Category Archives: General discussion

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The argument police

Image result for turtles all the way down

Here’s a bracing passage from a recent article in the Baffler:

IN THE HEYDAY OF THE INTERNET MESSAGE BOARD, let’s say in the 1990s, a certain species of idiot materialized. He was male, aggressively pedantic, self-professedly logical, committed to the hard sciences, prone to starting sentences with “actually,” and almost always devoted to the notion that his disbelief in God imbued him with intellectual superiority.

There are several others like it. I have to admit that reading them stung a bit–this is after all what we do here. If you openly claim to do be self-conscious about your logicness, then any failing real or otherwise is an occasion for disdain and dismissal. It’s annoying, because everyone is their own logic police. As C.S. Peirce observed:

Few persons care to study logic, because everybody conceives himself to be proficient enough in the art of reasoning already. But I observe that this satisfaction is limited to one’s own ratiocination and does not extend to that of other men.

But one part of me thinks the criticism is for this reason completely superficial, not to mention self-contradictory. There’s something of the logic police in it: just another layer higher. When it comes to being critical, it’s turtles all the way down.

And therein lies the question. Argument analysis has its own terms of art. Tu quoque is an example. Using these terms of art in mixed company is nearly always a bad idea. I stress this over and over in my critical thinking classes. Do not use a fallacy name on anyone ever. I know, by the way, I’m guilty of this very thing many times here. In my defense, however, my presumption is that the targets know the terms and besides, I don’t do really do that anymore.

This raises, however, a somewhat tragic (to my mind) point–related to the turtles above. Is not using the name–say, tu quoque–sufficient? Should we not find ways of pointing it out either? That’s pretty much the same thing–it just takes longer (and sort of presumes the target not versed in the right terms). Besides, not using the standard names doesn’t stop people (or perhaps encourages them) from creating a duplicate set of terms. Now, for instance, we have “whataboutism” and others. It does the same exact work at twice the cost.

We can’t avoid the need of evaluating reasons (our own and that of others). We also for this reason can’t avoid the problem of evaluating the evaluating of reasons. It’s simpler, perhaps, just to remind ourselves of Peirce’s observation: everyone is perfectly logical and ignore the temptation to consider it some kind of hypocrisy or arrogance when they’re not.

An argument with an expiration date

The talk-show host Sean Hannity had a segment the other day about the “exploitative” nature of rushing in after mass shooting events to score “political” points. You can watch a video of him here:

And here’s a link to an NRA lobbyist saying the same kind of thing. Though I’m skeptical of the sincerity of these sorts of arguments, (see here for a sort of rebuttal), if not for the sole fact that running a spot on how others have violated norms in a time when we’re not supposed to be scoring points seems like an attempt to score points, I think it’s worthwhile to take a closer look at what might be a reasonable version of taking things on too soon.

The first question is this: what does it mean to “politicize” something or to “score political points”? My guess is that the events are going to be used as a premise in a policy argument. Something like this:

“the events of the other day have policy implications a, b, and c.”

Simple enough, but there’s more to this. Much hinges on what we mean by “political,” as in “political points” or “politicize.” My guess is that what makes these particular issues “political” is that those policy implications are (1) already well-known, (2) the subject of intense dispute, and (3) unresolved or in a kind of argumentative stalemate. By “argumentative stalemate” I mean that the positions of each side are well known and well defined, not that the sides have exhausted the possibility for resolution. The dispute is still live. Oddly, the only example I can think of is gun violence. Maybe readers can suggest different cases.

Now consider by way of counterexample that the injunction does not apply to one-off events where most people have not occupied ideological positions. Should there be, for instance, some kind of random event tomorrow with casualties, I’m going to guess that we’ll immediately discuss the policy implications. We’ll do so before anyone is buried or all the wounded are accounted for. The injunction against politics is not universal. It only applies to certain debates.

There’s a second thing to notice about such debates: the side that invokes the injunction will typically be the side that has the most to lose by the added evidence. This was covered (satirically) here.  Or, if not invoked by them, it will be invoked by others on their behalf.

