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A chain breaks at its strongest

by Traves


Cliché-upending aside, I do believe in the title. “The chain breaks at its weakest” is used to remind warriors, soldiers, strategists and businessmen alike to always attack their enemies at the weakest. It is the quickest and most pragmatic way to break through the opponent’s defence formation and ensure their submission, humiliation or retreat.

Re-phrasing the title, I assert that the (human) chain breaks at its strongest. Strategists and warriors have known this for long too. Structures like armies, organizations and even countries are logically modularised, and would stop functioning if any part of their daily process breaks down. The opposite is true for the humans in and around those structures. As long as we have strong people to rally around, someone who’s still fighting*, we will stand our ground*. So enemies try to attack and capture the leaders first, to weaken the morale. This obsession with leaders as a crutch for individual weakness is also perhaps why authoritarian regimes worm their way into our countries.

The crucial difference however, is that in war, once you defeat an enemy, you don’t have to live with them. Once you rout their army, your home is safe and you go back to live with your countrymen when your duty is done. If you are grabbing their lands though, then all pretence of civility melts away anyway, and democracy/rationality gives way to a “might is right” mind-set where anything I say is moot and anything the authority says is truth. However, today, such conflicts are rare and in isolated regions (no small feat of humanity).

The problem starts when the “war” metaphor extends through to all areas of public life, bleeding into civilian discourse and society**. Soldiers and war- veterans are often used as a crutch when facts and reason are against you. Defence budgets are raised by large margins year by year while health and education are neglected. Even in public debates and discussions, that language and consequently that mind-set have become entrenched^. As Orwell explained pretty well, language determines how we think^^. And thus, with permeation of this war-like perpetually defensive mind-set into the public consciousness, many of us have become hateful and embittered. If I take names of any particular ideologies or groups then immediately their defendants would be up-in-arms* about it.

The key point consequently, is that “the chain breaks at its strongest” extends to all of a person’s dearly held ideas, opinions and ideologies too. It applies to the chain of ideas that make up a person’s world-view. And if you merely show the weakness of their most basic and outward concepts, they will cling even closer to the few core concepts they hold dear. Even if they themselves might not have scrutinized those core values rigorously. Even if you defeat* someone in such a way, they probably wouldn’t change. Because they didn’t give permission to you to do this to them. This is the tricky part, because out-rightly asking for such permission might lead to denial. It might have to be coaxed, in a non-threatening manner, and you will have to put in that effort if you really think that person would be better off not thinking like they think now. You will have to challenge yourself and strain your cognitive limits to actually change a person to their core. And it usually cannot be done in one go. It is often a slower process.But let’s say that you are a selfish person. You don’t care if the other person gets hurt. You are the “facts don’t care about feelings!” type. There is a massive danger to you too, down this particular path of thinking and arguing. You will become lazy and weak in your own thoughts if you only attack the weakest arguments to get brownie points and take a bow. You might stop growing when you don’t have to learn, because to learn you first have to say “I really don’t know.” And in today's world, stagnation would ensure that you are left behind in the dust. 

If you want to truly win an argument and not lose the person, you have to define what your motives for winning are. If you just want to humiliate them in defeat and throw them out and if you actually have the capability to make sure you never have to interact with them in any way again, then sure. Go ahead and mock their weakest ideas, and delegitimize their entire world-view if needed. Use that supposed weakness as a method to throw doubt on everything they say. To deny everything else that supports their views. Then declare yourself the winner and strut off to victory*. However if there is the tiniest chance that you will still face that person tomorrow, that they will still be a part of your professional, private or public life, then merely winning* as easily as possible is a foolish thing to do. The goal then while arguing, should be to find out the truth or the closest simulation to it that we can comprehend (the useful truth), even if that means both of us end up losing to a simple Google search. One person’s ‘opinion’ is ‘prejudice’ to another person. I am proposing that it is not always the case that one is right and the other is wrong, because often, both the sides are not looking at the whole picture. Although doing that might still support one side, in which case it gets a bit more complicated. Then, admitting that we do not know, that our model is incorrect or incomplete, is often the right thing to do.

