Sunday, June 27, 2004

Easy Street

One of the popular shortcuts in lieu of serious analysis is the common resort to figurative fallacies. I mean "figurative" in the geometric sense of spatial analogies. Positions are ranged along continuum from left to right.

Now, there is, in principle, nothing wrong with this. Shortcuts are useful. That’s why we take them.

The problem, though, is when the figure becomes a substitute for argument, rather than a connotation generated and justified by prior argument. How often have you heard a position dismissed as "extreme," "on the fringe," "out of the mainstream," "out of line," "out of bounds," "beyond the pale," "far-fetched," "off-base," "off-limits," and so on.

Notice that all these figures of speech, and others like them, share a common trait. They locate a position along an imaginary spectrum. Indeed, the very word "position" partakes of the same master image.

Again, there is nothing wrong with labeling a position by reference to its placement on a line or plane as long as there is also a supporting argument to lend warrant to the invidious overtones.

But what happens, more than not, is that the mere metaphor does all the heavy-lifting. It is as though the speaker or writer were really under the impression that truth and falsehood occupy spatial coordinates, and that truth always lies somewhere in the middle or the center of space.

There are three reasons for this popular fallacy:

i) Because some "extreme" positions have been shown to be false or deleterious, the mere notion or characterization of a logical "extreme" picks up an odious association, and that, in turn, carries over to all instances of an extreme position. But to judge all positions on that basis alone is to overextend the comparison. And, indeed, to overgeneralize is, of itself, a case of going to extremes.

ii) Many men like to take intellectual shortcuts. Having to think for themselves is more work that it’s worth. What is more, if they gave the opposing position serious thought, they might have to change their mind, and they have no inclination to change their mind, for that might force a change in lifestyle, which would be most inconvenient.

iii) Most folks are pragmatists rather than ideologues. They muddle through life. They are suspicious of "extremes." They take immoderate pride in their moderation. They always seek to split the difference. Every issue has two sides and a middle ground. They reside on the crossroads of Broadway and Easy Street, and only come outside at twilight hours. They are shadowlanders. They cherish the liberty of living in the shadows, where everything is seen in shades of gray. Yet they cry "foul!" when a mugger parlays their love of low visibility into a living of his own.

Now, this temperament is not altogether bad. A certain amount is essential for social stability. We need cultural caretakers. But we also need a culture to take care of, something worth to preserve and pass on.

Suppose the status quo is dysfunctional? The problem with pragmatism is that it only works when it works. But sometimes pragmatism is very impractical. Business as usual is a fine formula in times of prosperity, but what happens when a great depression puts business as usual out of business?

Moderates are crisis-driven. If they see a storm looming on the horizon, they fiddle and diddle, dither and doddle, procrastinate and prevaricate until disaster strikes. They are incapable of dealing with a crisis since they are constitutionally incapable of taking radical measures. In the face of a tornado, they take cover under an umbrella rather than a root-cellar.

After the damage is done, the survivors will, in their desperation, put out a distress call for an ideologue, a revolutionary, an "extremist," to come in, to clean up, to right the overturned vessel. Then they thank him for his services, send him on his way, and sail right into another squall. Like the children of Israel in the wilderness, such men are unteachable. They never look ahead, or learn from sorry experience. They don’t leave the world any worse than they found it, but neither do they leave it any better off.

As a rule, the test of a sound position is taking it to its logical extreme. If there is a problem, the problem lies, not with the end-point, but the starting-point.

An exception to this is that some goods are relative goods. They are good in relation to other goods. It is good to be physically fit, but it isn’t good to work out at a gym 16 hours a day, 7 days a week. For physical fitness is only a means to an end. When treated as an end in itself, it interferes with the attainment of other comparative and complementary goods.

In general, though, the real world has a painfully unyielding and unforgiving quality to it. You can’t split the difference with the multiplication tables. You can’t split the difference with the law of gravity. If you try to cut corners with reality, you’ll be cut to pieces. Truth is no respecter of moderation. It will exact its pound of flesh on the deluded and the delusional.

So, the next time you hear somebody dismiss a position by merely mapping it on chart, with anything right of center as out of bounds, remember that this is only so much silly talk and self-deception, the discourse of little minds and lazy minds, blind guides and moral midgets. Narrow is the way, and Jesus is the way.