Sunday, August 07, 2005

Think critically? Notes on 'critical blogging' by Heavenly Sword

A few rather intellectual bloggers have been advising others to 'blog critically' or 'think critically'. I think that the advice is a good one and originates from good intentions.

The above advice, however, has often been misunderstood or applied wrongly. Being critical should not mean being cynical all the time, nor should it mean giving anti-establishment views all the time. Simply reversing the claims made by others represents just that – a simple flip from one view to a directly opposite view – an action which can be executed by any ordinary computer or robot.

Critical thinking, I suggest, should mean that one is able to judge for himself the strength, weaknesses, nuances, and structure of the arguments presented by proponents of various schools of thought on particular issues. It is perfectly normal that on certain issues, one might well feel that the government has done the right thing while on other issues, one might feel that the government could do better. But some habits hinder genuine dialogue in Singapore's civil society. Firstly, there is a tendency in some people to view any sort of criticism negatively. Critics are often viewed as unpatriotic just because their discourses do not match those of the Ministers perfectly. Thus any deviation from the standard script is viewed with suspicion. At the other extreme, there are others who criticize everything they see, as though the country is a shithole. These critics tend to take the moral high ground and assume that their arguments are superior just because they have a moral case. They will ignore other views that are based on a holistic assessment of situations that take into account unique characteristics of a particular country. I would like to suggest that both extremes are unhealthy. Just as no society is perfect and utopian, no society is so bad that you have to totally dismiss it or condemn it (for example, by describing it with the word "bloody" as one blogger has done).

Thus, one should always take the time to see things from various perspectives. This sounds cliché but it is the phrase that most adequately captures what I think. Critical thinking and 'proper argumentative writing' are inseparable, in my opinion. The latter means that having judged the strength and weaknesses of the various schools of thought, the person is able to present his own arguments in a way that is convincing/persuasive, fair/reasonable, and polite/non-sarcastic.

An argument that is phrased in a sarcastic way can hardly persuade people to try and see things from your point of view. Whenever I read or hear something sarcastic, I feel that the person is not interested in convincing me or engaging in a civilized dialogue; instead, he is probably out to provoke, irritate, annoy, or enrage me. Arguments designed to convince should come across very differently from those designed to say, 'please punch me'. The philosopher Nietzsche once said that people sometimes do not agree with one another not because of the substance of the arguments, but because of the ways they are phrased and delivered – that is, the form of the arguments. So form can be as important as substance.

Using phrases such as "if you think about it..." (as though people are not thinking about it) or "come on..." (as though people are being unreasonable), or swear words such as "WTF" (whatever that means), or loaded terms that imply dissenters' stupidity, immaturity or incivility, are all strategies falling outside the realm of proper argumentation. I will never think more highly of a piece of writing just because one or more of these strategies are used. In particular, I do wish that people in Singapore will use Hokkien swear words less frequently or not at all if possible, especially in public (and publicly accessible domains). People who are vaguely famous should take note of this, because 'with great power comes great responsibility'. My fear is that over time, my beloved dialect group, Hokkien, will be associated with a vulgar culture of the most banal form – and I would like my culture, which obviously includes its language, to be associated with something more positive in my very own country.

Thus, I have presented my view of what (a) critical thinking and (b) 'proper argumentative writing' should entail – namely, civility (as represented by a decent form), and avoidance of the two extremes that I have described earlier. Only when (a) and (b) are combined can one engage in 'critical blogging'. Lastly, I would say that many people confuse critical thinking with the practice of voicing personal views on every controversial issue on earth. This is understandable, since this practice does allow people to boost their egos in the process of trying to appear encyclopaedic or morally superior. However, commenting on every single controversial issue on earth is not something that I would personally do, because at times it just seems obvious to me that the fundamental disagreement over certain issues, laws, or policies is due to normative differences in value systems, to the extent that arguments and counter-arguments will only end up in a stalemate.


Blogger A.Ball.of.Yarn said...

i am humbled by some of the reminders you have included in his entry, about civility, especially as this comes right after I've lost my cool with a particular troll on my blog.;)

that said, you have to admit there are a handful of people out there, those I find myself unable to describe in more flattering terms than "happiness haters" despite my best efforts.

Sometimes, a certain group of people will simply not yield to reasoning; perhaps it's because pride just gets in the way. A life focused on reaction, to them, then becomes so much more significant than one with an eye on responding to life's provocations.

There is much evidence of that in the blogosphere.

Mon Aug 08, 12:46:00 AM 2005  
Blogger WhiteOut said...

WTF - what the fucosidosis (or some vulgar word with same effect)
WTF r u tokin bout?

Mon Aug 08, 02:20:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Huichieh said...

Good piece. I Blogged very briefly about this some time ago (here). I would add, however, that the onus does not fall merely upon the spouters of vulgarities, rude commenters, etc. Don't forget the readers. After all, we could respond likewise, or we could just be turned off and ignore them, or we could eat the fish and spit out the bones, i.e., learn what we can even from the worst of the lot to our own benefit.

Another thing, while I believe that "an ability to think critically" is a virtue, it is not the same as an ability to voice one's critical thinking (i.e., as critical writing/blogging) in a persuasive manner. That is often the harder thing to do.

Mon Aug 08, 08:20:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Dear Master Ball.of.Yarn: After losing your cool, you are still quite cool - and that is a good sign. I think the reader might be someone who likes you in real life (most probably a lady whom you have rejected before).

And yes, there are 'happiness haters' indeed - I have just encountered one too.

Dear Master WhiteOut: Ah...I got it. Thanks for dropping by. P.S. Your blog is very 'sard'- it lives up to its name.

Dear Master HuiChieh: Your last paragraph has said in one paragraph what I tried to say in one article. I am ashamed that I have not been more concise or clearer. Well said - and I think your article is great. It's quite a waste that it's buried in the archives...

Mon Aug 08, 08:39:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Huichieh said...

Nah...I'm always reminded of what Wittgenstein once said: "This is how philosophers should salute each other: 'Take your time!'"

