All posts by Scott Aikin

Scott Aikin is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University.

Argumentum ad bawitdabam

So we’re doing this.  Kid Rock gave a speech about his upcoming Senate bid during one of his concerts.  It was not well-composed, but it did have something that looked like an argument in it.  And here we are, seeing if we can do some logic with the American Badass.  Here’s the speech:

And a transcript of it is available here (provided, btw, by Metal Injection).

Rock gave two arguments of note.  One had an interesting bit of complication about taxes and entitlement programs to it.  Here’s the relevant piece:

It seems the government wants to give everyone health insurance but wants us all to pay. And to be very frank, I really don’t have a problem with that. ‘Cause god has blessed me and made my pockets fat.

“But redistribution of wealth, seems more like their plan. I don’t believe that you should say sacrifice, do things by the book and then have to take care of some deadbeat, milking the system, lazy ass, motherfucking man.

So, here’s what I see to it.  Rock holds that he’s OK with government subsidized health insurance, and he’s happy to pay in to that because he’s rich.  But he thinks that there’s a limit to what government entitlements he’s willing to support — and so he’s against free riders to the system.  (He runs a follow-up to the argument about ‘struggling single parents’ and the threat of ‘women, who can’t even take care of themselves, but keep having kid after fucking kid’).

But here’s the crucial thing.  It looks like Rock is saying his defaults are on supporting these entitlement programs, and he’s not willing to let the fact that there are free riders defeat support for these programs.  He just wants to stop the free riders from doing what they are doing.  Now, how he proposes to stop them is bonkers. In all the cases, he proposes that we ‘lock up’ those who are taking advantage of the programs.  That free riding is productive of outrage does not imply that free riders must be punished with incarceration.  Hence an argument from outrage.

What’s important here is noting that, again, Rock’s defaults are on supporting the programs.  It looks like he can distinguish his disappointment with those who cheat them from the fact that the programs work for those who really need them.  Again, his over-reaction to one shouldn’t overshadow the fact that he’s made a good move with the other.  (Well, perhaps it can overshadow it a bit … are we really going to ‘lock up’ people who have more kids than someone like Rock thinks they should while on welfare?)

The second argument is just a piece of word-salad that seems to come out as a case for him to be President.  Here’s the relevant bit:

Kid Rock for senate has got folks in disarray. Wait till they hear Kid Rock for president of the U.S.A.. ‘Cause wouldn’t it be a sight to see, President Kid Rock in Washington, D.C.. Standing on the Oval Office like a G. Holding my dick ready to address the whole country.

I’ll look the nation dead in the eyes, live on TV, and simply tell them, you never met a motherfucker quite like me

This image is very hard to erase from a mind.

As far as I can see, this is a form of ad populum, one that runs that because the Kid is dope/fly/cool, he should occupy the highest political office in the land.  The fact that the interest in his candidacy has ‘got folks in disarray’ is a form of the negative ad populum we’ve discussed a few times, one that runs:

P: If I do X, it will drive liberals/elites crazy

C: I should do X.

Again, I’m calling the move now negative ad populum, because the core of the line of argument is that the judgment of a certain class of people is so badly aligned, they are a barometer for the correct decision, except by way of negation.  You just do whatever would make them mad, or the opposite of what they would do.   Rock is, in many ways, running this argument convergently — both as an ad populum (I’m cool, so deserving the Presidency), and as a negative ad populum (my candidacy drives the libs nuts, so I’m deserving of more votes).  Of course, as with any ad populum, the matter is regularly underdetermined by the premises.  But, hey, when you’ve got a rock show to run, who has time for relevant premises, amirite?

 

 

Losers say ‘what?’

It was a dumb game in junior high — you mutter, “loser says what?” and your buddy says, “What?”, because you muttered it and he couldn’t hear it properly. Then you say, “Ha ha, you’re a loser.”  A great way to make and keep friends.

David Harsanyi has a little move like that in politics, and he runs it in his recent article, “Democrats are Increasingly Comfortable with Religious Tests” over at NRO.  Here’s the setup.  Because a standard liberal line is that religiously-inspired law and jurisprudence is a threat to religious liberty, vetting judges in terms of how significantly their religious commitments influence how they vote is important.  But this test is not a religious test, it’s a zealotry test.  And, again, we keep the religious nutcases from making and deciding law for the sake of religious freedom — because religious nutcases make law only for their religion.

