I'd rather play tennis
On the internet, even the best intellectual arguments resemble a frenetic game of ping pong, not the stately sets of tennis Gadamer loved to play on the lawns of Freiburg. Thanks to the magic of high-speed connection and the convenience of comments boxes, propositions, evidence, and points of order shoot back and forward across the internet at a speed which can be bewildering as well as exhilerating.
The modest piece on Jeanette Fitzsimons' view of 9/11 which I posted last Thursday has prompted more comments than any other post to this blog - its nearest competitor is a discussion of a different brand of conspiracy theory - but, as writers as different as Stephen King and Jack Kerouac have shown, quantity does not always equal quality.
The 'debate' over 9/11 which has followed my post on Fitzsimons resembles not a friendly game of tennis, nor even a furious ping pong match, but a drawn-out session of solo squash. Again and again, Giovanni Tiso (amongst others) has aimed a well-struck shot in the direction of an anonymous 9/11'Truther'; again and again, the shot has collided with an impermeable wall and rebounded.
Solo squash is not exactly a spectator sport, and many readers will lack the desire to consider the two hundred or more comments under my post, so I'll offer an excerpt from the 'debate' between Giovanni and his Truther interlocutor which illustrates its essential nature:
Truther: [After a lecture on the failure of non-Truthers to consider evidence that 9/11 was an 'inside job'] There was no aircraft wreckage at the Pentagon.
Giovanni: No, you're full of crap [provides link to photos of the wreckage].
Truther: OK. So where is the photographic evidence of this wreckage?
Giovanni: In the link provided.
Truther: These people falsify evidence all the time my friend.
Giovanni's interlocutor persisted with this pattern of engagement throughout the discussion under the Fitzsimons post. First he'd challenge his opponents to provide evidence 9/11 wasn't an inside job, then he'd respond to the evidence offered to him - evidence which included photos of plane wreckage, eyewitness accounts of plane crashes, transcripts of phone calls made from a hijacked plane, quite detailed explanations of why 757s and similar aircraft cannot be controlled remotely from the ground, and much else - by claiming that it could be disregarded, because it was just the sort of evidence that the vast conspiracy behind 9/11 would fabricate.
Of course, the Truther made no effort to explain how the evidence was fabricated, to name the people involved in the fabrication, or to offer any evidence of the fabrication of evidence - for him, it was enough to state baldly that the evidence was fabricated. Here's an exchange between the Truther and an anonymous critic of his views:
Anti-Truther: So how do you think all the calls from Flight 93 [the plane that was hijacked and then crashed, after passengers stormed the cockpit] were faked? Agents putting on voices? The real people taken some place and tortured into making the calls? Some kinda voice fabrication software that is so advanced we don't know about it yet? Or paying the people who say they got the calls to lie about their loved ones? I don't know which scenario is more insane.
Truther: It would merely be speculation. I simply don't know but the governments case [ie, the case of those who don't believe 9/11 was an inside job] is weak to the point of unbelievable.
The impossibility of any sort of rational engagement with an interlocutor like Giovanni's Truther opponent should be clear. We are invited to provide evidence that has been ruled inadmissable in advance. Ping pong and tennis are out; we can only bang our heads against the wall that has been erected in front of us.
It is not always wrong for people to be unable or unwilling to justify their beliefs in rational terms. Many people who hold religious beliefs, for example, are uninterested in justifying these beliefs with argument. My good friend the Reverend Nathan Parry, who has studied and been inspired by a lot of the great Christian mystics, once explained his refusal to submit his deepest beliefs to rational interrogation by telling me 'God is bigger than the human brain'. I think I would struggle to justify some of my own cherished beliefs - my belief that poetry is as important as economics, or my belief that Huntly is one of New Zealand's most beautiful towns, or my belief that the Black Caps will one day win the World Cup - with rational argument. If Truthers and other conspiracy theorists admitted that they held to their beliefs in an essentially religious way, and that they were unable to consider any evidence which contradicted their beliefs, then a great deal of bandwith and confusion would be avoided.
We should not have to live our whole lives in the court of rational argument, but when we do invite other people to debate us about matters that rely on the analysis and interpretation of empirical evidence, then we have a responsibility to proceed with at least a modicum of rationality. This is particularly true when tragic events like the 9/11 attacks are under discussion. By inviting us to play ball, but then refusing to deal with our replies to their shots, Truthers waste their own time and ours.
Anyone for a game of tennis, or at least ping pong?
Footnote: I've just noticed that the Truther who is the subject of this post seems to have outed him or herself as an anti-semite, by calling Simon Wiesenthal and the organisation he set up to hunt Nazis and monitor anti-semitism 'vile' at the bottom of the discussion under the previous post. While I don't necessarily support everything Wiesenthal did and everything the organisation he founded says - along with the Jewish community of Venezuela, I thought that the Wiesenthal Centre was wrong to accuse Hugo Chavez of anti-semitism several years ago - I can't understand why anyone who wasn't an anti-semite would object so violently to a man who spent his life hunting the perpetrators of the Holocaust, and an organisation that spends a lot of time exposing neo-Nazis today. What is it about Truthers and anti-semitism?