Mon Aug 08, 09:15:00 AM 2005  
Blogger doubleyellow said...

hey HS, glad you brought this topic up. Do you notice the contradiction in your post? :)

On one hand, you seem to want to empower Singapore civil society by telling them that it is ok to be critical and non-confirmist to the mainstream. In the same breath, you also say that this is THE way of being a critic. And in the process, try to define a conformist way of being a critic :)

if one wants to say something different from what the establishment, think it should be left to his/her style of writing - whether its critical, cynical, sarcastic or humourous....

By the way, the Nietzsche comment you highlighted has been critiqued... Foucault and Derrida have in my opinion done far better on critique :)

Mon Aug 08, 11:00:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Hi HuiChieh: As you'd probably have noticed, my writings usually have a 'pace' that is reasonably fast but not that fast: it's what pianists and music students would call (in Italian) allegro ma non troppo...By the way, I am now searching for some manuals on how to write 'cheemly', as some bloggers are able to do. Any recommendations?

Mon Aug 08, 12:18:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Dear Master DoubleYellow: Long time no see. Regarding your comment, erm......please do give me one day to think about it...

Mon Aug 08, 04:21:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Huichieh said...

Heavenly Sword:

"By the way, I am now searching for some manuals on how to write 'cheemly', as some bloggers are able to do."

I'm not really sure what you mean. If it is for academic purposes, I think you are doing quite fine. Email me.


"On one hand, you seem to want to empower Singapore civil society by telling them that it is ok to be critical and non-confirmist to the mainstream. In the same breath, you also say that this is THE way of being a critic. And in the process, try to define a conformist way of being a critic."

You are equivocating between two senses of critic/criticism/critical (what my earlier post was all about). As I read it, HS is encouraging us to be critical--to judge carefully for ourselves the strength/weaknesses of the arguments/opinions presented by people. This need not (it could, but it might not) lead to one being critical--to find fault with, to disagree with--the establishment (or for that matter, non-establisment view).

Non-conformity is not at all an indication of "critical thinking" in the first sense: one could well be an uncritical non-conformist.

Mon Aug 08, 10:42:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Hi HuiChieh:'s not so much for academic purposes; just for general purposes. I just want to improve my writing. I notice that there are a lot of books on how to write clearly, but I haven't come across one on how to write 'cheemly'...

Thanks for the excellent reply to Double Yellow! I couldn't have done it better.

Tue Aug 09, 07:17:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Hi Double Yellow: Could you enlighten me on what Derrida and Foucault said? How was Nietzsche's argument criticized?

In addition to what HuiChieh said in the above reply, I will say the following:

"Although in principle, people should be allowed to 'be critical' in any way they want (be it humorous, sarcastic, rude, or whatever), in practice, I think the sarcastic and rude styles will not work if you take human psychology into account (the humorous style is okay). The listeners or readers, after reading comments with a hostile/rude/sarcastic 'tone', may get angry and retaliate, or he may decide not to engage in further conversations - the two most common reactions. If the former option is chosen, the whole 'discussion' may turn into a one that leaves participants in one or both of the following states:

(a) more convinced in their original views, and/or

(b) more alienated from those who hold different views.

Both outcomes should be considered suboptimal by one who only aims to convince/persuade dissenters/critics/opponents.

One who has other secondary aims will probably not consider the above outcomes suboptimal (they may think they are optimal!). Possible reasons are the following:

(a) they may be trying to 'boost their own ego by putting people down', or,

(b) 'insult people for emotional release' (e.g. after a hard day's work, insulting people can be an inexpensive form of recreation), or,

(c) other reasons (e.g. destroying racial harmony)....

Tue Aug 09, 07:52:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Huichieh said...

I have never come across any books/manuals on how to write "cheemly"--nor do I think it is such a great thing to be able to do so... what purpose does it serve?

There is always this...

Talking about good ol'Friedrich N. (and I do like his stuff) I am always reminded of what Lovejoy said about "metaphysical pathos" (in The Great Chain of Being): some people are all impressed by Nietzsche not because they understood anything of the argument but because of a certain sort of emotional glow or high they feel when reading him...

Tue Aug 09, 08:27:00 AM 2005  
Blogger doubleyellow said...

huichieh, point well taken as long as you also believe that it entirely possible to be a "critical conformist"... which is something i think the establishment would actually like in their ranks :)

having said that, I think HS is also trying to make a broader point... do see my next comment

Tue Aug 09, 08:29:00 AM 2005  
Blogger doubleyellow said...

HS, the reason why your argument goes farther than huichieh's comment is because (I think ) you believe that form has an impact on substance. Only if all sides in a debate have a similar forms can they discuss the substance in a proper fashion.

This notion is problematic. Because who is to decide what form is best suited to critical thinking. You say sarcastic comments may take the discussion on a tangential course but hey, could that be the problem of the person who is so sensitive to sarcasm and cynicism? I also do not think there is consensus on what constitutes sarcasm and cynicism.

In short, trying to achieve confirmity in form is a futile exercise. Think its better if everyone attempts to focus on the substance :)

its a bit difficult for me to explain derrida's and foucault's work in a comment but I invite you to read their works (NLB, ref section). And trust me, you will get a super sampling of cheem writing... :)

Tue Aug 09, 08:40:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

People are "...impressed by Nietzsche not because they understood anything of the argument but because of a certain sort of emotional glow or high they feel when reading him..."

Ah, that's the kungfu that I'm trying to learn! (Have been watching too much Tian Long Ba Pu recently)

Tue Aug 09, 08:46:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

"Only if all sides in a debate have a similar forms can they discuss the substance in a proper fashion. This notion is problematic. Because who is to decide what form is best suited to critical thinking. You say sarcastic comments may take the discussion on a tangential course but hey, could that be the problem of the person who is so sensitive to sarcasm and cynicism?"

Hi DY, erm...regarding form versus substance, I would make the following claims:

(1) Nice Form + Good Substance = Convincing Stuff (better chance of convincing the previously unconvinced)

(2) Not-Nice Form + Good Substance = May Convince the Already Convinced, but may not convince the previously unconvinced

(3) Not-Nice Form + No Substance = May Still Convince the Already Convinced, but will not convince the previously unconvinced

(4) Nice Form + No Substance = No Effect on the Convinced, but may still convince the previously unconvinced

So, in fact, it is not just two entities that are involved here (form and substance), but rather, four entities, represented by the above 'equations'...

