“There are two things I know to be true. There’s no difference between good flan and bad flan, and there is no war,” says CIA agent Charles Young (William H. Macy), in Barry Levinson’s mercilessly funny movie, Wag the Dog. Two seems like a good number. I’m going to try to say two true things today.
The older I get, the more I am attracted to spending my time doing things I am good at. It’s not that I don’t need to get better at a few things I’m not all that good at now. That would be really nice and I plan to do some of them. But what gives me enduring satisfaction and enduring pleasure—two very different things—is helping people have conversations they would not be able to have if I were not there.
I know that doesn’t sound like much, but it just might be really important. Here’s a paragraph’s worth of theology on why it might be important and why no one really knows. I believe in the Providence of God. That doesn’t mean I know what it is. The most practical thing I get from believing in Providence is that I am no longer certain how small a small kindness is or how catastrophically bad a “harmless prank” can be. So I am not (any longer) daunted by how small and insignificant my gift seems because I no longer believe that how small it seems matters very much in the Grand Scheme of Things. End of theological excursus.
There are two elements that make up this talent. The first in hearing hidden premises. The second is a sense for the integrity of the argument itself. Everything else I want to say today will be about what those words mean.
Hidden Premises. It is an odd thing to put an intention into the form of speech. I’m going to list a series of booby traps that very often blows the transmission of intention right off the road. Most of them, I don’t care about. First, there is the question of just who is speaking. “Who I really am” is strongly situational. Who I am when I am with these people is not at all like who I am when I am with those people. Who I am under stress is not like who I am relaxed and focused. And so on. One of the most common hidden premises of ads for shaving products, for instance, is the beautiful women that come with them.
Second, there is the question of intention. I have a credit card that renders the name Dale E. Hess as Dalee and that is the way the company addresses me. I don’t really care. On the other hand, one of the guys used to have coffee with in the morning—at a Starbucks in a galaxy far away—thinks I’m a pansy and if he persisted in calling me Dalee, I’d come right up out of my chair. The computer at the credit card company is dumb; the guy at Starbucks is malicious. I can tell that because I can hear the emotional premise of what he says. That’s a really useful thing to be able to do, particularly if you are always right (which, alas, I am not), but that’s not what I’m talking about.
The premise I am talking about is the intellectual premise. In the midst of a discussion, you hear someone make a proposal. He means it; at least he means the surface of it. But he doesn’t know why he chose that particular thing to say or what the necessary presuppositions are that underlie the charge. Very often, I hear all three of those at the same time. Sometimes they sound like three voices to me. I hear what is said and what is presupposed and what, from among the plethora of possible emphases, was chosen for particular emphasis.
I’ve been part of a lot of conversations about public policy. I know you can feature how bad the problem is that the policy is supposed to address. You can talk about how this policy will save money in the long run if it is invested now. You can talk about the sincerity of the proponents or the insidious schemes of the opponents. You can argue that no one will be worse off and some will be better off. You can argue that this is just the right thing to do, but not by government; or not by the courts particularly; or not by the appellate courts; or not by that particular appellate court. You get the idea.
Most often, I can “hear” what grounds for action are not being chosen. If there are five common reasons for making this proposal, I hear the silent ones as well as the verbalized one. I see the speaker passing by this one and this one and this one and this one and choosing that one. I can clearly see the unchosen premises and sometimes I can guess why they were not chosen.
How best to use this kind of sight is a problem I face. Let’s say the question is about child abuse and what can be done to make it less frequent. The speaker proposes that every instance of child abuse be considered a felony and that the testimony of the other parent—presuming that there are two parents in the setting—will be sufficient for conviction. I can see all the concerns he has not brought forward. I see that he has chosen a particular bad behavior, that he wants it criminalized, that he wants serious punitive consequences, and that he wants conviction to be simple and straightforward. He might have no sense of having made all those choices and in a sense, if he was unaware of them, he didn’t “make them” in the same sense. But they are there.
The Integrity of the Argument: My gift is seeing what has been chosen and what has not. Now I need to decide what to do. That moves me on to the next focus. The second part of this gift is an appreciation for the integrity of the argument. I am often the only guy at the table who is friends with the structure of the argument; who does not want to see it abused.
That’s not always the case, of course. When a debate is going on and I am one of the parties, I try to rig the structure of the argument so that it “comes out right.” I am perfectly capable of arguing that this is essentially an individual question (if it might otherwise be decided by the group) or that it is an ethical question (if it might otherwise be decided by statute) or that the market will take care of that by itself (if state regulation is in the offing). I know how to do things like, just as everyone else does, and for quite a few years, I was paid to drive down to Salem, Oregon’s capital, and do it for a living.
