I was thinking about the bad rhetorical moves to which online discussions sometimes resort today. Among them are the passive-aggressive-reflexive straw man (e.g. “You just think that all of us pacifists are wimps, so you probably wouldn’t listen to me anyway”), the guilt-by-association riff (“Hitler would agree with you”), and the relativism gambit (“We’ll just have to agree to disagree”). None of these is a deadly vice in its own right, and neither is the object of tonight’s reflection. Rather all of them are bad habits, tendencies that might, I think, diminish with good counter-practice.
The move that I was thinking on tonight was the appeal to adulthood. The persona using the move has to put forth a kind of condescending boredom in the face of a strident critique, and although the pair of words might never appear on the screen, the sentiment is always, “Grow up!”
I’m not any enemy of adulthood; in fact, I’m in the midst of drafting a long essay (perhaps some day a book) on what Christian adulthood might mean. But this kind of appeal to maturity is not a friendly (in the Aristotelian sense) exhortation to responsibility and generosity and wisdom. Instead, the ad senectutis (pardon my bad Latin and my neologism) casts one’s opponent as a child, one unable to grasp reality.
The assumption of a metaphysic/sociology/ontology is really the insidious part of the ad senectutis. Adulthood, when one deploys this rhetorical weapon, is the unquestioning acceptance of a metaphysics of inevitability, a sociology basically identical with capitalist ideology, an ontology of violence. To be an adult, in other words, is not to question the basic assumptions that underlie the mature (i.e. my) view of the world. To call such things into question is not to do philosophy, at least not inside of this trope. Instead, it is to indulge in childish fantasies. That’s where the power of the move lies: to agree with me is to face reality. To disagree is to indulge in childish fantasy.
Of course, no rhetorical ploy is all that powerful; one can simply click away from the discussion. But that’s hardly the stuff of dialectic (in the Socratic sense). But alternatives to this bad habit are readily available: with a bit of humility and a willingness to assume at the outset the adulthood of one’s interlocutor, not to mention an awareness of and a refusal to use this tool, perhaps a bit more online eristic can move beyond impasses and implied name calling and towards a mutual seeking of a truth that neither you nor I has yet articulated.