Deep Disagreement and the QAnon Conspiracy Theory

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Deep disagreements are disagreements where two sides agree on so little that there are no shared resources for reasoned resolution. In some cases, argument itself is impossible. The fewer shared facts or means for identifying them, the deeper the disagreement.

Some hold that many disagreements are deep in this way. They contend that reasoned argument has very little role to play in discussions of the things that divide us. Call these the deep disagreement pessimists – they claim that many of the disputes we face cannot be addressed by shared reasoning.

There are also deep disagreement optimists. Their view is that deep disagreements are intractable only for contingent reasons – perhaps we have not yet surveyed all the available evidence, or we are waiting on new evidence, or there is some background shared methodological principle yet to be uncovered. With deep disagreement, the optimist holds, it is hasty to give up on rational exchange, because something useful is likely available, and the costs of passing such rational resolution up are too high. Better to keep the critical conversation going.

Disputes among pessimists and optimists regularly turn on the practical question: Are there actual deep disagreements? The debates over abortion and affirmative action were initially taken to be exemplary of disagreements that are, indeed, deep. Later, secularist and theists outlooks on the norms of life were taken to instantiate a divide of the requisite depth. More recently, conspiracy theories have been posed as points of view at deep odds with mainstream thought.

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Deep Disagreements and the Rhetoric of Red Pills

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Redpills1. Deep Disagreement

It is a common enough occurrence. In arguing with someone, as a controversial view is supported, even more controversial reasons are given, to be followed by more and more controversial commitments. A regular strategy in what might be called normal argument is that arguing parties trace their reasons to a shared ground of agreed-upon premises and rules of support, and then they test which of their sides is favored by these reasons. But disagreements one might call deep are those wherein shared reasons are not easily found. And consequently, it seems that under these conditions, argumentative exchange is doomed to failure. Robert Fogelin famously argued that "the possibility of a genuine argumentative exchange depends … on the fact that together we accept many things." Deep disagreements, consequently, "cannot be resolved through the use of argument, for they undercut the conditions essential to arguing."

Of late, our interest in deep disagreement has not been purely academic. With Donald J. Trump winning the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election and the rise of the alt-right movement in American politics, we found that we faced very real cases of what had seemed a sheer theoretical posit. In particular, the intellectual movement of the self-styled "neo-reactionary right" and the "Dark Enlightenment" seemed to be exemplary. We have been on record as what we've called Argumentative Optimists in the face of deep disagreement, so our theory now has a test case.

2. The Dark Enlightenment and the Cathedral Cathedral

When we started reading around in the neo-reactionary corpus, we found ourselves in what felt like an upside-down world – all the dialectical elements of the argument were familiar, but none of the premises presented as truisms seemed remotely plausible. The journalist James Duesterberg captures his experience first reading the literature of the Dark Enlightenment:

Wading in, one finds oneself quickly immersed, and soon unmoored. All the values that have guided center-left, post-war consensus … are inverted. The moral landmarks by which we were accustomed to get are bearings aren't gone: they're on fire.

This Alice through the looking glass experience is something that those in the literature expect. But the writers in this genre have no plans on showing their readers the way back to the world they'd left behind. In fact, this break with the world of liberal norms is one of the core commitments of the neo-reactionary program. Importantly, we, all those who have not stepped out of it, have been brainwashed by a quasi-religious political superstructural institution ruling the Western world – what those in the neoreactionary movement call The Cathedral.

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Deep Disagreements and Argumentative Optimism

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

ContemptWe all have had moments when we feel that those with whom we disagree not only reject the point we are focused on at the moment, but also reject our values, general beliefs, modes of reasoning, and even our hopes. In such circumstances, productive critical conversation seems impossible. For the most part, in order to be successful, argument must proceed against the background of common ground. Interlocutors must agree on some basic facts about the world, or they must share some source of reasons to with they can appeal, or they must value roughly the same sort of outcome. And so, if two parties disagree about who finished runners-up to Leister City in their historic BPL win last year, they may agree to consult the league website, and that will resolve the issue. Or if two travelers disagree about which route home is better, one may say, "Yes, your way is shorter, but it runs though the traffic bottleneck at the mall, and that adds at least ten minutes to the journey." And that may resolve the dispute, depending perhaps on whether time is what matters most.

But some disagreements invoke deeper disputes, disputes about what sources are authoritative, what counts as evidence, and what matters. Such disputes quickly become argumentatively strange. And so if someone does not recognize the authority of the soccer league's website about last year's standings, it is unclear how a dispute over last year's runners-up to Leister City could be resolved. What might one say to a disputant of this kind? Does he trust news sites, television reporting, or Wikipedia entries concerning the BPL? Does he regard the news sites and the league website as reliable sources of information concerning this year's standings or when the games are played? What if our interlocutor in the route-home case doesn't see why the quickest route is preferable to the shortest? Maybe our traveling companion regards our hurry-scurry as a part of a larger social problem, or maybe wants to enjoy the Zen of a traffic jam. Sometimes a disagreement about one thing lies at the tip of a very large iceberg of composed of many other, deeper, disagreements.

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