We have forgotten how to argue

To replace ‘arguments’ with ‘insults’ is to automatically concede defeat. It proves that the argument you are attempting to assail is simply too sound to be demolished by logic

There is an old saying that goes something like: “You know you’ve won an argument, when the other side resorts to calling you names instead of arguing back.”

OK, maybe I exaggerated the ‘old saying’ part. It’s actually something I just made up now, on the spot: which makes it literally around two seconds old; and so far, only ever uttered (in those words, anyway) by me.  

But who cares? To the best of my knowledge, nobody has ever specified exactly how old a sentence has to be, or how many people have to actually repeat it, before it can be justifiably quoted as an example of ‘ancient popular wisdom’.

So, for the purposes of this article, I will now argue that ‘two seconds’ and ‘just me’ are perfectly valid, reasonable answers to those two questions. And if you disagree… well, let’s argue it through, shall we?

My arguments will probably sound something like:

In answer to the first question: Time is relative (supported by Einstein, no less. Eat that, motherf***ers!), so the difference between ‘two seconds’ and ‘two billion years’ exists only in your mind.

In answer to the second: There is an entire literary canonical tradition, starting with Adam (the original ‘Chap One’, as it were), that posits a single individual as correlative for the whole human race. The same motif is implicit in that quote on the title page of every ‘Everyman Library’ book you ever read at school: “Everyman, I will go with thee, and be thy guide; (and you’ll get lost, because – guess what? – I lied…)”. Or something like that, anyway…

Well… I, too, am a ‘single individual’. And on that basis alone, I fail to see why any old random thought that pops into my head, should not automatically qualify as the received wisdom of the entire human race.

In any case: those are my arguments. I think you’ll all immediately see that – as ‘arguments’ go – they both kind of… suck, actually. (And with good reason: I made them both up on the spot, too.) But what the heck, let’s hear the counter arguments anyway.

Let’s see now: “I disagree with you… therefore, you are a c**t”.  Hmm. Yes, and… um… anything else? No, that really is just about the full extent of it. That – in all its glorious fuckery – is what passes for an ‘argument’ in 21st century Malta.

Of course, there’ll be variations here and there. Instead of ‘c**t’, it might occasionally be ‘dickhead’, ‘asshole’, or ‘twat’. (Note: I won’t make any excuses for repeating those words here. Those are all expletives I have seen flung about in online ‘arguments’, and some of them – among countless others – have occasionally been directed at me).

So there you have it. Argument won, with both my braincells tied behind my head. Because even if my entire thesis was a crock of horse-crap from start to finish: it still followed at least the semblance (or parody) of logic. To anyone listening from the outside, those idiotic ‘arguments’ would still sound a lot more sensible than the responses… whether the listener ‘agrees with me’ or not.

This is just one of the many lessons we seem to have forgotten, on the subject of argumentation. Arguments are not ‘won’ or ‘lost’ on the strength of whether one side is ‘right’, and the other ‘wrong’ (if that were the case… well, there’d never be anything to argue about, would there?). No, they are won or lost, depending on how convincing the arguments sound when they are brought to the table.

Just a cursory glance at any old political debate – in any country, anywhere in the world – would suffice to instantly illustrate the stark-bollock naked truth of that assertion… and I’d challenge anyone to argue otherwise.  

Ah, but how often do you hear convincing arguments in this country? Let’s look at a few real examples. Last week, I wrote an article rebutting the conclusions of a report by ‘Reporters Without Borders’, which demoted Malta by 12 places in its ‘World Press Freedom’ Index.

Obviously, I knew from beforehand that my arguments would not go down too well with certain people... so I was (and still am) fully prepared to defend every last word I wrote.

But there hasn’t been any need to, because… no counter-arguments were ever brought forward. To be honest, that disappoints me a lot more than the insults (‘crusty and crabby’, huh? I kind of like that, actually. It’s very ‘moi’…). No one so much as tried to counter any of the individual points I raised in that article. So there really can be no two ways about it (though again, I’d be happy to argue it through). To replace ‘arguments’ with ‘insults’ is to automatically concede defeat. It proves that the argument you are attempting to assail is simply too sound to be demolished by logic; so you have to resort to something else. Something that features no logic at all.

Now: if it was just me, I’d say… fine (and I’d really mean it, too: after all, what’s not ‘fine’ about automatically winning every argument by default, because your opponents just keep throwing in the towel every single time?) But it’s not ‘just me’, is it? Sunday Times columnist Mark Anthony Falzon is another media pundit to take a pot-shot at the RSF report. And (unusually, it must be said) he came to roughly the same conclusions as myself… though he couched them in somewhat more diplomatic terms.

