I wrote most of this post back in 2017. I am editing it (just a little) and moving it to the front because (1) I still (maybe mistakenly) think this is an interesting idea; (2) I haven’t heard it anywhere else; (3) it’s appropriate today.
You very often cannot control the basic circumstances of argument, especially public argument. A public argument, let’s say, is one you have in public, with, um, the public, about matters that concern the public (I suppose this could be anything). You can try to bring about a public argument on your own by inviting those around you, or the people who read your blog, or maybe someone in some comment thread. But you’re more likely to be at the mercy of events. I think this is the point behind trending topics on Twitter. You’d be jump on board because by yourself you can’t start a trend (unless you’re somebody famous). You have to take advantage of the opportunities as they present themselves.
This may run counter, however, to certain social norms. One such norm is not to speak ill of the dead or dying, or not to take advantage of misfortune to “score political points,” or the more general comedic injunction to avoid making jokes, “too soon.”
As an epistemic matter, however, arguments require you to put evidence before your audience. This means you must spring upon them where they are and when they are there.
The injunction against taking advantage or forcing unkind thoughts runs counter to the imperative to present your case when the opportunity arises. My case in some circumstance might involve alighting upon some uncomfortable aspect of a public official at some weak point in their life, or using someone’s misfortune as an example.
John Kass, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, recently argued (behind a paywall that I’m not paying) that George Soros bought the State’s Attorney’s position by generously underwriting the campaign of Kim Foxx (a black woman). Unsurprisingly, this provoked a lot of criticism (as well as comparisons to the speech above from The Blues Brothers). The short story on that (not the point here) is that Kass’s invocation of racist tropes was not only racist but actually non-sensical, as Foxx beat an opponent who outspent her 3:1.
That’s a kind of improvement, but alas, there still remains the standards question. Just because something is on the opinion page doesn’t make it immune from editorial criticism regarding the truth of the assertions, and, I think at least, the soundness and cogency of the arguments advanced.
Kass’s response was predictable: I’m a victim of cancel culture.
Will he get canceled for writing about cancel culture? Stay tuned!
This is where for me this cancel culture business loses meaning. As you all probably know by now, we’ve got many different variations of #cancel culture in play, so let’s just consider the one where columnists such as Kass or Bari Weiss or Andrew Sullivan or whoever get punished (they haven’t been) for their opinion.
Let’s start with a a basic picture: what does it mean to cancel someone, A? Let’s say A argues for p. You find A’s reasons q and r to be not only bad, but so bad that you’re done with A. You unfollow A or what is maybe worse you mute A. If you’re especially confrontational, you block them (happened to me and I’m nice). Not only this, you also share your opinion of A’s reasons with others. You encourage them to draw that same conclusion—to unfollow, block, or ignore A.
Now let’s say that your opinion about A gets some traction. Now lots of people are ignoring A. Now A’s publisher is considering dropping A because reading of A’s opinion is down. In addition, they worry that maybe people think continued publication of A reflects on them (see above). So they ditch A.
Is this an instance of cancellation? To review: you didn’t like A’s reasons, you shared this with others who agreed, and then A was gone. Perhaps your reasons are no good and people were idiots for listening to you. Perhaps people listened to you for the wrong reasons. Perhaps we should ask what would make a case of legitimate cancellation—like, perhaps the cases of the many who publish and publish and seem doomed to labor in silence.
So let’s think about them a second. The newspapers are full of the uncanceled. But they’re also unfull of the passively canceled: the countless many whose opinion for whatever reason no one listens to and never gains any traction. Now many of them might be absolutely right about their thing. But perhaps it’s just not interesting, or won’t have a large audience, or is too hard to understand. For whatever reason, someone has decided (even if only passively) not to include them and their voice. Now I’m not suggesting that we need to include everyone, but that perhaps there ought to be a reason why just these writers deserve a reason to continue to be heard. Is it like tenure, where you clear some kind of rigorous selection process and then the burden shifts to the would-be remover? So, a writer is canceled if they have achieved a certain platform, once they do, the burden shifts to the ones who would no longer hear them published there (not hear them at all). In the case of the countless passively canceled, there must be a reason they aren’t uncanceled.
