Category Archives: General discussion

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Hypocrisy that isn’t

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Many years back, Megan McArdle wrote that people who want higher taxes can just tax themselves and donate the excess. Their failure do this reveals their hypocrisy, so they should STFU.

That’s silly.

There was another example of this over the weekend. Tomi Lahren,  a conservative internet personality, decries Obamacare to beat the band. It so turns out that the 24 year-old benefits from a central provision of the law (that children can remain on their parents’ health insurance until the age of 26). To some (and to judge by internet trends many) this is some kind of rank hypocrisy:

Tomi Lahren says the Affordable Care Act is a disaster that’s in a death spiral, but that hasn’t stopped her from benefitting from it.

During an interview with comedian Chelsea Handler at Politicon, the controversial 24-year-old conservative commentator trashed Obamacare for 10 minutes before admitting to the crowd that she was, in fact, still on her parents’ health insurance plan.

“Okay, so do you have a health care plan or no?” Handler asked.

“Well, luckily I’m 24, so I am still on my parents’,” Lahren said.

The irony was not lost on the audience, which promptly started to boo, laugh and chant, “Thanks, Obama!”

A law as complex as Obamacare (it was many pages long, remember), affects pretty much everyone. This makes it nearly impossible for one to avoid benefiting (or suffering from) some of its provisions. The fact that Lahren benefits from a provision of it does not make her a hypocrite anymore than the non-volunteering tax payer of Megan McArdle’s imagination.

Indeed, as we’ve probably pointed out before, the practical impossibility of avoiding something is often a condition of laws. If this fact–the fact that you’re subject to thing you disagree with–were disqualifying, it’d be very hard to have disagreements in a democracy at all.

For more on tu quoque arguments, see this post by Scott.

Qualunquismo

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One sense of the difficult-to-translate Italian term “qualunquismo” (average-Joe-ism might be a start)  is a distrust of politics. Underneath this notion is the idea that what animates politics, disagreement, is motivated mostly by self-interested people. Most people, average people, or what they call l’uomo qualunque, know that these disagreements are pernicious.

Strolling through Twitter this morning, I stumbled upon a repost of an article from NPR Illinois comparing then-candidate Trump to current Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner. The basis of the comparison is not the bombast, but rather the outsiderist pitch: I’m not in government, I’m average, I distrust it like you, it’s a swamp of special interests, etc.

Much has been made of Trump’s appeal among voters who tend toward authoritarianism. But that’s not Rauner. Instead, political science offers a better explanation of the appeal of the governor’s pitch: stealth democracy. The idea was outlined by John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse in their 2002 book Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs about How Government Should Work. It goes like this: people are angry, but not because they don’t like the policy outcomes of our political system. Rather, they don’t like the process. The three main components of the idea have to do with misunderstanding how much people agree on a public agenda, a disdain for self-interested policymakers and intense dislike of the arguments and mess inherent in democratic governance. Seen through the framework of stealth democracy, Rauner is a most typical American.

“People tend to see their own attitudes as typical, so they overestimate the degree to which others share their opinions,” Hibbing and Theiss-Morse write. Last week, Rauner said Illinoisans needed to make their voices heard in the Capitol: “We need democracy to get restored in Illinois, and we need the people to put pressure on members of Speaker Madigan’s caucus to do the right thing.” Of course, thousands of people are doing just that. But among the Democratic supermajorities in the House and Senate, they’re being pressured to do a “right thing” that is not what Rauner has in mind. Where Democrats would balance the budget with a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts, Rauner says he would balance the budget with a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts only after passing business-friendly legislation and weakening collective bargaining.

When the governor makes this case, which he’s done again and again, Rauner is playing on the Stealth Democracy idea that most voters don’t understand why politicians are always fighting. Hibbing and Theiss-Morse write that because most people are not interested in getting informed on more than a few issues — if that — they can’t see what all the fuss is about: “When it is apparent that the political arena is filled with intense policy disagreement, people conclude that the reason must be illegitimate — namely, the influence of special interests.”
….
“People’s tendency to see the policy world in such a detached, generic and simplistic form explains why Ross Perot’s claim during his presidential campaigns in 1992 and 1996 that he would ‘just fix it’ resonated so deeply with the people,” Hibbing and Theiss-Morse explain. Remember Rauner’s campaign slogan? “Shake up Springfield. Bring back Illinois.” And Trump’s? “Make America great again.” They could slogan-swap without missing a beat. Stealth Democracy tells us that that since most Americans think everyone else agrees with them on what’s best for the nation, and that achieving those results ought to be as simple as putting a bill up and voting for it, we should not be surprised when people see no need for debate and compromise.

