A Short Piece
Structural Homomorphism in Argument
Failure to understand the “sharing of argumentative forms” leaves us defenseless against a way our minds seek to trick us.
Imagine a person wore an earring on their right ear and looked in a mirror; the earring would look to be on their left, yes? Similarly, when it comes to arguments, Liberals and Conservatives often use the same forms with different variables (or “accidents”): their arguments possess identical structures, though the details of their arguments vary. I believe failure to understand this “sharing of argumentative forms” leaves us defenseless against ways our minds seek to trick us yet again.
In Conservative areas, I hear Christians argue that they are discriminated against on college campuses and by secular society; at the same time, they think Liberal concerns about racism and white supremacy are overblown. In Liberal areas, I hear arguments that minorities are discriminated against in society and mistreated; at the same time, they think Conservative concerns about discrimination against whites for being privileged and Christians for being religious are exaggerated. On top of this, because Conservative Christians know how Liberals generally feel about their concerns, Conservatives feel even more mistreated, as the suffering of Liberal minorities are compounded because their sufferings are taken seriously. When Liberals question the presence of “radical nihilists” and “Liberal secularists,” Conservatives feel horror at their denial; when Conservatives question how many “white nationalists” are out there, Liberals are struck speechless.
Pro-Choice Liberals can argue that woman should hold the right to make decisions about their own bodies, while Conservatives can argue that mothers should have the right to make choices about which vaccines their children take: both are concerned about the rights of individuals over their bodies. The Pro-Choicer may argue that hesitancy about vaccines doesn’t just impact them but the entire public order, but the Pro-Lifer might argue that abortion doesn’t just impact the woman’s body, but the life of another person inside the woman. Both believe that the other side should have their (medical) rights limited when they impact other people, but they do not agree on what constitutes a person or who has rights to make decisions over and for who. I don’t mean here to suggest the arguments are identical, justified, or equally valid — that’s a different conversation — what interests me is the similarities of “forms.”
From my experience, though varying in the details, I’ve noticed that opposing political sides often participate in similar argumentative forms (this is what I call “argument homomorphism”). It interests me to think that ideology is elastic enough to absorb and use various forms of argument for different subjects, though ultimately it can be argued that it doesn’t matter if arguments share form: what matters are the facts that justify argument x using form z versus argument y using form z. And regarding what is ultimately true, indeed, it doesn’t matter, but I fear that a failure to take into account “argument homomorphism” makes us less able to see facts clearly and/or without just (re)interpreting them into our preset worldviews and ideas. Additionally, facts can’t force us to look at them (let alone force us to interpret them correctly, and who decides what’s “correct” anyway?). There is a weakness to facts, and often when the brain faces them, the brain brings out its best tricks to weaken and avoid them. What enables us to think is also what makes thinking so difficult. The brain is a frenemy.
Facts seem weak to stop “argument homomorphism,” which is problematic, because once someone absorbs the argumentative form of the other side, the arguments of the other side likely no longer move them into action, for they feel like they are suffering the same problem and need to be helped more than help, acknowledged more than acknowledge, be asked to forgive versus give forgiveness, and so on. When white Christians believe they are being persecuted, perhaps their motivation to help the persecuted decreases; additionally, they may “not want to be lectured to” about persecution, because they feel like they already know all about it. This may influence white Christians to downplay discussions about racism, for example, and to additionally feel bitter about their perceived persecution not being included in the conversation. And the fact Conservatives can feel like they are being persecuted may make Liberals all the more upset, a response which can make Conservatives more upset, a response which can make Liberals more upset — on and on. When the forms of arguments are copied and not identified as copies, arguments can lose their power to motivate. Resentment can build.
These problems could be avoided if we could stop “argument homomorphism” before it happened, but that might not be possible. This is problematic since “argument homomorphism” is a particularly powerful way that the brain may participate in self-deception, defend its worldview, etc. — it’s like a powerful fortress that once people enter, it’s almost impossible to reach them to even have a constructive discussion, let alone change their view. At best, perhaps all we can do is identify that “argument homomorphism” is occurring and live accordingly. Perhaps tracing the origins of an argument to see which side made the argument first and which side responded to it would help? But just because I make x argument first doesn’t necessarily mean that I suffer from the subject of x more so than someone else (perhaps someone who actually suffers from x just hasn’t made the argument yet, perhaps due to oppression keeping them silent). Perhaps I could go through the specific details of how though x and y seem to share form z, they ultimately don’t (or that the sharing is ultimately inconsequential)? But I’ve seen it happen countless times where listeners just reinterpret, disregard, etc. the details relative to what is most advantageous for their worldview (and do note that the fact that we even try to have this conversation can be evidence to listeners of their persecution).
Today, there is much emphasis on the need for facts and focusing on facts, but I wonder if more focus needs to be put on how ideology forms and operates to contribute to self-deception, ideological bubbles, etc. Assuming there is no way to stop “homomorphism,” maybe at least the observation about the phenomenon will help us become more innovative in how we argue, for if we know arguments that “play into” a repeating form are likely to be weak, we will try to argue around those forms — we will search for an entrance into the fortress from behind.