So, one corner of the cancellation preoccupation seems to concern some measure of burden of proof. In other words, there seems to be a giant presumption that people with a form currently deserve it, and more than the usual reasons must be levied to change that.
This seems to imply that the columnist cancellation consternation is basically a version of the tenure debate (though my guess is positions are going to be at least partially reversed).
Let’s say for giggles that there is a kind of tenure for the likes of Kass: shouldn’t there be an analogous rigorous selection process for what goes into publication?
Some interesting research (from Ditte Marie Munch-Jurisic, Philosophy and Science Studies at Roskilde University, Denmark) questions the effectiveness of discomfort in moral argumentation. It might not, so the author argues, be so effectiveness to make people feel bad about their various moral failings:
My primary aim is to caution against the current wave of discomfort advocacy. Advocates risk overrating the moral potential of discomfort if they underestimates the extent to which context shapes the interpretation of affect and simple, raw feelings. Context in this sense entails two dimensions: (i) the concrete situation of individual agents and (ii) the internal tools and concepts they use to interpret their discomfort. Rudimentary affect like discomfort does not necessarily have a transparent, straightforward intentionality.
Put simply, agents may not know precisely why they feel uncomfortable. Their specific situations and the interpretative tools they use to discern their discomfort are central to how they will understand their discomfort and the motivations they will draw from the experience. Affect—and especially negative affect like discomfort—has an paramount and often unpredictable influence on our judgments, behavior and understanding of the world. From the perspective of the contextual approach, a critical problem for discomfort advocates is that they risk ignoring the multiple kinds of discomfort that may arise in discussions of implicit bias.
This has interesting implications for the ad baculum business we’ve been discussing here the past couple of days. The thought seems to be that discomfort doesn’t really function like a reason (or doesn’t function in the absence of clear reasons–i.e., do you know why I’m punishing you. I wonder (not having read the work–plan to!) whether question is covered.
This also has implications for some other stuff both Scott and I have been working on: the concept of adversarial argumentation. In a nutshell, this is treating argument like a contest or a conflict. One of the concerns is that such an approach seems to incentivize the kinds of moves discussed here. I am co-editing (with Kat Stevens of the University of Lethbridge) a special issue of the journal Topoi on this. The deadline has passed, but these are special times in case anyone has anything nearly ready to go.
My own view, FWIW, on the adversarial business is that such discomfort is unavoidable and perhaps uncontrollable because of the way beliefs work. More on that another time (or you can read it here).
You can follow me (John) on Twitter, you know. I don’t actually tweet a ton, and when I do it’s usually a (tedious) self-reference joke. Anyway, in all my time away from here I spent a lot of time there. I haven’t done much arguing there (when I do it rarely goes well for me). I don’t actually like arguing anyway. That’s even in my bio.
Anyway, I just ran into this:
It is now common to see writers judged not by the totality of their work, or their most valuable contributions, but by identifying whatever moment or viewpoint the judge finds most odious, presuming the least charitable explanation for it, and judging on that basis alone.
I suppose people have written a ton about “cancel culture”–too much for me to add anything new, I’m sure.
If I did write anything, I’d probably start with a taxonomy. On that score, I will say that what strikes me as interesting about this remark (other than the “now” business that seems completely false) is the version of “cancel culture” on offer. The canceling here is really not canceling in any unique sense at all, but rather just judging someone partially and badly (allegedly at least). I’ve no doubt this happens (because I’ve done it myself–don’t be insufficiently dialectical!), but this can’t be one of the main versions of the thing everyone is worried about. Besides, this strikes me as too high a burden: I don’t have time to read every one of this guy’s articles before I decide maybe I don’t need to read any more (I haven’t actually resolved this yet).
In the end, to stretch this out a bit, you’ve have something of the Aristotle problem: you’ll never be able to cancel anyone until well after they’re dead, and by then, they’re already cancelled.
