You’re Allowed to Use Examples, Part II

A Duke sociologist has a new paper out on the subject of “nuance.” He comes out strongly against it (to see just how strongly, have a read of it). The paper is infuriating. Not because it’s wrong, since its argument is absolutely right and I agree with every word of it. And also not because he says he’s against nuance, but then immediately qualifies by saying that he’s actually not against nuance but rather a particular kind of abstraction that he has called nuance, and that while his critics might be tempted to scoff that this distinction is itself a nuance thereby making him a hypocrite, he is not in fact a hypocrite because as he as already stated clearly, he’s not against nuance per se but this other made-up variety, and since the distinction itself is nuance per se and not nuance of his particular imagined sort, he is ipso facto not a hypocrite. No, that’s not why it’s infuriating.

It’s infuriating because after 11 tightly-written pages denouncing the tendency of sociology toward abstraction and needless distinction, he says the following:

I could have made my case by picking out some egregious examples of overly-nuanced theory and then spent my time ridiculing them. But I deliberately chose not to curse at anyone in particular, and avoided getting into personal fights… Instead, I invite you to spend some time in the theory literature…

Meaning: I could have used examples in order to support my argument, but instead I have not. If you would like to know why I am right, you the reader must go and prove my case for me.

Now, let’s leave aside the fact that an “invitation to spend some time in the theory literature” is rather like being invited to an evening of having scalding-hot forks thrust into one’s testicles. One of the most remarkable things about this is the supposition that to use examples would be needlessly “personal” and would create “fights.” This, it seems to me, and not “nuance,” is the true mark of a failing discipline. If proposing strong criticisms constitutes of someone’s work constitutes an unnecessary personal attack, the prerequisites of the scientific enterprise are in bad shape indeed. This author, Prof. Healy, feels as if it would somehow be low and petty for him to “ridicule” somebody’s work. It’s striking that he feels ridicule is the only option, as if serious criticism of someone’s methods is inherently making fun of them. 

All very concerning. You are allowed to, and must, use examples in your arguments. You can’t get away with thunderously denouncing an entire perceived category of scholarship, without giving some proof that what you are talking about exists in the first place. Not to do so is not politeness and courtesy to your colleagues, it is cowardice and a failure of argumentative rigor. (Although Prof. Healy should note that I do not mean that personally and would never wish to pick a fight.)

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