Tue Aug 09, 08:57:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

On "the problem of the person who is so sensitive to sarcasm and cynicism" that you mentioned, I would say the following:

(1) That insensitivity to sarcasm is an acquired skill or kungfu, which takes years to cultivate. (He must also want to be more tolerant of sarcasm before he would even try to cultivate such a skill; it's not a natural ability.)

(2) Since (a) it takes years to cultivate, (b) success of cultivation is not guaranteed, (c) there will still be many who don't want to cultivate, (d) there are many young people (esp. those between 17 & 23 years old) who may still be in the process of cultivating it (although some have already attained that state), the situation is this:

Only about 30% of the participants (including the audience) in any discussion are actually able to fulfill the condition that you have set - namely, insensitivity to criticisms. And since 70% constitutes the majority, and majority (usually) wins, this would create a situation where the sober minority can only sit there and shake their heads, since it is beyond their ability to intervene. Very much like the Shaolin Abbot who goes, "Shan zai, shan zai...Ami-tuo-fo" when everybody is fighting...

Tue Aug 09, 09:13:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Huichieh said...

In what follows, "critical" always take the sense of "judging carefully for ourselves the strength/weaknesses of the arguments/opinions presented by people" (and not the other sense of "finding fault with").

1. Conformity is contrary to critical thinking, but non-conformity is not mutually entailing with critical thinking. Here, I am taking conformity to mean something like this: A says P, and B agrees just because A says P (or many people say P). But suppose both A and B think critically, they could well independently conclude that P--they agree with each other, but neither is conforming. I took part of HS's point to imply precisely that even if everyone think critically, it doesn't follow that everyone will necessarily come up with anti-establishment views. And conversely, we shouldn't conclude from the mere fact that someone happen to have an "establishment view" that he is therefore not thinking critically. And vice versa.

(1a. I think the above is roughly correct but possibly on the simplistic side. It may give the impression that critical thinking is essentially "solo-affairs". But I think that would be a severe mistake: why can't people learn from each other and nevertheless be critical? I think that thinking critically requires one to be independent in some sense, but not in every sense--in fact, a failure to pay heed to those who know more than us could well be a sign of a "lack of critical awareness" (i.e., of one's ignorance). But even in less limiting cases, i.e., when the parties are about equal, they could learn from each other through exchange, through division of labor, through cooperation. This suggests that critical inquiry could well have a communal dimension.)

2. Whether or not the establishment would or would not like those who agree with them is irrelevant to the distinction.

3. I didn't read HS as saying that there is a suitable form to the voicing/writing of critical opinion--in so far as the suitableness of this form is meant to be a function of it's being critical. I took him to be offering counsel for those who would prefer their opinions to be persuasive. After all, just because one's opinion has critical substance doesn't imply that it would be persuasive, especially if one is rude. Nothing mysterious here, just a commonsensical observation about how human beings behave.

For me, even a rudely expressed opinion could well be critical; but it wouldn't be persuasive (it could turn people off). On the other hand, even a well expressed, and very 'persuasive' opinion could well be lacking in critical substance.

The concern with form goes beyond the critical substance in that it now essentially involves another person--the audience.

(3a. It also goes beyond the immediate concern with persuasiveness if we think of the larger discussion context. Given 1a. I tend to think that people are in a better position to learn from each other when most are at least polite. Again, this is not necessarily a point about an individual's critical thinking per se, but a condition for fruitful dialogue--which could well be a spur for better critical thinking.)

Tue Aug 09, 09:16:00 AM 2005  
Blogger doubleyellow said...

HS, thanx for the equations :) in response, i can only say - who is the judge of "nice form" and "good substance"? Is it those people who are "already convinced"? why should it be?

heheh...i can already see the difference in American and European scholarship. Scholars like Nietzsche make an implicit assumption that all actors are rational... BUT obviously, there is NO consensus on what behavior constitutes rationality... :)

HS, do read Foucault and Derrida if you get a chance. Foucault has written a book called "Madness or Reason" (something like that, 1960s) where he outlines the different ways in which madness has been redefined over the centuries... and argues that only by defining "reason" can one loosely define "madness"... cheem enuf oredi? :)

Tue Aug 09, 09:21:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Huichieh said...

Huh? Nietzsche questions the point of rationality throughout his works. He even went as far as to offer a "geneology" of "rationality" out of "irrationality". Both Foucault and Derrida acknowledge their debt to him. And since Nietzsche is German, I am not sure who the American scholar is...

Tue Aug 09, 09:32:00 AM 2005  
Blogger doubleyellow said...

huichieh, i agree with (1) and (2). my problem lies with (3)...

"I took him to be offering counsel for those who would prefer their opinions to be persuasive."

I fully agree that when being critical, it is better to be polite than be rude. Of course, all of us like polite ppl :)

Let us say A has an opinion P. If B wants to make a point, you say that B should be frame his critical arguments in a form that is most likely to persuade A and hence be effective.

But what I dont understand is why should it be B who has to make the effort? Why cant it be A who is concentrates more on the substance of what B is talking rather than its form? Because A may take a comment as 'rude' while B may actually have been 'polite'.

The problem lies as to who decides what form is 'rude' and what form is 'polite'. Is it A? Why should it be? This goes back to the point I made in my earlier comment... "who is the judge of "nice form" and "good substance"? Is it A? Why should it be? :)

Tue Aug 09, 09:37:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Wow, I need some time to digest HuiChieh's analysis, which is impressive.

And I also need some time to think about DY's questions more carefully. But for a start, I would say that what constitutes 'nice/not-nice form' should be intersubjectively determined - i.e. what most people (or the men/women on the street) would regard as 'nice/not-nice'.

Thanks for the recommendation, DY. Too cheem also difficult to read...My kungfu is limited, you know... :)

Tue Aug 09, 09:37:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

"(From DY's comment) But what I don't understand is why should it be B who has to make the effort? Why can't it be A who is concentrates more on the substance of what B is talking rather than its form? Because A may take a comment as 'rude' while B may actually have been 'polite'."

