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.