The Argument From Abstract Authority

Many years ago, my husband and I spent a lovely summer afternoon at a cookout with a friend of his from work, and her mother and brother. They were all of Slavic ancestry, self-made and reasonably well-educated. And I had two very strange experiences in the space of that single afternoon.

The first was while I was in the kitchen with our friend’s mother, cutting up tomatoes for a salad. And the mother asked me, more or less out of the blue, what I thought of the Equal Rights Amendment, which was at that time still a fairly hot topic. I told her I favored it, and tried to explain, as un-complicatedly and un-aggressively as possible, why. She replied, “Well, I’m against it. I don’t remember why right now.” I thought she should have waited till I was through using the knife, but I managed not to respond.

Then, later, when we were all outside eating the aforementioned salad and other goodies, the brother asked me what I thought about the military draft (also a hot topic at the time.) Unlike the ERA, the draft was a subject on which I was at the time a certified expert. There were maybe ten people in the country who knew as much about it as I did, and two or three who knew more. (Most of them, BTW, did not work for the Selective Service System.) So I explained why I thought it was a bad idea, again without trying to challenge him, but at fairly great length. He had asked for my opinion, okay, I would give it. When I finished, he said, “But that’s only your opinion, isn’t it?”

I thought of telling him, Well, if you really wanted to know what G-d told me on Mt. Sinai, you should have said so. Being at that time a much nicer person than I am now, I didn’t.

The other, closely parallel phenomenon, was a scene in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Richard Dreyfuss is at the dinner table, building out of mashed potatoes a model of a mountain in Wyoming which he has never seen, for reasons he does not understand, and his little boys are baffled and frightened to see their father losing control. A conversation ensues, most of which I don’t remember, but somewhere in the middle of it, one of the children asks their mother, “Mom, do we believe in UFOs?”

In all three instances, opinions were being treated, not as conclusions arrived at from observed phenomena, but as components of group identity or affiliation. The boy in Close Encounters was asking a question kind of like “are we Catholic or Lutheran?” My friend’s mother and brother were asking, “which side are you on?” Kind of like many of the small-town characters in George Eliot’s novels, who have their opinions on religion, politics, and business, pretty much the way they have their hats. Since our friends at the picnic didn’t know me very well, they were checking me out, rather than inviting me into a rational discussion.

The woman who was against the ERA but couldn’t remember why had obviously heard some authoritative argument on the subject which told her it was okay to believe what all her friends believed. That was all she needed to know about it, so she immediately forgot the rest. The man who asked for my opinion on the draft wasn’t interested in the merits of my argument; he just wanted to make sure I didn’t expect him to change his mind.

Which tells us some scary things about our culture these days. “Rhetoric,” which used to mean the art of persuasion, is now used mostly as a synonym for the barnyard epithet. But, used in its classic sense, it would be an even dirtier word for most people, because trying to persuade someone to change his/her opinion is now seen as fundamentally immoral. We don’t talk in order to learn and be changed by learning. We talk in the same way and for the same reason that we wear political buttons or put bumper stickers on our cars—to identify ourselves. “Here I am. I can do no other, and you’d better not try to make me.”

Martin Buber says that entering into any kind of serious relationship—with The Holy, with another person, with a tradition—requires the willingness to be changed in and by that relationship. Clearly, most of us most of the time don’t do that. When we do, our friends are likely to treat us as if we had joined a cult. Indeed, that’s part of the operational definition of a cult—an organization that deliberately attempts to make people change their religious opinions. It’s okay to try to recruit the unaffiliated, who started out with no serious opinions on the subject. But groups that evangelize members of other groups are beyond the spectrum of respectability.

I try to imagine Socrates in Chicago, hanging out at the court buildings where it is not unusual to be between obligations and willing to make conversation with semi-strangers. But who would talk to a man who starts out by saying, “I don’t know much of anything. What do you know?” Inviting me to try to change his opinions. What kind of kook would do that? Would he take his hemlock with cream or lemon? Or would he ask me which one tasted better?

Jane Grey


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