This thesis of Stealth Democracy seems to be that people are essentially qualunquisti. Underlying the qualunquista thesis is a fundamental intolerance of disagreement, especially motivated, partisan disagreement.

In the end, qualunquismo is somewhat of a meta position. It’s a position about positions whereby the taking of a position is inherently suspect. Or alternatively, the existence of disagreement is ipso facto a sign of something amiss. This is a very attractive view to hold when you don’t have any knowledge of what people are disagreeing about. Normally, or rather, to some, the existence of a disagreement is a sign that views about that position diverge. The existence of divergent views, about which one is unaware, is strong evidence then that there’s something important one knows nothing about.

Taking the qualunquistic approach saves one the trouble of thinking themselves ignorant of something important or consequential. It also rewards one with the feeling that they’ve seen through the disagreement about the subject they know nothing about. They’ve seen that it’s partisan bluster or corrupt, machine politics. In Illinois, we might call this Madiganism, after Michael Madigan, the Democratic Speaker of the House everyone seems to blame for the fact that our state went two years without a state budget. He appears infrequently in public so he makes this easy.

It seems obvious to me that qualunquismo is self-refuting. Not having a view is a view for the same reason that a color-blind society is silly racial politics.

The trick is that qualunquismo has a built-in defense: it’s almost impossible to explain why, if they don’t trust disagreement, they’re wrong.

Too soon?

John Darkow, Columbia Daily Tribune, Missouri

You very often cannot control the basic circumstances of argument, especially public argument. A public argument, let’s say, is one you have in public, with, um, the public, about matters that concern the public (I suppose this could be anything). You can try to bring about a public argument on your own by inviting those around you, or the people who read your blog, or maybe someone in some comment thread. But you’re more likely to be at the mercy of events. I think this is the point behind trending topics on Twitter. You’d be jump on board because by yourself you can’t start a trend (unless you’re somebody famous). You have to take advantage of the opportunities as they present themselves.

This may run counter, however, to certain social norms. One such norm is not to speak ill of the dead or dying, or not to take advantage of misfortune to “score political points,” or the more general comedic injunction to avoid making jokes, “too soon.”

As an epistemic matter, however, arguments require you to put evidence before your audience. This means you must spring upon them where they are and when they are there.

The injunction against taking advantage or forcing unkind thoughts runs counter to the imperative to present your case when the opportunity arises. My case in some circumstance might involve alighting upon some uncomfortable aspect of a public official at some weak point in their life, or using someone’s misfortune as an example.

This struck me the other day in the wake of someone’s misfortune. Oddly, I can’t bring myself to name it.

Don’t say ‘Don’t,’ because then I’ll do it

A curious pathology among paleoconservatives and their reactionary brethren is to embrace and even celebrate their status as ‘deplorables.’  I earlier mentioned the strange do this to antagonize your liberal acquaintances phenomenon.  On the one hand, this t-shirt and its ilk are more of the same, but on the other hand, it has a unique argumentative element to it.

Here’s my shot.  The argument is an enthymeme.

You said don’t [fly/wear Confederate flag stuff]

Therefore, I will/should wear it.

The suppressed premise, as far as I can tell, can either be strong or weak.

Strong: I will/should do the opposite of whatever you say.

Weak: Your views on Confederate stuff is wrong, so I must resist it symbolically, indexed to the things you’ve said.

I take it that the ‘you’ is roughly me, or folks of my type — progressive, weirded out by Antebellum South nostalgia, educated elitist, and so on.

Two quick things.  #1.  I don’t think anyone said “can’t” in any robust sense.  I might so so far as to say “shouldn’t” in a moral sense, but wearing a dopey shirt like that isn’t illegal, and it’d be bonkers to say that a relevant sector of liberals have denied that or have tried to make it illegal.  #2.  Perhaps there’s a confusion between (a) flying the Confederate flag around one’s house or having a bathing suit made of it and (b) flying it at, say, a courthouse or having it on the state flag.  In the latter case, that’s the state endorsing a particular worldview by putting a symbol out to represent it.  That’s a no, there. And I’d say that there’s a good reason to argue for “can’t” there.

