Wed | Aug 23, 2017

Tony Deyal | Taking de bate

Published:Saturday | October 15, 2016 | 10:00 AM

Reductio ad absurdum. Three years of Latin in secondary school and that is all I remember of the Linguam Latinam, or is it Lingua Latina? My daughter Marsha, an English teacher, told me she is studying Latin dance, so maybe she might know.

I think back to the efforts of Mr Bally, our Latin teacher, a really incredibly nice person I called 'Gaius Balliramus', who gave as good as he got - not that my lack of interest in Latin and my unwillingness to study the subject gave him anything good except a basis for humour at my expense.

On one of my papers, he complimented me for being able to spell my name right and for having the right date on the paper, but he still gave me zero. I used the age-old schoolboy argument that Latin is a dead language and should remain so, but that cut no glacies with him, and the Cambridge University authorities whose passion for punishing little colonial children knew no bounds.

However, even though my parents had no formal education, they valued education for me, and so I ended up at Presentation College, San Fernando. Without knowing that the word 'literary' had nothing to do with emptying dustbins (my punishment in elementary school for making ill-timed jokes), I joined the Literary and Debating Society and eventually became the captain of the school's debating team. My speciality, and why I remembered the Latin term for a practice that started in Greece, was reductio ad absurdum. Essentially, it means 'reduction to absurdity' generally by attempting to turn a reasonable argument into an absurd one by taking the argument to the most hilarious extremes. Its use is common in debates, philosophy, and in formal mathematics (where it is referred to as proof by contradiction).




Take, for instance, the topic, common in school debates, that intelligence is determined by genes and not the environment. So you have the 'positive' side. Your opponents hit you with, "You are saying that intelligence is determined by genes? If that were so, then someone raised without human contact or knowledge could still be a genius. A baby reared by wolves could be brighter than Einstein? Does that have to do with relativity or his relatives?"

When your turn comes, you have your opening for, "If intelligence is totally and completely determined by the environment, then everyone can be a genius regardless of any kind of inherent mental disability. Even people who attend the same school as my honourable opponents."

This is a touchy area, but you can find a way to deal with it, as Thomas Huxley did in the 1860 Oxford Evolution Debate, which took place shortly after Charles Darwin published 'On the Origin of Species'. Some serious intellectual heavyweights were around, but it came down to Thomas Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce.

According to BRANCH (Britain, Representation and Nineteenth Century History), Huxley was Darwin's friend and chief scientific defender. Wilberforce, known as 'Soapy Sam' for his smoothness and rhetorical slipperiness in debate, offered a lengthy denunciation of Darwin's theory, ridiculing it and declaring it to be at odds with Scripture.

As he closed his remarks, Wilberforce turned to Huxley and sneeringly asked him if it was through his grandfather or grandmother that he claimed descent from apes. The audience cheered. Huxley turned to the man seated next to him and whispered, "The Lord hath delivered him into mine hands." Rising to his feet, Huxley responded that he would rather have an ape for an ancestor than a bishop who distorted the truth.

I would have started the heredity versus environment debate by first defining my terms. My approach would have been, "Where I come from, if a child resembles the father, it is heredity, and if the child resembles the neighbour, that is environment."




Of course, the holy Irishmen who ran the school would not have allowed that. But they would have liked three examples that are often quoted. One is a question about how many boxes of cookies some Girl Scouts sold in an hour. The argument against was, "There is no way those Girl Scouts could have sold all those cases of cookies in one hour. If they did, they would have made $500 in one hour, which, based on an eight-hour day, is over a million dollars a year. That is more than most lawyers, doctors, and successful business people make!"

Then there is, "Don't forget God's commandment, 'thou shall not kill'. By using mouthwash, you are killing 99.9% of the germs that cause bad breath. Prepare for Hell." There is also, "My opponent is saying that exercise will make you stronger. Actually, if you just keep exercising and never stop, you would eventually drop dead."

I think of 'reductio ad absurdum' whenever I listen to a debate in one of the region's Parliaments or, recently, in the much-hyped Clinton versus Trump debates. In the Caribbean, it is very clear that the days of the great speakers - Manley and Bustamante, Barrow and Adams, Eric Williams and Lionel Seukeran, Forbes Burnham and Cheddi Jagan, even Panday and Robinson - have ended.

In the case of the debates between the two contestants for the presidency of the United States, there is none of the drama of the initial Kennedy-Nixon debate on September 26, 1960. It has been all downhill since then. The most recent debate, on Sunday night, was the worst I have ever seen - sordid, accusatory, and lacking what all debaters know is the primary rule of the art form that debating is and must be - treat your opponents with respect. In this sense, the art of debating itself, and not just the points made by one side or the other, has been reduced to absurdity.

- Tony Deyal was last seen quoting comedian Jimmy Fallon, who quipped, "It's reported that even the Taliban actually had a debate-viewing party. So for the first time, it looks like they're torturing themselves."