ContraPoints and Aquinas

Youtube has been recommending ContraPoints to me for a while now. I finally clicked in to one of the videos, and now we’re going to talk about it. I’ve been watching a bunch of other video essays – Lindsay Ellis, H Bomberguy, Folding Ideas – and I kinda expected ContraPoints to follow a similar structure: person talks to camera and makes an argument. But that’s not quite what happens. The actual product will be much more familiar to regular readers – it’s the same sort of back and forth that Aquinas uses. 

So I’ve talked before about how Aquinas structures his articles. He asks a question, lays out a bunch of arguments for one side, and then argues against those arguments to prove his point. He usually starts his responses by laying out how his system works – so, uh, we’re about to come to human souls, so let’s deal with that example. Aquinas might ask whether each human has an individual soul. He’ll lay out all the ‘no’ arguments, and then in the response he’ll begin by saying ‘this is how souls work’ – so he sets out his system, his argument as to how souls work, and then uses that system to rebut each ‘no’ point in turn. I’m emphasising this system element because Aquinas isn’t just rebutting the opposing arguments, right – it’s not just about disproving the other guy, there’s also a positive articulation of his own personal opinions.

And ContraPoints has sort of a similar structure. Many of the videos are set up as debates – so you’ll get a character on each side of an argument, and a moderator, all played by the same person – who, uh, do we call her ContraPoints? Yes? Okay. Name of channel and media personality. Anyway – this is a pretty classic example of the structure – it’s a video on whether BDSM is feminist. Good stuff. And when you sit down to watch the video, it’s pretty apparent which side ContraPoints is on. It’s usually the one on the left, hurr hurr. The different characters make their various arguments, and while the debate isn’t always ‘won’ by the character on the left, they always end up with the stronger argument or broader position.

In one particular video, I noticed a really telling pinned comment. It’s the top comment on this video, on TERFs – ContraPoints notes that the TERF’s arguments “are taken almost word-for-word from real people.” That’s a really interesting thing to say – she’s defending herself against charges of strawmanning the opposition. If you create a strawman, you’re basically creating a weak caricature of your opponent’s position to make it easier to tear down. It’s refusing to engage honestly with the opposition.

And you can see why people might accuse ContraPoints of strawmanning. She’s created a debate format, but it’s one where she plays all the parts. She orchestrates the entire enterprise: she assigns the arguments, decides when to end the argument, decides how to end the argument, and decides who comes out looking better. It doesn’t seem possible to have an intellectually honest debate when there’s no opposing party, nobody who’s authentically invested in defending the opposing position.

Further, ContraPoints draws attention to the staged nature of the debate by playing all the parts herself, often with silly character names like Abigail Cockbane. What’s more, in the description for the TERFs video, ContraPoints describes the video as a “fictional dialogue” written for philosophical and artistic purposes. We might see some philosophical value in the piece, but the artistic dimension makes it seem more like theatre, like idle entertainment rather than legitimate intellectual debate.

Finally, by writing a fictional dialogue that draws on and rebuts common talking points from the Opponent of the Week, ContraPoints arguably contributes to a culture where debating skill is more important than honest intellectual engagement. In her videos, ContraPoints puts basic talking points in the mouths of her opponents, and the hero of the piece then rebuts those arguments. The videos teach viewers to anticipate and rebut certain arguments, as if the most important part of an intellectual exchange is knowing the enemy’s arguments, counter-arguments, and counter-counter arguments before the conversation even starts. The winner, from that perspective, is the person who is more prepared, the person who is better equipped to anticipate and defuse certain debating tactics. Ultimately, debating tactics can be disconnected from the content of an argument, and experienced debaters with no formal knowledge of a topic can overwhelm better educated or more well-informed individuals who simply have no exposure to debating culture.

On the other hand, it seems a little mean to assume that ContraPoints is being intellectually dishonest or disingenuous in their approach to the arguments they disagree with. Really, that’s the approach that Aquinas takes too, and I don’t think we want to write him off as intellectually dishonest. His work might be subject to these same criticisms listed above, but it’s also possible that he has some resources to help us resolve this conversation.

