– Rant # 166 –  


Who hasn’t memorized pretty much every word of The Princess Bride? After Fezzik keeps misusing the word ‘inconceivable’, Inigo finally says to him, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.” That doesn’t make Fezzik an idiot. We all misuse words. I once told my then-wife, “Darling, you are the bane of my existence!” And this was when I was courting her, not divorcing her. I just had the meaning of the word reversed in my head. But Fezzik would be an idiot if he used words that mean nothing at all.

This is not to say that ‘trope’ doesn’t have a meaning. It’s the word for that collection of literary devices that make use of metonymy, such as similes, metaphors, synecdoche, and so on. It’s also the word for when one of these devices is oft-repeated, like when we talk about a Trojan horse. But some time, about twenty years ago, it got picked up by the anti-denialist rhetoricians to mean … Well, that’s just the question, isn’t it? To mean what?

Not unlike the Tribbish word ‘gavagai’, all one can do is observe the contexts in which it’s used and try to induce its likely meaning. And that’s all those who repeated it could do, except they never did induce a meaning. So why have they been so intent on repeating it? For the same reason John Oliver is so intent on saying ‘Fuck!’ It doesn’t mean anything. It just makes him sound hip.

Now then, there’s nothing wrong with trying to sound hip, provided that’s all you’re trying to do when you make utterances like, “Oh, that’s just a denialist trope!” But that’s not all you’re trying to do, is it? You’re using the word ‘trope’ to mean an argument the unsoundness of which is a res judicata. But then, “Oh, that’s just a denialist trope!” is itself just a trope.

As is “There is no debate about global warming!” It’s a move in a language game. It’s a blocking maneuver, not unlike a heartfelt rights-claim in moral discourse. If a pro-Choicer says, her voice quaking with conviction, “I have a right to control my own body!”, the rules of the game allow you to say, “Yes, but the unborn have rights too!” But what you’re not allowed to say is, “Well no, as a matter of fact you don’t have a right to control your own body!” Denying anything so heartfelt by your interlocutor is just churlish.

Likewise, then, if you say, “There is no debate about global warming!”, I’d obviously be betraying my ignorance if I say, “Yes there is!” “There’s no debate about global warming!” plays the same role as “Only an idiot believes that …”, or “Anyone familiar with the literature knows …” I think in informal logic it’s called the argument from intellectual intimidation.

You can get away with these moves with your first-year students, but by year two or three they’re on to you. Then you just come across as an intellectual fraud. If you have an argument against what you call a denialist trope, then let’s hear it. If you’re bored with the debate, or you think you’d be casting pearls before swine, and so you just don’t want to bother making your case, that’s fine. But then just shut the fuck up!

There now, did that make me sound hip?

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