Sorry it’s been so long since we’ve posted anything; we’ve been very busy with other projects. For myself, and I’m sure Scott would agree, I just can’t give up on the idea of this blog–however flawed it might be and however infrequently I might post something.
Enough preamble, let’s talk about boycotts.
Here’s a link to a piece that raises interesting questions about boycotts and violence.
The basic thought seems to be that boycotts, as tools of political persuasion, exert force (by the withdrawal of economic support) to gain adherence to some perspective. Here is the conlcusion:
Still, the question does give pause. Boycotts do occupy part of a spectrum of direct-action activities, understood as extra-legal activities designed to change someone’s behaviour. They are attempts to go beyond rational persuasion to take matters into one’s own hands, to force an outcome that one is unable or unwilling to argue for. Of course, that’s probably sometimes morally required. But it’s not to be taken lightly.
In argumentation this is what you’d call the ad baculum. I’ve been thinking about this for a bit (Here’s a post and you can read something longer here if you want). The basic idea of the ad baculum is that force isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a reason to conclude something. There’s quite a lot of literature on this, odd as that may seem. The basic struggle is how to account for the fallaciousness of the appeal to force. The standard textbook examples (unchanged through many editions) are hilarious.
I loathe to write a ton about this right now, but I would like to add one thought to the idea of ad baculums and violence (that I don’t think was raised in the piece). The boycott might be understood as a means to drawing attention to the reasons rather than an end in itself. So, perhaps people boycott product x not to bring about the end of x, but rather to call attention to the argument in question. To understand this you have to look at the audience as well as the target. So, when people boycott, perhaps they want people to ask: why are they boycotting stuff?
The other day the New York Times ran an op-ed about Greta Thunberg, the teenage environmental activist. The TL;DR is that activism, particularly the activism of Ms.Thunberg, is “at odds with democracy.”
Many on Twitter wondered how attempting to persuade people to take an interest in an issue could be undemocratic. It seems, if anything, just like how you do democracy.
What the author really means, however, is that her argument methods are no good. He writes:
Her politics rests on two things. First is simplification. “The climate crisis already has been solved,” she said at a TED Talk in Stockholm this year. “We already have all the facts and solutions. All we have to do is wake up and change.” Second is sowing panic, as she explained at the World Economic Forum in Davos last winter.
Normally Ms. Thunberg would be unqualified to debate in a democratic forum. Since a 16-year-old is not a legally responsible adult, she cannot be robustly criticized and, even leaving aside her self-description as autistic, Ms. Thunberg is a complicated adolescent. Intellectually, she is precocious and subtle. She reasons like a well-read but dogmatic student radical in her 20s. Physically, she is diminutive and fresh-faced, comes off as younger than her years, and frequently refers to herself as a “child” — about the last thing the average 16-year-old would ever do.
Kids her age have not seen much of life. Her worldview might be unrealistic, her priorities out of balance. But in our time, and in her cause, that seems to be a plus. People have had enough of balance and perspective. They want single-minded devotion to the task at hand.
Pointing out in an argument with a child that they’re a child and you can’t really argue with them is pretty much the same thing as arguing with them, only it’s way more dishonest because it’s patronizing, self-contradictory, and itself pretty much fallacious. For, in the first place, you’re actually arguing with them, you’re just not doing it right by calling into question the truth of the premises or the logic of their conclusions. Instead, you’re pointing out that they’re children who, because of their fragile nature (I won’t even point out the other thing he mentions–see how I can be ironic too!), cannot be criticized by adults.
Still more perplexlingly, and equally ironically, the author argues that drawing negative conclusions about people’s behavior is not allowed:
Increasingly, climate agitators want action, not distraction. That often requires demonizing anyone who stands in the way. In July the climate editor of the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad complained that Paris’s declaration of a “climate state of emergency” on July 9 had not been accompanied by a ban on automobile traffic in Paris or by a dimming of the lights on the Eiffel Tower. In Germany the word “Flugscham” is one of the last year’s more interesting coinages. It means not fear of flying but shame of flying, and of the pollution it brings about. The German economist Niko Paech urges shaming people for booking cruises and driving S.U.V.s, too.