Well, you can see where this is going.  With Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination for the Federal Appeals Court, Harsanyi takes every question about whether and to what extent her religious views influence her policy decisions to be a religious test,  not a zealotry test.

It is irksome, no doubt, that Barrett’s faith informs her views. Our backgrounds and beliefs always color our opinions. This is not yet an illegal act. But these lines of questioning, which are becoming increasingly prevalent in political discourse, are an attempt to create the impression that faithful Christians whose beliefs are at odds with newly sanctified cultural mores are incapable of doing their job. They are guilty of another kind of apostasy.

But the some of these colorings that Harsanyi thinks are inevitable are different from the very or extreme colorings that these lines of questioning are out to determine.  Once we see it through Haryani’s lens, though, it’s all a form of religious discrimination by the Left.  His middleschool trap, then, is roughly something along the lines of saying, “Leftist anti-religious bigots say ‘What’s the role of religion in your policy decisions?’… and he waits for them to say it.  But it’s a confusion of what the purpose of the question is.

Of course, when there are occasions for clarification of what the purpose of the questions, Harsanyi won’t hear it, because he can’t take anything the folks on the other side says seriously.  Here’s the height of it, recounting Al Franken’s exchange with Barrett:

“I question your judgment,” the former star of Stuart Saves His Family lectured the mother of seven.

Of course you can’t hear a reasonable thing come out of someone’s mouth if you keep bringing up the dumbest things they’ve ever done.  Maybe we should go drag up some of Harsanyi’s early essays or attempts at painting or standup comedy or his performance in a sophomore year poetry slam to see how well they hold up…

To the Fallacy Analysis point, this is a peculiar case.  I’m inclined to think it’s a special kind of straw man — you interpret the questions along some totally uncharitable line, and then you criticize it for being the bad thing you took it to be.  And you avoid the main line of critical questioning, which is about the proper role religious commitment has in making policy for a society committed to religious liberty.  Surely a reflective person can see the issue, right?  But what arises out of this distortion of the point of the questions is a further issue, one that seems to make it so that the other side just can’t make good or decent points.  Once you see their track record through such a lens, they can seem to be little more than those who make awful noises and act on the basest of instincts.  And so, straw man arguments extended over time make for consistent well poisoning. 

 

Calling Fallacies by their Proper Names

In the wake of Trump’s false analogy between the behavior of the neo-Nazis and the antifa counter-protesters in Charlottesville, there has been a good bit of criticism of the point.  However, the term used in criticism has consistently been that he ‘equivocated’ the two.  Here’s the headline at the Daily Beast:

Netanyahu’s Cynical Delay Denouncing Trump’s Nazi Equivocation

Other outlets have used the term ‘equivocation’ for the error, too.  CNN has consistently termed the error an ‘equivocation.’   Today:

… the moral equivalency and equivocation President Trump has offered …

Today:

…Trump’s equivocation earlier this week between white supremacists and those who were protesting them in Charlottesville.

Yesterday:

… his initial equivocation, saying there was “blame on both sides.”

Vanity Fair:

…the president of the United States equivocated.

Even at the venerable Economist:

Mr Trump’s equivocation on Saturday thrilled the Daily Stormer

And so on.  In a follow up post, perhaps Friday, I’ll talk about the problems with the slippery slope argument Trump made defending the monuments, so there is a lot of bad reasoning and falsity to criticize.  But, my point today is just something small.  It’s just this:  if people are going to use the vocabulary of fallacy appraisal, it should be used correctly.  Here’s the big point: so much power is wielded by that vocabulary.  Think of the big-word points scored by folks who use that word — and notice the force it has when you’re criticizing someone.  It’s the fallacy-spotting game, and throwing a fallacy name out there shifts the course of conversation.  So using fallacy vocabulary (especially when it’s composed of Latinisms), means you’re claiming a kind of informed position on the debate — like pausing and making a point of order.

That’s the reason why you’ve got to be competent when using the vocabulary.  In this case, we’ve got a fallacy, and what’s being criticized, again is something just as simple as a false analogy (or false equivalence).  There may be an element of two wrongs to the reasoning, too (since T also implicated that because the antifa folks were violent, too, they bear blame, too).