Their concern might not be an entirely unreasonable one, but it underscores the somewhat limited scope of the injunction. They might fear rhetorical disadvantage by the tendency of people to run with latest piece of evidence adduced in deciding a question (by, in other words, availability bias). The politicization of the debate, or the “cheap points scoring” is therefore winning rhetorical advantage without working for it or by taking advantage of the temporary set-back of the other side.

This brings us to the key feature of such arguments: the invocation against talking “too soon.” It’s a temporal restriction rather than a content one. The presumption is that we can talk about it later, just not now. This can take a couple of forms. One argument is that the “the bodies are not in the ground, and the people have not had time to mourn” among other claims. This is a sensitivity claim. Arguing about the policy implications are alleged to be (1) insensitive to the people affected and (2) bad form for the participants, as their thoughts should be directed elsewhere. These don’t seem to be entirely unreasonable.

A second, and I think more problematic, version of the “too soon” injunction concerns the management of evidence “too soon.” This is an epistemological concern: we haven’t had time to learn the relevant facts or mull over the meaning of the evidence. Besides, as we’ve already noted, remarkable new evidence might bias us. Our haste will undermine the quality of our discussion.

Neither of these concerns is essentially unreasonable. We do care, after all, about the quality of our evidence and there is something to be said about hitting the pause button on civic disputes to focus on the needs of the large numbers of people affected. But, I might add here in closing as this has gone on longer than I meant, there’s something of a conflict between the state of the argument (stalemate) and the regularity of the need to hit the pause button. I think, furthermore, this takes concerns about making hasty decisions or corrupting our evidence off the table. We’ve seen all of this before. And our requiring frequent pauses to bury the dead seems to underscore the need to bring this thing to a resolution. If anything, this suggests that the “too soon” argument has an expiration date.

Let’s get political

In the wake of mass violence like the one last night people often say it’s not time to “for politics.” You can set your watch by it. Here’s the President’s spokesperson, Sarah Sanders.

Not sure about that analogy underneath the video, by the way. The point in any case is that you don’t talk about the political angle of these things for some determinate period after they happen. Not to be facetious, but in the US they happen with such regularity that you’re never really out of the hot zone.

Back to the point. I have the sneaky feeling that “let’s not politicize this” means “let’s not have a disagreement now.” This naturally favors the status quo ante, because there’s a restriction on admitting or considering new evidence for some particular position. I made that argument here.

What strikes me as odd about all of this is that we have all sorts of discussions in the immediate aftermath of events–we might describe them as ethical, metaphysical, and epistemological.  For we have conversations about what happened, about the quality of our evidence, or about the heroism of some of the people involved or the evil of the perpetrator. All of them involve some level of disagreement, uncertainty, revision, or retraction. So if the claim that we shouldn’t get political rests of fear of going wrong, we already seem to tolerate a fair amount of that.

Norm-of-assertion-gate

I’m pretty well convinced that knowledge is the norm of assertion — that one should not assert that p unless one knows that p.  (Here is a Philosophy15 about it.) There are a few puzzle cases with the norm (blameless assertions like in cases of weird Gettier scenarios and so on) but it otherwise looks about right.  So it seems right that if someone says something true, but without warranting evidence, though that person was correct, the assertion isn’t praiseworthy, and the person isn’t fully creditable for the assertion.  In fact, asserting without warrant is blameworthy, even if what was said came out true.

So, for example, had I said way back in 2000, without any reason favoring its truth, that Donald J. Trump would one day be President, I would have said something true, but still something unwarranted.  And though it came to pass that DJT is President, it’s not like that statement is vindicated or I should get any more credit for it than your friend who hits the hole-in-one on the mini-golf hole when he’s taking a drink of his soda and looking elsewhere.  And moreover, I’m inclined to say that would still be intellectually blameworthy for saying things without backing.

And so, now, over at The American Spectator, Daniel Flynn makes the case that DJT was right all along about the government spying on his campaign.  And he analogizes the situation to that of Watergate – that the party in power spies on the opposition party in the midst of an election.  Flynn opens with a pretty catchy line:

Vladimir Putin did not hack the election. Barack Obama did.

