Friday, August 10, 2012

How to Miss the Point: A Guide to Dimwitted Discourse

People have valued reasoned, fair disagreements and good listening skills for far too long. It is high time we dispense with those boring and outdated formalities! After all, why respect the laws of logic when you can enjoy the adventure of following your own passions? When you get the point, you can only either agree or disagree. How boring! On the other hand, when you miss the point, you open up a fallacy-filled wonderland where conversation and emotions are set free to frolic! If you wish to dispense with the authoritarian laws of logic (which care nothing about you!) and transcend the boundaries of social courtesy, then here are some suggestions for you to try on your entirely subjective journey. These primarily apply to written arguments, but can also apply to listening to a spoken argument.

1. Foster the conviction that all with whom you disagree are personally attacking you.
Even if the individual doesn't know you, your ideas are your identity. Never mind the fact that this introduces all sorts of strange problems for understanding personal identity. That stuff is not important. What is important is that your very person, and all you hold dear, are being assaulted.

2. Don't accept the author or speaker's own definitions of his terms.
For instance, if someone is using the term "idealist" to mean a person who has lofty goals, you could show off your philosophical prowess and point out that he has gotten philosophical idealism (something else entirely) all wrong. It would also be fun to attack a Lutheran who believes in Christian orthodoxy  (small "o") for being a closet Orthodox Christian!

3. Embrace category confusion.
Here is a time-tested example: If the argument is about economics, you may wish to respond by claiming that the author is just racist. You get bonus points here, as this tactic also functions as an ad hominem and as a red herring fallacy (look them up if you are curious).

4. Ignore all qualifiers. 
This most often takes the form of responding with a counterexample to an admitted generalization. Example: Your interlocutor is evaluating the drawbacks to social media, and then says "interactions on social media tend to encourage more rudeness than would be likely in person." You can fire back a response like this: "I'm always nice on Facebook! See? You're wrong." Or, "Uncle Joe uses Facebook to befriend invalids connecting to the world via laptop," etc. You don't want your counterexample to actually work. So, avoid using the skill in situations where the author has clearly made a universal statement such as, "There are no black swans." Then, those who are still slaves to logic could refute the universal statement by saying-- truthfully-- that "Uncle Joe has a black swan."

5. Skip to the end. 
By doing this, you don't get the argument at all, and you will miss the author's definition of terms as well as all qualifications.

6. Read halfway through and stop reading. 
Sometimes, an author begins by surveying a given topic, or by introducing an argument with which she will then disagree. If you stop reading halfway through, you can respond as if the survey or the dissenting argument were actually the view of the author!

7. Just read the title and no further. 
This one is catching on all over the world. Make sure to leave a comment if it is a blog or a Facebook post. All of this can be accomplished in under a minute.

8. Partially attend to something else while reading or listening. 
This is a sure way to miss important things to the author or speaker and only catch words and phrases that are important to you.

9. Convince yourself that evaluation of or criticism of something is reducible to hatred.
Assume that if the arguer has negative things to say about a person or thing, then the arguer is actually displaying a deep-seated, concentrated hatred of that person or thing. For instance, all who criticize technology clearly hate technology and are hypocrites for using it at all.

10. Confuse descriptive with prescriptive statements. 
If I read an article reporting that "People who smoke marijuana enjoy the experience," this is describing a state of affairs in the world (a descriptive statement). If I want to miss the point, I can respond as though it was a prescriptive statement. In other words, I can act shocked that the author would dare suggest that we should smoke marijuana (which would have been a prescriptive statement, had the author actually said that).

11. Ignore quotation marks, italics, or indented quotations, and attribute them to the quoting author.
By doing this, one can make the author appear to say all sorts of crazy things. 

12. Remember that no one has the right to criticize things you like. 
Decide right now that all criticisms of anything you like are immediately invalid. After all, we know that things and people that we like are perfect.