Regardless, what he did not do is equivocate.  Here’s why.  Equivocation is an error of term-confusion.  It happens when you’ve got two meanings for a term, and you reason along only looking at the similarity of the term, but miss the dissimilarity of the meanings in the reasoning.  Here’s an example:

Students attend school to improve their faculties.

Their faculties are their teachers

So students go to school to improve their teachers.

Funny? Yeah,  and fallacious! It’s because faculty in the two instances meant different things, and so the syllogism looks valid, it’s because the term faculty appears as the middle term, but there’s two different things denoted by those two instances of the term.  (In the first, it means the mental functions, in the second, it means teachers.)

Here is a lesson about fallacy-charges.  They come with a burden of proof.  When I charge you with begging the question, I need to show either (i) how your conclusion is one of your premises or (ii) how one of your premises is, given the argument, more controversial than your conclusion.  When I charge you with straw man, I need to show how you’ve distorted my view to look worse than it is.  And so on.  When you charge equivocation, you have to show (i) that there are two instances of a term in some reasoning, and (ii) show that those two instances of the same term  nevertheless mean different things in the two cases.

So what’s the upshot?  Journalists don’t use the vocabulary of logic accurately.  For the most part, that’s not much of a surprise, but it’s disappointing to a college prof who tries to make it so that the names of things helps us keep them straight, not just that knowing lots of names for things makes it so that you can use them as you like.

Here’s another shot, perhaps a bit more of a sympathetic view on the use of the term.  When one says a speaker had an ‘unequivocal’ statement, that means that the statement was clear about its meaning.  So unequivocal statements are unambiguous, at least on the level of terms.  So perhaps the view is that in being unclear about whether T was really rejecting the commitments of Nazis or their behavior, T equivocated.   However, I’m not entirely moved by this line of thought, since many of the cases are those of ‘equivocating between’ not ‘equivocating about’.  So, perhaps, there are different kinds of misuse of this term.

 

 

 

Both-sidesism

In the wake of the Charlottesville protests, counter-protests, ensuing riots, and homicide, there has been a good bit of reflection on (a) the fact that white supremacists are so numerous and open, and (b) the current state of political discourse.  The key here is that there’s a strange tension at the heart of these two considerations.  Here it is in rough form: If you’re for well-run public discourse, then you think that there are no in principle limits on what can be discussed.  And when people want to have “uncomfortable” conversations, there’s no reason why they should be shut out.  And all the sides, ideally, should come out of that discussion feeling like they’ve been heard.  Moreover, it’s important to discuss the issues, and leave the personal attacks out. That’s properly run public discourse.  But when the uncomfortable conversation is that of discussing, say, the status of public memorials of Confederate generals, folks representing the “lost cause” don’t feel like they are being heard. And they feel like they get painted nastily from the start.  (But, hey, when you’re arguing for racist stuff, that’ll happen, right? And therein lies the problem.)

To the protests and the riots, it’s possible to say that one side is right, but still behaves badly in the exchange.  And so, starting with the punch a Nazi meme, and now with the antifa movement, I think it’s possible to say:  I am against white supremacy, but I don’t condone violence.  Moreover, I think violence encourages worse behavior from the Nazis. That is the lesson of every escalation, and just war theory makes an excellent distinction between jus ad bellum and jus in bello. So, one can think that one is unjustly fighting a just war.

Enter the folks at Meet the Press this last Sunday.  Rich Lowery of National Review, responding to a question about President Trump’s tweet:

The key is that Trump noted that it’s violence “on many sides.”  People were (a) surprised and disappointed that Trump did not criticize the white supremacists, and (b) taken aback that he, especially after it was clear that a car driven by a white supremacist ran into a group of counter-protester, seemed to also lay blame on the anti-fascists.  Lowery’s take was to invoke something along the lines of the content-procedure distinction:

I do think he, obviously, should’ve specifically denounced the white nationalists. But there are two sides to this now. This country now has a violent fringe on the right and on the left, both of whom, the white nationalists and the so-called anti-fascists who like violence, who thrill to violence, like the attention that comes with it. And this is going to get worse before it gets better.

