Consider these two images.

The tweeter is obviously right, they’re not equivalent. Having a conservative world view (and being a billionaire with little prior educational experience) is not remotely close to what Ruby Bridges had to endure.

But this kind of move is extremely common. It’s a variation on the phenomenon of “leveling up” or “outflanking.” I think it has its origins an important fact about how we hold beliefs.

Here it is: people don’t typically change their view on the spot; they just don’t usually have that kind of direct control. Even in the face of much better reasons, people fail to move. This points less-skilled (or maybe more skilled) arguers in two directions.

On the one hand, the inability to change beliefs on command suggests that beliefs can’t be changed at all (or only with great difficulty and it’s not worth trying). If this is the case, then every criticism is ad hominem and so out of bounds (thus the above). This is of course bad.

On the other hand, to get someone to change a belief, you can’t say: “change your belief, it’s false!” You have to get around behind that belief and the belief that supports it (or even better at the structure of believing itself). This is not necessarily bad, but it tends away from the matters at hand (in the case above the very legitimate questions about DeVos’s knowledge and preparation for her important position).

Seriously but not literally

A while back a writer at the Atlantic introduced the Trumpian heuristic, “take him seriously but not literally.” This was then quickly adopted by Trump surrogates as a way of responding the  Trump’s frequent exaggerations and errors of fact (this Jonah Goldberg piece covers that end of it–never thought I’d cite him approvingly, by the way).

Let’s try to understand this thought. We can start by going back to the original piece. Here’s the money quote:

The best way, he says, is to provide good education and good jobs in these areas. “Fifty-eight percent of black youth cannot get a job, cannot work,” he says. “Fifty-eight percent. If you are not going to bring jobs back, it is just going to continue to get worse and worse.”

It’s a claim that drives fact-checkers to distraction. The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the unemployment rate for blacks between the ages of 16 and 24 at 20.6 percent. Trump prefers to use its employment-population ratio, a figure that shows only 41.5 percent of blacks in that age bracket are working. But that means he includes full time high-school and college students among the jobless.

It’s a familiar split. When he makes claims like this, the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.

When I presented that thought to him, he paused again, “Now that’s interesting.”

I wonder by the way  what the etiquette is for including self-congratulatory lines in the course of your own writing–“now that’s an interesting thought,” you might think. Anyway, it’s probably clear by now that Trump takes himself literally and seriously, and so do his supporters. If this weren’t the case, they wouldn’t work so hard and constructing an alternative set of facts to match Trump’s assertions (watch the video linked above).

It’s a curious thought nonetheless, one that cuts right to the heart of dialectical argument. If I’m going to engage you, I have to have a representation of your view. Usually, the question is whether my representation of your view is accurate, or, if not accurate, charitable.

It is true, however, that we pepper our arguments with all sorts of things not-to-be-taken literally. I’d venture to guess that if we really thought hard, we’d find that we’d think this about many of our arguments themselves. Think how often in a casual conversation you might make some kind of hasty generalization. You don’t mean the argument to be taken literally.

But you’re not President of the United States. And there’s a difference between casual conversation and semi-formal argument. So, let’s take the Atlantic writer seriously and literally. How do we take someone seriously, but not literally? Do we simply substitute our own version of the correct factual assertion? “Sure, Trump said 50 percent unemployment, but he’s not wrong because there’s lots of unemployment.” Would that I got iron-manned like this!

One last question. What’s the clue that we need to interpret someone seriously but not literally? Is it when they’re very often wildly wrong?

Two wrongs of straw

Kellyanne Conway has had a hard couple weeks.  She had the ‘alternate facts‘ brouhaha, then she had the case where she made up a massacre in Bowling Green.   That then yielded a refusal by  a number of news outlets to interview her.  CNN’s ran for 48 hours. She had a credibility deficit.

Jonah Goldberg, over at National Review Online has come to Conway’s defense saying that she is “good at her job, and the media hates her for it.”  You see, she’s regularly been sent on a tough mission – to defend Trump’s policies against a media set on interpreting everything they say in the worst possible light.

President Trump’s surrogates, including Vice President Mike Pence, have mastered the art of defending straw-man positions that don’t reflect the actions and views of the president himself.

