WordPress or our host seems to have a very serious problem and we’re no longer able to post here regularly. We’re going to be making some changes, but they will take some time. We’ll be back soon. In the meantime, please make comments here about things you find worthy of gentle criticism.
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.
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.
There’s a strategy to going ad hitlerum–at least I imagine there is (but I’m not sure I hope there is).
It’s difficult to break through the enormous media clutter without bringing in the rhetorical heavies. The subtleties of tax policy or gun control are lost on most people, so you may think; if you want to contribute to a discussion, you have to go big. Once you do, you’re assured of a prime place on Talking Points Memo, the Huffington Post, and so forth. Here’s from yesterday’s Talking Points Memo:
The billionaire founder of Home Depot just pulled a Tom Perkins.
“I hope it’s not working,” Langone told Politico, referring to populist political appeals. “Because if you go back to 1933, with different words, this is what Hitler was saying in Germany. You don’t survive as a society if you encourage and thrive on envy or jealousy.”
Politico noted that Langone’s comments would inevitably “draw ire from those who find such comparisons to Nazi Germany insensitive” and that he “showed no hesitancy” in invoking the Nazis.
The last part’s the hilarious part–even Politico has noticed the cravenness of the strategy.
Naturally, your Nazi analogy is absurd, and hopefully you know it. This requires you “to apologize.” Here again, Talking Points Memo:
The billionaire founder of Home Depot apologized late Tuesday for taking a page from the Tom Perkins playbook in comparing the fight against income inequality to Nazi Germany.
“My remarks were intended to discourage pitting one group against another group in a society,” Ken Langone said in a statement obtained by the New York Daily News. “If my choice of words was inappropriate — and they well may have been that — I extend my profound apologies to anyone and everyone who I may have offended.”
Langone had told Politico that populist political appeals currently en vogue parallel the rhetoric Hitler used in Nazi Germany, albeit in “different words.”
It’s the words you see–not the thought. What we have here is a kind of self-iron manning: I say we call it the “Iron Cross” in honor of the Nazis who dominate the form.
Here’s how it works:
Step one: go ad hitlerum to get attention: modest adjustments in tax reform are just like the populism that carried Hitler to power! Wait one day while news organizations report on your absurd analogy.
Step two: “apologize” for the “words” you’ve used, but caution that the thought–though much altered to exclude the Nazi part–stands. Wait one day while news organizations report on your apology.
Step three: reap the rewards of a discussion turned your way. Though you began with a manifestly absurd move that ought to have earned you STFU points, it doesn’t, because you come back with the apology. Your opponent–the critic–in other words, has to waste a move (and you only get so many) pointing out how wrong you are.
I wonder, short of ignoring the likes of Iron Crossers such as Langone, etc., is there any move open here to the critic?
A long while back, I noted that most discussions about gay marriage are more like races to who could pose one of the three tired old analogies first. The three variables are: race, polygamy, and bestiality. If you can pose the analogy first, you have a kind of dialectical advantage — even if the analogy isn’t perfect. This is because there’s a kind of defensive posture the opposition must take, once the analogy is posed — they have to answer this line of argument before they can proceed with their own, and this often takes more time and energy than we normally allot for our critical discussions. And so, for familiar structural reasons (we always have a dearth of time an energy for critical discussion), those who wield the analogy first are those who often get to claim they came out the best.
So much for the strategic argumentative elements of argument by analogy. There are a few other things to note. First, all analogies, in the end, are limited. They can find some relevant feature that’s the same, but they also must have their differences. Analogies are not identities. Second, the form of argument by analogy in this context is off of a deep principle of justice:
Treat like cases alike
The strategy with analogy is to identify the similarity between two cases and show that because we have an unproblematic precedent of treatment with one kind of case, we, assuming the deep principle of justice, treat the other case similarly. And so, if discriminating against gays is like discriminating against blacks, we shouldn’t. And if discriminating against gays is like discriminating against people who want to have sex with sheep, we should. Everything hangs on the relevant similarities between the cases, and so, everything hangs on the aptness of the similarities between the cases. And we should, being good, rational arguers, be open to the possibility that our analogies are weak and the opposition’s are strong. That happens.
Will Saletan’s post over at Salon is an exercise in this kind of argumentative humility. He takes the analogy between race and sexual orientation to be a good analogy, but he’s willing to note where there may be relevant moral differences between the two. Primarily it’s about the issue of having children.
The central, categorical objection to gay marriage is that same-sex couples can’t produce biological children together…. Just because I don’t agree with an argument, however, doesn’t mean it’s irrational. Marriage has historically been a sexual institution. A rational person can maintain that a relationship between two people categorically incapable of producing children together—that is, two people of the same sex—can’t be a marriage. That argument doesn’t justify denying them the right to love one another openly, nor does it justify denying them the benefits and honors we bestow on couples for making lifetime commitments. But it can justify a person’s refusal to accept a same-sex relationship as a marriage.