So, Lowery is making a point about how the discussion is going and is making a point about escalation.  Again, it has to be possible to say that someone is in the right, but pursuing their case wrongly.  Now, the question, of course, is what’s the more important issue – content or procedure.  Joy-Ann Reid reminds Lowery and the audience of the bigger point, and coins a nice phrase in the process:

I think that both-sidesism doesn’t serve anyone well. This is an unambiguous evil that is plaguing the country . . . . One of the reasons that Donald Trump cannot properly respond to what was an obvious proper response from an America president is the people in his government. Who’s writing the talking points that he was looking down and reading from?…

And Van Jones had a version of this criticism of the ‘both sides’ line on Sunday’s CNN State of the Union

An American citizen was assassinated in broad daylight by a Nazi. A Nazi, who the day before had been marching with torches down American streets saying anti-Jewish, anti-black stuff . . . This is not a time to talk about ‘both sides’. . . .  Both sides are not using ISIS tactics ― mowing people down with cars ― in the streets of America

Both Jones and Reid argue that ‘both sides’ arguments are in error, but Reid’s is about the content of the views as different, and Jones’s is about the different ways the sides have proceeded.

OK, now to the argument-appraisal part.  Here’s how I see Reid’s criticism of ‘both-siderism.’  Reid’s argument is that both-siderism is an error in this particular case, because of the significance of the disagreement.  It’s not just a matter of arguing with Nazis, but with the significance of them being in the White House.   So her criticism of Lowery’s line of argument is that he’s got a red herring, some line of argument that distracts us from the more important issue.  And this does seem right, to a degree.  For sure, if the matter is whether the President failed to distance himself from white supremacists, then this is a perfectly legitimate challenge.  But if the issue is what do we do now?, then I think Reid’s charge is off-base, because a relevant and pressing question of running public discourse (and being a part of it) is not just about keeping an eye on what issues are right and those not, but on the argumentative and deliberative culture we maintain as we pursue those truths.

Jones’s reply to the line of both sides is different, because he challenges whether both sides actually are equally to blame.  Both sides, he concedes, showed up with sticks, helmets, and shields.  But only one side “assassinated” a member of the other side.  So Jones’s point is that both-sidesism gets the facts wrong, or at least implicates something false.  One uses both-sidesism correctly only if both sides make equally egregious errors in pursuing their ends.  If one side is worse in their performance, then they deserve the criticism (and it’s more urgent if they are both wrong and badly pursuing their cause).

Here’s the good thing in these discussions.  We’ve identified a way we can take our eyes off the ball with some discussions, in particular, with the fact that not all of us are angels when it comes to deep, important disagreements.  (I have always worried that the discussions of the tone of public discourse has always been a way to sidestep a difficult challenge.)  But here’s the bad thing.  It’s important, especially when we are deliberating about how to not escalate adversarial discussions, that we be able to recognize that it takes two to tango.

But it’s also important to not get too hung up on this point.  Here’s the reason: the more we police how we discuss things, the more inclined we are to harbor resentment not just about the views, but how we’ve pursued things.  And so, the more there’s a ‘both-siderist’ line to take about Charlottesville, the more there’s a resentment harbored by the Nazis about how they were treated to shabbily by the antifa folks.  And something worse will happen.  (Recall on analogy with just war, one way to escalate a war is to put emphasis on how the other side breaks rules of in bello, which creates motives for reprisal.)

 

Don’t say ‘Don’t,’ because then I’ll do it

A curious pathology among paleoconservatives and their reactionary brethren is to embrace and even celebrate their status as ‘deplorables.’  I earlier mentioned the strange do this to antagonize your liberal acquaintances phenomenon.  On the one hand, this t-shirt and its ilk are more of the same, but on the other hand, it has a unique argumentative element to it.

Here’s my shot.  The argument is an enthymeme.

You said don’t [fly/wear Confederate flag stuff]

Therefore, I will/should wear it.

The suppressed premise, as far as I can tell, can either be strong or weak.

Strong: I will/should do the opposite of whatever you say.

Weak: Your views on Confederate stuff is wrong, so I must resist it symbolically, indexed to the things you’ve said.

I take it that the ‘you’ is roughly me, or folks of my type — progressive, weirded out by Antebellum South nostalgia, educated elitist, and so on.

