We often do the same thing with ideas. In fact, a great deal of what appears to be debate about ideas actually takes place in a "pre-trial" phase, in which people discuss whether an idea should even be granted a serious hearing. Many – most? – discussions go no further.
Now, this is no bad thing. A serious logical and factual argument – a full case for trial, so to speak – is not all that easy to put together, even if we are attacking a very bad idea or defending a very good one. And many ideas are so stupidly wrong or so transparently wicked that they do not merit that kind of response anyway.
So I am not opposed in principle to the "summary dismissal" of an idea – a rejection that precedes a full discussion of the factual merits. Such judgments are necessary and inevitable. They are a legitimate part of the practical art of reason. Yet I am uneasy, because this kind of preemptive action carries obvious risks. After all, the idea that I reject might be a good one. If I never grant it a real hearing, how will I ever find out?
But even when this possibility seems remote, there is a deeper snare, a subtler temptation. If we can get the opposing point of view summarily dismissed from discussion, then we win. Our ideas not only prevail, they prevail without challenge. We know this, and the advantages of it are so great that we work very hard to win the preliminary phase of the debate.
The reason I call this a "temptation" is because such "pre-trial" actions take place, by definition, prior to the start of serious factual debate. These actions involve claims of consensus, invocation of social norms, emotional appeals, rhetorical strategies, and so on. The tools used in this phase of a debate remain largely unexamined because the whole point of this phase is to avoid the arduous business of careful examination. And if someone cries foul – if the "motion to dismiss" an idea is challenged as being out of order – then this suggestion itself can be attacked in the same way. The locus of discussion creeps backward to questions of mere form and propriety; and in my experience, it usually happens that the actual issue is never actually engaged.
I do think that "summary dismissal" is the rational way to deal with a great many ideas. But on what grounds should we invoke it? In other words, when should we not discuss the factual merits of a proposition? When is it proper to arrive at a "summary dismissal" without, so to speak, going to trial?
This is a hard question. As a start on it, I've tried to identify some ways in which "summary dismissal" is actually employed in public and personal debates. Imagine that X stands for some proposition, and let SD stand for the summary dismissal of X. That is, SD means, We should not discuss the factual merits of X. It seems to me that SD has several forms.
The simplest and weakest form of SD is, A discussion of the factual merits of X is unnecessary. There are a couple of possible justifications for this proposition.
- It may be that X has already been shown to be false. I should not spend my time logically refuting your proposed angle trisection, because such constructions have been proved to be impossible.
- It may be that X has a very low a priori likelihood, so low that discussion of it is a waste of time. The claim that the Earth is riddled with gigantic caves occupied by a race of malevolent, psychotic dwarfs is so improbable that I have no need to work out a detailed refutation.
In the previous version of SD, the basis for summary dismissal was that debate of X was a waste of effort. Sometimes a stronger sort of claim is made, however: A discussion of the factual merits of X would be bad and harmful. Again, I see two possible justifications for this position.
- Some principles are so foundational to civil order or polite society that they must not be contradicted. If the proposition X contradicts them, then public discussion and debate of X – a discussion that presumes, at least in a formal way, that X might be true – is harmful. Examples abound. For instance, even if the thing is easy to refute – or especially if it is easy to refute – it would be harmful to bring up for debate the proposition that Fred is a serial child molester. A discussion of this could be almost as damaging to Fred as an actual accusation, so we should give it a summary dismissal. (The exception, of course, is when there really are serious grounds for believing that Fred is a serial child molester. Since the "pre-trial" action can involve a preliminary look at evidence, such an exception does not undermine our discussion.)
- Another justification for this strong form of summary dismissal is less direct. It may be that a public debate of X might be harmless in theory – X itself does not contradict a foundational principle – but the practical reality could be that any debate of X would almost certainly cross the line. I think that this is how a great many well-intentioned people approach questions of gender or racial differences in IQ. The proposition that Oompa Loompas are on average smarter than Pottsylvanians does not necessarily entail the evils of racial discrimination and so on. It does not contradict the foundational principle that human beings should be equal in dignity and before the law. But in practice (so the argument goes) it will surely be used to rationalize many such evils. Even the proposed debate can awaken them. Therefore it is better to reject the question altogether, to summarily dismiss X without probing its factual basis.
Conversely, wrong or bad ideas can persist as prejudices, unspoken but also unchallenged, if they are never admitted to open discussion. In this way, the very action we take to preserve our foundational principles can in the long run weaken them.