I’m supposing that the people making such arguments should be ashamed of themselves. Geez. It’s pretty much an inescapable feature of disagreements that the people with whom you disagree are doing something wrong. That’s just the way it’s done. When the disagreement concerns actions, then it follows that the claim will be that doing that action is wrong, and so should not be an action that is done. Pointing this out is just how you do arguments in a democracy. Maybe, just maybe, the extremity of the wrongness is exaggerated. If so, that’s something that’s pretty easy to point out.
To end on a rather more general note, this is another example of what Robert Talisse and Scott Aikin call the Owl of Minerva problem. The argument is so often not about what to do or what to believe but about what are legitimate arguments concerning what to do or what to believe.
A while back, not that long ago actually, you couldn’t escape memes about Marie Kondo, the Japanese de-cluttering expert and reality TV personality. The most famous one was to ask, about any object that you have laying around your house: does it spark joy? If it doesn’t, then you get rid of it.
Over at Philosophy15, run by our own Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse, they run another version of the “Owl of Minerva Problem.” Here’s the video (it’s a two-parter, this is part I):
A common stoic-type (Scott can confirm this) argument against extra stuff (one that I unsuccessfully employ all of the time) is that stuff just creates the need for more stuff. There’s a version of the this in Boethius’s Consolation.
Interestingly, this works for arguments as well, though there is no Marie Kondo here to help you. The better you get at arguments, the more argument furniture, rugs, tchotchkes you gather in the form of argument vocabulary, fallacy names, etc. In a sense, gathering this stuff is what it means, in the minds of many at least, to be good at arguing. The problem is that it gets subsumed into arguments such that you then have to gather more of it–more second (third?) order vocabulary, and so forth, to manage the misemployment of fallacy vocabulary, for instance.
One quick example of that. The Harry Potter Problem, so I call it, is the employment fallacy names (expecto ad hominem!) in place of ordinary language critique of argument. The Harry Potter problem only arises because we have a second-order vocabulary.
Anyway, back to the main point: you can get rid of stuff, lead a more simple life. This is not an option with arguments, even though the cause of the problem is pretty much the same. We’re stuck with the clutter. The only solution is more clutter.
In the wake of the 2016 Presidential election there were countless takes about how it was a repudiation of elites and liberals who didn’t take working class white people‘s concerns seriously. In the ensuing years, enterprising journalists from every corner have done the Cletus Safari, as Ed Burmila calls it, where they venture into some diner in a dying Midwestern Rust Belt to hear the denizens’ concerns over immigration or political correctness. After years of this kind of reporting appearing in the New York Times and all, some newspaper editors seem to believe that if you live in the Midwest, you’re white (and maybe eat 10-egg breakfasts at a diner). One political editor at the New York Times said as much.
Now there seems to be an argumentative version of the Cletus Safari. Tom Scocca, writing today at Salon, identifies the form. While the journalistic version consists in filling the pages of the paper with reporting on the thoughts and impressions of all of those forgotten people no one hears from, the argumentative version summons these impressions into a point of view that occupies some important dialectical space. Scocca writes:
At the end of June, after the first round of Democratic presidential debates, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens got criticized for writing this passage:
This was straightforwardly in the spirit of what the accused El Paso gunman would write, about “defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.” But Stephens, a self-styled Never Trumper who claims to be offended by the president’s vulgarity and bigotry, didn’t believe he had written any such thing. In a follow-up column, calling his critics “Jacobins” and their complaints “preposterous,” and comparing himself to the target of Big Brother’s Two Minutes Hate, he explained that people had willfully misunderstood his effort “to channel the negative way ‘ordinary people’ might have viewed last week’s Democratic debates.”
