Argument has fallen on hard times. That might seem an odd thing to say in an election year roiled by agitation over social questions and the continuing presence of candidates whom political strategists had thought would go away by now. Wouldn’t argument have to be in the air when musicians cancel North Carolina shows in the name of solidarity with transgendered people? Don’t the candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump imply that “Wall Street banks” and “losers” have been defeated in the marketplace of ideas, and are finally getting their comeuppance?
In a word, no. Far from being anti-establishment, Bernie Sanders wants more of it — enough, for example, to grant “free” college educations to everybody. Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s “art of the deal” shtick depends on and profits from the establishment. On the other tine of the tuning fork, Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, and the Blue Man Group canceled scheduled appearances in North Carolina because they felt that its state legislature should have ignored an ordinance passed by the Charlotte city council on a 7 to 4 vote. The part of that ordinance that invited scrutiny allowed transgendered people to use either a men’s or women’s restroom, depending on the gender with which they identify.
That a Republican majority in the state legislature and a governor not known for articulating bedrock principle of any kind decided that sexual predators would inevitably take advantage of Charlotte’s attempt to accommodate LGBT lobbyists seemed unfair to people already suspicious of Republicans, and so bands and business executives fell all over themselves writing press releases about their unwillingness to subsidize discrimination. The resulting circus of virtue signaling appealed to hearts rather than intellects. Had actual arguments been made, handwritten “We’re Not That” signs would not now be taped to restroom doors in progressive businesses around Raleigh and Durham. Every time I see a sign like that, I wonder, “We’re not what? Not bigoted? Not afraid of bad behavior in restrooms by perverts?” The national media downplays the concerns of rape survivors who don’t match the prevailing narrative, and tends not to mention that one of the most prominent supporters of the original action by the Charlotte city council is a convicted sex offender. Discrimination has consequences, they say, and they are right. But reflexive disdain for prudent judgment has consequences, too.
Worse than the lack of argument is that we no longer expect argument, even from people who argue for a living. For example, a local attorney won praise in many quarters for an April 17 op-ed bemoaning Republican leaders in Raleigh whom he said “have no interest in working with anybody.” Because he is a writer as well as a lawyer, this attorney found inventive ways to skewer the motivations of people who disagree with him. Scorn dominated his essay, but logic and reason were stuck in a timeshare presentation elsewhere, hoping to claim vouchers for a cruise before the op-ed hit its 900-word limit. Logic and reason were disappointed. Republican lawmakers were labeled “zombie kings” who had imposed their iron will on a lovely region brimming with dogwood blossoms, and the essay’s big finish went Full Schoolmarm: “Now, after a halting start, when these Republicans give that interview about changing birth certificates before using the potty and making signs on doors to sort by genitalia, they sound every bit as demented as old racists attempting to explain the One-Drop Rule.”
That sounds to me like the long-discredited rhetorical gambit of falling back on Nazi comparisons to shock people whom you cannot otherwise persuade. If only Lieutenant Columbo were around to ask with feigned absentmindedness whether any North Carolina law actually requires people to change their birth certificates before using the bathroom. Columbo could also ask whether “sorting by genitalia” has ancient and, when you get right down to it, chromosomal-level precedents.
It’s not just locals who’ve forgotten how to argue. Donald Trump’s penchant for insulting his rivals with nicknames like “Little Marco” and “Lyin’ Ted” does discourse no favors. Hillary Clinton pines so earnestly for soundbites that even her surrogates feed that addiction. Speaking at a campaign rally on April 21, Planned Parenthood CEO Cecile Richards declared that “A woman voting for Ted Cruz is like a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders.” That’s not argument; it’s puerile assertion, and if you buy it, you’d have to conclude that Carly Fiorina, for example, is an idiot. Nobody actually thinks that. It’s far more reasonable to suppose that Cecile Richards has seldom been challenged, and might not make it past the first round of a high school debate tournament. As a few commentators on the left and right have both noticed, liberals embrace the smug life.
People who remember how to make an argument tend to be the ones whose speeches provoke “trigger warnings” among sheltered college students, presumably because moving coherently from a premise to a conclusion can intimidate anyone trapped in a “safe space.” Last fall, when Dr. Ben Carson, then a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, tried to explain the difference between macro-evolution and micro-evolution in response to a question from Joy Behar on “The View,” Behar immediately shut him down by saying, “Oh, this is too in the weeds for us right now. We don’t have the time for this conversation.” One wonders whether Behar and her co-hosts have ever had the time for that conversation.
The problem, in a nutshell, is that paradox and irony are thriving, but argument is mostly dead. There’s a big difference between “mostly dead” and “all dead,” but a citizenry that has forgotten how to argue is a citizenry ripe for tyranny.