I agree that A should, on his part, try to focus on the substance. I can accept the argument that both A and B should make the effort...After all, it takes two hands to clap...

The other point DY raised was about "A possibly interpreting the comment by B as 'rude' when B didn't mean to be rude". In this case, I would say it's a misunderstanding...

Tue Aug 09, 09:50:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Huichieh said...

dy: note that your last two paras. point to two distinct issues that are not necessarily related.

1. I absolutely agree that the onus should not be completely upon the speaker or writer. The audience has just as much responsibility to be charitable, etc. In fact, I said as much in my very first comment. Nevertheless, this is compatible with the point that if the speaker wants a sympathetic reception, he could help himself by being polite. Ultimate, both sides have to play their part--for the audience: does it matter that the other is rude? for the speaker/writer--couldn't you spare a thought for the potential readers? Again, this is not really a point about critical thinking or even critical blogging per se, but the conditions for fruitful exchange.

2a. Minus a large chunk of gray area, I think that most people do have a fairly good grip on what makes for politeness and rudeness, even online. This is probably because we do have some sense of what makes for polite speech in person. But context will be highly determinative.

Not forgetting the possibility of misunderstanding, being over-sensitive, etc.

Needless to say, we can continue to debate about whether there is enough of a widely acepted (overlapping) consenses on the standards of politeness. Personally, I don't really care about the rudeness of a piece of writing, as long as they make a good case (i.e., I am willing to put a higher premium on argument). But I might not want to converse too much with the person.

2b. Whatever the status of politeness and rudeness, this is not the same as the criteria of "substance"--which is not quite "rationality" per se-just the usual and very mundane norms of good argument. Are the even premises true? or at least not highly controversial? Can they be backed up by suitable sources? What about the conclusions drawn from the premises--do they actually follow from the premises? Do they measure up to the very mundane standards of inductive and deductive reasoning? Or are there formal and informal fallacies?

I'm not talking about the higher reaches of mathematical logic or set theory, but mundane reasoning. Nobody "decided" on these issues--they are the conditions of critical thought and debate.

Incidentally, even those who say that there rationality partakes of many forms, or question the authority of reason, etc., etc., defend their appeal to the same standards of argumentation. And better still, gets all upset when others say that some particular argument of their fail to past muster...

Tue Aug 09, 10:03:00 AM 2005  
Blogger doubleyellow said...

huichieh, looks like i rambled too much (as usual lah)... :) i meant "american scholarship" on the equations that HS presented - the emphasis on the rational actor model. about the Nietzsche comment that HS made in the original post, i think it was before he wrote the "geneology of rationality (please correct me if i am wrong). My apologies if I was not clear in my earlier comments... (and I am NOT being sarcastic!!) heheheh :)

huichieh, agree with (1) that the onus should lie on both sides... that was precisely what I was trying to highlight because the original post seemed to suggest much responsibility on the speaker. From his comments, I think HS too agrees with this :)

And the fact that you put a premium on substance rather than form, I think thats a good sign of tolerance...heheh :p

About 2b, I think we are delving deeper into issues of "logical reasoning" and at this point, i will raise the white flag :)

On ya, the last two paras of my earlier comment are indeed not related coz they are different points. My apologies for rambling again....and from your last para, I almost think that you are a student of Foucault..bravo, bravo!

Tue Aug 09, 11:12:00 AM 2005  
Blogger doubleyellow said...

HS, you said...

"I agree that A should, on his part, try to focus on the substance. I can accept the argument that both A and B should make the effort...After all, it takes two hands to clap..."

Would you then agree that it is possible for A and B to 'agree' that sarcasm, rudeness and cynicism are accepted forms of critical thinking? And that both of them would focus on the substance of the argument and hence can still be effective?

Sorry lah, just trying to play devil's advocate more and more... i get the points you and huichieh are trying to make and glad that you ppl brought this up! :)

Tue Aug 09, 11:15:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Hi DY, it's possible, but it would take years of cultivation or kungfu training to increase one's 'internal strength' - resulting in the "30% versus 70%" situation that I mentioned earlier...

BTW, congrats on your recent series of highly creative articles - I'm impressed. I showed my wife the Vending Machine one, and she laughed (I was trying to cheer her up; and she is not someone who laughs easily).

Tue Aug 09, 11:42:00 AM 2005  
Anonymous Lei's Mom said...

I've never read Nietzche or Foucault so I can't say I know half of what you all are talking about. But something Huichieh said caught my eye :

"an ability to think critically" is a virtue, it is not the same as an ability to voice one's critical thinking (i.e., as critical writing/blogging) in a persuasive manner. That is often the harder thing to do.

I can't agree more with Huichieh. HS and I had a brief discussion about the situation in schools and why many students can't argue about an issue persuasively. Here's what I think is the cause (at least in my school).

English teachers are required to teach argumentative writing in sec schs because you will get at least 1 such question in the O level paper. But Head of Eng Dept in school tells you to just spend minimal time on this topic -- cos it's a tedious process, students struggle too much (don't have substance to put together an argument, plus immature thinking) and chances are, they won't score very well. Might as well spend the time teaching them to write narratives -- they can score better. And in any case, when they get to junior college and have to face the monster called General Paper, they would be taught argumentative writing again. So let the JC teachers worry about this problem.

I have rallied against this thinking, where things are done just so students can score in the O levels. My belief is this -- that an ability to think critically and present a convincing argument, will benefit you far more in your life, than the ability to write good stories. In your life, you will encounter many occasions when your ability to present a convincing case will stand you in good stead, eg. -

- in a job/scholarship interview
- crafting a business proposal
- telling your parents you want to
marry this man (who is a loser in
their eyes)
- convincing a pri sch principal
why your child must get into his

Unfortunately, we have many people with short-term goals who simply want to get past the O level with decent results and worry about the more important skills later. Is it any wonder why many products of our education system cannot string together a proper argument?

