Ambiguity at the Everyman

My latest piece is up at The Everyman discussing the common trick of arguing from ambiguity: you know, you say “a man isn’t a woman,” and they answer “who gets to decide the definition of ‘a woman’?” Turning obvious and object concepts into mush in order to win an argument:

There is a scene in C.S. Lewis’s The Pilgrim’s Regress where the hero has been imprisoned by a giant called the Spirit of the Age, whose glance turns everything transparent so that one can “see through” it. The jailor who works for the giant furthers this process by debunking ‘social constructs’ with graphically brutal descriptions of the food he provides to the prisoners. One day he offers the prisoners milk while making a sneering comment about how they might as well be drinking the cow’s “other excretions.”

At this point the hero exclaims “Thank goodness! Now I know you don’t really believe what you’re saying!” and then proceeds to point out that there is an obvious, objective difference between milk, which is given to feed the young, and, say, urine, which isn’t. It’s not a question of convention or habit or mythology or belief; it’s a question of what in fact happens.

Our own zeitgeist hasn’t lost the taste for this particular game, which indeed is a very old one. It might be called the argument from ambiguity, and how it works is that, rather than trying to establish a given position, one instead claims that the relative concepts and categories cannot be clearly defined and thus cannot be objectively applied. This often manifests in terms like “shades of grey” or “who’s to say?” or “spectrums,” and it has a superficial credibility in that hard cases can be found in most subjects, and bringing these up can lend the speaker an air of intellectual sophistication.  

Read the rest here.

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