So let’s open our response by saying that it’s hypothetically possible for a Youtuber (or anyone else) to have a similar structure that is subject to all these criticisms. We can imagine a channel that’s just straw-manning and staged debates and intellectual dishonesty. That said, I don’t think that these criticisms apply to ContraPoints specifically. I think her work is intellectually honest and trying to engage legitimately with the opposition. She gives a Catholic Youtuber a fair go over here, and frankly, anyone who’s willing to give the Catholics a hearing can’t be all bad. As a very crude initial response then, I’m just not convinced that any of these criticisms stick.

But let’s deal with the points in more detail. Firstly, I do think it’s possible to have an intellectually honest debate with yourself. Think about how, for instance, you can be uncertain on an issue, and move back and forth between different perspectives before coming to a conclusion. Even when you’re decided on an issue, it’s possible to think through the logic of the opposition. So for instance say you’ve decided that the creationists are wrong and stupid – that wouldn’t stop you from articulating a creationist position. This is something I’m learning more and more as a teacher – you can make arguments that you disagree with. I’ll often have to present a line of thought that’s obviously stupid and dumb, but I articulate the argument and get students to put in the work to rebut it. And if they do a shit job rebutting the argument, I point out the holes in what they’re saying and make them do it again.

What’s more, often the opposing positions that ContraPoints puts forward have some underlying logic or integrity to them. For instance, in the episode about BDSM, the opposition is an anti-BDSM feminist, and she raises some quite reasonable points about how some people (women, particularly) might be socialised into accepting submissiveness as a desirable feminine quality and entering into an unhealthy or even abusive relationship purely as a logical extension of that submissive mentality. It’s not outside the bounds of possibility. Lots of the core premises in the argument are important parts of feminist thought. We know that people can be culturally socialised into thinking a certain way. We know that women are subjugated under patriarchal structures. We know that some women internalise and reproduce those patriarchal structures within their own lives. Given all of that, it’s not inconceivable that some women could try to express those internalised patriarchal structures through a masochistic sexuality.

I think this is one of the real strengths of ContraPoints’ videos – there’s a concerted effort to think through the most valid arguments on the opposition’s side. Often those arguments are also based in premises that are widely accepted. Again, we see this tactic with Aquinas – he’s really big on setting up a claim in one article, and then returning to it six questions later and showing how it has difficult implications. For example, check out this article of mine, where – well, basically that’s what happens. Aquinas states in 1a.14.8 that God knows everything. In 1a.14.10, he asks well, does God therefore know sin? If He does, then He is the ultimate cause of sin (because according to Aquinas, everything that exists only exists because God knows it into existence). If He doesn’t know sin, then God isn’t all-knowing – which seems like a pretty key tenet of Christian faith. Aquinas spends 14.10 resolving this issue.

Further, it’s not acting in bad faith to try and respond to those arguments in a legitimate way. Obviously the debates are orchestrated, but really all that’s saying is that ContraPoints has a point of view that she wants to put forward. It’s really even just surprising that the opposition get any respect at all in her videos. So sure, the back and forth might be engineered, but fuck, it’s a long way from Plato’s work, where Socrates argues with people who spend all their time going ‘Wow, you’re so intelligent Socrates!’ The arguments put forward by the opposition have stable intellectual roots and are generally worth at least considering. This response also covers the final point – ContraPoints isn’t really demonstrating a series of debating sleight-of-hand techniques. It’s not about misdirection, it’s about honestly confronting these points head on.

A quick final note: I’ve come back to this post after a few more days watching the channel, and the videos aren’t always structured in this strict debate way. Some are just monologue – the videos on The West and Incels, for instance. Also, some of the more recent debate videos have a more balanced perspective between two sides. Rather than trying to prove one side over the other, some videos highlight the respective strengths and weaknesses of different positions without necessarily suggesting that one or the other is objectively correct. For instance, this video considers the politics of performing femininity within trans women communities. It’s not necessarily one side over the other – at least not as far as I can make out. Instead, there’s merits to both sides. So it depends which videos you’re watching – my article probably more applies to some of CP’s earlier videos. Next week, uh, something else.

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