Thursday, September 25, 2014

Against Dissoi Logoi

When we look at a concept and think "this is something I believe," we do so for some reason. Inexhaustively, maybe some powerful authority, like a beloved parent or feared autocrat, has coerced us into believing the concept; maybe some eloquent rhetor has crafted a beautiful argument that we can't rebut; or maybe we have thought through the concept ourselves and reached our conclusion independently. We accept a concept when we think it is in our best interest to do so. We trust our parents' guidance or fear an autocrat's authority; the rhetor uses our thoughts and emotions to persuade us; or we conclude for ourselves that there is some benefit. Nobody believes that what they believe will hurt them.

The argument for dissoi logoi concludes when we see the benefits of looking at both sides of an argument. More precisely, it ended when our beloved professor said "dissoi logoi good" and nobody questioned him, but we'll just ignore that. Ostensibly, by recognizing both sides of a controversy as legitimate, we give ourselves a fair and accurate view of a situation. We accept this concept because we believe it will give us the most precise picture of reality that we can have. Dissoi logoi is good because when what we believe is true aligns with what is actually true we can make decisions with greater efficacy.

But let's look a little bit deeper. Dissoi logoi is predicated on a handful of things, like the existence of language and people being willing to talk to one another instead of pulling out guns. We needn't focus on things that aren't controversial, but we won't pretend that every smaller idea dissoi logoi contains is worthless. That said, we will find points of contention if we look.

The first thing we should notice is the prefix "di-" at the beginning of the term. Two. Dissoi logoi is not the idea that there are two sides to every controversy but the idea that there are only two sides to every controversy. This allows for the creation of nicely structured debates when having a hundred voices to listen to would result in nothing but cacophony, but it comes at a price. Ninety-eight of those voices must either be silenced, or their owners must associate themselves with the two speakers, shedding or perverting the beliefs they themselves had wished to express, exchanging their honestly reached conclusions for identification with one of two "legitimate" sides in the controversy.

The necessity of picking a side not only stifles individuals, but makes it more acceptable for us let others do all of the thinking. We won't be heard even if we speak; dissoi logoi only has room for two. Why make the effort to think for yourself when you have to jump on the nearest bandwagon anyway? Suddenly, a democracy that enshrines dissoi logoi isn't ruled by the people, but by the rhetorical elite. The best speakers become the democracy's oligarchs, backed by those who couldn't or didn't want to speak loudly or quickly enough to lead instead of follor. We suddenly have a society divided into "us" and "them," with each group led not by its constituents but by its rhetorical aristocracy.

This leads us to the next contention we ought to notice. Dissoi logoi is inherently competitive. Think of an instance where dissoi logoi could be found. Any formal debate tournament. Courtroom proceedings. Talking to your friends at lunch when one of them proudly declares himself an "anarcho-capitalist" (I never got a good explanation of what that is from him, but it apparently has a wikipedia page). You're practicing rhetoric with someone; you want to win that trophy, to improve your career prospects by winning another case, or to convince your friend to stop proselytizing for obscure political groups and let you enjoy your dollar-menu cheeseburger.

We're arguing with someone, and we want to win. After all, our position could never be wrong, could it? We aren't out to seek the truth, we are out for glory. If we only see two sides of a controversy, we develop an "us versus them" mentality. We stop caring about the best answer, and employ rhetoric not to find the truth, but to reaffirm the convictions we had before the debate began. Rather than thinking heuristically, trying to take what we know to be true and discern further truths, we think competitively, trying to take what our audience knows and twist it to make what we believe appear true to them.

I won't argue that dissoi logoi is worthless. It is certainly better to acknowledge only two sides of a controversy than it is to deafen yourself to every dissenting voice you hear. I only complain that we could do better than just two. We could hear more than just the two loudest voices in the room; we could be led by the best qualified instead of the best spoken; we could discuss with the intent to learn instead of the intent to win. We see more benefit when we move beyond the limitations of dissoi logoi.

For those of you feeling poetic: Reality is not just black or just white. Reality is not both black and white. Reality is a vast, vibrant spectrum of color; don't pervert the rainbow.

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