Jacob Rees-Mogg sees an ideal world in his mind’s eye, and I don’t just mean the ultimate ideal he must see as a devout Catholic.
As an intelligent man, he probably realises that in this world the ideal is unattainable. As a civilised man, he still thinks we ought to try.
It’s with the resulting charming naivety that he deplores the pandemic replacement of arguments with harangues, as evinced by some thug screaming “Nazi!” at the Remainer MP Anna Soubry.
(Alas, Mr Rees-Mogg undermines his otherwise impeccable conservative credentials by referring to her as “Ms Soubry”. A principled conservative would eschew that ugly newfangled locution in favour of the traditional “Miss Soubry”, but then he wouldn’t remain an MP for long.)
“Shouting ‘Nazi’ at someone with whom you disagree is not only rude but stupid,” writes Mr Rees-Mogg. “Free speech is about making rational arguments and trying to persuade the other person that your opinion makes more sense and is more logical.”
He’s absolutely right. However, had he replaced “is” with “should be”, he would have been not only absolutely right but also realistic.
For the standards of public debate have dropped precipitously. Most people are not only incapable of putting forth a logical and well-structured argument, but are even unaware that such a thing exists.
Both in Britain and the US, thought has been replaced with sentiment, sentiment with sentimentality, and sentimentality with hysteria. This is particularly noticeable in the debates putting each nation asunder: Brexit in Britain, Trump in the US.
The overall intellectual level is such that calling someone a ‘Nazi’ or a ‘Commie’ is accepted as a valid argument.
Some isolated exceptions aside, venom and spittle have replaced logic and wit, with nary a real argument anywhere in sight. As to elementary civility, that went a long time ago.
The snappiest diagnosis would be the failure of public education. Instead of being taught how to think, pupils are indoctrinated in what to think. Typically, they’re brainwashed to mouth progressivist twaddle, without ever attempting to support it logically or indeed think it through.
Not so long ago a university-educated young lady was genuinely surprised when I said “That’s not an argument” in response to her saying “I disagree”. “But of course it is,” she objected. “I disagree means I argue”.
No, it doesn’t, dear. It only means you’d like to argue.
As in most things, there exists an ascending hierarchy in debate. It starts with a feeling, then moves up incrementally to a thought, opinion, judgement – and only then to an argument.
That’s why I rudely yawn when my interlocutor starts an argument by saying “I feel”. “I don’t care what you feel” is my stock response. “Tell me what you think. And then prove why it makes sense”.
The young lady above committed the rhetorical fallacy of argumentum ad lapidem – dismissing a claim without proving why it’s wrong.
The lout screaming “Nazi!” committed another fallacy, petitio principia, closely related to circulus in demonstrando – using what should be the conclusion of an argument as its premise.
However, I suspect that the educated girl and the ignorant lout know neither the exact names for their rhetorical fallacies nor indeed that such fallacies exist.
I’m sure Miss Soubry isn’t a Nazi, but it’s not theoretically impossible that she is. However, before she’s thus branded, it’s incumbent on her accuser to define Nazism and show how Miss Soubry fits the definition.
Alas, it’s not only loutish plankton who’ve reduced arguments to hysteria, but even quite a few commentators writing for respectable publications.
One such commentator recently told me in a private conversation that I shouldn’t support Brexit because Putin supports it.
That chap was unaware that he was committing the fallacy of ergo decedo, wherein someone’s real or implied association is claimed to disqualify his argument.
Using the same line of thought, I could insist that all vegetarians and dog lovers are Nazis because Hitler was both things. Or that anyone who likes the Appassionata is a mass-murdering Communist because Lenin thought, wrongly, it was the best piece ever written.
Alas, at that point I said things I shouldn’t have said. Had I been less angry and more sober, I could have explained that a serious man’s judgements aren’t contingent on what anyone else thinks, pro or con.
A judgement is the destination of a journey whose purpose is a search for truth or, ideally, the truth. This search may be aided by those who’ve successfully made it before, but it’s ultimately individual.
In this case, my support for Brexit results from a lifelong search for political truth, which is inseparable from what I accept as the absolute truth. Therefore it can’t be affected either positively, if everyone agreed, or negatively, because Putin does.
The truth destination can’t be reached by reason only. A perfectly logical structure may still yield a wrong result, or illogical intuition a correct one.
But, if such statistics were available, I’m sure they’d point at reason as being the most successful tool, although it can be helped along by others.
Earlier I said that claiming public education for the failures that so upset Mr Rees-Mogg is a snappy diagnosis. Yet snappy often means superficial.
A reader would be justified to ask why British education, which used to be the envy of the world, has become its laughingstock.
Yet foreigners who laugh at the mote in our education should look at the beam in their own. They’ll discover that the problem isn’t British but universal, which is to say civilisational.
People can’t search for what they don’t believe exists, the absolute truth. Such ignorance inevitably leads them astray in their seeking smaller, contingent truths.
For, if no absolutes exist, everything is relative. Hence things that don’t even qualify as thoughts, never mind arguments, are accepted as such; and any opinion is as good as any other.
Without delving deeper into such matters than this format allows, let’s just say that our civilisation was built on the premise that the absolute truth exists and it takes a sound, structured thought inspired by faith to find it.
I don’t know exactly when this situation changed, but the rot began to set in some time close to the end of the three centuries separating these two aphorisms:
“To impugn human reason is to impugn God” and “Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.”
The first one, by Thomas Aquinas, identifies reason as God’s gift, essential to any attempt to grasp the absolute truth – and, by inference, smaller truths. The second one, by Martin Luther, identifies reason as the enemy of faith and all things spiritual.
However, history has shown that faith dies when unsupported by reason – and then reason dies when unsupported by faith.
Thus the collapse of sound argument correctly pointed out by Mr Rees-Mogg may serve as Exhibit 1 in the prosecution’s case against modernity.