One of my recurrent themes is the intellectual disarmament of modernity, its steady decommissioning of even basic polemical weapons of mass deduction.
Passion has ousted thought; ideology, ideas; opinion, judgement. The problem with this is that, once lost, these things can’t be reclaimed.
Forget about death and taxes. Death can be followed by resurrection, and even tax collection by tax rebates. But, when a mind dies, it’s buried for ever in the tomb of fait accompli.
Yesterday’s inanities become today’s unarguable truths and tomorrow’s gospel. Before long it’s not just the truth that’s lost, but the very notion of truth, along with every proven method of arriving at it.
Sure enough, yesterday’s rhetorical fallacies have become today’s standard arrows in the quiver of debate. One such fallacy is argumentum ad hominem, and it’s upsetting to see how widely both sides of the Brexit debate use it.
Those who feel (never think: this lot don’t think in the traditional sense of the word) that Britain should remain in the EU routinely describe the Britons who voted to leave as stupid. Fine, let’s assume for the sake of argument that so they are – it’s possible, nay guaranteed, for a population of 65.6 million to have 17.4 million idiots.
What’s impossible is a heavy concentration of mental deficiency on one side of the argument. Since human qualities tend to be spread more or less evenly across a large statistical sample, it’s logical to suppose that the other side has its fair share of morons too.
What’s even more logical is to abandon ad hominems, accept that the stupid people on either side cancel each other out and, furthermore, their relative mental strength is irrelevant. What’s relevant is the relative intellectual strength of their arguments.
After all, even a stupid man is statistically likely to voice an intelligent opinion at times and, as anyone who has read Noam Chomsky will agree, even a clever man is capable of mouthing bilge.
Intellectually, the Brexit issue should be decided by dispassionate, sound debate, just as a simple show of hands has settled it politically.
That should start from the premise that dissolving British sovereignty in a pan-European melting pot represents the most sweeping constitutional change since the Glorious Revolution, or perhaps even the Conquest.
That doesn’t mean that such a sweeping change is ipso facto ill-advised, but it does mean that there must exist compelling reasons for making the change. Such compelling reasons ought to be based on a long list of questions to which the EU is the only or best answer.
Now, being a combative type, I frequently debate this issue with EU champions. My usual ploy is to beg them to produce not a long list of such questions but just one. One teensy-weensy question? Of a kind that stands up to elementary scrutiny? Please?
Er… how else can we trade with Europe? The same way we’ve done for centuries. The same way China, the US or Argentina trade with the EU without the privilege of being governed by it. This question is rejected. Next?
Hasn’t the EU kept peace in Europe since 1945? Even assuming that the EU, formed in 1992, is capable of working miracles retroactively, the answer is no. As the Yugoslavs can attest to, there have been wars since 1945 – and they’ll also tell you that the EU made them worse. As to preventing pan-European cataclysms, that honour belongs to Nato’s nuclear shield. Next?
How else can we travel to the continent? The same way we’ve always done, and what do you know? In those days Biarritz and Nice were more English than French. Next?
And so on. In the end, the only question to which the EU provides the only possible answer is: “How can a booze-addled former prime minister of Luxembourg become a world figure?” But this question can be dismissed for being frivolous.
When in a conciliatory mood, I’m prepared to accept for a split second the pseudo-prophetic assurance that Britain’s economic health will suffer outside the EU. But this has never been regarded as a sufficient reason to toss the constitution aside.
It’s possible, for example, that an early truce with the Nazis would have been economically preferable to Britain’s beggaring herself in defence of her constitution. It could also be argued that Britain could benefit economically from becoming one of the American states. Shall we apply for membership then?
This is a very modest intellectual chain, yet it’s possible that some or even most of the 17.4 million would be incapable of clasping all the links together. But that doesn’t make the chain any weaker.
Hence it’s pointless arguing pro or con the merits of the ad hominem. True or false, this argument is irrelevant for being rhetorically fallacious.
Neither do ad hominems work on the other side of the watershed. The other day, for example, nearly 40 prominent academics signed a petition in favour of Brexit. That commendable action is held up as proof that the desire to keep our constitution doesn’t necessarily presuppose stupidity.
But this argument is just as weak and, what’s worse, irrelevant.
First, anyone who believes that academic credentials are inseparable from intelligence has clearly never seen the inside of a university, or else was perpetually drunk when there.
Second, even assuming that these academics are intellectual giants, they may still hold unsound opinions, as anyone can agree who has read… well, I’ll spare you the long list that would include such undeniably intelligent British luminaries as Locke, Darwin and Russell.
Third, the other side could produce 10 academic Remainers for every academic Leaver, and I’m being conservative. This fact alone ought to dent faith in the dons’ universal brilliance, while reminding us that argumentum ad populum is just as fallacious.
Truth can only be true on merit, not because many people believe it to be true. That, incidentally, is my principal argument against plebiscites and, more generally, democracy of universal suffrage.
Yet even accepting that the numerical method is useful for arriving at a political settlement, it’s manifestly useless for arriving at an intellectual truth.
By all means, anyone is entitled to believe that all Leavers are stupid. But if that’s the crux or even part of the argument, then it’s whoever puts it forth who’s stupid. You see how this kind of exchange can sink to the level of so’s your mother?