Like Nixon, Stephens was simply expressing racist ideas that he supposed belonged to someone else—some figure, or mass of figures, offstage, whose point of view deserved a respectful hearing. He was writing, that is, in the dominant mode by which white nationalist ideas are presented in America: as a second-order concern, or, better yet, a third-order one, a warning that liberals, by denouncing racism, run the risk of offending or provoking the people who hold those racist views (or views that may seem, to a snobbish and uncaring coastal elite, to be racist, when in fact they reflect the reasonable or at least understandable frustrations or fears of the people who hold them).
I often think that all argument is really meta-argument. Your moves are moves about moves in arguments as much as they are moves within an argument. The straw man (hollow man version actually) illustrates this point nicely. It’s like you’re saying: “By bringing up these racist ideas, I’m not asserting them, I’m merely making sure the argument we are having is conducted with respect to both sides.” Stephens should get extra points for invoking the very meta “free speech” defense, where a criticism of a view is conflated with the idea that the view shouldn’t be heard at all.
It’s all extra meta because Stephens casts himself as adjudicating the middle ground between people with racist ideas (not him!) and other (equally made up) people whose sole obsession is political correctness and silencing free speech. It’s a double straw man, with Stephens right in the reasonable middle.
Interestingly, this move–the straw man argument invoked to establish a bothsiderist meta position, was identified by Whately in his 1855 Elements of Logic. Aware that spectators of arguments often don’t pay careful attention to what they’re seeing or hearing, it is often enough, as he points out, to suggest there is some view without having to put it into any particular detail. The point of invoking the unattended or ignored view is not to examine it, but to force conciliation or some kind of draw in the minds of the onlooker (pp.241-242).
*I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted, thanks for listening.
The intuition that political polarization is caused by lack of access to dissenting views has much to recommend it. First of all, if you don’t know what these views are, you can’t learn about them. Second, if you only know strongly dialectical or distorted (straw man) versions of them, you’re unlikely to find your opponents to be reasonable people with plausible views. The obvious antidote to this would seem to be to sit and listen to dissenting voices in their own words. Let’s call this view, “the horse’s mouth” Looking into the horse’s mouth will have a moderating effect; for, people are eminently reasonable, so if you just listen to them in their own reasonable words you’ll be compelled to admit that (and so abandon your polarized, straw man versions of their view).
Now comes science to spoil everyone’s intuitions. Some political scientists have tested whether this decreases polarization. The long and the short of it is that it doesn’t and it may (though this result was within the margin of error) increase it. From their paper:
Social media sites are often blamed for exacerbating political polarization by creating “echo chambers” that prevent people from being exposed to information that contradicts their preexisting beliefs. We conducted a field experiment that offered a large group of Democrats and Republicans financial compensation to follow bots that retweeted messages by elected officials and opinion leaders with opposing political views. Republican participants expressed substantially more conservative views after following a liberal Twitter bot, whereas Democrats’ attitudes became slightly more liberal after following a conservative Twitter bot—although this effect was not statistically significant. Despite several limitations, this study has important implications for the emerging field of computational social science and ongoing efforts to reduce political polarization online.
This is disappointing in part because things were looking good for the horse’s mouth view. For it has recently been shown that another representationalist paradox–the backfire effect–had failed to replicate. In the “backfire effect” study, Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler found that attempts to correct mistaken information would backfire in certain circumstances. The idea, in other words, is that exposure to facts is not sufficient for correction and may in fact make one retrench.
Naturally, we should be cautious with such results, as the authors themselves warn:
Although our findings should not be generalized beyond party-identified Americans who use Twitter frequently, we note that recent studies indicate this population has an outsized influence on the trajectory of public discussion—particularly as the media itself has come to rely upon Twitter as a source of news and a window into public opinion (47).
In closing here I might venture a hypothesis for why people didn’t moderate their view. Prominent politicians on Twitter, from what I’ve observed, produce content for a partisan audience. Often that partisan audience is already polarized and it isn’t particularly well-informed. Content that appeals to them, viewed by an observer, might only tend to confirm the worst views about them. If you see a bunch of tweets urging you to “lock her up,” you can hardly be blamed for thinking them to be idiots.
This is a continuation of Scott’s post from yesterday, where he observed that you can perform a kind of self straw man. You say something vague, knowing that you’re going to be “misinterpreted” and then you complain that you have been misinterpreted.
