Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Appeal to Irony

Bob Talisse and Scott Aikin have another critical thinking piece in Scientific American -- man, I love that they do this -- this time explaining the flaw in on tu quoque arguments, that is arguments where the arguer doesn't listen to his or her own advice and we then discount it, ignoring legitimate reasons why they may be right. Sometimes, of course, you should do as I say not as I do.

We do love to point out hypocrisy as if it was rationally relevant. There are, I believe three reasons. Part of it is, as Alfred Adler once said, "to be human is to be insecure." We bristle at goody-goodies who do everything right because we know we should too, but really don't want to and resent being told or shown that we should do what we know but don't want to admit we should do. When those who are the paragons falter, we feel more secure in our own intentional deviations. Second, we take personal weakness as a statement about commitment to the conclusion of an argument and if the arguer him or herself is not committed to its truth sufficiently to act that way all the time, then, we fallaciously infer, we have no reason to accept their conclusion, sound argument or not. I discussed this a while back in terms of the phrase "moral authority."

But there is a third and more interesting reason. It isn't all hypocrisy that gets the tu quoque or "you do it, too" treatment; it is usually those that are the most deliciously ironic. We love homophobic pastors who turn out to have been closeted, sustainability gurus who are overweight or have big homes, and just check out the flurry of articles about Oprah's weight. The cases that really get us going, the ones that seem the most rhetorically attractive are the ones that are the most ironic.

I think there is a reason for this. Consider the phrase, "I get it." We will use this phrase in two different contexts. Think about when we are learning something, for example, that is at first murky, confusing, or opaque, and then the light bulb goes off. At that point, we look up with that embarrassingly big smile and eyes wide with excitement and say, "Oh, now I get it." The words that our friend who does well in the class kept repeating over and over again suddenly make sense, have a meaning they didn't have before. Similarly with a joke. The sacred space between a set-up and a punchline lead to the same sense. Confusion, then resolution. you can tell when someone "gets" a joke.

Irony is humoresque, it connects in the brain in the same sort of way. You get irony just as you get a joke. We often say of wonderfully ironic situations, "it's too perfect." Similarly, you get that an argument is intuitively sound in the same way that you get the lesson you learned in school. There is that Gestalt moment where things not only look different, but different in a unified fashion. It is that similarity that lets us slide between these two notions of "getting it," we can easily equivocate here and it makes irony feel internally much like being rhetorically moved. As such, we buy into ironic hypocrisy with the force of rational argument. That's my hypothesis, anyway.

Let's take the occasion to play "name that irony." Possibly the all-time classic is Jim Fixx, the man who was overweight and a smoker who became a marathon runner and author of The Book of Running which began the jogging and fitness craze of the 70s and 80s. He, of course, dropped dead of a heart attack while running. The other one comes from Michael Moore's second big film "The Big One," the follow-up to "Roger and Me" where he tries to track down executives who are downsizing American workers, off-shoring their jobs after years of record profits made for them by those workers. We are repeatedly shown corporate hypocrisy with that classic Michael Moore sneer, and throughout the entire movie we see Moore and his crew eating fast food.

Those are ones I love. What are your favorite examples of irony that could easily be misconstrued as tu quoque or "you do it, too" arguments?