Logic and Public Discourse: Something of a Minor Case Study

0. I have just had the pleasure of reading an article in Crisis Magazine, the “Logic: What’s Missing from Public Discourse” of April 30, 2014, by Randall B. Smith, a professor of theology and the holder of the Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas.

Let me preface what follows with the statement that I both find myself in hearty agreement with the logically informed approach to public discourse which Smith recommends and appreciate the generally quite balanced approach he takes in presenting examples of public discourse going awry because of logical failures.

1. I am in hearty agreement in particular with the caution he urges in the advancing of universal propositions.

Indeed, it is very risky to make universal claims one way or the other—“all Americans are greedy” or “no woman would lie about rape” or “husbands never do their fair share of housework”—because all it takes to disprove a universal claim is one, lone counter-example.

I fear, however, that Smith has momentarily forgotten his own advice in the presentation of one of his examples of public discourse gone awry, thus:

One of the problems in America today is that everyone thinks he’s a wit, and that wittiness is a fit substitute for logic.  It’s not.  If you doubt it, try watching John Stewart or Stephen Colbert for a week.  What these two men repeatedly prove is that any and every thoughtful person in America can be made to look stupid by a person who sets out to make him or her look stupid.  The post-modern conceit is that they’re “just pretending” and that none of what they do is “serious,” when we all know that they’re not pretending at all, and that they’re trying to convince young people of certain positions, not by logic, but just by making other people look “uncool.”  It’s high school all over again, only this time with more at stake than who gets to sit at what lunch table.

For all that I know, it may actually be the case that “everyone thinks he’s a wit,” though a certain doubt nags at me. But I am relatively certain that the following proposition is false:

Everyone thinks that wittiness is a fit substitute for logic.

I offer, not one, but two counter-examples: Randall B. Smith and Richard E. Hennessey.

2. To go a step further into the matter, I think the following proposition is also open to challenge:

What these two men repeatedly prove is that any and every thoughtful person in America can be made to look stupid by a person who sets out to make him or her look stupid.

Let us observe first that the proposition embedded therein, “Any and every thoughtful person in America can be made to look stupid by a person who sets out to make him or her look stupid,” is a universal proposition. Let us next agree, though in doing so we step outside the scope of logic into empirical reality, that John Stewart and Stephen Colbert together have by no means subjected “every thoughtful person in America” to that technique or those techniques with which Smith is concerned; I will hazard the guess that neither has so victimized either Randall B. Smith himself or Fr. James Schall, of whom Smith makes mention, “thoughtful persons” though both most certainly are; nor has either so victimized me, though perhaps the description, “thoughtful person,” does not apply in my case.

Stewart and Colbert have therefore not proven once, let alone repeatedly, that “Any and every thoughtful person in America can be made to look stupid by a person who sets out to make him or her look stupid.”

3. To go yet one step further into the matter, and in doing so stepping yet further outside the scope of logic and deeper into extra-logical reality, Smith ascribes a conceit and an intention to Stewart and Colbert, about which “we all know.”

The post-modern conceit is that they’re “just pretending” and that none of what they do is “serious,” when we all know that they’re not pretending at all, and that they’re trying to convince young people of certain positions, not by logic, but just by making other people look “uncool.”

My point in drawing your attention here is not that it is open to doubt that “we all know” what Smith affirms that we all know, but rather that it may possibly be false that their intention is “to convince young people of certain positions, not by logic, but just by making other people look ‘uncool.’” Not by logic? To look just at the approach that John Stewart often takes: in at least some cases he presents a clip of some personage, e.g., a Sean Hannity, giving voice to some thesis in application to some situation (we are obligated to obey the law in this instance) and then another clip of the same personage giving voice to another thesis in application to another situation (we are not obligated to obey the law in that instance)and contradicting the previous one, or at least Stewart would apparently have us believe. That seems to me very much an attempt an attempt to use logic to cast doubt on the nature of the personage’s commitment to one side or the other of the contradiction.

4. Stepping yet further outside the securities of logic, it is my hunch that it is irritation, at the effectiveness with which the two comedians wield their comedy at the expense of, it should be granted, predominantly “conservative” public figures, that it is at the basis of Smith’s having forgotten his own good advice here. It is also my hunch, well, more than a hunch, that it is a similar irritation occasioned by what I have perceived to be the one-sidedness of what I have found myself reading in Crisis Magazine that I have dwelt on Smith’s treatment of Stewart and Colbert; that and the rather unseemly satisfaction I derived from having predicted, as I first read the title and without previous knowledge of the writer, that some “conservative” point of view would reveal itself peeking out of the logical discussion.

I will close with a confession, well, a second confession, after the one just given: as I publish this post, I do so worrying that I have myself fallen into some very elementary error, even as I wax obnoxious about Smith’s otherwise fine article. But that is the case with every post I publish.

Until next time.

 

About Rchard E. Hennessey

See above, "About the Author/Editor."
This entry was posted in Logic, Public Discourse and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s