Two quick things.  #1.  I don’t think anyone said “can’t” in any robust sense.  I might so so far as to say “shouldn’t” in a moral sense, but wearing a dopey shirt like that isn’t illegal, and it’d be bonkers to say that a relevant sector of liberals have denied that or have tried to make it illegal.  #2.  Perhaps there’s a confusion between (a) flying the Confederate flag around one’s house or having a bathing suit made of it and (b) flying it at, say, a courthouse or having it on the state flag.  In the latter case, that’s the state endorsing a particular worldview by putting a symbol out to represent it.  That’s a no, there. And I’d say that there’s a good reason to argue for “can’t” there.

The upshot of the two quick things is that the shirt is either a response to a “can’t” that was never said, or to a “can’t” that is irrelevant to the shirt.  <deep sigh>

The argument in the background, regardless of the dialectical miss, is interesting.  On the strong interpretation, I think the paleoconservative here is using the George Costanza Rule — that every instinct he has is wrong.  So he should do the complete opposite. 

Liberals, so the reasoning goes, have the exact opposite reaction to every circumstance.  So one has an exemplar, but a bizarro exemplar — just do the opposite of what the liberal does, or says.

The weak interpretation is that liberals are just wrong on the Confederate stuff, so there needs to be symbolic resistance, particularly in the form of overtly breaking a rule… that is calling attention to the rule as you break it. And thereby, making one’s rejection of the rule manifest.

The trouble is that both of these programs, and the strong program in particular, has a kind of slavishness (ironic!) to them — their content and timing is determined by those they are meant to resist.  If your identity as a paleoconservative is that of just shouting ‘stop’ at all the liberal/progressive stuff happening, then notice how your life is getting determined by those you hate.  The whole point of sane conservatism, as I see it, is to appreciate the old things, to revel in the sacred.  But once those things can be sold to you as a thing that can go on a T-shirt as a piece of expressive resentment, it’s too late.  Right?

The point I’m getting to is that what makes this reactionary conservative line so strange, and the argumentative core of this particular instance especially, is how it seems a betrayal of what makes conservatism appealing in the first place — appreciating the civilizing sentiments, developing the capacities of neighborliness, and the knowledge that inherited things are conflicted.  (As Roger Scruton says: “never look too closely at the things you inherit”).  This is the reason why I not only see these gestures as pathologies of public reason, but I see them as pathological even on conservative grounds.  They are a kind of performative self-refutation of a brand of conservative politics — in enacting it, you show the ideals you stand for to either be idols or mere words.

Give me argument, not advice!

Dear Prudence at Slate.com is an advice site for some of the more progressive of the progressives.  So there are lots of letters and advice response on how to handle LGBT issues, conflicts within class consciousness, how to manage vegan-nonvegan relationships, and Tinder mini-norms.  NRO’s Graham Hillard’s take on it all is that Mallory Ortberg (Prudence) “dispenses increasingly ridiculous progressive orthodoxies, and a not insignificant portion of her audience, well, laughs at them.”  The point, Hillard wants to emphasize, is that:

Regular people — “the great unwashed,” in Edmund Burke’s oft-repeated phrase — know both instinctively and by hard experience that to live as the sexual Left preaches is to enter a world of confusion, heartbreak, and deep, abiding dissatisfaction.

Simple truth, do you? So, to start, Hillard’s charge is that the advice column on a progressive website gives progressive-friendly advice.  The second point is that “Regular people” know instinctively and by experience that it’s terrible advice.   Sigh.   To the first point — what do you expect?  If NRO ran an advice column, I would expect it all to be conservative and religious material.  You go to the kind of advice you want, so it’s really a problem with affiliated advice columns, isn’t it?  (For example, if a student comes to me about a crisis of faith, I interpret it as a request for more information about atheism and Slayer albums to listen to, not asking for spiritual healing. Were she to approach a priest, she’s requesting something different.)

To the second point, isn’t the matter more complicated than that?  Isn’t one of the replies by progressives that most of these norms and intuitions are products of societies that did not abide difference, and when we aren’t under those social conditions, there are many wider livable lives than we’d anticipated?

But Hillard’s not done.  His biggest complaint is that:

The problem with these cubes of p.c. baloney — aside from the fact that, if heeded, they’re likely to leave Ortberg’s readers in worse shape — is that their cumulative effect is to move acceptable discourse (indeed, acceptable thought) ever leftward. Because Ortberg makes pronouncements rather than arguments when discussing the latest trends in gender and sexuality, the casual reader could be forgiven for believing that the argument has already happened somewhere, that the Left won, and that the only remaining thing is to climb on board.