Ad hominem form
There is an even stronger and more definite form of summary dismissal, which may be conveniently expressed thus: People who wish to discuss the factual merits of X are bad people. Discussion of X should thus be avoided. In this version, the phrase bad people might either mean defective people or wicked people. The underlying justification for this runs as follows:
- Let us suppose that either the weak or strong forms of SD hold – that is, debate of X should be summarily dismissed on the grounds already discussed. If this is true, then we must question either the intellect or the motives of those who propose X for discussion. Either they are stupid and ignorant, or they are up to no good. Either one is bad. If they are stupid and ignorant, we should not give them the chance to spread their crummy ideas. If they are up to no good – if they are not interested in truth or wish to do harm by damaging a foundational principle – then their wicked intentions should be thwarted at the earliest opportunity.
- Alternately, it might be that public debate of X is harmless in theory – but a desire to debate X serves as a reliable "dye marker" identifying people with bad and harmful aims. (These people may, in fact, be using X as a "stalking horse" for worse ideas.)
Even this form of SD, I think, is defensible in some circumstances. Some people might be so completely stupid and wrong that we should not waste time debating their ideas. (I recall one movie reviewer for a university newspaper, for instance, who was wrong so frequently that he was actually quite reliable. If he hated it, you should see it.) I also believe that evil people do exist, and I think that some of them want to use the forms of intellectual discussion to further very wicked causes. We are under no obligation to give them the oxygen to do so.
Yet when I lay this out as a principle, it gives me a queasy feeling. It is too powerful a weapon to be comfortable with.
If I can win a "pre-trial" action on these grounds – if I can have my opponent designated as either ridiculous or reprehensible – then I have won a victory indeed. Not only have I secured my beliefs against the present challenge, but I have also undermined the legitimacy of my opponent. His future standing to insist on debate has been destroyed. It does not matter what he says, because any proposition he advances is tainted at its source. I have not merely won this debate. I have won them all.
A lot of modern political "debate" functions at this level. The actual issues at stake are almost never discussed directly. That would require some costly engagement with facts and logic. Instead, the discussion remains in the messier, more emotional and rhetorical "pre-trial" phase, where everyone is seeking a favorable summary judgment. If I can convince the majority of voters that my opponent is not merely wrong but actually farcical or fiendish, then I win the game, whether or not I can make a coherent case for my own policies.
The example that comes to my mind is sure to irritate some of my friends, but I will invoke it anyway. It seems clear to me that Sarah Palin was the target of exactly such a "pre-trial" attack during the presidential campaign last fall. This campaign was largely successful – completely so in my own social set – with the result that her actual ideas (yes, she does have a few) need never actually be discussed. You can simply ridicule her as a clown or hate her as a witch, according to your taste. I don't think you have to be a fan, or even agree with her at all, to be a little disturbed by the whole thing.
Transitive or associational forms
Believe it or not, I think that there are even more extended versions of SD that are in reasonably common use. Here are two:
- Proposition X is logically distinct from Y, but X is nevertheless associated with Y in some fashion. (For example, many people who favor one also favor the other.) Proposition Y should be summarily dismissed for one of the reasons above. X "inherits" this property because of its association with Y.
- People who wish to discuss the factual merits of X are associated in some fashion with other people who are bad. (The association might be via agreement on other propositions Y, Z, etc.) This association is itself sufficient for summary dismissal of X.
When we humans reason about the world, we often use heuristic strategies that are difficult to defend on a purely "rational" basis. There are many experiments and studies showing that human beings are actors of "limited rationality". Yet I think that our flawed strategies often represent sensible ways to deal with the real world. We are mortal and have a lot to do, so we take a lot of short-cuts. Our own knowledge is limited; so is our intelligence; and at bottom we know this. We therefore take our own abstractions far less seriously than we might, often appearing to act "illogically" or "inconsistently". (Academics like me, who are trained to take abstractions with deadly seriousness, can mistakenly ascribe to folly what really represents practical wisdom.) In any discussion, our overall assessment of a speaker's smarts and sincerity – a type of judgment we are fairly good at – will likely outweigh any logical or factual assessment of his words. All of these things do leave us vulnerable – just ask a successful confidence man – but they are actually necessary adaptations to our real situation in the world. We can't do without the short-cuts; but we must be wary lest we be led astray.
Yet we must also ask how we ourselves – not quite on purpose, maybe, but not wholly by accident either – abuse these heuristic strategies for our own ends. We are, at root, more lawyers than philosophers. We want to win our arguments, and we do not mind doing so by manipulating the quick and informal process by which we and others decide which ideas merit serious consideration. In this regard, our imperfection as rational beings is of a different order. We are flawed, not merely in the intellect, but also in the will and the heart. We are fools, but also sinners.