Sumo and Argumentation

A while back, I learned something new: The main way sumo bouts end is not by one opponent pinning the other, as in Greco-Roman wrestling, but by pushing them out of the ring.

It was with a moment’s thought that I realized here was a metaphor for much in the way arguments are presented these days — particularly political arguments.

What I mean by that is, in many instances political arguments aren’t really trying to persuade the listeners to the rightness of what’s being said. Rather, they’re trying to portray opponents as being so bad, or evil, or ignorant, they shouldn’t be listened to in the first place.

They’re trying to throw each other out of the ring.

One example of this — though it pains me to say it — is the current use of Godwin’s Law. Originally intended as a restorative of netiquette to the problem of glib comparisons to Hitler and the Nazis, it has come to be used by many not aware of its origins to shut down discussions even when the comparisons are appropriate.

A different example would be the McCain campaign of 2008. In the waning days of the campaign, with defeat looming, Mr. McCain started calling Mr. Obama a socialist. While the analysis at that link shows how if Mr. McCain was being consistent, he himself is a socialist as well, that wasn’t the point. The point was, since the days of the Red Scare in the 1920’s, crying “socialism!” had been a fairly good sumo move, tossing one’s opponent out of the ring. The Congressional election between Richard Nixon and Jerry Voorhis also comes to mind. Still, in Mr. McCain’s case it didn’t work, and Republican stalwarts, bewildered by the incantation’s loss of magical power, have been reciting it ever since.

But that’s the real tip-off a sumo argument is being attempted: A complete disregard for substantiation, and the fervent hope that a single word or short phrase will so discredit one’s opponent, no “serious person” will listen.

And, yes, the irony of my putting this down so I can link to it when I refer to something as “a sumo move” does not escape me. But as Molly Crabapple was recently quoted, “Essays are just l’esprit d’escalier.”