On Charity and other Principles of Argument

Okay, this is for all of the poets out there sparring over negative reviews and negative reviews of negative reviews and the entrenchment of prejudice and power and the importance of the canon and whatever whatever (it matters, I know, it definitely matters, and we’ll need to come back to it, but can we just blow the whistle a minute and think?). Saying something publicly is not always the best course of action at times like these, but I’m going to give it a shot anyway. So I guess this is also for those of us who haven’t said much out loud about all of this but who have been listening.

I want to say something about principled argument, about its basis. Literal vision, as we know, is an amalgam of two points of view—what is seen by the left eye merged with what is seen by the right eye. The brain reconciles two slightly-incompatible images and the effect on vision, for those of us who have this doubled/reconciled view of things—because not everybody does—is 1) depth and 2) the ability to navigate with greater accuracy.

Principled argument, as a process, can be to understanding as the brain’s visual reconciliation process is to literal vision. Principles, which guide discernment, matter. But we do not share principles. Enter conflict, the human condition, the Canadian poetry “conversation.” What do we do?

Well, first, as philosophy majors and advocates for freedom of expression know, we have to be able to say and consider and come to understand and say and consider again—to revise both privately and publicly—what we in fact think. For this process to be most effective, we must have the opportunity to do so in the presence of others who disagree with us. Conversations in absence of agreement are indispensable. Arguments with ourselves and with one another—including negative evaluations of work, whether of critical work or of creative work—are essential. Without these, we are impoverished. At their best and most exciting, these conversations have the potential to change our minds. In the course of disagreeing articulately with someone else, we (or they) might let go of, or modify, ideas we’ve held for most of our lives.

But what makes these conversations possible? One word: charity. To the disappointment of brilliant undergraduates everywhere, philosophers have something called the principle of charity. The idea is simple: before you start shooting down somebody else’s bad idea—as tempting as that is, and as clever as the sentences are that you’ve already started composing in your head—before you begin constructing your counterargument, which will blow your opponent’s shoddy metaphors right out of the…well, out of the potty he’s been training on, ahem—you put in some real time and your best philosophical efforts and you work to understand your opponent’s argument on its own terms with as much charity as you can muster.

You want to do a very good job of this, because otherwise you’ll look bad: you’ll look like your vision lacks depth. And it will lack depth. But there’s also this: the more persuasively and charitably you restate your opponent’s argument, the more precisely you work to understand your own objections and the more astutely you articulate those objections, the better—and more persuasive—your thinking will be. The more people will agree with you, including those who didn’t already agree with you before you ever sat down to think and write. And this is, if not the whole point of conversation, at least a very big part of the point. Or am I missing something? I often am—it’s a hazard of vision.

Mantis Shrimp

Here’s another thing philosophers do: they locate the crux of an argument. They train themselves to sniff out the viscera, and—if they’re going to gut anything—gut that. They don’t seize upon the weakest, most frivolous, carelessly appended sentences in an argument. They locate the crux, and let it have its weight. Then they skillfully cut what’s legitimate, as far as they can see, free of its illegitimate ligature, its invalid conclusions. Interlocutional theatre! Surgery at its finest! Philosophers know that your antagonist is your helper: look, he’s showing you where the gold is, just by standing there with his knife drawn guarding it.

Let’s see if we can learn something from a discipline with a long history of generative conflict. Let’s be wary of logical fallacies: straw persons, red herrings, and the like. Here’s the thing: principled argument isn’t actually easy. You have to get past all the knee-jerk stuff, like thinking somebody’s an asshole or an imbecile. But here’s the thing about charity: it might actually change you, or at least your mind. Or maybe it’s your antagonist who will be changed by the process of being charitably understood, yet rigorously disagreed with. Who knows what great change might occur?

So here are some questions: what role might criticism (pushed by charity toward heightened precision and clarity) play in sharpening the wits—instead of the knives—of poets and readers and future critics? In what ways do pre-existing power structures and imbalances control the conversation and decide who is included? How do our choices as critics participate in and help to reproduce these structures and imbalances? What is the proper relationship, if any, between this kind of political question and the work of attending to what poetry, in its essentially specific and atomic way, is saying or doing? Finally, how can we individually and collectively write criticism that serves the vitality of the poetry being diversely and divergently written and read and talked about in this country?

Here’s something pro-visional—what if we could, by extending the olive branch of charity to one another’s arguments and choosing to see the crux instead of getting snagged on the branches, create a new criticism? Okay, not that new criticism. A Canadian polyglot criticism, in love with language and the history of poetic form, and, yes, with charity as the ground of generative conversation. Criticism that, if it “wins,” does so because of how finely wrought its understanding is. A criticism, while we’re designing it, of compound eyes. We could be the mantis shrimp of poetic conversation. We could let the complexity of our vision be the thing that distinguishes us from the blunter creatures.

We could be in love with our own private rational and irrational principles for evaluation and with the demanding work of externalizing these in language. But, oh, is it too much to say we could simultaneously be in love (i.e. in charity) with otherness, with trying to imagine all those ecstatic forms of rational and irrational thought not our own?

Too much, yes, it is certainly too much to say all this. I will certainly be reproved. But, if so, let it at least not be done reflexively, let it not be decided before I even began writing this, determined by some primitive cognitive sorting process that identifies pre-conceived differences. Let’s see if we can elevate our conversations so they are more than a crude form of pattern recognition, a variant on that old arcade game, alligator whacker, or whatever it’s called, the one where you earn points for standing guard with a mallet and swiftly hitting on the head whatever unfortunate creature shoots out to try its luck with your attentions.

6 comments to On Charity and other Principles of Argument

  • While this is a good guide for critics, it might serve to elevate life in general, I think. Thanks for writing this

  • So very wise. Love this post — wish I had been able to see this angle of things — the charity angle — back when I was a graduate student. It would have made my own criticism so much better (but then again, I was in my mid-20s and didn’t really know how to practice charity in any facet of my life)! Does charity come with age? I wonder sometimes. I think it has for me. Anyhow, lovely post.

  • This is an insightful, prismatic addition to the current tempest-in-a-stanza about poetry criticism in Canada. I love the metaphor of compound eyes.

  • This is a thoughtful response to the current “discourse” about critical writing and reviewing. I’ve missed the qualities you mention — charity, yes, and empathy; an attempt to understand or engage ideas which are other than one’s own. And surely disagreement can be expressed with courtesy? Thank you for this.

  • There’s a wondrous depth of understanding here. A commingling of head and heart and a trajectory that transcends its subject. Bravo Lisa!

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