DJT, then a candidate, said that the Obama Administration had wiretapped the Trump Tower. He didn’t have evidence for this, beyond a radio show by Mark Levin’s claims. When asked about it, nothing.

Now, it turns out that, as reported by CNN, the feds were listening in on Paul Manafort.   It’s important to note that, according to the report (again from CNN): “While Manafort has a residence in Trump Tower, it’s unclear whether FBI surveillance of him took place there.”  So we don’t know if it was Trump Tower being tapped.

But does this stop Daniel Flynn from wagging his finger?  Oh, no.

The media went all-in this spring on the notion that the loose-tongued Trump once again spoke without reference to the facts. Newsweek’s Nina Burleigh labeled his charge “incendiary.” The Los Angeles Times called it “a phony conspiracy theory.” PolitiFact bluntly judged his accusation “false.”

Who will fact check the fact checkers?

Now, the issue is how to read all the vagaries of what it is to ‘tapp’ a phone or whether the issue is whether ‘my’ phones are really Paul Manafort’s phones.  Regardless, the issue is whether we can give any credit to someone who makes a charge like this (even when true) with no evidence?

 

Offensive line

Image result for meme flag protest

If you’ve been following the news even superficially you’ll have heard about the National Anthem protests. Started by now free agent NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick to protest the treatment of African Americans and other minorities, the protest mainly consists in taking some kind of alternate posture (sitting, kneeling, linking arms, not being present) during the singing of the National Anthem before a football game, though this has no spread to other sports and activities.

I’ve seen more than a few arguments against the protest. One argument strikes me as oddly familiar. It goes like this. The people not standing for the protest are an offense to those whose relatives or husbands or wives or friends have died or in general to those who have sacrificed for the flag. Here’s one version, from the Governor of Illinois:

I strongly disagree with those who disrespect our flag and our anthem,” Rauner told POLITICO through a spokesman. “To me they are disrespecting the foundations of our country, the veterans who risked their lives for our democracy, and the men and women who fight every day and make the ultimate sacrifice to defend our liberties.”

The key notion there is respect. This is, in part at least, a standpoint argument. Standpoint arguments are authority arguments. Someone with a standpoint S has privileged access to p. So when they say p, it’s likely p. This works in one way when a person with that standpoint is likely to know the answer to p (because they were looking right at p for example). This is not really the case here. Though there is an element of knowledge to the standpoint (“I know the true meaning of the flag because I saluted every day in the service”), knowledge is not the decisive factor here. In the present case, the person has privileged access to feelings of offense and therefore especially deserves respect. Everyone’s an expert in that. It turns out that in this case their feelings have special weight on account of the objects (the flag) involved. For us outsiders, people with that standpoint have special weight on that question.

The trouble is, however, others with that same exact standpoint do not feel offended at all, but rather heartened, etc. Here’s one example. We now have a disagreement on our hands. Consider that there’s nothing we can do to resolve the disagreement, as the standpoints in question are fundamentally decisive.  What to do?

One thought is that the disagreement nullifies the consideration. If we’re respectful of the feelings of people with this status, and they feel all different ways, then all different ways are ipso facto permissible. This seems, however, to settle the matter in favor of one view. Or perhaps it just practically settles the matter against these sorts of standpoint arguments.

Another possibility is that we defer, for moral reasons, to the most offended on some kind of least harm principle. If it’s going to offend some, then maybe we shouldn’t do it. The symmetrical nature of the disagreement, however, means that we’re bound to cause offense–stopping our protest will cause offense to those who see obeisance to nationalist flag ceremonies as the very thing they sacrificed for.

Still another thought might be to split the difference between the two and reconcile the disagreement on our own. I don’t know what that would be. One version might be to consider the disagreement along democratic lines. If the majority of people with standpoint S say to do p, then p it is. If a preponderance of members of the class say it’s offensive, then maybe there’s a prima facie case for offense. Something like this is at work in arguments against employing racist stereotypes on, er, football helmets. There are some Native Americans who don’t find the name (or image) “Redskins” offensive.

