(This post is a lightly-edited version of a Twitter rant from last month.)
When I was a young man, I believed that I won every argument in which the other participant didn’t convince me. If you wanted to best me in debate, you needed to win by my rules. Those rules were “rational,” so if you didn’t accept them, if they made you angry, if they made you withdraw, then I won. I won by default.
I was willing to be convinced, of course. I was EAGER to be convinced. But I had to find you convincing.
I was sure that I was fair. I was sure that I was reasonable. I was sure I was decent and objective and even-handed. But actually I was a colossal dick. And I weaponized being a dick by crafting a self-image that utterly denied the possibility that I was one.
A conviction that you’re unassailably rational is toxic. It’s aggressive. It’s vicious. And it’s profoundly emotional while remaining in total denial about its emotionalism.
Dudes who see themselves as rational wind up rhetorically bludgeoning other people into submission, and their bludgeoning is the opposite of reasoned discourse.
It’s astonishing to me that folks like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris can remain so blithely unaware of these dynamics. Dawkins says the most fatuous crap, then hides behind the claim that he’s just being logical. If his critics weren’t so blinded by emotionalism, he says, they would understand that. Too bad for them that they don’t. Often what he says in the course of these episodes isn’t actually rational — his bizarre categorical statements about gradations of rape, for instance — but even when it is, that doesn’t mean it’s a constructive contribution to any meaningful discussion.
I think reason is great. It got us antibiotics and suspension bridges and laser printers. But it’s a tool, not a goal. Adherence to principles of formal logic isn’t proof of rectitude. It’s proof of mastery of those forms, at most — and often not even that.
Human interaction is never exclusively rational. It’s fluid. It’s intuitive. It’s responsive.
And when you deny that, you’re no longer having a conversation. You’re just being a dick.