Saturday, October 04, 2008

Antics With Semantics

Recently, I was the sole contrarian in a debate on an e-mail discussion list. I wanted to know with certainty how I was being accused. So I looked it up.

n. pl. soph·is·tries
1. Plausible but fallacious argumentation.
2. A plausible but misleading or fallacious argument.

Well, it was an argument that seemed valid, if only on the surface. But my worthy adversary was determined to take it one step farther.

1. Containing or based on a fallacy: a fallacious assumption.
2. Tending to mislead; deceptive: fallacious testimony.

So, basically, I was persisting in an argument based upon a false assumption. What was that assumption? I pointed out that a term being attributed to someone had more than one definition, and that the more benign of them could just as easily apply as one less so. I also took the trouble to explain why I thought so. My detractors said it didn't matter; they determined which one applied, so I must be wrong. Never mind why I was wrong by some objective criteria. I was wrong because enough of them said I was wrong. This includes the moderator, who has the prerogative to use his position in such a forum, as to effectively apply a gift of infallibility. Obviously he never heard what Chesterton once said, that having a right to do something doesn't always make you right for doing it.

So now I'm a troll. A guy who gets on lists and chat rooms and just starts trouble. Obviously I don't have anything better to do.

I used to be a moderator for such lists, back in the 1990s. They used to serve a purpose. With the advent of weblogs in this decade (Deo gratias!), many of my colleagues have given up on e-mail lists. Especially hazardous to good conversation, is the behavior of groups allegedly devoted to "traditional Catholicism" and the discussion of issues so related to its revival and restoration. Ostensibly a coming together of otherwise disparate factions for a common and noble purpose, they generally devolve into a get-out-of-jail-free card for adherents of separatist groups such as the SSPX or others, to ridicule the Holy Father for one decision or another. (I do not wish to imply that all or most such adherents may be characterized this way, only the ones being described here.) Were the Successor to Peter to deserve such scrutiny, all well and good. But such discourse should allow for a contrarian view, a "devil's advocate," if you may. Such a role tests the mettle of a proposition, to ensure that a search for the truth is an honest one. The Dominican concept of "disputatio" is not based on subduing an opponent, but upon a mutual search for that objective truth. The will of the majority in such a forum can devolve into the tyranny of an angry mob. It may resemble democracy, if in a crude and disordered way. But if the majority can still conceivably be in error, is the truth the object of your attainment, or is it something else?

Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to doubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter? Give her but room, and do not bind her when she sleeps, for then she speaks not true, as the old Proteus did, who spake oracles only when he was caught and bound, but then rather she turns herself into all shapes, except her own, and perhaps tunes her voice according to the time, as Micaiah did before Ahab, until she be adjured into her own likeness.

Milton had the right idea when composing his Areopagitica in 1644. Alas, not all of us can handle a genuine search for the truth, because not all of us can admit to being wrong and still hold our heads up high. That being the case, how will we respond to the truth once we find it?

No comments: