February 17, 2006
Political IncorrectnessOn one of the discussion groups I sometimes frequent, there's this chap - whose name I shan't mention - who, whenever a debate gets particularly polarised or energetic, wades in and effectively says "well, you're both right in a way".
There are two types of people who employ this tactic of lending equal weight to any argument: politicians and sales people. It's not that they actually believe both arguments are equally valid. They just want to be everybody's friend and they therefore don't wish to upset anybody by choosing sides.
There might be a strong evolutionary reason for this, of course. Quite often, pinning your colours to the mast on any argument often ended with violence and recrimination against the people whose colours are pinnned to the other mast. This is another bad thing - at the opposite end of spectrum of the "let's all be right" brigade. The "it doesn't matter what I actually believe, just as long as I get to punch you in the face and steal your candy" brigade abuse the process of rational debate for their own purposes, too.
Sales people see nothing wrong in agreeing with Peter that it's black, and at exactly the same time agreeing with Paul that it's white. Just as long as both Peter and Paul buy something. Politicians just want Peter's vote and Paul's vote - unless Phil and Peter gang up on Paul, in which case the politician will side with the majority. In this instance, giving Paul a good kicking will probably end up in the election manifesto.
The fact is that many arguments are zero-sum games: that is, if one side is right, the other has to be wrong. If I say there's no God, and Jenny says there is, we can't both be right.
The politician and the sales person view this as conflict, and seek to avoid or diffuse it at any cost. We now live in a world where the truth is a social commodity to be bartered and negotiated for the benefit of sales people and politicians.
One tool for perpetuating this kind of "everybody gets to be equally right" world is ambiguity. If I keep my opinions sufficiently woolly, it's much harder to find the holes in them. If Peter and Paul have sufficiently handwavy arguments, it is easier for those arguments to appear to coexist with no apparant logical fallacy. As Wolfgang Pauli once exclaimed of one New Age theory: "It's so bad, it's not even wrong".
Many scientists bemoan the fact that, while we become more and more reliant on science and technology in our daily lives, we are rapidly regressing into a new age of unreason. I wonder if the "let's all be right (and, yes, we do accept MasterCard)" brigade are as equally guilty of encouraging dangerous irrational thought as those who exploit belief as an excuse for glorified gang warfare. Indeed, we see people who do both simultaneously.
My own take on it is this:
While everybody may be equally entitled to their opinions, not all opinions can be equally valid
Posted 15 years, 6 months ago on February 17, 2006