Goldilocks and Ultraism I

September 13, 2003


Goldilocks and Ultraism

I spend a lot of time reading nineteenth-century arguments. Most of these are written in a structural form that I will call Goldilocks, although the folks who wrote them would likely have called it Scylla and Charybdis. They say that there is one path, but it is too hot or leads to a whirlpool, so you don't want to do that. There is another path, but it is too cold or leads to a monster that bites your head off, so you don't want that either. Instead you want the thing in the middle, which is "just right".

It is a powerful way of presenting an argument because it makes whatever you want to say appear to be a judicious and reasonable balance. Of course, as a practical matter, by choosing your Scylla and your Charybdis you can argue that almost anything is balanced and reasonable.

In contrast, much discourse in the 20th and 21st century is ultra-ist. People identify one overriding principle and try to apply it to whatever it is that they are talking about. They have a plan, or a model, or a phrase, and this is the one way and the only way. Either you go along with them, or you are wrong wrong completely wrong.

It is a style of argument that my nineteenth-century condemned as "ultraism" - taking one point or principle and making far too much depend on it.

But, it is a simple sort of an argument to follow - you just have to get across one big idea and then people can be counted on to act on this idea. And many of these big ideas are good ideas: alcohol is dangerous, slavery is evil. Of course, as with any rhetorical technique, you can support dangerous ideas: we love Big Brother.

As I was writing the rant about diets and body shapes it came to me that much of what we hear on that is ultra-ist discourse, "you can never be too rich or too thin" or "how dare you comment on my appearance". The rhetoric of ultraism appears in many places, of course, including the war on drugs and the war on terror. And no matter where it appears it emphasizes immediate results over nuanced understanding.

I guess I am a hopeless intellectual, for I would rather understand something than simplify it in order to lead a stampede.

And back to work - having a good writing morning.

Posted by Red Ted at September 13, 2003 12:59 PM | TrackBack