Onion arguments and thorny questions
I almost put a link to this fun post from Rachael Acks in last week’s Friday Links, but I also wanted to say some more about it, so I hung onto it. Which is silly, because I can put something in Friday Links and write about it either afterward or before, obviously. Anyway, first the link:
At the top of the post she says, “This post has been made for my own later use. Others are welcome to use it as well.” The idea being rather than argue with certain types of comments, remarks, concern-trolling, et cetera, just send a link to this post. If you want to give the person a bit more of a clue, reference one of the numbered paragraphs by number.
The last several days I’ve encountered several situations where number 2 and 2i apply:
2. Something you have said indicates to me that you lack the necessary factual grounding in order to have this argument, and I am completely uninterested in doing the background research for you.
i. If you are interested in paying me to do the research for you, for example by way of writing an annotated bibliography that you can peruse at your convenience, we can discuss my hourly rates.
Which reminded me of Foz Meadow’s excellent description of a “onion arguments” which she has referenced a few times, including in her post last year, Hugos & Puppies: Peeling The Onion:
When it comes to debating strangers with radically different perspectives, you sometimes encounter what I refer to as Onion Arguments: seemingly simple questions that can’t possibly be answered to either your satisfaction or your interlocutor’s because their ignorance of concepts vital to whatever you might say is so lacking, so fundamentally incorrect, that there’s no way to answer the first point without first explaining eight other things in detail. There are layers to what’s being misunderstood, to what’s missing from the conversation, and unless you’ve got the time and inclination to dig down to the onion-core of where your perspectives ultimately diverge, there’s precious little chance of the conversation progressing peacefully.
And it isn’t just in arguments. I had recent exchange in social media about my current bout of illness, which I had summed up by saying that I was on my third round of antibiotics, and I really hoped they worked because I was tired of all the blood tests, x-rays, et cetera. The other person said maybe I should see a doctor. Which made me reply, “Who do you think prescribed each round of antibiotics and all the blood tests?” Which they still didn’t understand why I couldn’t say exactly what I had and when I would be well. Which led me to assume that this person has had the great luck of never having an illness which wasn’t quickly diagnosed, and didn’t completely grasp how prescription drugs are sold, et cetera.
Foz also explains the reasons why this sort of situation can be so frustrating:
[Y]our interlocutor thinks they’ve asked a reasonable, easy question, your inability to answer it plainly is likely to make them think they’ve scored a point. It’s like a cocky first-year student asking a 101 question and feeling smug when their professor can’t condense the four years of study needed to understand why it’s a 101 question into a three-sentence answer. The problem is one as much of attitude as ignorance: having anticipated a quick response, your interlocutor has to be both willing and interested enough to want to hear what might, at least initially, sound like an explanation of a wholly unrelated issue – and that’s assuming you’re able to intuit the real sticking point straight off the bat.
And that’s how we get drawn into endless spirals. Which aren’t usually worth our time. Unfortunately, sometimes it happens with people we actually know and love (or at least like a great deal and would like to keep in our lives), and it can be difficult to figure out how to navigate the situation without everyone getting upset.
Particularly if when either you or the other person suggests some variant of, “Maybe we can agree to disagree on this?” but it is met with, “Thanks for invalidating my feelings!” or something similar.
When it’s a friend, unfortunately, we can’t just hand them a link to Rachael’s post referenced at the beginning of the message. The really sobering part is realizing how many times someone should probably have referred me to said post…