Perhaps the disagreement about how to manage the disagreement is itself evidence that such arguments are of little value in circumstances such as these, where other more obvious considerations should come to the fore (such as free speech considerations). Certainly, it seems, the fact that something is offensive isn’t usually the only reason to do it or not do it.

Slippery Slopism

Image result for statue graveyardWandering about twitter this morning I stumbled on a couple of links I thought I’d share here. The first is an article by Steven Nadler, a philosopher at Wisconsin, who argues in a contribution at Time that the one weird trick to solve America’s stupidity crisis is a basic course in critical thinking.

What is the solution to our creeping national stupidity? Learning how to gain more information from a variety of certifiably reliable sources is an important first step. But what the American public really needs are lessons in how to be rational, how to assess that information — distinguishing between real evidence and fake evidence — and end up believing only what one is justified in believing. We could use more lessons on what it means to be rational and how to be epistemologically responsible citizens who are familiar with the difference between a valid and invalid argument, and who know an unjustified belief when they see one.

No argument here.

The second link is a medium-long piece by Jay Nordlinger of National Review on the subject of Confederate monuments. Along the way to making the (to me, obvious) point that the Confederacy represented an unequivocal moral evil, Nordlinger went meta and made the following remark about slippery slope arguments:

William F. Buckley Jr. used to warn against “slippery-slopism,” as he called it. There were always people saying, If you ban Hustler magazine from the public library today, you will ban D. H. Lawrence tomorrow. Bill hated this kind of thinking. It was a kind of anti-thinking. People should make judgments, he said. People should exercise their powers of discrimination.

I, however, have always been soft on slippery-slope arguments. And I make them. But I also think Buckley had a point: People should not be excused from thinking.

If you dishonor John C. Calhoun, do you have to dishonor Thomas Jefferson?  If you take Calhoun’s name off a college within Yale University, do you have to raze the Jefferson Memorial? Do you have to change the name of our nation’s capital, because Washington owned slaves? Oh, come on.

This is a clumsily stated but not unreasonable point. The only thing surprising to me–and I’m willing to consider this a consequence of professional deformation–is the novelty with which the subject matter is presented: “hey, have you ever thought about slippery slopes?” Of course you have. (Or maybe you haven’t, if so, you should; that’s Nadler’s point).

The slippery slope is a bread-and-butter topic of any worthy critical reasoning course. Justly so. Sadly, as Buckley correctly suggests, people frequently abuse the term as well as the argument form (for abuse of terms see this post by Scott). They do so especially when the matter regards permitting or prohibiting something. If we prohibit x, then logic dictates we prohibit y, and then it will further require that we prohibit z. The chain itself of increasingly horrible consequences does the work of the argument. In the present case, should we remove the statues of Confederate soldiers, etc., then logic requires we remove the statues of other morally problematic figures (like George Washington)  then there will be no statues (or something).

Buckley’s point is that this energy-saving line of thought absolves you of addressing the question as to whether reasons apply the same way in the separate cases. The slope is actually slippery, though I wonder whether we should use this term (maybe another time for that claim), when the reasoning applies in the separate cases. In these cases, however, what you actually have is a parity of reasons argument. The same reasons that allow x also allow y. A somewhat recent example. When the Bush administration invited religions to collect federal money for charitable activity, Wiccans showed up (to the dismay of the Bush administration). A quick note on the slope here: I hardly think the Wiccans would consider themselves the bottom of any kind of slope.

Sadly, Nordlinger seems to obscure this distinction and fall exactly into the cognitive efficiency  problem Buckley identifies, only in his case rejects the possibility of a parity of reasons case out of hand. This is a point any (again worthy) critical thinking course ought to make–not all slippery slopes are fallacious. Fallacious slippery slopes is that you don’t do any real analytical work. The problem in rejecting parity of reasons arguments out of hand is to do the same thing.

This is the life we have chosen

School has started again. For some of us academics, this means shifting from reading professional literature to papers written by absolute beginners. Over the years this can wear on you, especially since you’ll encounter the same moves over and over and over. The sheer repetitiveness of it will cause you to ask whether you’re having any effect at all on their work. If you’re smart, you’ll vent about it to your trusted colleagues in the friendly confines of the faculty lounge. They will commiserate with you, and hopefully remind you of your obligations as a teacher. After a scotch or two and some quality time in a chesterfield chair, you’ll return to class refreshed, or maybe a bit buzzed, but nonetheless ready to do whatever it is you do.

