On pettiness

by The Editor

TheThingAboutSERIES: Far too much of debate is defined by pettiness – that is, the superficial and, often, ad hominem response to argument. It works like sickness, once injected into a discussion its effect is difficult to resist and, before you know it, the meaningful exchange of ideas has devolved down to the trading of insults. Being petty is the attitude of bully; overlooking it, the key to intellectual progress and a sure sign of maturity and self-awareness.

On pettiness

By: Gareth van Onselen

15 January 2013

It is remarkable, the extent to which some petty remark can redefine even the most profound conversation.

The small-minded, sensing the argument they advocate being dismantled, will not hesitate to throw their opponent’s way some shallow, ad hominem insult, in order that they might distract them from the subject at hand. And this can prove extremely effective if their opponent is prone to such superficial biting and sneering themselves; likewise the audience to which they play.

In that case, in no time at all, any debate becomes little more than an exercise in denigrating one’s enemy: each petty blow, a petty victory, to a petty mind. Worse, however, is when pettifoggery is a first inclination, as opposed to a last resort. In other words, it is assumed from first principles the best way to emerge triumphant from any battle of ideas is to conjure up some irrelevant and personal insult.

That is the attitude of a bully. Ill-prepared or ill-equipped properly to engage, they hold no interest in the exchange of ideas, only in disparaging and dispensing hurt; for that is where their real skill lies. Such squabbling is born of low self-esteem and a lack of pride (most often it is only the petty themselves who take the barbs seriously, while the world watches on in bemusement or embarrassment).

It worth trying to discern the general character of debate in a society; if pettiness is rife you can be sure of two things: first, the prevalence of self-doubt and insecurity; second, that superficiality is deemed a precious commodity, celebrated and rewarded. And what an indictment that is.

Real debate – the competition of ideas – is a cornerstone of progress; petty invective nothing more than the trumpeting of ignorance. Pettiness is a virus and it can spread with lightning speed. The antidote is self-confidence and an authentic interest in reason and argument, in order that the truth might be better pursued. Without that and fully in its grip, perspective is the first casualty; the last insult being all that matters and a suitable retort the impulsive focus of all one’s energy – the  veracity of an idea forgotten as one fights to throw more and thicker mud than one’s opponent.

An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day. For more columns from The Thing About series, click here.

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