Category Archives: General discussion

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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.)

Handel with care

Karen Handel, now member of the US Congress from Georgia, sat for an interview in which she was pressed for answers about gay marriage and gay adoption. Here’s a video.

It’s a little long (well ok it’s five minutes). The interesting remark, for me at least today, comes at the end. Asked (at about 4:55) why she thinks gay parents are not as legitimate as heterosexual parents, she responds:

Because I don’t.

That’s a puzzling answer. In the first place, she certainly has a reason. She has even, earlier in the Q&A, given it: Christianity demands it. Second, does anyone or rather can anyone hold a view for no reason at all? Is “I just don’t” ever an answer to such a question?

I just don’t think so.

This is just not the nature of beliefs. Try it yourself. You don’t of course have to articulate those beliefs, but they’re always there. Hers, I imagine, is just too alienating or silly or (more likely) question-begging.

Hillbilly resistance

There is now a cottage industry that produces essays having the following form: the reason Trump got elected is because liberal snobs have long looked down their noses at regular folks and the regular folks were just plum tired of it so voted for Trump despite his evident shortcomings. I read the first one of these in the Chronicle or Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed within days of the election. They have followed at a steady trickle.

Here’s a variation the other day from someone in Philadelphia:

A lot of people out there are tired of being called stupid, whether directly to their faces or indirectly with the raised eyebrow of the highbrow. I almost think they can deal with being called racist, sexist or homophobic (which some are, some aren’t and who cares anyway, since liberals are exactly the same,) but cannot deal with being ridiculed for their allegedly inferior intellects.

When people do that, they just galvanize the Hillbilly Resistance to reject any notion that the press is in danger, that Trump is a beast, that Ivanka is a Stepford daughter, that Melania lives in a tower and lets down her hair on weekends, and that we are in danger of another revolution.

I have two comments. Before those, a confession. I hate being called stupid. I hate it because, to be honest, I fear that it may be true. When someone’s accusation is particularly well phrased, it costs me a lot of time (and maybe some money if I have to buy books or something) to consider the question. Back to my comment.

First, these people are snowflakes, apparently. They so bristle at the thought of having their beliefs questioned that the behave irrationally. I can’t think of much that’s more insulting than that claim.

Second, if someone knows a way you can disagree with someone without there being the very real implication that one of you is mistaken and has therefore failed in some kind of cognitive obligation (i.e., is stupid), then I’m all ears.  Your answer may make me feel bad because I currently think there isn’t one.

In closing, the implication that people with whom you disagree are deficient is not something that has suddenly just appeared, by the way:

Image result for liberalism is a mental disorder

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.

Body slam!

Image result for body slam creative commons

An interesting example of ad baculum (appeal to force) reasoning came up last night. A candidate for Congress in Montana body-slammed a reporter for asking a question about the CBO score of the AHCA.  This got me thinking about the ad baculum.

The textbook ad baculum argument is something of a puzzle. Here’s what we might call a fairly standard version:

The fallacy of appeal to force occurs whenever an arguer poses a conclusion to another person and tells that person either implicitly or explicitly that some harm will come to him or her if he or she does not accept the conclusion. (Hurley Concise Introduction to Logic 2008, p. 116).

As the text goes on to explain, the fallacy works by blinding the listener to the weakness of an argument with the threat of sanction. Other texts of this type make similar claims (see the Hurley-esque Baronett 2013 or here at the Fallacy Files).

On the other hand, some research-based approaches do not seem to include it (e.g., Groarke and Tindale Good Reasoning Matters! don’t mention it at all).  Walton, in contrast, includes a discussion of “fear or threat” arguments, though he stresses the ways they are passable (and considers the relevance question “outrageous”) (see Walton Fundamentals of Critical Argumentation 2006, p. 288).

Like Walton, I’ve long struggled with whether this is anything. You can’t force anyone to believe anything. Your forcing, or threats of forcing, will likely have the opposite effect. You will reinforce their believe or raise their suspicions. Beliefs just don’t work like this.

One common suggestion is that such moves aren’t really arguments, so they’re not really fallacies. It’s been used on me (and Scott) before to discount some one of our dialectical examples. It would go like this. My threats to punch you if you keep asking about the CBO score aren’t “argumentative” in any real sense. They’re just threats to get you to engage in some action or other. They are threats, in other words, to get you to do something (not conclude) something.

I’m loathe to give up on threats and violence as common distortions of dialectical exchanges. They happen too often, I think, for us to ignore them. If our model of fallaciousness can’t capture them, then we need to rethink it.  I have therefore two suggestions. The first is this: the aim of the ad baculum is indeed an action–the action is “accpetance.” You are going to “accept” (rather than believe) that some proposition is true. You are going to include it in your practical reasoning. If I threaten you to accept some proposition as true, then you will act as if it is. Whether you believe it in your heart of hearts is irrelevant.