Should you lack good mentors or quality whisky, you may be tempted to go online with a post about how stupid the kids are. Before you do this, you need to remind yourself of three critical things.

First, this is the life you have chosen. You are in the instruction business and this necessarily requires a constantly replenished supply of people who need and (hopefully) who desire instruction from you. They stay the same age over the years as you get older. You are wiser than them each year; they are the same. This might account for the feeling that they’re bad at the thing you teach in exactly the same way.

Second, the people you teach, especially if you’re a philosopher, are brand-spanking new at the game of argument. They’ve got views all right, they’ve got views about everything. Some of them even have reasons for those views. But they’ve very likely never subjected those views to the kind of scrutiny they’ll face in a philosophy class.

Third, while you may tell them that you consider them an equal partner in discussion, they’re not. You’re the teacher for a reason. Your obligation is to improve their argument performances–not to treat them as the failures they might be. This obligation includes improving arguments for views you may disagree with. One essential feature to improving their view is recasting their deficient argument as a less-deficient one, fortifying it, as it were (trying out “fortify” for “iron man” by the way). Going around their backs and griping publicly about their failures undermines the whole idea.

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.)

 

The Straw We

Lately with all of the doings I’ve run across a few examples of what we might call the “Straw We.” Here’s  (a not particularly ideal) one:

The idea is that this is false. Many indeed would have and did think this.

As far as I can tell, Steven Pinker first identified the “Straw We” in a review of a book by Malcolm Gladwell (we discussed it here briefly, some years back). The idea is that someone represents the view held by us, most of us, or some subset of us, to be more weak, less nuanced, less sophisticated, etc. as it actually is for the purposes, I imagine, of highlighting the ingeniousness of some discovery or other.

Here’s how Pinker put it:

The banalities come from a gimmick that can be called the Straw We. First Gladwell disarmingly includes himself and the reader in a dubious consensus — for example, that “we” believe that jailing an executive will end corporate malfeasance, or that geniuses are invariably self-made prodigies or that eliminating a risk can make a system 100 percent safe. He then knocks it down with an ambiguous observation, such as that “risks are not easily manageable, accidents are not easily preventable.” As a generic statement, this is true but trite: of course many things can go wrong in a complex system, and of course people sometimes trade off safety for cost and convenience (we don’t drive to work wearing crash helmets in Mack trucks at 10 miles per hour). But as a more substantive claim that accident investigations are meaningless “rituals of reassurance” with no effect on safety, or that people have a “fundamental tendency to compensate for lower risks in one area by taking greater risks in another,” it is demonstrably false.

At first glance, the Straw We might seem to be a narrative device meant to enhance the originality or insight of what responds to it. I can even think of several pastiches of it (mostly from the Simpsons). This technique might serve somewhat innocently to increase the uptake of whatever it is one is trying to say (or maybe sell) by way of heightening the contrast. You sharpen the contrast in order to make the lesson clearer.

The Straw We’s pernicious use mirrors the pernicious use of the regular straw argument strategy: it misrepresents the dialectical terrain: things aren’t really so shallow or silly.  But the Straw We draws attention to a particular feature of straw arguments, noticed by someone whose name I don’t have handy (but will fill in later). In a straw argument, the misrepresentation of an opponent enhances the stature of the one doing the misrepresenting (and at the cost of the ones who are misrepresented) to an onlooking audience. Someone in other words looks a fool so that someone else can claim insight. The same account might be given of the Iron Man or Iron Argument: the enhancement of the argument (and consequent impugning of critics) enhances the stature of the one doing the enhancing.

The Straw We, then, highlights the performative aspects of argument. You can rarely just assert your authority on some matter (trust me, I’ve tried) and expect to be believed. You have to perform it. An easy to way to perform it for an onlooking audience, and so establish your own awesomeness, is to find some dumb thing to beat up on: Look at me, I’m winning.