But the Owl of Minerva Problem raises distinctive trouble for our politics, especially when politics is driven by argument and discourse. Here is why: once we have a critical concept, say, of a fallacy, we can deploy it in criticizing arguments. We may use it to correct an interlocutor. But once our interlocutors have that concept, that knowledge changes their behavior. They can use the concept not only to criticize our arguments, but it will change the way they argue, too. Moreover, it will also become another thing about which we argue. And so, when our concepts for describing and evaluating human argumentative behavior is used amidst those humans, it changes their behavior. They adopt it, adapt to it. They, because of the vocabulary, are moving targets, and the vocabulary becomes either otiose or abused very quickly.
The introduction of a metavocabulary will change the way we argue and it will, inevitably, become a thing we argue about. The theoretical question is whether there is any distinction between the levels of meta-argumentation. The practical question is whether there is anything we can do about the seemingly inexorable journey to meta-argumentation. I have a theory on this but I’ll save that for another time.
Now for self straw manning. This is a slightly more subtle version of yesterday’s example. Here’s the text (a bit longish, sorry) from a recent profile of Sam Harris by Nathan J.Robinson.
A number of critics labeled Harris “racist” or “Islamophobic” for his commentary on Muslims, charges that enraged him. First, he said, Islam is not a race, but a set of ideas. And second, while a phobia is an irrational fear, his belief about the dangers of Islam was perfectly rational, based on an understanding of its theological doctrines. The criticisms did not lead him to rethink the way he spoke about Islam, but convinced him that ignorant Western leftists were using silly terms like “Islamophobia” to avoid facing the harsh truth that, contra “tolerance” rhetoric, Islam is not an “otherwise peaceful religion that has been ‘hijacked’ by extremists” but a religion that is “fundamentalist” and warlike at its core.
Each time Harris said something about Islam that created outrage, he had a defense prepared. When he wondered why anybody would want any more “fucking Muslims,” he was merely playing “Devil’s advocate.” When he said that airport security should profile “Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it,” he was simply demanding acknowledgment that a 22-year old Syrian man was objectively more likely to engage in terrorism than a 90-year-old Iowan grandmother. (Harris also said that he wasn’t advocating that only Muslims should be profiled, and that people with his own demographic characteristics should also be given extra scrutiny.) And when he suggested that if an avowedly suicidal Islamist government achieved long-range nuclear weapons capability, “the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own,” he was simply referring to a hypothetical situation and not in any way suggesting nuking the cities of actually-existing Muslims.
It’s not necessary to use “Islamophobia” or the r-word in order to conclude that Harris was doing something both disturbing and irrational here. As James Croft of Patheos noted, Harris would follow a common pattern when talking about Islam: (1) Say something that sounds deeply extreme and bigoted. (2) Carefully build in a qualification that makes it possible to deny that the statement is literally bigoted. (3) When audiences react with predictable horror, point to the qualification in order to insist the audience must be stupid and irrational. How can you be upset with him for merely playing Devil’s Advocate? How can you be upset with him for advocating profiling, when he also said that he himself should be profiled? How can you object, unless your “tolerance” is downright pathological, to the idea that it would be legitimate to destroy a country that was bent on destroying yours?
Sam Harris is certainly a divisive figure. I’d also venture to guess that he is smart enough to know his audience, some of whom (such as Robinson here above) strongly disagree with him. He might be expected, therefore, for the purposes of having a productive debate, to make his commitments absolutely clear. This would involve, one would hope, avoiding bombastic utterances bound to provoke strong reactions or misinterpretations.
But, crucially, arguments are not always about convincing new people to adhere to your view, but to strengthen the attitudes of your followers. It seems to me that just such a tactic as the self-straw man is ideal. You get an opponent (cleverly, this case) to embody the very stereotype of the unreasonable, ideology-driven mismanager of fallacy vocabulary by setting up a straw man of your own view for them. They’re drawn to that but not to your qualifications and so the trap closes.