Saletan’s giving the case for disanalogy it’s due. He follows this noting:
The argument has plenty of problems. We let old people marry. We let infertile people marry. We don’t insist that married couples produce kids. We welcome adoption and stepfamilies. Gay couples can have kids using donated eggs or sperm. Many gay people are already raising children, and doing it just as well as straight people.
All of that is true. But I’d be remiss to omit the rejoinder from George and his colleagues: Sex is a much brighter line than fertility or intention to bear children. It’s certainly a less intrusive distinction to enforce.
This is now a point about legal treatment – the law isn’t about your intentions with the marriage, it’s about what can reasonably be expected in it. In this regard, it is right that the case for analogy between race and sex-orientation discrimination is weaker. But, again, analogies are not identities, and to hold them to the standard that the cases be identical is crazy.
In this respect, I think Saletan’s on the right track both argumentatively and politically to acknowledge that there may be differences between these cases. But the differences are still insufficient to break the relevance of the analogy.
One oft-invoked criticism of “Critical Thinking” texts is that they use arguments no one would ever make. Well, in the first place, there’s pedagogical value to that. Second, people make all sorts of crappy arguments. Here’s a laughably silly textbook version of the slippery slope (Mother Jones via Daily Kos):
Well how far will [it] go? Last year, February 29, 2012, the Journal of Ethics in Australia, they debated that. They said we already know abortion is fine, why stop in the womb? Why not three months after. Why should we end the responsibility at that point? It could happen in America. Florida’s trying to do it right now and so is Georgia. Planned Parenthood. Because we allowed that slippery slope. Every human being deserves life, liberty, and property.
Forget the slippery slope, everyone deserves property? How much property? If we allow that slippery slope, everyone will demand to be as wealthy as Donald Trump.*
One major purpose of critical argument analysis is evaluating other arguers: other arguers’ arguments are bad and they should feel bad. There is nothing wrong with this, in fact, it’s helpful to us to have this kind of information. Arguing is a skill, you can do it well or you can do it badly. If you do it badly enough, then maybe we should ignore you.
Straw manning shortcuts this process by loading the deck against the person being evaluated: people who make such arguments are fools/liars/inconsistent, etc. Armed with this information, we can safely ignore them. Beyond this, we need not consider their reasons anymore as reasons to be engaged and evaluated, but rather as pathologies to be explained.
Naturally, this kind of move is productive in bucking up the troops, but ineffective as a method of rational engagement with another arguer. I ran across a very good example of this form this afternoon on the American Prospect. Here, first, is the conclusion:
This, in the end, is the essence of conservative thought on these issues. Better a child should go hungry than get a free lunch. Better a poor person should have no health insurance at all than get insurance from the government. Their suffering may multiply, but they’ll still have their dignity. If only you could eat it.
I’m fairly certain no conservative would agree with that formulation of the essence of their view (not that this is what would make it wrong). This interpretation relies on the following argument:
The souls of the wealthy, on the other hand, are apparently so healthy and strong they can withstand the indignity of government help. Special tax treatment for investment income? The mortgage interest deduction? Cuts to upper-income tax rates? The rich are truly blessed with souls so resilient that they remain intact even in the face of such injuries of government largesse.
As almost any conservative would tell you (I imagine, not being one), there’s a difference between giving someone something they don’t have and not taking away what they currently have. They argue the taxation is unjust (or immoral, or inefficient, or whatever their view is) and that a system of government benefits is ineffective at its purpose of lifting the poor out of poverty. I think it’s pretty obvious this isn’t the obvious inconsistency we’re supposed to think it is. I imagine they’ll also argue that there is difference between our obligations to people with nothing and our obligations to people with something. The rich, in other words, can ruin their lives on their own dime; they hurt only themselves.
On the version of the argument presented, however, I don’t get any of this, nonetheless, I’m invited to conclude the conservatives are foolishly inconsistent and heartless to boot. Should I believe the author here, the argument with the conservative on these scores is closed.
Of course, it isn’t; in fact, I’ve probably just made my ideological compatriots just a little dumber and my conservative opponents just a little more annoyed. And I suppose the former is an under-stressed effect of the straw man: while it’s usually deployed to undermine an opponent, the damage is really to ourselves: we’ve cut ourselves off from the actual arguments being made, we’ve misinformed our friends, and made ourselves appear just that much duller to our opponent.