Hillard wants arguments.  It’s part of the regular right-side nonsense that liberals are bad at argument, don’t argue, are fact-avoidant, and so on.  But I looked at some of Prudie’s replies, and they are full of argument.  Here’s one from one of the columns Hillard notes, about a bisexual student who was in a relationship with a married couple, who now have a baby on the way:

Get out now. This couple is producing red flags at such an accelerated clip that they could double as a red-flag factory …. You don’t want a child, and Dave and Sue are about to have one. You don’t want to be treated like a dirty little secret, but already you feel uncomfortable spending time alone with Dave because of the unhealthy, triangulated dynamics between the three of you.

That’s an argument.  But perhaps not the kind of argument Hillard wants, one that would go something along the lines: what were you thinking, being Bi- and getting involved with a married couple to begin with… you must not be Normal.

Here’s  a thing that normal people know either intuitively or by experience: communication is for the sake of relaying the information needed (or thought needed) for the situation.  Bisexual people go to the advice column at Slate about their current relationships for advice about the relationship, not about why they shouldn’t be Bi- or that they shouldn’t have done what they did.  Moreover, normal people know by intuition or by experience that arguments are often there, but you’ve got to be looking for the piece of controversial information in the communication, not for what you think is controversial.

For sure, Hillard laments something lamentable — that people exist, get news in, and even advice within ideological bubbles that rarely are questioned internally.  It’s easy to see it looking in the culture sections of those you hold in contempt. But when you can’t detect reasoning internal to those cultures or in their advice columns, that’s more evidence that you’re the one who can’t get outside the ideological bubble except to gather dirt. (John had a nice column on this phenomenon, asking whether straw-manning is inevitable.)

Another problem with ad hominem argument

I’ve posted a few times here at NS about how to think of various functions of ad hominem abusive argument, how to see them as in the service of airing greivances, expressing exasperation, or even sometimes as being relevant.   And then there are non-argumentative versions of abuse — that it’s just there for the sake of making the exchange unpleasant. (And thereby, upping the costs for critical dialogue, and consequently, providing motivation to avoid argument in the future.)

President Trump has been the target for a number of abuses for his  purportedly small hands and his hair.

And there are the Mitch McConnell is a turtle memes.

Oh! And Ann Coulter is ugly memes, too.

It’s a little fun, for sure.  But then there are the Hillary is ugly/shrill/horrible line of thought, which (given my political bent) seems objectionable.

As John noted, sometimes, our communicative-argumentative exchanges are less in the service of inquiry, but for the sake of airing of the grievances.   But they can have a chilling effect on speech, and I think that taking too much pleasure in them (and spending a great deal of time thinking about them and making them) is bad for us.  It’s like spending too much time fantasizing about giving people you hate some comeuppance, or focusing on what a terrible person someone is.  It’s natural, but impedes solving the problem or getting on with the rest of your life.

Now there is the focus on the appearance of Rob Goldstone, the Trump contact and publicist who made the introduction between Trump Jr. and Natalia Veselnitskaya. He’s a heafy guy.  Huffington Post’s hook for the story is titled, “From Russia with Schlub.”  They lead with the fact that Goldstone declared himself “in a serious relationship with bread.”  NYT’s story is that Goldstone “Likes silly hats and Facebook.”

The difference between the political cases and Goldstone is that with the latter, his appearance and his name on an email is all we seem to know about him.  And, again, isn’t focusing on his appearance a misuse of our time and an encouragement of our worst inclinations? John and I have been thinking quite a bit lately about the drawbacks of the adversariality of argument — seeing those you argue with as enemies or opponents.  For sure, that’s a good way to see disagreements, especially if you, by hypothesis, think someone’s wrong.  But this adversariality can start to get in the way of good argument, conviviality, and even minimal civility for just living together.  And so, in the same way that we cringe at the Festivus airing of greivances, we should cringe when we see others give in to the temptation of making fun of or taking pleasure in the opposition’s imperfect appearance.  Contempt breeds contempt.

Help, I’m steppin’ into the Twilight Zone

President Trump tweeted that he’d snubbed Mika Brzezinski last new years eve, because she was bleeding still from a face lift.  Here’s the tweet:

Sheesh.  OK, so here’s where things get interesting, at least for the sake of argument.  When asked to explain/defend/just talk about apologetically Trump’s tweet, Deputy Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders says he was fighting “fire with fire.”

