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.