The second suggestion: my threats are not aimed at your believing, they’re aimed at your doing and the believing of others. If I can get you to stop blabbing on about the CBO score, even though you think it’s important, I can shield that evidence from others and therefore control (however indirectly) their believing. You control believing, after all, in this indirect way.

An unforeseen cost of free speech

Freedom isn’t free.  Sure, and neither is free speech.  Some of the costs are those of ire from your allies for giving time to someone whose views you despise, some costs are the time and energy expended in ensuring that those with whom you disagree can express their views.  And there are the costs of considering and replying to their views.  These kinds of costs are familiar to those with Millian sympathiesthose who know only their own side know little of that.

Dennis Praeger at NRO has exacted a new cost for those who defend free speech: being attacked by those for whom you’ve fought for the freedom to speak for not being sincere in supporting free speech.  His reason?  Because you don’t seem to agree with his views.

While some of the professors who have signed these statements might sincerely believe that the university should honor the non-left value of free speech, one should keep in mind the following caveats.

First, the number of professors, deans, and administrators who have signed these statements is very small. . . .

Second, while no one can know what animates anyone else, it’s a little hard to believe that many of those who did sign are sincere. If they were, why haven’t we heard from them for decades? Shutting out conservatives and conservative ideas is a not new phenomenon.

Third, these statements accomplish nothing of practical value. They are basically feel-good gestures. . . .

If any professors want to do something truly effective, they should form a circle around a hall in which a conservative is scheduled to speak, with each professor holding up a sign identifying themselves as a professor: “I am [name], professor of [department].”

…. But it won’t happen. It won’t because the university is a particularly cowardly place.

Let’s start with the fact that because there are few professors signing the letter in support of free speech, they must not be sincere.  Surely this is backwards — it’s because they are few and stand to be on the receiving end of the ire of their colleagues that we know they are sincere.

Second, the familiar no conservatives in the academy line is just dumb here, since those who stand up for free speech and so on in the academy have been doing that since the beginning.  That they need to stand up for conservatives is (i) evidence of the problem Prager is talking about, and (ii) shows what wilting violets academic conservatives turn out to be.  Ooooh the Marxists can be soooo mean.  Prager’s big thought is that because they aren’t conservatives, they can’t seriously be in for protecting conservative speech.  But, hey, you’re not supporting free speech unless you’re supporting the rights of those whose views you hold to be deplorable to speak.  Otherwise, it’s just self-congratulatory nonsense.

Third, if Prager’s criterion for sincerity is to ‘form a circle’ around folks who are talking on campus, then (a) he’s got a misunderstanding of how most academics spend their time, and (b) he’s forgotten about the prof at Middlebury who got a concussion protecting Charles Murray from an angry mob of student protesters.  Yeesh.

The takeaway is that Praeger, because he doesn’t see the academics as on his side can’t see the work they are doing for free speech as anything but insincere.

Simple Truths and Politics

The Simple Truths Thesis is that within some domain of inquiry or dispute, there is a set of truths that only the wicked, stupid, or mendacious would question or deny.  (Philosophy15 video on it here) Some domains of inquiry admit of simple truths, for sure.  But even in those domains, not all truths within them are so simple.  The core problem with the simple truths thesis is that there’s a difference between being wrong and being irrational.  It’s possible to be rational and wrong, to make a mistake, to be led astray by some piece of evidence or a theory.  And to have one’s defaults set on interpreting those with whom one disagrees as being on the wrong side of a simple truth is to set oneself up for being deaf to all criticism.

A perfect recent instance of Simple Truths being wielded to defend against criticism is by President Donald Trump in his AP interview over the weekend.  Transcript here.  When asked about criticism he’s received over whether he’s not kept his campaign promise to label China a currency manipulator, Trump replies that they’ve, since he’s taken office, not been so bad.  Oh, and he can’t call them out on it if he’s also hoping to get help from them on North Korea.  But what does he think of the criticism?

And the media, some of them get it, in all fairness. But you know some of them either don’t get it, in which case they’re very stupid people, or they just don’t want to say it.

Stupid or mendacious.  Those are the only options.

The airing of grievances

We’ve had a few posts up lately about the adversarial paradigm of argument (links: one, two). Today will be another one. The others discussed the problems resulting from treating arguers as opponents, today’s will discuss the problems in not viewing them this way (when appropriate.

Vox.com ran an article on CNN, where it blamed them for treating politics “like a sport.”

In an interview with the New York Times Magazine, CNN president Jeff Zucker described the network’s approach to covering politics, saying, “The idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached it that way.” That politics-as-sport approach has placed a heavy emphasis on drama, with much of CNN’s programming revolving around sensationalist arguments between hosts, guests, and paid pundits.

That fighting-based approach to covering politics has created a huge demand for Trump supporters willing to appear on the network, which is why CNN hired Trump supporters like Jeffrey Lord and Kayleigh McEnany to defend Trump full time.