Here's one suggestion for parents if you want to start your child thinking critically from young. I do this with my 6-year-old quite often. Everytime she wants something, like a new toy, I'll ask her "Give me 5 good reasons". And she'll try to list them, knowing that if she can't come up with good reasons, she won't get her toy. It may sound cruel to some of you to make a kid do that mental gymnastics, but the 'form' in which you present it is important. I ask her in a light-hearted way, and I pretend to get excited with every reason she gives, telling her "wow, that's a good reason!" or "hmm, that's not very good. think of a better one" (if your child is quite mature, present a rebuttal and let her defend herself). It makes her think, and subtlely reinforces the point that if you have a case, convince me. Do it well, and you would win me over.

Tue Aug 09, 01:53:00 PM 2005  
Blogger tyme said...

wow.. just a note to say that i really enjoy your articles and comments by all parties.. this is really my intellectual read of the week.. oh and please don't write too cheemly.. haha.. it gets rather boring to read seriously cheem stuff.. i think the tone is quite ok now.. :p

Tue Aug 09, 02:38:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Hi Lei's Mom: Very insightful! And now I know what to do next time if my boy says, "Daddy I want this toy!". I will say, "Give me fifty good reasons why I should buy this for you - argue for your case, and do it politely and persuasively."

(a good way to save money) :)

Hi Tyme: I'm glad that you've enjoyed it. Don't worry, I won't write too 'cheemly', not because I don't want to, but because I don't have the ability to!

(I haven't found the manual yet...That manual...)

Wed Aug 10, 07:31:00 AM 2005  
Blogger SBB said...

"WTF" (whatever that means)

Heehee... I always thought that meant What the F..k (rhymes with duck)

Good arguments, however, I think I blog more to record my current state of mind than to try and convince others to my viewpoint. I've found that generally, I'm not terribly good at that (changing other people's minds). I get too domineering!

Thu Aug 11, 12:25:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Dear Inifinite Bowel: Great to see you here! :) Thanks for the compliment. Haha...I think I roughly know what that word is....

I blog to record my state of mind too (see my post on "Three Pairs of Ambivalent Feelings").

As for convincing people, it's probably hard for anyone to be very successful at this all the time (even with superb writing skills), because most people tend to have strong faith in their beliefs...

You get domineering too? Hm..I guess there are occasions when being domineering actually helps in the argumentation :)

Thu Aug 11, 01:29:00 PM 2005  
Blogger akikonomu said...

I hope I'm not too late to this great discussion. I'll 'fess up now, I have the phrase "Think Critically" on my blog, under the about me column. I have never advocated or felt the need to advise other bloggers to do that, really. I trust that no one has taken liberty to offend any of you and justify that by quoting me. The phrase is there as a reminder to myself to think critically - an advice a prof drilled into us a few years ago.

While Heavenly Sword touched on the desired form and results of critical thinking, and suggests it should be accompanied by a proper etiquette of argumentation, I feel critical thinking is more of a critical method that addresses the question: HOW does one "judge carefully for ourselves the strength/weaknesses of the arguments/opinions presented by people"?

(I'll digress a little now on the bad name that critical thinking has acquired. Critical thinking doesn't mean being cynical or delighting in putting down others...)

1. One does not take the perceived wisdom as is, but subjects it, along with all other alternative, supplementary, and heretical views, to the same rigourous analysis.

1A. Because the perceived wisdom that orders the moral universe is questioned, critical thinking is often misdiagnosed as cynicism, rebelliousness, subversion - especially if critical thinking eventually decides that the better argument is NOT the dominant one.

2. One takes the argument a person offers down to its atoms. What is the logical progression, what are the evidence offered to prove the argument?

2A. Because everything down to the minutest details is examined, weighed, and questioned, people often take this to be an aggressive attack on their person. You can call me names, but NEVER question my policies - because I identify myself with MY argument.

In the course of breaking down a bad argument, it is often taken as being impolite. I put this down to ignorance of how argumentation and rhetoric should be conducted.

3. The method of attack (not exhaustive): deconstruction, critical theory, feminism, etc. Primarily the names of the theories, approaches, and theorists are not important in themselves, but the important thing is the alternate viewpoint: critical thinking comes from the momentary shock of defamiliarisation.

3A. How do people get defamiliarised, their insularity to difference breached? Through the shock of a completely alien viewpoint. It's deeply upsetting when it's done right. As someone who attempts to practise critical thinking, I accept the possibility that the other party will be offended - but it is certainly not my intent.

Personally, I don't find the use of sarcasm threatening or offensive, if the person is in fact addressing the argument. Arguments are rarely all about facts, but can be complicit in worldviews or larger discourses and mythologies - and sarcasm may be a way to combat them.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is my preferred jocular reaction to incredible news, and is not used as a vulgarity =D

Thu Aug 11, 09:04:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Hi Akikonomu, thanks for the great comment! Certainly not too late to join the party, as the topic is timeless! :)

I agree with points 1-3A that you've presented (which is everything, basically)...

Just a comment on this part: "I accept the possibility that the other party will be offended - but it is certainly not my intent."

I feel that it is precisely because of this possibility that we should pay attention to both the method (as you've rightly pointed out) as well as the 'tone'...Because at the end of the day, if I disagree with someone, it is really not because (and shouldn't be because) I don't like that person...

Thu Aug 11, 09:53:00 PM 2005  
Blogger desiderata said...

Srolled her by chance -- just say in general I second your views.

Onthe "swearings" referred to, you should visit some of Msian blogs -- I'm not too proud, and it's not just polite WTF!s.

It reminds me of my yonger days hailing from a real Ulu where the boys at the basketball/badminton courts never failed to have at least one profanity (I won't cite examples here, I think you can guess!)in every other sentence!

ONE point though I wish to beg to differ -- there's room for some sarcasm -- if there is no mala fide (bad intent to hurt). In such cases, the respondents can counter with equal sarcasm or "acidic humour" in my vocab -- it's only words, and what better weapon o use than the English alphabet?

I'd return to engage thee more....

Thu Aug 11, 10:01:00 PM 2005  
Blogger akikonomu said...

Hi HS:

the structure of my post was:

For every point about how critical theory should function, there is every possbility that someone will take offense.

That said, one often feels the desire to dispense with niceties and just treat the argument professionally, and if it's a really bad and unacceptable argument, hammer it with scorn, with absolutely no interest for the person. If they can't accept the non-personal agenda and choose to be offended, it's their fault.