The upshot of the two quick things is that the shirt is either a response to a “can’t” that was never said, or to a “can’t” that is irrelevant to the shirt.  <deep sigh>

The argument in the background, regardless of the dialectical miss, is interesting.  On the strong interpretation, I think the paleoconservative here is using the George Costanza Rule — that every instinct he has is wrong.  So he should do the complete opposite. 

Liberals, so the reasoning goes, have the exact opposite reaction to every circumstance.  So one has an exemplar, but a bizarro exemplar — just do the opposite of what the liberal does, or says.

The weak interpretation is that liberals are just wrong on the Confederate stuff, so there needs to be symbolic resistance, particularly in the form of overtly breaking a rule… that is calling attention to the rule as you break it. And thereby, making one’s rejection of the rule manifest.

The trouble is that both of these programs, and the strong program in particular, has a kind of slavishness (ironic!) to them — their content and timing is determined by those they are meant to resist.  If your identity as a paleoconservative is that of just shouting ‘stop’ at all the liberal/progressive stuff happening, then notice how your life is getting determined by those you hate.  The whole point of sane conservatism, as I see it, is to appreciate the old things, to revel in the sacred.  But once those things can be sold to you as a thing that can go on a T-shirt as a piece of expressive resentment, it’s too late.  Right?

The point I’m getting to is that what makes this reactionary conservative line so strange, and the argumentative core of this particular instance especially, is how it seems a betrayal of what makes conservatism appealing in the first place — appreciating the civilizing sentiments, developing the capacities of neighborliness, and the knowledge that inherited things are conflicted.  (As Roger Scruton says: “never look too closely at the things you inherit”).  This is the reason why I not only see these gestures as pathologies of public reason, but I see them as pathological even on conservative grounds.  They are a kind of performative self-refutation of a brand of conservative politics — in enacting it, you show the ideals you stand for to either be idols or mere words.

Stress test

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To my mind, argumentation studies doesn’t pay enough attention to the psycho-economics (and the just plain economics) of argumentation. How much, for example, does it cost you to engage (or not engage) in an argument with someone? How much do you have invested in your beliefs? What will it cost you in time,  money, and shame to change them? There’s a cost to everything.

One of the costs that comes with believing (or maybe just being) is stress. Yesterday there was an op-ed on point in the NYT by Lisa Feldman Barrett of Northeastern (Boston). She writes:

But scientifically speaking, it’s not that simple. Words can have a powerful effect on your nervous system. Certain types of adversity, even those involving no physical contact, can make you sick, alter your brain — even kill neurons — and shorten your life.

Your body’s immune system includes little proteins called proinflammatory cytokines that cause inflammation when you’re physically injured. Under certain conditions, however, these cytokines themselves can cause physical illness. What are those conditions? One of them is chronic stress.

Your body also contains little packets of genetic material that sit on the ends of your chromosomes. They’re called telomeres. Each time your cells divide, their telomeres get a little shorter, and when they become too short, you die. This is normal aging. But guess what else shrinks your telomeres? Chronic stress.

If words can cause stress, and if prolonged stress can cause physical harm, then it seems that speech — at least certain types of speech — can be a form of violence. But which types?

That last question is a critical one. Barrett’s answer seems to depend on the duration of the stress caused by the speech:

That’s also true of a political climate in which groups of people endlessly hurl hateful words at one another, and of rampant bullying in school or on social media. A culture of constant, casual brutality is toxic to the body, and we suffer for it.

Here’s the payoff:

That’s why it’s reasonable, scientifically speaking, not to allow a provocateur and hatemonger like Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at your school. He is part of something noxious, a campaign of abuse. There is nothing to be gained from debating him, for debate is not what he is offering.

Well, there’s the problem. In the first place, to Milo’s many adoring fans, he’s not abusing anyone. If anything, he’s got to put up with your abuse (as they frequently allege). Besides, they might claim they get a rush of pleasure from the truth he speaks and that the discomfort people feel is the pain of cognitive dissonance.  Second, there’s an easy to way to avoid Milo’s noxious message: don’t go to his talk.