I think the president has been attacked several times by people on those programs. They elected someone who is stuff, smart, and a fighter. I don’t think it is a surprise to anyone that he fights fire with fire. The things this show called him, not just him but numerous members of his staff, incuding myself and many others, has been very deeply personal. So to turn and pretend like this approach is, you know, I guess it is kind of like living in the Twilight Zone.

So there are two things happening here.  First is the thought that if one’s criticized in harsh terms, one has the right to do so in reply.  Second is that when one is criticized for one’s tone in reply, it is like the Twilight Zone, that it’s not just wrong but bizarre.

The first point is one about two wrongs reasoning.  For sure, arguers should be allowed to give back as good as they get, but there are occasions where this is inappropriate.  Consider being a teacher — students are often rude to you, criticize you relentlessly, and maybe make ridiculous requests and claims.  But they do so because they don’t know any better.  Lucky for them, they have a teacher.  And it would be inappropriate to fly off the handle and reply in kind to every critique, no matter how badly off base they are.  So, the lesson is: there are institutional roles one plays wherein it is inappropriate to give back in kind.  The POTUS is one of those roles.  Surely using one’s voice in the role of that office to single out private citizens for hateful censure is an abuse of that office (just as it would be for a teacher to do so in a classroom).

The second is one about what censure one incurs when one breaks a rule of discourse.  For sure, it can seem wrong to someone who follows the give it back as good as you got it rule to be on the receiving side of some criticism for doing so.  But when is it like the Twilight Zone, where it is bizarre, not even identifiably relevant?  Invoking the Twilight Zone is a move that says that the lines of argument are so far off base, one doesn’t even know what to say back.  It is a theater of the absurd.  But surely Sarah Huckabee Sanders knows what this all means.  That’s why she follows up with:

If it happened in the previous administration, the type of attacks launched on this program, the things they say, utterly stupid, personality disorder, mentally ill, constant personality attacks, calling people liars to their faces on programs. They would have said no way, hold on.

Oh.  Yes.  But that’s exactly what happened.  Do you remember when President Obama had that SC Representative yell out “You Lie!” in the midst of the State of the Union?  Watch the President stay on track, reply and go on.

For sure, people said “no way, hold on,” but the President didn’t go on a twitter tear about what a doofus Representative Joe Wilson looks like. Or how there’s a question about whether he wears adult diapers. (People are saying!)

But the point is that there’s a difference between (a) saying “no, wait, hold on” when faced with nasty bile and (b) spitting bile back.

Finally, I think it’s pretty great that folks on the right, too, are invoking Rod Serling’s great contribution to our culture, a television series about how fragile our grasp on reality really is.  Because, yes, in this political climate, I, too, feel like I’m steppin’ into the Twilight Zone.

Looking for keys under the streetlight

There’s an old joke about the guy who comes out of a bar late at night to see another fellow on his hands and knees under a streetlight.  He asks the fellow what he’s doing.

“Looking for my keys,” he says.

“Oh, so you dropped them around here?” The first guy asks.

The other fellow responds, “No… it’s just that the light’s better over here.”

And so it goes for what might be called the ‘spotlight’ features of consciousness — we notice what we are aware of, and make inductions and other inferences only from what has made it on our radar.  If it hasn’t been in the spotlight of our awareness, there’s not much for us to go on.  Moreover, our attempts to pursue knowledge usually go along the lines we think are easiest to pursue, namely what we have noticed.

Now the spotlight of awareness has shifted to the tone of political rhetoric.  It’s a regular phenomenon for folks to tut-tut tone, to say that we can disagree without being disagreeable.  One reason to object to rough tone is just that it’s uncivilized (or at least in civil), the other is that it leads to other bad behavior.

Now that some truly bad behavior has shown up in the spotlight with the Wednesday morning shootings in Alexandria, the tone police are ready to start it up.  And since it was a group of Republican lawmakers targeted, it’s the Right’s turn to wag a finger.  But because they only started paying attention to how bad the rhetoric is now that they are the target for the rough talk, there’s a special error to it.  So enter Ross Delingpole at Breitbart:

Trawl the internet as much as you like. Read the headlines. Listen to the talk shows. Watch TV. No matter how hard you look you won’t find nearly the same level of hatred and aggression from conservatives as you now do routinely from liberals.