Daniel Cohen explains that the better you get at arguing truthfully, the more you will lose^ . We often do not know enough and we do not put our own ideas through the intellectual ringer before trumpeting them throughout the world. Often because thinking is difficult. It takes effort, and even then you might end up being wrong very easily! (people debugging their own code would understand.) If I am open to discussion, I must be willing to change my mind, even if my pre-conditioning (whether social or biological) screams that it is wrong to give something up (an opinion) held so dearly in my heart. Even if someone else has to convince me that I must change my mind first. (This isn’t cyclic reasoning, think about that.) But that is the price every individual must pay if they are attempting to become ‘rational’***.



*Another war/fight associated term. See how natural the word or phrase sounds?

** Ideas, words and structures crossing disciplines and walks of life without a properly defined bridge is a very dangerous thing in itself and a topic that demands a post of itself. In physical chemistry, spontaneous processes can actually be extremely slow, they just happen on their own. An ordinary English speaker wouldn’t understand this if a chemist didn’t define it properly first, and could cause a lot of confusion if Physical Chemistry was actually interesting enough to be noticed by people other than its scholars. Another example that Indians would remember is news anchors saying during demonetization that the new Rs. 2000 currency note would have “NGC” or Nano GPS Chips which could send tracking signals without a power source from up to 120 feet underground, when they obviously did not comprehend the technical impossibility of something like that. Although it is their job to dig through to the truth. Beware, I’m not focussing on fake news, but rather not knowing what they’re talking about even when they don’t know anything because to them, lying with 100% confidence is better than losing, and acknowledging that you just don’t know.

*** rational does not mean cold-hearted or emotionless. Rationality also includes taking emotion into account while considering the world around you and yourself. Many people are ruled by emotions most of the time, and disregarding emotion as un-important is actually an irrational thing to do. However, letting it be the deciding factor in your own judgements is irrational too.

Tl;dr : Before attacking another person’s ideas or words, we must make sure that we are not doing so just to shield our own ideas from scrutiny. We should make sure that we don’t fool ourselves into complacency by just destroying the weakest person/point in an argument and pretending that we have won in the long run, that we have obtained victory over that entire viewpoint. If we don’t find a compelling rational reason and a functional non-destructive method to argue against someone who is not an absolutely evil person, we should shut the hell up and move on.

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286 Reviews

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Reviews: 286

Fri Sep 28, 2018 9:59 pm
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AstralHunter wrote a review...


We both reviewed a work the other day, and I found I quite enjoyed your review. It was well-written and showed sound reasoning. When I scrolled through the Green Room just now to find something to review, I was pleasantly surprised to see one of your works in here. If your reviewing style is anything to go off, this will be enjoyable to read!

...And now that I have, I can tell you I was not disappointed. Incidentally, this is the perfect antithesis to the above-mentioned work, given the content and your stance on the definition of essays.

First off, I feel like discussing this topic in a review wouldn't do it justice. Then again, you did so in an essay, so it's not actually unachievable. And I have expressed opinions and views in reviews before... What I mean to say is communication is needed, which is best conducted in a more fluid setting. I'll still end up talking about some of the points anyway, because this essay would be difficult to review otherwise.

Even attempting to address grammar and spelling and such in a work like this would feel like a waste of time to me (which isn't to say it would be a waste of time as a fact), so I'll tackle the format instead. (I enjoy making lists, so I shall employ one here.) For the sake of irony, though, I'll mention your very first word ought to be hyphenated, since that poor en dash probably doesn't like being a hyphen/em dash hybrid, and your second paragraph needs a space after the first comma. Aren't I hilarious?
• The bold is quite effective at highlighting important sections, and since it's not used that often — in my experience, at least — it doubly emphasises the key points. However, the fifth and sixth paragraphs illustrate the danger of using it with too high a frequency: the presentation becomes a tad distracting.
• I love that you employed references and footnotes. I'm a third year science student, and I fully support the notion that everyone should validate their claims. Good usage of the circumflex to differentiate between the footnotes and references.
• Perhaps you could play around with font size and line breaks to make the different sections stand apart more? Even just a double break before and after the footnotes would greatly aid the reader in distinguishing between the parts. Also, that final summary was much needed.