Personally, I find it highly significant that he would title his piece ‘Reporters Without Arguments’. If I may synthesize his entire point (and, as always, we can argue about it till the cows come home), it was that Reporters Without Borders did not provide any plausible, convincing arguments to justify lowering Malta’s ranking by 12 points.

Like myself, Falzon brought his own arguments to the table… and he clearly expected them to be countered (indeed, his article invites response at every turn). What did he get, though? Among the comments I saw were some which questioned his credentials to lecture at the University of Malta. He was dismissed as a charlatan, a ‘pseudo-intellectual’ whose sole purpose in existence only to further government propaganda… and so on, and so forth, and fifth.

Elsewhere, Christian Peregin, of Lovin’ Malta fame, recently interviewed Raisa Galea – a researcher at University, also the editor of Isles Of The Left – on a wide variety of topics; and among many other things, Galea touched on some of the more ‘gossipy’, ‘classist’ aspects of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s blog.

Without going into the merits of that particular argument for now (though perhaps we should, some day)… well, that’s what it was. An argument. Does anyone have a gun pointed at their heads, forcing them to agree with Raisa Galea? No, I didn’t think so, either.  Besides, the whole point of going public with one’s views is precisely to drag the discussion out into the open. Disagree with her? Great, let’s hear your arguments.

Arguments, my foot. Both Galea and Peregin were singled out for the same, instant vilification treatment: the former for the grave crime of having an opinion; the latter for the even graver crime of providing the media space for that opinion to be made public.

All this vilification, by the way, is coming from people who also seem to think they are fighting a battle for ‘freedom of expression’: some are even involved in a campaign against ‘online hate speech’. Makes you wonder what their concept of ‘free speech’ even is. (Let me take a guess: ‘Everyone should have the freedom to express our opinions, or else just shut the fuck up’… right?)

But then again, this is not only happening in areas which gravitate around Daphne’s murder… or only when it comes to politics, either. No, I am beginning to see the exact same pattern everywhere I look. This week, for instance, a group of local doctors got together to form ‘Doctors for Choice Malta’: “advocating for safe, accessible, comprehensive, evidence-based reproductive healthcare in Malta.”

As you’d expect from professionals in the field, they presented arguments – yep, that word again – like: “[Maltese women] are deprived of their right to seek safe, high-quality healthcare. Women who require abortion services do so because of unique, and often complex, medical, psychological or social reasons. Malta’s existing legislation results in a violation of human rights and denial of patients’ right to safe health services. This ultimately leads to poorer health outcomes…”

Now that is an argument. (I suggest you all take a very close look, because you really don’t get to see one every day here.) These doctors have specified a very precise concern – i.e., that Malta’s criminalisation of abortion results in a direct threat to women’s health (without, one might add, stopping abortions from taking place) – and …  well, are you hearing any pro-life exponents trying to come to grips with any of that?

Here are a few comments posted below news articles in The Times and MaltaToday (some within seconds of uploading): “A group of spineless cowards who hide behind a gmail account”; “How can a mother ever accept that a murderous so-called doctor dismembers her own flesh and blood inside her!”; “Don’t call yourselves doctors. Call yourselves butchers, executioners, murderers whatever of these you will but not doctors”; “Pity your mothers didn’t abort you”; “They are quacks and butchers killing an innocent child in his mother’s womb”; etc., etc., etc.

Please note: ‘quacks and butchers’. As in the case of Mark Anthony Falzon and so many others, the tactic is to immediately hit out in two directions – the personal insult, coupled with the professional slur – but never, ever to actually respond to the argument at hand. So much so, that in 20 years’ worth of ‘discussion’ about abortion in Malta… I have never heard a single, reasoned reply to those doctors’ concerns.

We have, in a nutshell, forgotten how to argue. And this lapsus can already be seen to carry very high price-tag. Consider, for instance, that while all this ad-hominem invective is masquerading as ‘debate’ in the background… there is a whole new generation rising through the ranks: young people, who (unlike my own age-group) were born into European Malta; who have travelled, studied, maybe worked abroad… who have grounds to compare how discussion takes place here, as opposed to elsewhere.

What do those people see, when they look around? Arguments on one side; insults on the other. Simple as that, really.

So even if those arguments may occasionally be weak – or downright gibberish, as my own, above – they are still likelier to resonate far more than any number of childish playground rants. Small wonder, then, that the people or lobby-groups hurling all the insults – and none of the arguments – always seem to end up on the losing side of any given debate.

And yes, that was an open invitation to an argument. Fire away…

More in Blogs