14 August 2004

Discussions and Discourse, a Discourse on Discussions and Other non-Discursive Formations

As Chua Beng Huat pointed out a year ago, not all discussion is discourse. Never substitute the word 'discourse' when you just mean 'discussion', he warned. So, when is discussion not discursive?

I present to you the creativity of Singaporeans in killing off meaningful discussion.

1. The Non Sequitur

Usually a one-line reply that is either very tangential to the original discussion or completely irrelevant.

Like: during a discussion on the mechanics of water usage and ecological friendliness of bathing using showers vs. soaking in bathtubs vs. scooping water from a tub, X replies: "When Bathers get violent they hit the Showers, lolz!"

2. The I Don't Care

I don't care who you are, I don't care where you come from, all of you have no right to comment on X issue, and all of your concerns are irrelevant.

3. You have launched a personal attack!

Yes, personal attacks are unfair and should not be used in a civilised discussion. Instead, lots of people call every argument they don't like a "personal attack", and then use it as an excuse to launch a real one of their own.

What constitutes a personal attack? I'm in a charitable mood today (being on heavy flu medication helps), so here's a list.

An ad hominem fallacy refers to when someone makes an attack "on the person", and not the merits of the argument.

It begins by making a negative assertion of a person's character, state of mind, morality, or circumstances. Because of the imputation of the person, their argument is invalid and wrong...

Examples: "You are a thief, therefore your arguments against the DCMA are invalid." Or, "Michael Moore is an anti-Bush fanatic. Of course the documentary he makes will show Bush to be a nincompoop."

It is, however, not a personal attack to pick out in detail every single logical flaw in a series of statements or a process. The person who made the statement or oversaw the process may feel personally hurt to suffer such scrutiny, but it DOES NOT constitute a personal attack.

4. You are just an armchair critic!

Usually in the form of: Because A is just an armchair critic (i.e. denied power to effect change), A has no right to criticise B (the activist, the president, whoever's running the show)...

And usually followed by a challenge to A to offer 'constructive criticism' and provide 'real solutions' and alternatives to B...

We must learn to reject this "armchair critic" argument. It doesn't matter who the speaker is; what matters is whether his criticisms are logical and correct. Whether or not there are alternatives makes no difference to the merits of an argument or process under scrutiny. I would even suggest that if people took the time to refine their 'solutions' with more inputs from critics, they wouldn't end up with such disastrous results.

5. Blah, blah, blah!

Could possibly be accompanied by the speaker sticking their fingers in the ears while uttering the words.

It's disappointing that people, even - and especially - adults in real life, often do react in these 5 ways in discussions.

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