We seem to be forgetting one thing, though. In serious discourse (both academic and non-academic) like this, we often are not even engaging in any communication with the author of the argument. The difference is: the academic practice of critical thinking occurs in journals. Everyone is far removed from each other. While we're blogging, some times we're deconstructing and destructing an argument on its author's blog.

Something to consider then is: is the practice of critical analysis, scholarly (often merciless and yet non-personal!) argument made impossible because of the social nature of blogging?

Thu Aug 11, 10:04:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Huichieh said...

Ironically, social yet not social enough. Journals are not the only avenue of debate--there's also the conference (not all formats apply) where the scholars can face off over each other's arguments. Most (but not all) are polite in such settings and would never dream of saying the sorts of things sometimes seen in the comments section of blogs. Something about the medium I guess.

Fri Aug 12, 01:23:00 AM 2005  
Blogger BL said...

Well, it will be good that there is civility in any form of debate. However, sometimes internet (world wide web) is like the wild wild west. I have generalized all forms of discussions (be it blogs, forums or podcasts) to these laws:

Zeroth Law: If A is talking to B and B is talking to C, then we assume that A, B and C are in conversation.

First Law: Any information in a conversation is the sum of facts and opinions used in the discussion.

Second Law: The entropy for each conversation or discussion will either remain constant or increases. It simply means that any form of debate will disintegrate at some point into a flamewar.

Third Law: A perfect discussion with only facts are impossible to attain.

Well, blame it on my profession, but I think that you just have to answer for yourself whether you are writing a blog based on passion and interest or just writing it for the sake of writing one.

Fri Aug 12, 01:46:00 AM 2005  
Blogger akikonomu said...

Huichieh, I believe the type of debates in scholarly journals can get close to an academic combat sport. These people are polite, don't engage in personal disputes, but they can go all out at times to demolish each other's arguments.

The hoi polloi, though, believe that the moment their arguments are questioned, it becomes personal.

What I'm trying to say (among other things) is most of the population do not follow, understand, or appreciate the norm of politely dispassionate destruction of arguments as homo academicus. For one thing, discourse is not as free floating outside academia.

To be facetious... is the critical method safe enough to be administered to non-believers?

Fri Aug 12, 02:05:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Hi Desiderata, welcome to my abode!

"One point though I wish to beg to differ -- there's room for some sarcasm -- if there is no mala fide (bad intent to hurt)."

I agree with this, in principle, except that in practice, there are 2 difficulties:

(1) 'some sarcasm': An acceptable dose ('some') is hard to calibrate. Very often, an overdose is delivered. It's like accidentally drinking 5 cans of Red Bull and then feeling too agitated for the rest of the day...

(2) 'intent to hurt': This may or may not be easy for the listeners/readers to discern (and this difficulty will cause problems). There are 3 scenarios:

(a) No intent to hurt
(b) There is clear intent to hurt
(c) Can't really tell if there's intent to hurt

If it's (a) and (c), there is still a chance that the listener(s) may think there is such an 'intent to hurt'.

If it's with respect to (a), it's a misunderstanding (as I pointed out in an earlier comment). If it's with respect to (c), it would then be partly (not entirely) the listeners'/readers' fault for not giving the speaker/writer the benefit of the doubt.

Now, if it's (b) (clear intent to hurt), then it becomes a fallacious ad hominem argument - which is not well-regarded even in scholarly journals...

Fri Aug 12, 07:01:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Hi Akikonomu, here's my response :) You argued that...

(1) " often feels the desire to dispense with niceties and just treat the argument professionally..."

I think this is fine. The key word is 'professionally'.

(2) "...and if it's a really bad and unacceptable argument, hammer it with scorn, with absolutely no interest for the person."

My questions would be: (a) will the explicit conveyance of 'scorn' improve the argument? (b) Insofar as the argument is aimed at persuading sceptical listeners/readers/opponents, would that explicit conveyance of 'scorn' improve its persuasiveness?

(3) "...If they can't accept the non-personal agenda and choose to be offended, it's their fault."

This 'mode of operation' would be fine in an ideal world where most people have been 'de-naturalized' in the sense that they no longer exhibit the natural tendencies of becoming 'hot' when people insult them. Let's call this the 'ideal world argument'. In the world that we live in (which is not ideal), I don't think it's possible to have such perfect audience. And perhaps at this point we can call this 'the perfect audience assumption'.

Fri Aug 12, 07:20:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

continued (response to Akikonomu):

(4) "is the practice of critical analysis, scholarly (often merciless and yet non-personal!) argument made impossible because of the social nature of blogging?"

I would make the following claims:

(1)all forms of communication are social;

(2)'merciless and non-personal' argumentation can still be considered professional and therefore acceptable. But 'merciless, non-personal, and needlessly rude/sarcastic/insulting' argumentation crosses the mark and turns 'unprofessional', and it will then be considered unacceptable in all online and offline forums. The key words are the following:

(1) 'the mark': There has to be this mark somewhere, where some writers/speakers will cross. In an extreme scenario, the writer or speaker might say, "You amusing fool from Country-Bloody-X, you are so brainless that you don't even realize that 'X' is the case. (Then insert Hokkien vulgar word to serve as opening of next sentence), agree with 'limpeh' (a crude Hokkien word referring to oneself) before I (insert evil activity) you". In this case, it no longer deserves the professional label of an 'argument'...

(2) 'considered': re my earlier statement, 'all forms of communication are social'.

Fri Aug 12, 07:43:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Hi BL: Welcome back! Nice laws :) Just two points:

(1) "It simply means that any form of debate will disintegrate at some point into a flamewar."

I would say that this need not be the case, especially if people show one another respect while conversing. The key word is show: respect needs to be shown (since the other party can't assume that you respect him). Now, if the other party feels respected (despite his differing opinions), I believe he will treat his opponents with respect too.

(2) "Third Law: A perfect discussion with only facts are impossible to attain."