Just for clarity’s sake, it’s worth noting that I don’t think Goldberg is holding that Conway must defend straw man positions, but rather she must defend against straw men of her positions.  It has been a bit of a pet peeve of mine to see the language of informal logic abused, but this one is a doozy!  Regardless, the point is a fair one.  If folks have been getting the views and policies wrong, it’s the job of the communicators to set the record straight.

But it’s here that Goldberg switches gears – you see, if you must defend against those who straw man in hostile fashion, then you, too, must fight dirty. And a lesson from history is a case in point.

In 2012, Susan Rice, Barack Obama’s national-security adviser, flatly lied on five Sunday news shows, saying that the attack on the Benghazi compound was “spontaneous” and the direct result of a “heinous and offensive video.” No one talked of banning her from the airwaves. Nor should they have. Here’s a news flash for the news industry: Birds are gonna fly, fish are gonna swim, and politicians are gonna lie.

This, of course, is a curious line of argument, since the lies made the administration’s position (in both cases!)look considerably worse.  Who needs a straw manner in one’s opposition when one is doing such a bang-up job oneself?

Weaponized metalanguages


On Philosophy 15 (briefly discussed here yesterday), Rob and Scott discussed the dialectical move from object language to meta-language (and then from meta-language to meta-meta-language, and so forth). They call this “weaponized metalanguage.” It’s a nice metaphor, despite its violence, because it captures the idea that the metalanguage of argument gets turned into a tool of argument itself. On a somewhat strained analogy, it’s a bit like using the rules of a game as part of the game (using the referee as a blocker in football, maybe).

Scott and Rob are correct in their observation that a sizable part of political debate nowadays is almost entirely second-order–the subject is not the best policy option but rather what constitutes reasonable talk about what the best policy option is. For some people, the election of Donald Trump is a fundamentally second order affair–“I voted for Trump because I’m tired of hearing people tell me what to think….”)

The trouble with this strategy, however, is that there always seems to be a flanking maneuver available; there’s always one-level up. What constitutes reasonable basis for rules about talk about what the best policy option is.

When that fails–as in the example above (here’s an article on point)–there’s always the tu quoque.  My informal guess is that the “leveling up” is done mainly to allege the other person has violated some sort of norm. Naturally, accusers can’t be abusers, so the tu quoque is always an exit strategy.

Philosophy15 – What’s a Metalanguage?

The distinction between first-order languages, or object languages, and metalanguages is a familiar one to readers of the NS.  However, over at Philosophy15, Rob Talisse and I try to explain how once we have the distinction, a unique kind of phenomenon occurs within arguments. In effect, the point of the metalanguage is to have a kind of evaluative criterion for arguments, but the trouble is that it keeps getting used as just one more line of first-order argument.  One of the results, we see, is what we call weaponized metalanguages.

Philosophy15 – Why Argument Must Be Dialectical

Over at Philosophy15, Talisse and I have a short bit on why argument must not only have the core relation between premises and conclusions, but also must have a dialectical element to it.  A familiar point for those who are regular NS readers, but worth a  quick posting.

A consequent point is that it looks like the dialectical element to argument leads to a few skeptical problems for those who think that democracy must be deliberative.  (We follow up on that in the next episode.)

Question-begging and terms of preference

Dysphemisms and euphemisms – it’s all in the naming when it comes to the rhetoric of a cause.  So one side’s freedom-fighters are the other side’s guerillas or insurgents.  And now it comes to what terms to use for those who protest much of the Trump Presidency.  From the start, the term resistance was appealing for those who were sympathetic with the protester-cause.  And for those who see it as mere trouble-making by sore losers, it’s obstructionism or public tantrums.  Fair enough, really.  What really matters is whether the folks have a point.

But that’s just it — if you think they’ve got a point, then that determines the term to use.  So far, this is the sensible thought shared by many, and Varad Mehta at NRO (with a nicely barbed title, “Resistance is Facile”) makes similar remarks.  But then he sees a fallacy behind it all when it comes to reporting on the matter:

There’s an element of circular reasoning involved: The media reports on the resistance because the resistance exists because the media reports on the resistance. But thinking something doesn’t make it real.

