August 24, 2015 by Liberty
I was reading a book by an author that I highly respect. He was a guy that I felt confident could offer a fact based argument. Throughout the first 70% of the book he represented that fact very well. It all changed once he started to make an argument about holocaust denial.
Now… this is the kind of topic that scares me. It doesn’t matter how I phrase this, someone is going to take what I say wildly out of context to prove some stupid point on holocaust denial. I’m going to clarify this early on. This has absolutely nothing to do with holocaust denial. It has everything to do with what happened when this guy brought up his discussion about it.
Suddenly, all his well-reasoned argument skills went right out the window. He described some holocaust deniers and then attacked them based on points that he explicitly explained earlier the people he described didn’t share. Then he acted as though those attacks targeted the people he described. I didn’t even have to leave his book to destroy (okay… not destroy but discredit to some extent) his own argument. Based on how much I respect this guy, I found this quite annoying.
This man was probably capable of crushing these holocaust denial arguments but instead he created a resource that made me curious why he didn’t. Did he fail to make a good argument because he couldn’t make one? Or was it something else?
What’s An Intelligent Criticism
I’m sure an intelligent criticism could be defined in a million different ways but for the sake of this article I’m going to be describing it one way. A criticism is just an expression of disapproval or a judgement of something.
Most criticism is a rampant waste of time. In most cases, it’s just new material for a community to circlejerk around. It’s a weak attack on people that disagree written for those that already disagree. Those that already believe what the criticizer is saying rally around the criticism as if it is a useful addition to the world.
This is definitely true for libertarians by the way. Maybe I’m crazy but I don’t need to read another criticism of the damn federal reserve. Sure, I believe the criticism but after a certain number of articles hearing the same old criticisms it gets tiring. Most of these articles completely overlook logical arguments against their point. (I’m saying this as a perpetrator myself at times.)
When I read an article trying to criticize an argument, and they fail to hit important points, I am more attracted to the idea that they’re criticizing than their criticism of it.
When someone starts a criticism it’s like they’re stepping into the ring with the idea as their competitor. If the author punches the air thirty times and raises their fist in the air screaming, “I WIN!” then I become slightly suspicious whether or not they’re actually criticizing something beyond thin air. If the author throws a few body punches and then one big knockout head shot without the competitor moving, dodging, or fighting back, then, again, I get suspicious if they’re really criticizing the actual idea (or just some straw man.)
So, if an author writes a criticism that makes the target sound like idiots, I don’t tend to trust that criticism. No one is intentionally going around acting like an idiot (I suspect.) If an author tries to make it sound like his opponents are idiots then I tend to assume it’s more of a straw man than an actual argument. (Of course, sometimes it’s not a strawman. Sometimes people actually do just act like idiots.) It’s just hard to believe that criticism.
These kinds of criticisms are pointless. People that already agree with you may rally support but people that are suspicious of you, and those that completely disagree are going to just become less interested in your ideas. It’s increasing the divide between two sides and pushing undecided readers away from your ideas.
An intelligent criticism is one that doesn’t alienate the undecided audience (and ideally, represents the opponent’s argument fairly to the opponent. That relies on having a reasonable opponent though.) If you’re pushing the undecided audience away from your side of the argument then you’re probably doing more harm than good.
A Good Fight
A good criticism can be described well in the fighters step into the ring metaphor I used earlier. A good criticism relies on the critiqued idea (or person or article) stepping into the ring with the criticizer. The average viewer doesn’t want a one sided fight. They want to watch the two fighters exchange blows.
As a criticizer, you need to present the arguments of your opponent and they need to be represented as strong points. If the undecided audience suspects the competitor is throwing pro-wrestling style fake punches and you’re throwing full on blows, they’re not going to trust you. The opponent’s points need to be made as well or even better than the opponent makes them.
If you cannot make your opponents points into powerful blows then it means one of two things in my mind.
1. It’s not a point worth arguing.
You only have so much time in your life. Do you really want to waste it arguing with astrologists and tarot card readers? (Of course, a creative reader might already know some valid ways to make them sound intelligent. Just remember they have reasons people go to them even if it’s not the words they’d tell you.)
2. You don’t understand it.
If you don’t understand your opponent’s argument well then you shouldn’t be criticizing it in any thorough mean. Sure, we’re all human and tend to do this without thinking about it but you should take note when you’re clueless and you’re writing a full article on a topic. Learn more or you’re not qualified. An observant reader will notice.
Usually it’s not completely clear which of these two problems you have in discussing a certain idea. Many people think that an idea is completely stupid when they don’t understand it. Many people don’t understand something and assume it must be stupid. If you suspect you’re suffering a little from either of these problems then make sure not to take your opinion too seriously. You can have it, just don’t expect to convince anyone else.
One Ingredient To Intelligent Criticism
The author I was discussing at the beginning of this book lacked one important ingredient in his creation of the argument. He wrote his criticism from a superior viewpoint. He didn’t have an ounce of respect for the argument he was criticizing. I, of course, can’t guarantee that. I could try to offer proof of that but me proving one author did this one time means nothing to my point. I’m just stating the impression I got from the argument.
Reading it gave me the impression he didn’t even respect the opponents side. That made me look closer into his points. Many of the points he made disproved arguments that he explicitly admitted his opponents didn’t make before. He directly and unintentionally admitted that he was throwing punches into thin air after inviting his opponents ideas into the ring. Then he mildly celebrated his victory and claimed to have defeated them. (He wasn’t cocky about it but considering how much he ignored his opponents arguments, it was too much celebration.)
This may not be completely true in every case but I suspect it is.
You cannot intelligently criticize someone until you respect them.
You need to understand how they came to their conclusions and be able to acknowledge exactly where they are in their beliefs. As long as an idea seems completely stupid to you, you’re probably not in a position to argue against it. No, that doesn’t mean completely stupid things get a free pass. It just asks, if it’s so stupid, why are people believing it? If you’re comfortable with the answer, “because they’re stupid,” then you should be damn well educated on the subject. I personally don’t feel comfortable with that answer in any subject.
Honestly, if you’re so smart, you should be able to make their argument sound good.
The key to an intelligent criticism is respect. (That tends to be why I don’t bring up a number of subjects on this blog. I don’t respect the opponents arguments enough to make it anything more than a silly circle jerk.)
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