The Art of Contradiction

First published March 28, 2007 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

From “The Argument Clinic,” Monty Python

Michael Palin: An argument isn’t just contradiction.
John Cleese: It can be.
Michael Palin: No it can’t. An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.
John Cleese: No it isn’t.
Michael Palin: Yes it is! It’s not just contradiction.
John Cleese: Look, if I argue with you, I must take up a contrary position.
Michael Palin: Yes, but that’s not just saying ‘No it isn’t.’
John Cleese: Yes it is!
Michael Palin: No it isn’t!
John Cleese: Yes it is!
Michael Palin: Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes.
(short pause)
John Cleese: No it isn’t.

I think the world of SEO has spun into a prolonged Monty Python sketch. The flavor of the month seems to be manufactured debate designed to take up polar opposite positions on any given topic. There’s nothing like a little dustup online to get the creative juices going and generate a lot of blog activity, and, if the topic of that debate strikes enough nerves, a corresponding bushel of new links. It seems like no matter what someone says, someone else in the blogosphere automatically takes the contradictory viewpoint, sometimes not so much because he or she disagrees — but just because they want to post a comment on their blog and generate some links.

You Say “Potato,” I Say “Patattah”

There’s nothing new with online debate, but in the past it tended be fueled by real passion. Today I suspect that we’re all scanning the online landscape, looking for a viewpoint that we can be diametrically opposed to, just for the sake of generating some dialogue and some link bait.

And, just so we can be crystal-clear about this at the outset, when it comes to the above practice, I’m guilty as charged. In the past couple of months I’ve engaged in at least three or four of these debates in my own blog. Some I truly felt passionate about and some were simply me jumping on the other side of the question for the sheer purpose of having a little fun and perhaps generating a comment or two. Perhaps the low point of this particular form of online content generation reached its lowest point when both I and fellow SearchInsider David Berkowitz decided to open up the debate in this column on no less worthy a topic then Kevin Federline (just kidding, David, I know this wasn’t just a heartless exercise for you. I’m sure you’re very passionate about K-Fed.).

Dispassionate Debate

But I have to wonder how effective we can be in arguing if we don’t truly believe in the viewpoint that we’re arguing for. Dispassionate debate is supposed to be something we learn at school. We get randomly assigned one side of an argument, and it’s our job to effectively argue that viewpoint whether we believe it or not. The advantage of dispassionate debate is that you tend not to shoot your mouth off too fast. You take the time to do some research, learn the facts, and construct a logical argument without your face turning red, your heartbeat racing and your blood pressure rising through the roof. I’m the first to admit that when someone strikes a chord with me, I tend to take it a little more personally than I should — a situation I’m currently finding myself in with one of my blog debates.

Get The Juices Going!

But the debate that really get the juices going are those things we truly believe in. Just look at how passionate an entire industry got when the very validity of SEO was questioned. Take a browse through some of the hottest threads in either Webmaster World or Threadwatch and see how vitriolic comments can get when the raw nerves are exposed.

Passionate ideological debate is a good thing. It’s what built our society and it’s what’s driven the evolution of our civilization. If we can keep the focus of the debate on the validity of the ideas and not the person making the argument, then debate is a very good thing. It’s healthy, it lets the air in, it exposes ideas and allows us to ruminate on them. And if it happens on an online forum and it happens to help reinforce the structure of the Web by generating new links, then so be it. Again, it’s just one more way to where the Web takes the things we’ve always tended to do and elevates them to a new level.

In one particular debate I was told I should not take it so personally. After 45 years of living with myself, I realize I’m just not wired that way. I do tend to take things personally — and that’s usually what prompts me to post comments, whether they’re in a column like this or on my personal blog. And I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. Yes, it might ruffle some feathers from time to time. But it’s a sign of passion — and one thing I truly love about this industry is the passion that always bubbles just below the surface. I love the fact that we’re quick to jump to the defense of ideas we hold dear. I love the fact that we’re a very eloquent group and we can make our points so well. In a column that came out last week, Bill McCloskey cried about the lack of passion in the e-mail industry. As Bill points out, I’ve never seen that to be true in search. We’re ready to argue anything, even if we don’t really hold our position to be true deep, deep in our heart.

After all, there’s no such thing as bad press — and perhaps there’s no such thing as bad link bait.

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