Indeed, sometimes the disagreement is due to differences in values, which may well be incommensurable. In this case, what I would aim for is this: I would want my opponent to feel "Ok, even though I still don't agree with you (because of my values/religion/etc), I have to admit that yours is a strong argument". That way, even if you didn't 'convert' that person, at least you didn't offend him either.

Fri Aug 12, 08:04:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

I'll take off from HuiChieh's phrase that blogging is social yet not social enough.

(1) It's social: Sometimes it can be 'too social' - like a happy party where nobody or very few people want(s) or dare(s) to give differing opinions. Perhaps they know that they will be flamed, and this expectation may cause them to keep their opinions to themselves. So there is this atmosphere of 'delicate happiness' that is seemingly celebratory, yet hauntingly threatening (like a ghost somewhere in the house, saying, "Don't try to be funny". And even if you really didn't try to be funny, the celebrations are disturbing in a strange way, as though something bad is going to happen anytime.)

(2) It's not social enough: In this case, it's still social - but simply not social enough. This can be for many reasons...

See the recent article at Singabloodypore, written by the blogger Soci (Steven McDermott).

Fri Aug 12, 08:24:00 AM 2005  
Blogger akikonomu said...

"Third Law: A perfect discussion with only facts are impossible to attain."

Alas, the critical method doesn't solely deal with just the facts of the argument.

Take the application of discourse analysis. You may have a factually defensible argument, but I am more interested in locating it within a larger family of arguments, to see how the body of discourse has been used.

Here's a concrete and common enough example: ST's journalists may instill patriotism by writing an opinion piece on how, despite the complaints of Everyman about Singapore, our country doesn't have crime, muggings, corruption, racial discrimination, or class differences.

You could respond by:
1. Calling the ST reporter a troll, lackey, stooge, and a mouthpiece of the gahmen.

2. Refuting every point with statistics to show we do have crime, muggings, etc. but on a smaller scale - in which case you actually end up validating ST's line.

3. Locating ST's discourse as an example of the species known as "Singapore boleh, other countries shit leh".

Only 3 is a critical application. And yet 3 will be accused of being a cynical attack and being as offensive as 1...

Sat Aug 13, 08:42:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

"And yet 3 will be accused of being a cynical attack and being as offensive as 1..."

Erm....actually, I feel that (3) is not as offensive as (1)....

Sat Aug 13, 09:50:00 PM 2005  
Blogger BL said...

Hi Heavenly-Sword,

Good to hear from you too. I presume that most people are smart to know that I am actually paraphrasing the laws of thermodynamics which are about observations based on heat engines and information. Actually, there is even a shorter and elegant way to think about the first three laws:

1st law: You can't win in a discussion.
2nd law: You can't break even with the discussion.
3rd law: You cannot get out of the discussion.

I totally agree with you that if people show one another respect while conversing, the entropy (or disorder) to that discussion will be kept in a minimal.

My experience tells me that such discussions are very few and far between. I am glad that I have engaged in a few good ones, where everyone in that conversation are challenged to think. It's important to show respect to people who you argue.

One thing I do learn in the place where I am about to leave is that people can still show respect engaging in very controversial issues like Israel-Palestine conflict. It's important to tell your opponents on the other side of the house that you respectfully disagree and offer your position as an alternative. Perhaps, it's me that no one really wins in a non-competitive debate or forum. It's just to illustrate different points of view and help the audience in deciding which points of view adheres to their philosophy. It may not be what you think, but it does not make it wrong.

For the third law, I will reply to both you and akikonomu.

To be superficially critical, I should restate the third law with my grammar corrected:

Third Law: A perfect discussion with only factual content is impossible to attain.

I have changed the notion of facts to factual content.

In akikonomu's case, I agree with him that the critical method does not solely deal with the facts of the argument. I thought that the example he raised brought out issue clearly that you can have a factually defensible point that can still be refuted.

My original thought for the third law goes in the following line of thought. It's a corollary coming from the 1st and 2nd law. The first law is a statement that focuses on the quantity of information raised in a discussion. The 2nd law is a statement that focuses on the quality of discussion. If we agree that the basis of any discussion will include facts and opinions, and the amount of opinions will further increase the entropy of the discussion, then I can infer that it's impossible to start any conversation without just pure factual content.

In your ST case, based on those laws, I have assumed that there are always facts and opinions stacked in a discussion, hence your counter example has supported the 2nd law that the entropy of the discussion has increased because of the different possibilities you state about the motivation of the ST reporter.

For Heavenly Sword, I would hope to think that the laws does not take into account about the emotional state of the people engaged in the discussions.

In any case, it's always good to have civility and respect for your opponents in a discussion. Even so, I still hold the view at the end of the day, if the discussion involves public policy, someone has to make the decision, weighing both sides of the house. It's hard to be totally non-opinionated in those circumstances.

Sat Aug 13, 10:16:00 PM 2005  
Blogger akikonomu said...

BL: "You could respond by" just indicate possible resonses, and says nothing about the existence of deterioration in the ST journalist's article. You'd have to read a lot into it, given that the example mentions an article being printed and a possible response, meaning there isn't even a sustained conversation going on yet.

Erm....actually, I feel that (3) is not as offensive as (1)....

Strangely enough, HS, I've seen it happen too often in online discussions where 3 provokes accusations of "taking my points out of context"...

Sun Aug 14, 09:21:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Hi BL, great comment!

"I am actually paraphrasing the laws of thermodynamics which are about observations based on heat engines and information."

Wow, now I know why it's so profound! I nearly flunked Physics at A-levels, and because of my lack of aptitude for Physics, I screwed up my entire life. Anyway, I am digressing...

What you've presented is rather elegant - I don't know what else to add...!

Hi Akikonomu, your points are very profound too - I'm not sure if I have the kungfu level to fully comprehend what you are explaining to me, but let me try. Would I be correct if I interpret one of your key points as the following?

"Sometimes the article written by an opponent is just so bad that the only way to describe it is to use a 'metaphor', and that accurate metaphor may well be so unflattering that it could be taken as an insult." (My interpretation/understanding)

Sun Aug 14, 10:29:00 AM 2005  
Blogger akikonomu said...

HS: Correct.

