Arguing in Quicksand

Thinker thinks about how to take sun burst shot, David Yu

When I was a child, I decided I wanted to be a professor. I’m not sure what I wanted to study as a professor, and I’m not even sure I knew what professors do. All I knew—and all that mattered—was that professors are people who think really hard about things and know a lot about those things as a result. I valued and enjoyed thinking and knowing so much that I wanted to grow up to be the sort of person who gets to do those things as much as possible. Of course, not everyone wants to think hard and not everyone wants to know a lot. Most people I’ve known, in fact, just want to get through the day: they just want to think enough to get to an unambiguous answer to some question, and they just want to know enough to complete a task. Some people don’t even want to think that hard or know that much. They would rather not bother with it at all. The attitude is completely understandable: my passions are not everyone passions.

Sometimes, however, I’ll have a conversation with a person who is eager to have a conversation about something controversial and interesting—about race, politics, art, science, you name it. At some point in the conversation, a line gets crossed and they’ll argue: “you think too much,” or “you just have to be right about everything,” or “you’re so argumentative,” and so on. Sometimes people say these things in earnest (as if they’re identifying some problem in me) while other people say them in anger (as if they’re getting back at me for some damage I’ve done). In either case, once a person tells me I think too hard or I try to know too much (or think I already know everything), I know the conversation is over. That is, the game is over—there are no other moves I can make.

How could I respond, after all? If I respond with an argument, more thought, or any response whatsoever, it would only demonstrate how argumentative I am. “You’re so argumentative,” then, is a quicksand argument. The more I try to escape it, the more I sink into a deeper pit. It is the argument that ends all arguments that follow it.

At best, arguments like these are strange: they imply it’s wrong to make arguments past some point. I’m not sure what point that is, or why it’s wrong to make arguments after we’ve crossed it. There are so many ways a person can “cross the line” in a heated debate—by saying insulting things or by being obtuse on purpose. I, however, get the impression that the accusation “you think too much” is just a way of ending the conversation once the analysis requires too much work. But if a person no longer wants to continue a conversation, if they’re no longer interested, why not just say so politely and stop?

At worst, arguments like these are incendiary and insulting. They imply there’s something wrong with thinking the way I (and like-minded people) do, and that I should stop—or at least stop thinking this way as much as I do. The problem is: why should I feel ashamed about thinking as hard as I want to? Why should anyone feel ashamed to make arguments? Why should philosophers (would-be and otherwise) be afraid to do philosophy in broad daylight if we value it so much? Who does it hurt?

I am not sure how to move forward. As I write this, I see the arguments I could make in defense of thinking the way I do; perhaps I could say that intellectual pursuits are rewarding and enriching in simple ways (contrary to popular belief), and much of my pain comes from not being able to think as I would like to. An argument in my own defense would only make matters worse: I would end up doing the same thing I get condemned for doing. It’s no fun being in the quicksand.

Perhaps the best course of action is to avoid those kinds of conversations with those sorts of people: even if they seem to want to talk about those kinds of things in those kinds of ways, even if they’re people you love and want to share your passion with, and even if there are important parts of civic life that depend on us having long conversations about difficult topics. Maybe it’s better to just “save the schoolwork for school”—as I’ve been told over and over again.

…but who the hell wants to do that?