Now, for the actual content and its presentation. I agree with the core message of the essay, which is why I said I shan't go into specifics here. Nevertheless, your expression of your views could use some refining. I'll quickly address Mea's points before getting to my own.

I don't personally think the introduction or any part of the essay was difficult to follow, but having read Mea's review, I realised it's because I fall into the group of people who already possess the mindset needed to understand this (despite lacking even elementary knowledge in the field of political science). She has a point. I also agree that you capitalised less on the titular metaphor than would be ideal, which ultimately comes down to staying with your theme. That's... quite difficult, I know, as I have a tendency to digress. And yeah, the trade-off seems fine to me, since this essay is actually on the shorter side, compared to other works I've seen on the site.

Moving on to my views, it feels like you forced the leitmotif of militancy most of the time, with "up-in-arms" seeming like the only natural use of the terms marked with an asterisk. In addition, your reasoning for the prevalence of the defensiveness mindset doesn't strike me as entirely accurate. I do agree that going on the offensive is the default approach to resolving a "conflict" for many, but the cause and effect doesn't feel entirely right, if you understand what I mean.

Your points are clear enough to understand, but there is much rhetoric that obscures their meaning with its emotive language and clever remarks. Though I enjoy it, reducing the fluff is necessary for amplifying your core message. You don't want people actually skipping to the tl;dr section.

My final point of criticism is one for which I also praised you: your references. I don't have any issue with the actual references themselves here, although they do make up a sizeable part of the essay. I mean you make many statements without providing a source for your claim. Let's take the fourth paragraph as an example. Your only references occur in it, but what makes only those two points worth one? What about the supposed use of war veterans as... justification for another's argument's invalidation (I think that's what you meant), or the alleged increase in defence budgets, which is definitely a referenceable point? If you're going to provide references for your arguments, apply it consistently throughout the discussion.

To reiterate, I did enjoy reading this essay, regardless of my criticism. If you want to discuss views in a thread somewhere on the site or through a different means, feel free to! For now, the two matters about which I feel the most strongly are those of opinions being something that should serve us in the way we think, rather than defining how we think, and reason not inherently dismissing emotion. Each are worthy of an article/essay on their own, but I appreciate that you at least mentioned them.

Good luck with revising this, when you get around to it. It was nice to read a rational discussion on the conducting of discussions!

~ Hunter

Traves says...

Another great review! thanks @AstralHunter . I'm a third year undergrad in one of the STEM fields too!
As I said, this was the fresh first draft, and now I will edit it considering both the extensive reviews. What I also should have said, was that I wrote this as a Facebook post for a page, and thus brevity was needed, so cut a lot of stuff, and the audience of that page is also made up mostly of STEM grads/undergrads.

SInce I'm not experienced in writing in general much less writing essays, it appeared that I also cut off some serious points that caused the associated sentences in the chain of flow of logic appear as fluff. I assure you that I didn't intend any of it to be fluff, hopefully that will be clear as soon as I can get the second draft up.

For your point about providing footnotes about other things, the audience of the page would actually already know about many of those since it is kind of a hot topic in my country right now with a nationalistic government and an increasingly jingoistic nations. I will add those references too, since YWS has a global audience.

Do let me know which parts you found fluff-y.

In my opinion, the leitmotif of militancy would appear forced if I could replace those words with other without much change in meaning. Although I agree I might've overdone it in place or been more careful with word-choice.

In short, I'll reword this as soon as possible and tag both of you to again criticize it.

Of course, we can discuss these views in forum posts, that'd be great!

AstralHunter says...

That explains quite a lot, thanks! By fluff, I meant many of the remarks that carry emotional weight, rather than elaborating on your argument, such as during the second to last paragraph, where you seem to focus as much on why attacking another's opinion is unwise as on what the goal of arguing is. Spending less time on the former and more on the latter would make your point clearer. Also, the parentheses are fun, as I mentioned, but there are too many of them, which diminishes their novelty. And I'll happily read the edited version!

