Be nice

My view on civility in discourse is that people ought to try their best to be nice, given the very delicate matters often on the table.  This may involve being nice to actual people with whom you disagree (in person or online) or actual people whose life choices are implicated in your utterances.  Indeed, people ought to bear in mind that even abstract arguments have real targets–all arguments, in this sense, are ad hominem. On this point, here is an interesting meditation on civility.  It’s a fun read and well worth it, a sample paragraph:

What exactly is the difference between what I am doing and what McArdle is doing? Is it that the hypothetical poor person is this faceless human being that nobody in the elite pundit class has ever actually known and that therefore their internal feelings and humanity can sort of be tossed about in some half-assed psychoanalytical effort to theorize their needs and dreams? Meanwhile, McArdle is a concrete human being in your circle whose humanity is present on your mind as she’s being torn through in my concrete example for my pro-material-security argument?

I’m inclined to think, as I think the author is suggesting (though I’m not sure), that we ought actually to be nice to the people in our arguments, even though those people aren’t always real people.  Our views, however, have implications for real people, so perhaps we should act as if those people were before us and not just nameless idiots.  After all, you care about the cognitive life of those idiots; that’s why you’re arguing with them.


Fig. 1: a slam












Here’s an unproductive exchange between Paul Krugman and Joe Scarborough on the subject of the changes by the Census Bureau in the way it evaluates health care information.  First, here’s Scarborough on the changes:

“Listen, the White Houses on both sides do their best to cook the books,” he said. “This is a particularly clumsy effort.”

Krugman then observes:

You can argue that the Census decision to change its health-insurance questionnaire starting with the 2013 data wasn’t such a good idea — in fact, I know a number of health care experts who are dismayed,” wrote Krugman, a liberal columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist. “But it’s really quite vile to have talk-show hosts who quite literally know nothing about the field, other than that they’re against covering the uninsured, casually accusing Census of “cooking the books” to support Obamacare.” (Link in the original.)

Note the concession, in bold.  Now Joe Scarborough responds:

“Paul’s shrill attack is off target and wrong, as usual. I just hope the good professor can work through the humiliation of his debate performance against me and will soon stop being driven to post silly attacks because of his feelings of inadequacy. I’m pulling for him,”

Krugman alleged Scarborough didn’t offer any evidence for his assertion that the books are being cooked; nonetheless, he attempts to move the ball forward here by conceding that the change might not have been wise; Scarborough ignores that, and declines to offer evidence for his assertion (or address the charge) opting instead for a textbook ad hominem.  This is how you make the big money folks.

On a related matter: could the authors at Salon and Talking Points Memo stop describing such interactions as “slams” or “rips”?  It’s dumb.


I’ve encountered a fair number of people who do not understand satire (some of them here).  For them, satire is just a sneaky way of straw manning someone–only to say “I’m kidding, jeez” at the end of it, as if that were immunity to the basic responsibilities of argument and evidence.  They then complain relentlessly about The Daily Show or The Colbert Report.

Two points.  First, satire–satire faithful to the genre at least–kicks up, not down.  It pokes fun at the powerful, not the powerless.  One reason for this is that it’s not fair to pick on the powerless: they don’t have their own media empires, for instance, or publicists, or people who should warn them not to do an interview with the Daily Show (because they’re going to cut and paste the crap out of it).  What’s funny about many Daily Show or Colbert Report interviews is the fact the that interviewee thinks she can spin the comedian.  She can’t.

Second, satire isn’t really argument.  This drives critics of left wing satire around the bend; how is it that Stewart gets away with mockery, when Rush Limbaugh doesn’t?  They don’t get the difference.

Talking Points Memo brings us an example:

This routine, in which Colbert plays at conservatism in order to portray it as unendingly ugly, should be labeled for what it is: vile political blackface. When Colbert plays “Colbert,” it’s not mere mockery or satire or spoof. It’s something far nastier.

Blackface, which has an ugly history dating back to at least the fifteenth century according to historian John Strausbaugh, was used to portray demeaning and horrifying stereotypes of blacks. Such stereotypical imitation has not been limited to blacks, of course; actors tasked with playing stereotypical Jew Shylock often donned a fake nose and red wig, as did actors who were supposed to play Barabas in The Jew of Malta. Such stereotypical potrayals create a false sense of blacks, or Jews, or whomever becomes the target of such nastiness.

And this is precisely what Colbert does with regard to politics: he engages in Conservativeface.

That’s Ben Shapiro, a conservative commentator somewhere on the internet.  The objects of Colbert’s mockery–which is, by the way, sadly milder than much common right wing commentary–are powerful and rich people.  Colbert’s satire is directed at that.  I can’t really explain why Shapiro doesn’t get that.