But the second part of the circle isn’t part of the question-begging, is it?  That is, the media may report on the ‘resistance’ because it is happening and is pretty widespread.  That’s the first part.  But the second part isn’t part of the issue, is it?  Moreover, the resistance doesn’t exist because the media reports on it.  Rather, it’s something that people are doing on their own, organizing through social media, and so on.  It’s not because CNN set up some cameras.

So, the lesson is that, to use Mehta’s words, just thinking something is circular reasoning doesn’t make it circular.

Trump and Poe’s law

One common explanation for the sufficient (because that’s what it was in the end, wasn’t it) popularity of Trump and Trumpism was the idea that he didn’t play by the rules of the elite (he did, but that’s not the point). Some even suggested that not having facts and evidence or making discernible (not to mention valid or cogent) arguments for his views was the heart of the appeal. If true, this would explain the difficulty or disregard they have for such basic notions as “facts” (or logical notions such as use/mention). It also explains how he seems to be insulated from the charges he leveled at Hilary Clinton: he has employed the swamp (rather than drain it) and reportedly his staff, such as it is, uses private email servers (and he uses his insecure private phone). The frustration of the consistency police at these things is a further part of the appeal.

It turns out there is yet another benefit to this strategy: he’s impossible to satirize. Enter Matt Stone and Trey Parker  of “South Park” fame (from the Huffington Post):

South Park” is done with Trump ― at least for the moment.

The show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, said in an Australian interview Thursday that they’ve decided to “back off” on satirizing President Donald Trump because his administration is already creating tough-to-top comedy.

“It’s really tricky now because satire has become reality,” Parker told the show “7.30.”

“It’s really hard to make fun of,” Parker continued. “We were really trying to make fun of what was going on but we couldn’t keep up … and what was actually happening was way funnier than anything we could come up with.”

“So we decided to kind of back off and let them do their comedy and we’ll do ours,” he said.

It’s Poe’s law (discussed by Scott here) regarding Trumpism. In this case, it’s not only that the view is indistinguishable from satire, it’s that the view outstrips satire. Poe’s law is meant to be a heuristic for when a view is not worth considering.

This has an interesting consequence for argument theory. Normally, a view that’s too stupid to characterize is not worth one’s time. Usually in these circumstances, there are other views on the table–better ones. You can critique those. Indeed, the satire works because the view is bad. You can see the good view in it. In this case, there is no alternative available. This is a view that needs evaluation and offers no alternative. Going after Burkean conservatism would be irrelevant.

All of argument relies on the fundamental requirement that you can represent a view. If Poe’s law is the measure of basic acceptability, then we’re in serious trouble.

The Clearing the Decks Fallacy

Talisse and I have a short bit at Philosophy15 on a new fallacy we’ve been seeing in philosophy.  Well, really, it’s not a new phenomenon, we’ve just started noticing it. One reason is that we’ve become particularly interested in how dialectical standards change over extended philosophical work. Here’s the basic setup.

Stage 1: Hold one’s dialectical opponents to a very high standard of scrutiny.   Show that they do not pass that level of scrutiny.

Stage 2: Deduce that the standard of scrutiny is likely too high, and then introduce a new, lower standard.

Stage 3: Show that one’s own view passes the lower standard.

The problem is that in many cases, the other views criticized in Stage 1 would pass the lower standard in Stage 3, just as one’s own view does.  But they don’t get mentioned in stage 3.  So the argument proceeds as though their being eliminated by the high standards eliminates them full stop.

This strategy we call clearing the decks.  It shows up lots in the history of philosophy, and it is particularly noxious when philosophers do metaphilosophy.

The basic rule, we think, that gets broken is a form of the rule that in deliberating between choices, one uses a consistent standard for the ultimate decision.  It’s not that one must use the same standard throughout, as we can find that some standards are too strict or lax and need to change them.  It’s just that when we make the final decision, we apply the same standard to all eligible options.  With clearing the decks, once the standard is lowered, there are more eligible options.   In some ways, it’s a form of argument from double standards.

Your argument is invalid

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