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1069 Reviews

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Mon Sep 24, 2018 4:55 am
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Mea wrote a review...

Hey Traves, here for the review you requested on this piece.

I had a hard time settling into this piece and the argument you're putting forth, and I blame it mostly on two things: the introduction and the formatting. The introduction is too abrupt and almost non-existent - I felt like I was dumped into the beginning of the middle of the piece, rather than the actual beginning, if that makes any sense. Referring immediately back to the title felt odd - of course you believe in the title, you're the one who wrote the piece and titled it that way.

The bold didn't work for me in the piece. It made me want to skip around, my eye automatically going to the bolded sections, which meant I only got the shallowest read-through of this essay on the first go and I struggled to catch the thread of the argument.

The crucial difference however, is that in war, once you defeat an enemy, you don’t have to live with them.

This also felt like a non-sequitur, and you never connected it very well to the heart of the piece - how thoughts and beliefs live and die by their strongest ones, not their weakest ones.

For what it's worth, I utterly agree with you, both as a religious person and as someone who thinks a lot about divided politics and such. People don't change their thinking when the fringes of their belief system are shaken - they just dismiss those portions as unimportant or insist that their opponent doesn't really understand their opinion or the issue at hand. I certainly wouldn't (and don't) have my faith shaken by someone arguing about some strange, tangential issue mentioned once somewhere in the Old Testament. I also think it's just good argumentative practice to attack the strongest portion of someone's argument, not the weakest, in the interests of truth-seeking.

I care less about the argument as the essay goes on. I still agree that yes, we should pick our battles and not seek to just tear people down, but I don't feel like you're saying anything new there, and it doesn't connect well to your more interesting original point about a chain breaking at its strongest. Basically, I think this essay would benefit a lot from a more narrow focus and a deeper explanation of that focus.

Possibly one of the most difficult and subtle critiques I have for you is this: you write like your audience already shares nearly all of your framework for looking at these issues, and that severely limits your audience. It's a very specific, several layers removed, way of looking at political discourse (it feels very rationalist/classical liberal influenced? I'm trying and failing to remember the term that refers to this school of thought). I'm familiar with it because I spend too much time reading political theory on the internet. Most of your readers will not be, and you're moving too fast, making connections that are not obvious to people unfamiliar with these frameworks (again, partly because the essay's focus is too broad for its length). So the people who are going to understand this essay are only going to be the people who already agree with it, which isn't very helpful.

Finally, the footnotes distracted me, but I think they convey useful information, it'd just be nice if you could figure out a way to make them look like normal numbered footnotes in the Publishing Center. Not sure if that's possible, but hey.

Alright, I'll leave it at that. This review was probably overly negative, so I'll just reiterate that while I really did find the ideas compelling, the structure was hard to follow and it detracted from your central point quite a bit. But with polishing, I'll think it'll be really quite good. I really like the chain metaphor - it's the strongest point of the piece and using it as your title was a good move. Hope this review helps, and feel free to respond to my critiques and we can discuss it. Have a good day! :)

Traves says...

Thanks for the great review Mea!
I posted the same post on FB and without the bold font, people like it more, I agree.
I used to be a classical liberal, now I'm centre-left (more pragmatic now, or so I think). As you do study political theory on the interwebz, I was right to ask you for a review.

This is just the first draft.
I understand the point about more explanation, but I thought if I had to explain one thing, I had to explain it all, and that would probably increase the length of the post by at least 50%, and I'm always torn between brevity and careful, laid-out explanation.
If you could also tell me about whether you would accept this length - depth trade-off, I'd be grateful.

I will make changes, and let you know again!

Mea says...

Glad my review helped! I'd definitely accept the tradeoff of a longer piece if it means more depth. I personally don't feel that these piece is very long at the moment considering the complex topic. Brevity is a good goal to have, though.

Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.
— -Apple Inc.