In addition, some people would vehemently object to the suggestion/analysis that their discourse serves the purpose of say, the System, especially when their argument begins with "I'm not pro-Govt or pro-PAP, but..."


Sun Aug 14, 12:49:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Huichieh said...

"In addition, some people would vehemently object to the suggestion/analysis that their discourse serves the purpose of say, the System, especially when their argument begins with "I'm not pro-Govt or pro-PAP, but...""

Depends on the point being pushed. After all, there is a world of difference between these:

(1) Despite the protestations, the author's discourse is really motivated by a desire to shore up the system, rather than an expression of his own critical thought.

(2) Despite the "neutral stance", the author's discourse does have the effect of shoring up the system.

I doubt that (2) need be very offensive. The author could well agree: sure, though I wasn't motivated by that per se, I agree that my conclusions do support the mainstream.

(1) on the other hand, could be problematic. It may sound like you don't really care about the argument being proposed, but choose to impute motivation instead. Furthermore, do so over the explicit disclaimer of the author.

It's delicate.

Personally, I feel that making comments about the personal motivations of the person making the arguments aren't really relevant.

Note: personal motivations are not the same as, say, the "intent" of a piece of a discourse. The latter is a purely literary and not psychological phenomenon, can be reconstructed from context, and is often crucial for understanding the movement of the argument. The former has nothing to do with the argument unless specifically cited, e.g., in cases when the argument just is "you should trust me because I mean to do you good". On the other hand, if the argument was: "policy X will result in desirable outcome Y"--then the personal motives are not per se involved in the argument.

Sun Aug 14, 05:02:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

I would say that 'intentionally supporting the system by crafting arguments that would support it' is not the same as 'presenting arguments that happen to be in line with some policies which are supportive or constitutive of the system'. The former activity is ideologically driven and the person concerned starts with the conclusion that 'the system/govt is always right' and then think of arguments to lead to that conclusion. In addition, this activity is consistently performed no matter what is the issue being discussed (that is, pro-govt discourses are always presented in every situation without fail). For the latter activity, the person focuses on the situation or policy itself, weighing the arguments for and against various positions, and is not so concerned about whether the final argument is pro-govt or not.

For me, when a person says, "I'm not pro-govt but...", there are several possible scenarios:

(1) He is telling the truth (that is, he is indeed not pro-govt). But he probably doesn't dislike the govt either; and he is most probably also not pro-opposition. Perhaps he just doesn't want to be labelled or stereotyped as a pro-govt person by those who might be too quick to jump to conclusions the minute they see someone saying something vaguely in line with the govt's policies. It is likely that this person just wants to present his own argument, which happens to be in line with the govt's in that particular situation.

(2) He is actually pro-govt but says otherwise. Perhaps he doesn't want others to say that he's presenting pro-govt arguments simply because of his ideological or political position. Or he may have other reasons...

(3) He is an occasional commentator who usually doesn't care much about politics and doesn't particularly support any party - in other words, he is generally apolitical and apathetic – but he happens to feel the urge to comment on that special occasion, perhaps because the topic interests him.

Sun Aug 14, 10:22:00 PM 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am late to this discussion, but I would like to criticise bl's "laws" of discussion. Briefly, the three laws of thermodynamics doesn't hold for discussions.

First of all, entropy is maximized in a closed physical system. There is no corresponding such principle in discussions. There is not even a minimizing of chaos.

Next, there is no zero's law. If A is in conversation with B, and B in conversation with C, you cannot assume A is conversing with C. I write on this blog, I also write on some other blogs. Can you tell which other people you are talking about?

If the sum of facts and opinions can only increase, then I assume you have not attended talk where a scientist talks with a pseudoscientist.

And last of all, there is such a thing as a discourse using facts alone. It's possible, and it isn't even a limiting ideal. It happens in any functioning research lab.

Mon Aug 15, 09:24:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Hi Anonymous, thanks for the great rebuttal (although I'm not sure how BL would reply)...

This part is esp interesting:

"If A is in conversation with B, and B in conversation with C, you cannot assume A is conversing with C."

Tue Aug 16, 08:46:00 AM 2005  
Blogger BL said...


Interesting criticisms but I feel that there are some misconceptions that got me really itchy to correct.

The second law of thermodynamics works for all systems, whether it is open or closed. Even if you assume a discussion is open, the entropy (or disorder) for the content of that discussion will either remain constant or increase. Notice that I use the word content, which means information. It is a well-known fact that there is a law in information theory which concerns about the passing of information through noisy channels. If you equate the information in a discussion passing through noisy channels (multiple discussions at one time using your blog example), there is bound to be degradation to the quality of information passed in the discussion.

Nexgt, I don't understand what you mean by minimizing of chaos. Chaos is not entropy.

I accept the criticism on the zeroth law. But I think that you interpreted it differently from what I intended. I want to fix the definition that A, B and C are in conversation, in order to define the system of discussion among three people, so that I can create a definition on the content (or information) expressed in the discussion.

The sum of facts and opinions does not increase if the content of the discussion is fixed in the first place. I agree with the objection that there might be new facts and opinions based on incompleteness of information. Hence, for a closed system, I have defined that the information content of a discussion is made up of facts and opinions. the information content is conserved, but the quality of the information content decreases, because of entropy. If you have the third category besides facts and opinions, let me know.

You can have the last word here. I guess that I have increased the entropy of this discussion. :)

Wed Aug 17, 07:28:00 AM 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Whether we restrict our attention of 2nd law to closed or open systems is immaterial for this discussion. Let's just use the more easily understood one for closed systems, OK?

I don't use the physics sense of the word "chaos", just the conventional one. If you want to talk about forums as thermodynamic systems, then it behooves you to find a quantity that works as entropy does. Clearly, "chaos" is the quantity you are thinking of. I'm pointing out this quantity has no minimum or maximum principle.

Wed Aug 17, 10:32:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Hi BL:

"I guess that I have increased the entropy of this discussion."

Then I would say that this kind of entropy is good to have!

Thanks, Anonymous, too, for your skilful rebuttals.

Wed Aug 17, 11:07:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

I just found out that this article has been "Voided" at The Void Deck!

Fri Aug 19, 10:49:00 PM 2005  
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