Archive for the ‘Nonsense’ Category

As promised many moons ago, here we are beginning a series of thoughts on nonsense. More specifically, we’re interested in the Swiss-cheese kind of hole-iness of arguments and thinking used by all types of people at their most passionate, and, unfortunately, even at their most dispassionate. Our guide is the wonderful little book by Robert J. Gula, Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language.

Gula’s opening chapter on “everyday nonsense” asks the probing question, “Are men and women by nature hopelessly muddled creatures?” He answers, “By nature, yes. Muddled, yes. Hopelessly, no.” For Gula, hope in the face of the human tendency toward nonsense, it appears, is a matter of better training and more instruction in the practice of argument. More on that later.

My own interest in the structures of ideological communication, especially persuasion (or “argument”), goes beyond the formal structures to the inanity of exasperating obliviousness. In other words, I wonder not only about why and how bad arguments see the light (the airwaves?) of day; I wonder, too, about the cognitive processes at work in those who seem truly not to have a clue about the world, people, communication, etc.  at the most basic levels of personal interaction. While that’s not a topic of the book, recognizing pitfalls and “blind spots” in persuasive communication certainly is. And Gula recognizes one of those blind spots is attitudinal rather than theoretical: laziness. He notes, “Careful and clear thinking requires a certain rigor; it is a skill, and, like all skills, it requires training, practice, and vigilance.”

Definitely correct, and I particularly appreciate Gula’s recognition that his book helps not just the arguer but the arguee, that is, the listener.  Hence the value of the book for those who deal with the more generally, and not only the occasionally, obtuse. “It’s frustrating,” Gula writes, “to know in your heart that what you’ve just heard is nonsense but not to be able to pinpoint why it is nonsense. If you’ve ever found yourself in that position, this book should help. It identifies and itemizes the many different guises that erroneous thinking may assume, and it explains some of the reasons for erroneous thinking.”

Gula offers “general principles” (he does not want to call them “laws”) in the form of a list of patterns that characterize the ways people tend to respond, or as the case may be, react. Mostly they resonate with what we have each no doubt experienced but in each case they are complemented for the Christian with the nature of the Spirit’s work in the face of such obstinacy and obliviousness. For instance, Gula notes that people “tend to believe what they want to believe” and it’s often hard to get them out of that way of thinking. Yes, and the Spirit wonderfully opens our blind eyes and deaf ears to see and hear the truth of things, which alone gives us hope as communicators. Gula also notes that people “tend to generalize from a specific event,” which is to say they lose a sense of proportion in the way they relate specific events to the general patterns and truths, often working only along the lines that favor them. He also lists that people tend to “hear selectively,” hearing “only what they want to hear;” “are eager to rationalize”; sometimes cannot “distinguish what is relevant from what is irrelevant”; “are usually unwilling to explore thoroughly the ramifications of a topic” and “tend to oversimplify.” In a moment of utter candor, Gula states that people “often simply don’t know what they are talking about, especially in matters of general discussion. They rarely think carefully before they speak, but they allow their feelings, prejudices, biases, likes, dislikes, hopes, and frustrations to supersede careful thinking.”

Now, Gula is not, from any indication in the book at least, a Christian. Yet it is striking how Gula’s creation in the image of God is reflected in the decidedly moral nature of his list of communication and logical fallacies. He knows what ought to be but gives no theoretical, certainly no theological, justification for his expectation. Yet Gula recognizes, as we all must, that sound communication is not a matter of intellectual but of spiritual capacity: it’s a matter not of how smart one is but of the presence or absence of active love. It’s really as simple as that, which is not to say it is easy. Nonsense is ethical; in the hands of sinners it becomes a tool of destruction. And for that reason a Christian will recognize a different hope for the communicatively impaired. Because it is a matter of sin, hope comes not from more training and practice per se but ultimately from the Spirit, who may be pleased to use books such as this one as means to the glorious end of love indeed, which is love in deed, love in practice. Along that path Gula’s book is a helpful guide, helping Christian readers develop a holy impatience with loveless speech, particularly as it arises from our own hearts and flows from our own lips.


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