In the pragmatist tradition, the error is sometime called the fallacy of selective emphasis — namely, that you make inferences just on the basis of the small sample you have from when you just started paying attention.  This fallacy is a particular form of hasty generalization, but it’s one that generalizes only on the instances that are of importance to the subject… all the other instances relevant for the generalization are treated as irrelevant.

Teenagers are serial hasty generalizers in this sense — and so they make inferences like we always do something boring on the weekends and not what I wanna do… but on the sample size of just this boring weekend, ignoring the fact that we drove all over town for the last three weekends taking them to skate parties, friends houses, shopping, and concerts.

For sure, there’s a lot of rough talk about Mr. Trump and the Republicans out there — Kathy Griffin’s headshot is the tip of the iceberg, for sure.  But let’s not forget the racial animus out there for Mr. Obama, the “Second Amendment Solution” Mr. Trump proposed to Hillary Clinton’s hypothetical opposition to guns. Or all the folks saying that the tree of liberty needs watering (with the blood of tyrants).

Back to Delingpole. The reason why you don’t see that animus now is that Mr. Trump is the President.  And part of the strategy for Republicans and other Trump supporters is to actively antagonize the left.  Consider the breadth of the markets for things you can do to drive liberals crazy.   James Delingpole even has a book with that title:

But it extends beyond this, from movies to watch, to bumper stickers, how to talk at the Thanksgiving table, even to what cars to buy (or retrofit).

For sure, there’s plenty of animus, but usually who expresses it and who gets it is indexed to who is in the position of calling the shots.

Rid of a meddlesome priest

Recent news is James Comey’s revelation that President Trump said:

I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.  He is a good guy.  I hope you can let this go.

The issue with regard to whether this is obstruction of justice is what kind of speech act this is.  Here’s the discussion afterwards (full transcript here):

RISCH: Thank you for that. He did not direct you to let it go.

COMEY: Not in his words, no.

RISCH: He did not order you to let it go.

COMEY: Again, those words are not an order.

RISCH: He said, “I hope.” Now, like me, you probably did hundreds of cases, maybe thousands of cases charging people with criminal offenses. And, of course, you have knowledge of the thousands of cases out there that — where people have been charged.

Do you know of any case where a person has been charged for obstruction of justice or, for that matter, any other criminal offense, where this — they said, or thought, they hoped for an outcome?

COMEY: I don’t know well enough to answer. And the reason I keep saying his words is I took it as a direction.

RISCH: Right.

COMEY: I mean, this is the president of the United States, with me alone, saying, “I hope” this. I took it as, this is what he wants me to do.

The key is to properly interpret Comey’s distinction between “in his words” and what’s not.

To start, directives standardly take the form of imperative sentences.  “Close the window, please.”  Or “Shut your mouth!”.  That’s how you utter a directive in those words.  But we can have other speech acts, given our interpretive devices in context, with directive force.  “It’s cold in here” is a way to request the heat be turned up.  A child uttering the words “I’m hungry” is a way to demand a PBJ sandwich.  And, in many cases, expressing one’s preferences, especially when the power dynamic is asymmetric, is a form of issuing directives.

For example, if I say “I expect you to clean your rooms” to my kids, I’m not just reporting that I have made a prediction, I am giving an order.  Or if someone on my tenure committee says, “I encourage you to place papers in better journals,” that’s not just some ra-ra encouragement, but a statement better translated as: “place papers in better journals.”

Comey clarified this last point — that when the President lets you know what his hopes are, that’s a way of issuing a directive.  Like if I tell my students that I hope that they can get their papers in on time, I’m not just letting them know about my preferences, I’m telling them what do do.  In the service of this, Comey made a jaw-droppingly-awesome historical reference, that to Henry II’s indirect directive to take care of Samuel Beckett.  Here’s Comey’s version:

KING: …. I think in response to Mr. Risch — to Senator Risch, you said he said, “I hope you will hold back on that.” But when you get a — when a president of the United States in the Oval Office says something like “I hope” or “I suggest” or — or “would you,” do you take that as a — as a — as a directive?

COMEY: Yes. Yes, it rings in my ear as kind of, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

The point, again, is that given the context and the cross-categorical pragmatics of many speech acts, it’s reasonable to see how that could be a directive.  Or a directive given with plausible deniability.