purposes can sometimes be at odds with common sense, and I would say it’s necessary that the former take precedent over the latter, if there is any hope of engendering a more cohesive discourse. That said, I wish more of my leftist friends would read this book and marshal their arguments, for doing so would help filter out much of the excesses of the modern Left.
Sam Kronen is an autodidact interested in the intersection of politics and culture. He can be reached on Twitter @SalmonKromeDome.