There exist times when arguments have winners and losers–well, winners in a practical or legal sense. This distinction is important, because the vanquished will continue, at least some of them, to resent the victors, to continue to believe in the righteousness of their cause, and so on. Take, for instance, the more recent of the Arizona Civil Rights issues: the attempt to forge a religious freedom law allowing businesses not to have to serve unclean women (isn’t that what they meant?). Speaking of the foolishness of such laws, George Will (half credit where due here), said the following on Fox News Sunday:
Chris Wallace: George, I think it’s fair to say that there are deeply felt positions on both sides of this debate. Religious freedom versus gay rights. We asked all of you for questions and we got this on Facebook from Dan Pletcher:
Dan Pletcher: With as many taxes as businesses have to pay, how does this government think they have any justification to tell a business who they will and won’t serve?
How, George, do you answer Dan? And more generally, how do you come down on this issue of religious freedom versus gay rights? George Will: Free exercise of religion against…a clash of rights and here is how I answer Dan. Fifty years ago this year, in one of surely the great legislative achievements in American history, we passed the Public Accommodations section of the Civil Rights Act saying, “if you open your doors to business in the United States, you open it to everybody.” That’s a settled issue and the prestige of that law, the just prestige of that law obtains and I think that’s where the American people come down. That said, this too must be said: It’s a funny kind of sore winner in the gay rights movement that would say, “A photographer doesn’t want to photograph my wedding and I’ve got lots of other photographers I could go to, but I’m going to use the hammer of government to force them to do this.” It’s not neighborly and it’s not nice. The gay rights movement is winning. They should be, as I say, not sore winners. Chris Wallace: But having said that, and I understand your point, but you do say that if a gay couple wants to go into a bakery and have a wedding cake, the bakery should have to make the cake. Will: Bake the cake Wallace: Bake the cake.
The appeal to the victors is interesting and a little troubling. It’s also somewhat of a theme among conservative pundits (is there some kind of memo), for here’s Ross Douthat in the New York Times:
But it’s still important for the winning side to recognize its power. We are not really having an argument about same-sex marriage anymore, and on the evidence of Arizona, we’re not having a negotiation. Instead, all that’s left is the timing of the final victory — and for the defeated to find out what settlement the victors will impose.
I’m unaware of any discussions of this topic in argumentation literature; in any case, as my Google search demonstrates, no one has used the phrase “jus post argumentum” before. So I wonder, I think there are rules for entering into arguments (just as there are rules for going to war), there obviously are rules for conduct in argument, hell, that’s what most of this stuff is about, so it seems, to pursue the just war argument a little further, there ought to be rules for when the argument is over. What would those be? Well, aside from treating non-combatants with compassion, which Douthat and Will justly appeal to, you’d think the victors have a right to demand certain conditions from the vanquished; they’ve earned that much by their victory. Beyond this, victories entail a certain settling of accounts, including the punishing of the aggressors, reparations, and so on. Not all arguments are just, after all, either in their declaration or in their prosecution. It only makes sense that the losers suffer the consequences.
Michael Medved has argued at the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference and in print (almost four years ago) that it’s a “liberal lie” that states have “banned” gay marriage.
Now that you’re done laughing, here’s the argument in print (at TownHall.com):
1. “Proposition 8 was a mean-spirited ban on gay marriage.”
TRUTH:Proposition 8 banned nothing. The ubiquitous headlines describing this voter-mandated change in the California constitution as a “gay marriage ban” amount to the worst example of journalistic malpractice in recent years. The entire proposition consisted of only fourteen words: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” This simple statement imposes no restrictions and issues no commands regarding the behavior of private citizens: it merely demands a change in the actions of government. Proposition 8 did nothing to interfere with gay couples in registering for state-recognized civil unions, participating in church or civil ceremonies consecrating their love, forming life-time commitments, raising children, or concluding comprehensive contractual arrangements to share all aspects of life and property. The proposition simply says that government will not get involved in any of these private or public processes by calling such relationships a marriage.
The “only” in those 14 words has the effect of a “ban.” I’ll leave that as an exercise to the reader to figure out (it’s not hard).
This reminds me of a debate about whether certain universities’ bans on homosexual behavior were “discriminatory.” People argued, with a straight face so I imagine, that they were not, because such places didn’t ban homosexual behavior per se, but rather all extra-marital sexual activity.
If one is fancy enough with words, distinctions like these can be made. But they’re really just disingenuous cover for something else.
The fun part about this move, however, is this: should you call them out on their too-subtle-by-half distinction, they’ll accuse you of distorting their position, as Medved (and the defenders of gay faculty bans) have done: note how Medved elaborates on the “journalistic distortion” of that characterization.
Sadly, for people like Medved, you don’t have exclusive control over the interpretation of your arguments; more importantly, you don’t own words and you don’t determine the rules of implication.