“I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.”

George Bernard Shaw

Like many insightful quotes this one nails an important idea, but really just one side of it. If you step back, you’ll recognize the other side and then you will have cornered yourself with a fundamental tough judgment call, a tension that needs to be balanced and rebalanced in changing situations.

First let’s set aside one simple problem with the quote. Not all pigs can be escaped. Sometimes we are forced to wrestle with pigs because they have power over us. For example, oppressed citizens have to wrestle with the dictator even if he’s a pig.

The problem I want to focus on here is the complexity of deciding who is a pig. If there were an objective test to determine who’s a pig and who isn’t, we would know who to steer clear of. But there isn’t one.

There are many ways to be a pig, including refusing to engage in debate. For example the dictator who oppresses his citizens, is completely inaccessible to dialogue, and accuses anyone who disagrees with him of being a pig. He’s a pig, right?

Though I can’t find an objective test, I’ve sought a definition of a pig. My best guess so far is that a pig is someone whose beliefs are formulaically fortified against all self-doubt.

Remember as a child getting into fight with someone who simply said, “I know you are but what am I?” in response to any and all arguments? “I know you are but what am I” is a formula. It can be applied to any argument, it has nothing to do with content and it deflects self-doubt. Indeed, like many formulas it deflects self-doubt by imposing doubt on one’s opponent.

Is “I know you are but what am I?” a credible counter-argument among children? We must distinguish two kinds of credibility: credibility to the self-fortifier and credibility to everyone else. The child who uses the “I know you are but what am I?” argument thinks he’s winning regardless of whether his challenger does. Thinking he’s winning is why the pig likes it. It’s an added benefit if you can get others to side with you. Gangs of bullies are made of people who employ the same fortifications to deflect the same self-doubts.

“I know you are but what am I?” is not a credible fortification in adult arguments. To fortify against self-doubt, we adults need more sophisticated formulae. We call the pursuit of more sophisticated formulas “rhetoric.” Rhetoric is the accumulation of general-purpose, content-independent formulas for making some arguments appear more credible and other arguments less credible. Rhetoric can be used for many things, but one of its main uses is self-protection. Each of us has an inner lawyer, ready day or night to make a case in our defense.

Rhetoric is a magnificent discipline, best paired with its counterpart–critical thinking, the skill that enables us to peel the formulas off and get back to the content of arguments.

Rhetoric co-evolves with critical thinking, but critical thinking can never keep up. Look at ads from the 40’s and you’ll say, “Who could believe such thin arguments? Our critical thinking skills have caught up with the ads of the 1940s but they are no match for today’s rhetoric. There are pigs and pig-gangs today armed with a full arsenal of sophisticated formulas for deflecting all self-doubt onto all challengers. They get away with it because their arguments are credible to enough people. They make being a pig look like fun and attract many joiners. They become rhetorical goon squads.

Sophistication comes primarily through mimicry of sound arguments. Sophisticated rhetoric is a body-double for non-formulaic arguments. It has to be, otherwise they wouldn’t be convincing. Mimicry depends on ambiguity, an inability to distinguish the real from the fake, and the more sophisticated our rhetoric gets the harder it is to distinguish sound arguments from formulaic ones.

That’s why there’s no objective test for piggishness. Sophisticated formulas run layers deep. For every attack there’s a defense. Having multiple formulas gives the impression of real interaction. With “I know you are but what am I” responses to every attack, it’s obvious there’s a formula. But adults can fake depth with ever-shifting arguments.

So how would you know who is formulaically self-defensive?

You might think you could tell by how persistent one’s position is, but that won’t work. I’m receptive to arguments about why killing one’s next-door neighbor is always a good idea. I mean I’ll listen. I could even mirror the argument to show I’ve heard it. But I can’t be convinced of it, and that’s not because I’m a pig, applying formulas to deflect the arguments.

You might think you could tell a pig by how self-serving his position is. But nope, that won’t work either. I could listen attentively to arguments why suicide is the right path for me, but I won’t be convinced by them either, and again, it’s not because I’m a pig.

We are stuck guessing who is a pig and who isn’t. The guessing gets much more successful if we give the topic some thought.

Please think about this with me: What’s your definition of a pig? I think this is one of the most important questions of our era. I’m on a quest for an objective definition even if it can’t be turned into a sure-fire objective test. By objective I mean thinking it up a notch from where we usually go for an answer to who is a pig: A pig is someone who won’t listen to me or doesn’t agree with me.

What I’m asking is what’s a butthead beyond someone with whom you happen to butt heads?