Brian Regan, Mitt Romney, a Gay Veteran, and the Art of Bad Arguments
“I’m trying to learn how to play chess. That game’s not right. That game does not end properly. You’re just looking at the board and your opponent goes ‘CHECKMATE!’
‘I thought you said you were supposed to take my king.’
‘Yeah but no matter what you do in the next move I take the king in the following move, so it’s a checkmate.’
He’s in the car headin’ home.
No other game lets you do that. You never see a quarterback walking up to the line…
‘TOUCHDOWN! The way your corner is playing we’ll do a slam pass underneath the coverage. Too much of a cushion. 6 points! Touchdown!’
Don’t just announce that you’re going to win.”
-Brian Regan, stand-up comedian extraordinaire
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about arguments and how so often people give just flat-out bad arguments for their positions. This led me to blog about theological debates that are often crippled by bad arguments, and I’ve got about fifty more blog ideas in this same line of thinking. This one was inspired by an article I read last month about Mr. Mitt Romney.
Apparently Romney was confronted by a gay Vietnam veteran named Bob Garon at an event in New Hampshire who asked whether or not he supported gay marriage. Saying he did not, the conversation got pretty awkward. Garon proceeded to say, “It’s good to know how you feel…That you do not believe that everyone is entitled to their constitutional rights.”
BOOM! Checkmate, you unconstitutional jerk!
Look, this entry is not about Mitt Romney as a political candidate nor is it a statement on whether or not gay marriage should be legal. Rather, it’s an example of how bad arguments hinder understanding and thus any hope of progress. Comments like the one above made by Mr. Garon are about as pointless as the quarterback in Brian Regan’s joke just declaring “touchdown” without ever running the play. You can’t just declare yourself the winner in a debate without ever even debating your opponent. And that’s exactly what this veteran did.
His claim is that Romney doesn’t believe everyone’s entitled to their constitutional rights. But the debate on gay marriage isn’t about whether or not we should give gay couples their constitutional right to marry. The whole debate is about whether it even is a constitutional right. Garon’s comment, whether he realized it or not, assumes a universal agreement that gay marriage is a constitutional right, thus making Romney unfit for office for wanting to deny homosexuals that right. But since such agreement doesn’t exist, comments like the one Romney received are weightless. It’s like asking someone, “Why do you love bad music?” No one loves bad music. They simply love music that they deem “enjoyable” and you deem “bad.” Besides, until there’s a universal agreement on what constitutes bad music, it’s impossible to truly condemn someone for loving bad music. (Remember…Nickelback does have fans, guys.)
To pull back and add another dimension to this whole incident, Bob Garon never actually made an argument at all. Rather, he made an unfounded claim. I still lump that under the umbrella of “bad arguments” because so often in our culture simply declaring your beliefs seems to take on a role that should be reserved for intelligent debate/dialogue. A huge part of intelligent debate is describing your opponent’s views in a way they would be happy with, so when no attempt at understanding is made, what should be two people debating becomes two people mocking each other’s views. Internet comment boards are flooded with this to the extent that I’m not even sure we understand the difference between “mockery” and “debate” anymore.
So when Richard Dawkins for example says that faith “is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence” and that it “is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence”, he’s calling out “Touchdown” without any intention of even snapping the ball. Not only is he defining “faith” in a way that no theologian would define it, he uses his perception of faith to further reinforce the thought held by many that it is opposed to science, which does think and evaluate evidence. Dawkins’ definition of faith demonstrates a great reluctance to truly understand those he disagrees with. And as I said already, when understanding isn’t present, mockery will be.
Another fine example of this is Ricky Gervais’ article “Why I’m an Atheist.” Gervais, like Dawkins and Garon, declares his victory throughout without ever really giving a substantial argument. With mockery taking the place of intelligent debate, I personally feel like atheistic comedians get away with a lot.
“The Bible truly is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. … It was written thousands of years ago, when people were even dumber than they are today. … It’s absurd to believe in that s***.”