I’m sympathetic to the idea that there’s a psychological cost to unwelcome ideas. I’m also sympathetic to taking that into account as we offer them. But it’s difficult to see how these two things yield banning Milo. That his beliefs impose a high cost on hearers doesn’t seem sufficient to ban or even avoid them. I’ll leave it to the reader as an exercise to come up with counterexamples to Barrett’s view.

Give me argument, not advice!

Dear Prudence at Slate.com is an advice site for some of the more progressive of the progressives.  So there are lots of letters and advice response on how to handle LGBT issues, conflicts within class consciousness, how to manage vegan-nonvegan relationships, and Tinder mini-norms.  NRO’s Graham Hillard’s take on it all is that Mallory Ortberg (Prudence) “dispenses increasingly ridiculous progressive orthodoxies, and a not insignificant portion of her audience, well, laughs at them.”  The point, Hillard wants to emphasize, is that:

Regular people — “the great unwashed,” in Edmund Burke’s oft-repeated phrase — know both instinctively and by hard experience that to live as the sexual Left preaches is to enter a world of confusion, heartbreak, and deep, abiding dissatisfaction.

Simple truth, do you? So, to start, Hillard’s charge is that the advice column on a progressive website gives progressive-friendly advice.  The second point is that “Regular people” know instinctively and by experience that it’s terrible advice.   Sigh.   To the first point — what do you expect?  If NRO ran an advice column, I would expect it all to be conservative and religious material.  You go to the kind of advice you want, so it’s really a problem with affiliated advice columns, isn’t it?  (For example, if a student comes to me about a crisis of faith, I interpret it as a request for more information about atheism and Slayer albums to listen to, not asking for spiritual healing. Were she to approach a priest, she’s requesting something different.)

To the second point, isn’t the matter more complicated than that?  Isn’t one of the replies by progressives that most of these norms and intuitions are products of societies that did not abide difference, and when we aren’t under those social conditions, there are many wider livable lives than we’d anticipated?

But Hillard’s not done.  His biggest complaint is that:

The problem with these cubes of p.c. baloney — aside from the fact that, if heeded, they’re likely to leave Ortberg’s readers in worse shape — is that their cumulative effect is to move acceptable discourse (indeed, acceptable thought) ever leftward. Because Ortberg makes pronouncements rather than arguments when discussing the latest trends in gender and sexuality, the casual reader could be forgiven for believing that the argument has already happened somewhere, that the Left won, and that the only remaining thing is to climb on board.

Hillard wants arguments.  It’s part of the regular right-side nonsense that liberals are bad at argument, don’t argue, are fact-avoidant, and so on.  But I looked at some of Prudie’s replies, and they are full of argument.  Here’s one from one of the columns Hillard notes, about a bisexual student who was in a relationship with a married couple, who now have a baby on the way:

Get out now. This couple is producing red flags at such an accelerated clip that they could double as a red-flag factory …. You don’t want a child, and Dave and Sue are about to have one. You don’t want to be treated like a dirty little secret, but already you feel uncomfortable spending time alone with Dave because of the unhealthy, triangulated dynamics between the three of you.

That’s an argument.  But perhaps not the kind of argument Hillard wants, one that would go something along the lines: what were you thinking, being Bi- and getting involved with a married couple to begin with… you must not be Normal.

Here’s  a thing that normal people know either intuitively or by experience: communication is for the sake of relaying the information needed (or thought needed) for the situation.  Bisexual people go to the advice column at Slate about their current relationships for advice about the relationship, not about why they shouldn’t be Bi- or that they shouldn’t have done what they did.  Moreover, normal people know by intuition or by experience that arguments are often there, but you’ve got to be looking for the piece of controversial information in the communication, not for what you think is controversial.

For sure, Hillard laments something lamentable — that people exist, get news in, and even advice within ideological bubbles that rarely are questioned internally.  It’s easy to see it looking in the culture sections of those you hold in contempt. But when you can’t detect reasoning internal to those cultures or in their advice columns, that’s more evidence that you’re the one who can’t get outside the ideological bubble except to gather dirt. (John had a nice column on this phenomenon, asking whether straw-manning is inevitable.)