But that’s not what I’m talking about. I would choose—and very often I am now free to choose—not to be one of the parties to the discussion. I am an amicus tractiae. I am a “friend of the argument.” I want it to succeed. I want it to be healthy and robust. I come right up to the edge of saying that I want it to be happy, but then I shy away.
And what is the enemy of a happy argumentative structure? Is it partiality? I want the argument rigged so that I will prevail! No, I want the argument rigged so that I shall prevail? Nope. That’s not it. When everyone is arguing his own argument within a common and robust structure, all is well. It is when they are making incompatible arguments and no one has noticed that everything gets screwy. There is a wonderful scene in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance in which the Major General and the Pirate King are on the verge of conflict when someone realizes that the Pirate King is saying “often” and the Major General is hearing “orphan.” When each realizes what the other is saying, the brewing conflict simply evaporates.
When you are making an argument that starts from a different premise than mine or that proceeds by a different logic than mine or that features a different emotional color than mine—and I don’t that—you look like a knave or a fool to me. Your argument is wrong, it is shabbily put together, and emotionally perverse. When I understand that you are making a different argument, it looks to me and feels to me like…just a different argument.
John Gray dramatizes this so well in his well-known Mars/Venus books. This is how they argue on Mars (how men argue), Gray says, and that is how they argue on Venus (how women argue). If a man doesn’t know that, he thinks the woman is trying to argue the way he does and is making a fearful hash of it. When he learns that she is not trying to argue that way, that she is arguing in an entirely different but equally valid mode, then he can set about taking her argument on its merits. Not on his merits. Not on her merits. On IT’s merits.
It is misaligned arguments like that that can benefit from an amicus tractiae and that would be me. At my best, I can recognize that different kinds arguments are being made and are not being recognized. I can build and hold in place a conceptual structure that has a place for both arguments to appear and within which they can be seen to be different from each other and potentially, deserving of respect. I get hammered on from both sides sometimes. If you want to tilt the argument this way because it shows how unrepentantly silly the other person’s argument is, you will not want a structure to be built that shows that your argument, too, is “a kind of argument.” My holding the structure in place is keeping you from tilting it. I get hit from the other side for the same reason. But being a friend of the argument itself, wishing it integrity and robustness, is going to mean that the parties might not like what I am doing.
I’m OK with that. There are times when everybody hates the umpire.  Even worse is a person who is actually one of the parties and who is trying to pretend to be “not one of the pair,” to be “above it all.” Nobody’s OK with that, including me. When I find I slipped into it and failed to notice it at the time, I am embarrassed and I have to fight down the feeling that I ought to apologize.
So…I have a gift. Or a curse. I guess it depends on how you look at it. I really do, often, hear hidden premises. I really do, often, exercise my role as amicus tractiae. It brings value, sometimes, to discussions that would suffer if someone didn’t do those things and I like at least to try.
 “…if you will forgive the grammatical inadequacies of that sentence,” says Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor) in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.
 Everyone exercises “providence” in the sense that we “provide” for what we “foresee” (pro + videre = to see). When God is the subject of the sentence, I use the capital P in Providence to keep my providingness separate from His.
 We seem to be doing movies today. For the former reference, see Pay It Forward; for the latter, Needful Things.
 A Grand Schemer is postulated, of course.
 After which I would ask him if he’s like to step outside and settle this. If he were dumb enough to fall for that one, I would lock the door behind him. If he found his way back in, I suppose I would have to be the one to go outside.
 That’s plausible. It is built on amicus curiae, of course: “friend of the court.” The Latin word for “discuss” is trahere, which means a lot of other things as well, but which has a past participle, tractus, which, as a noun, would mean “discussion.”
 He overdoes it, of course. The “men” and “women” in his illustrations are just genderized stick figures. That’s what makes his presentation so clear and its application so useful.
 Of course, in any mode of argument—Gray’s male style or his female style, for instance—there are good argument and poor ones. The standard I am talking about requires only that they be judged by the appropriate criteria.
 Etymologically, we get “an umpire” from a numpire. “Numpire” comes from the Middle English noumpere, meaning “not a pair.” The two people who are arguing are a pair and you—the umpire—are not one of them. You are “not a pair,” which is easy to resent when the pitcher and the batter both know you are wrong.