13. Misunderstand or fail to detect sarcasm. 
To spin it positively, be rigidly serious all the time, insist on taking yourself very seriously, and you will discover all sorts of wild statements that are ready for your attack.

14. Insist on seeing your pet issue as a fundamental component of every argument you read.
If you are into women's issues, for example, cry foul at anything in the argument that can conceivably (or even inconceivably) be construed as an attack on women's rights (assuming, of course, that the argument itself is not about women's rights-- then you must pick another point-missing tactic). 

15. Don't look up words you don't understand. 
Just react to them upon your first, confused reading.

16. Present your response when maximally angry.
You will be amazed at your own propensity for the creative use of fallacies, misspellings, and overall murky thinking when overcome by emotion. Things can get wild if you take this advice. You may even regret it later, making the fun last as long as possible. 

17. Avoid paragraphed and correctly punctuated responses.
If you are going to respond online, it is fun to see how crazy you can make your chosen target by posting responses that are (to use a term I heard recently) longer than a Dispensationalist chart. The more run-on sentences the better, when you omit careful punctuation and paragraphs, it tends to stun the opponent. If you are lucky, the bewildered adversary may actually try to respond to your mass of verbal chaos. Watch him squirm, and enjoy.


  1. Sarah:

    Even though I disagree with you and Dr. Groothuis on about 90% of the things you write, I absolutely love this piece. Very well written and well done.

    Bill Walsh

  2. Thanks for the comment! I'm glad you appreciated the post. It was born out of years of frustration.

  3. Ha! Thanks for the laugh, along with the enclosed gentle reminders.

  4. Why do you hate dimwits so much? ... You must be a ignoramucist homophobic religious fundamentalist right wing bigot racist nazi zealot!!!

    BTW, my uncle Joe is a dimwit and he was in a conversation the other day and he didn't miss the point. So there! Refuted!

  5. I can't believe you have made these 17 suggestions are you trying to kill civil discourse on the internet the is outrageuous and I think u have no idea how bad conversations would b if we took your advice.

  6. I read your title. Why do you want people to miss the point?

  7. Awesome work. I can't believe I'm the first person to put it on StumbleUpon. This definitely deserves WIDE exposure!

    #12 is my favorite, by the way.

  8. Wonderful job Sarah. As a frequent antagonist to my friend Doug Groothuis (as you well see) I appreciate this excellent and much needed list. Very well done and I am definitely going to be sharing it!

  9. Oh my, Miss Sarah - I came to this blog via Tim Challies' A La Carte. I love your sense of humor and truly appreciate some convicting points in this blog. Bravo!

  10. #18. When you're clearly wrong, don't admit it. Just stick up a few straw men and hopefully that will distract them.

    I really enjoyed your post. :D

  11. Thank you SOOOOOOO much for taking the time to write this. It is well thought out and shockingly relavent to our generation of FB debate experts. (I only wish I could plead 'not guilty':)

  12. I also wish I could claim innocence here. Alas and alack! Regardless, it was a great pleasure (involving numerous LOLs or at least contained chuckles--CCs?) to read and absorb this very timely piece. I am about to share it on our friendly medium, FB. Thanks, Sarah!

  13. I've never known anyone who misunderstood or failed to detect sarcasm.

  14. Usually, when I comment on a blog,
    I only show-up-an-hour late.

    1. And then again, when something is really good, I'll stumble across it a second time and think to myself, "I'm sure I've read that somewhere before" :D

  15. I regard this piece as an ad hominem attack on truth.. You obviously have not read the bottom line of my argument. Shame on you.. Lol..

  16. I remember once I responded to a thread entitled "Would the world be a better place without Christians?" I suggested this language was inflammatory and perhaps harmful. The author even admitted he posed his question poorly. He wanted to weigh the good Christians have done against events like the Crusades. I got called "paranoid," "sheep," and 'persecution complex." I suggested name calling wasn't going to help us evaluate the question. An argument broke out about what an ad hominem fallacy was. Oi Vey! I quit.