Another dominant metaphor for argument is war: arguers are adversaries, positions are attacked and defended.  It’s similar to sports, but the focus is not on the entertainment of the spectator (I hope), but rather on the viciousness of the contest. Scott wrote a paper on this.

In both cases the focus is not on the quality of the reasons, but rather on some external features–either the joy of the audience in the case of sport or the ability to extract concessions in the case of war.

This is generally bad news for arguments. But not all arguments are about truth telling, as the author supposes:

All of this would be fine and normal for a network like ESPN — but when you treat politics like a sport, you end up with news coverage that cares more about fighting and drama than it does about serious truth telling.

I’d be happy to find out when CNN had ever been about serious truth telling.  But seriously, the context of these CNN discussions is scandal and audience-driven (because of advertising, the need to pay Wolf Blitzer millions of dollars, etc.). This should be a clue as to their focus.

So, in CNN’s defense, they specialize in a subgenre of argumentation called the quarrel. The point of the quarrel is not to settle the truth of some proposition but rather to air grievances. The problem really consists in the viewers (and participants) thinking that this is supposed to be an argument.

Kids today, you know what I mean?

Catherine Rampall, of the Washington Post, lists five self-interest-based reasons allegedly liberal college students should listen to speakers who ridicule them to their face or allege blacks and Latinos are genetically inferior.  They’re solid, utilitarian reasons, taken right out of Mill’s On Liberty.

  1. You make a martyr of the protestee;
  2. You dull your ability to answer the arguments of the protestee;
  3. You force their ideas underground;
  4. Your jerkishness drives people from your cause;
  5. These techniques will be used against you.

This seems to be reasonable strategic advice. I do, however, have two concerns, one broad and one narrow.  The broad one concerns the tired narrative that we’re dealing with a real danger to democracy here; the narrow one regards reason #2: the idea that advancing learning objectives requires reciting reasons against the worst possible trollishness.

The broad concern: let’s remember that these are just kids–and a tiny handful of them at that. Kids say and do a lot of misguided things. Sadly, these particular things and these particular kids seem to make the news and then loom large in the minds of scolding commentators at our nation’s flagship newspapers. Have a sense of scale in other words. It’s not like they have managed to outlaw the teaching of basic science.

Second, to repeat something I said the other day (and something you can find discussed more eloquently by others here and here and here), the idea that you are somehow obligated to handle crazy objections can sometimes undermine free inquiry, rather than advance it. Clearly, the people who invite trolls aren’t learning anything–either because they’re too clueless to recognize trolling or, more likely, they just want to troll. Answering trolls, after all, takes up precious time that might be better spent learning about actual views on the table. This goes for everyone.

In the end, of course, strategic considerations might suggest these kids not scream so loud. But then again, they’re kids. They’re only just learning about strategy.

 

Not any kind of game

Here is some advice from  Joshua Parsons, who passed away this week at the too-young age of 44.

In the bad old days philosophers used to invite speakers to seminars just in order to show off to each other by tearing strips off the speaker. It was a wonder anyone ever accepted an invitation to give a talk anywhere! The most prized skill a philosopher could have was to be able to utterly demolish a speaker’s argument; a good speaker would be one who could resist this process, or if that was not possible, then accept defeat with good grace. You’ll still hear old-timers reminiscing about this fondly: “Back in ’58, X gave us a lunch time talk on whether or not jars were a kind of bottle! Y interrupted 15 minutes in with a counterexample, and X said that he was refuted and there was no point in continuing so we all went to the staff club early for cigars and sherry!”

Point-scoring was big then. The idea is that philosophical discussions are a zero-sum game: either someone wins a point and looks clever and someone else loses one and looks foolish, or it is a stalemate, and no one likes a stalemate. This is of course completely false – philosophical discussions are not any kind of game, but a collaborative attempt to uncover and solve serious intellectual problems.

In my view, point-scoring behaviour is one of the biggest blights on the philosophy profession. The way philosophers are trained to conduct conversations in seminars lends itself to point-scoring, which is how the whole sorry idea got started in the first place. Think back to graduate school. At first you were afraid to ask questions in seminars because you had hardly understood a word of the talk, and everyone who was asking questions seemed to have understood it better than the speaker and have a trenchant criticism. Then your supervisor told you that the only way to learn was to muck in, and that she was expecting you to ask a question at the next seminar. At the paper, you listened very carefully to find something that you were sure you understood to ask a question about. You tentatively asked your first question. To your surprise, the speaker took you seriously and famous Prof X asked a follow up on your question. Your supervisor was proud of you. That was good! After that you tried your hardest to think of a question in every seminar. A few years later you had mastered the technique, not only thinking of a question, but anticipating the speaker’s response and ready with a follow-up too.

An interesting thought here is the mercenary nature of these discussions–you don’t actually have any points to make, you need to come up with some because that’s your job (or so you think). You come up with objections that may not be your objections, but they are objections nonetheless.

A further thought might be this: perhaps the author of the paper didn’t care about their point themselves. They had to come up with something to give a talk. That would make it a game for them, I think.