Handel with care

Karen Handel, now member of the US Congress from Georgia, sat for an interview in which she was pressed for answers about gay marriage and gay adoption. Here’s a video.

It’s a little long (well ok it’s five minutes). The interesting remark, for me at least today, comes at the end. Asked (at about 4:55) why she thinks gay parents are not as legitimate as heterosexual parents, she responds:

Because I don’t.

That’s a puzzling answer. In the first place, she certainly has a reason. She has even, earlier in the Q&A, given it: Christianity demands it. Second, does anyone or rather can anyone hold a view for no reason at all? Is “I just don’t” ever an answer to such a question?

I just don’t think so.

This is just not the nature of beliefs. Try it yourself. You don’t of course have to articulate those beliefs, but they’re always there. Hers, I imagine, is just too alienating or silly or (more likely) question-begging.

Hillbilly resistance

There is now a cottage industry that produces essays having the following form: the reason Trump got elected is because liberal snobs have long looked down their noses at regular folks and the regular folks were just plum tired of it so voted for Trump despite his evident shortcomings. I read the first one of these in the Chronicle or Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed within days of the election. They have followed at a steady trickle.

Here’s a variation the other day from someone in Philadelphia:

A lot of people out there are tired of being called stupid, whether directly to their faces or indirectly with the raised eyebrow of the highbrow. I almost think they can deal with being called racist, sexist or homophobic (which some are, some aren’t and who cares anyway, since liberals are exactly the same,) but cannot deal with being ridiculed for their allegedly inferior intellects.

When people do that, they just galvanize the Hillbilly Resistance to reject any notion that the press is in danger, that Trump is a beast, that Ivanka is a Stepford daughter, that Melania lives in a tower and lets down her hair on weekends, and that we are in danger of another revolution.

I have two comments. Before those, a confession. I hate being called stupid. I hate it because, to be honest, I fear that it may be true. When someone’s accusation is particularly well phrased, it costs me a lot of time (and maybe some money if I have to buy books or something) to consider the question. Back to my comment.

First, these people are snowflakes, apparently. They so bristle at the thought of having their beliefs questioned that the behave irrationally. I can’t think of much that’s more insulting than that claim.

Second, if someone knows a way you can disagree with someone without there being the very real implication that one of you is mistaken and has therefore failed in some kind of cognitive obligation (i.e., is stupid), then I’m all ears.  Your answer may make me feel bad because I currently think there isn’t one.

In closing, the implication that people with whom you disagree are deficient is not something that has suddenly just appeared, by the way:

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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.

Body slam!

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An interesting example of ad baculum (appeal to force) reasoning came up last night. A candidate for Congress in Montana body-slammed a reporter for asking a question about the CBO score of the AHCA.  This got me thinking about the ad baculum.

The textbook ad baculum argument is something of a puzzle. Here’s what we might call a fairly standard version:

The fallacy of appeal to force occurs whenever an arguer poses a conclusion to another person and tells that person either implicitly or explicitly that some harm will come to him or her if he or she does not accept the conclusion. (Hurley Concise Introduction to Logic 2008, p. 116).

As the text goes on to explain, the fallacy works by blinding the listener to the weakness of an argument with the threat of sanction. Other texts of this type make similar claims (see the Hurley-esque Baronett 2013 or here at the Fallacy Files).

On the other hand, some research-based approaches do not seem to include it (e.g., Groarke and Tindale Good Reasoning Matters! don’t mention it at all).  Walton, in contrast, includes a discussion of “fear or threat” arguments, though he stresses the ways they are passable (and considers the relevance question “outrageous”) (see Walton Fundamentals of Critical Argumentation 2006, p. 288).

Like Walton, I’ve long struggled with whether this is anything. You can’t force anyone to believe anything. Your forcing, or threats of forcing, will likely have the opposite effect. You will reinforce their believe or raise their suspicions. Beliefs just don’t work like this.

One common suggestion is that such moves aren’t really arguments, so they’re not really fallacies. It’s been used on me (and Scott) before to discount some one of our dialectical examples. It would go like this. My threats to punch you if you keep asking about the CBO score aren’t “argumentative” in any real sense. They’re just threats to get you to engage in some action or other. They are threats, in other words, to get you to do something (not conclude) something.

I’m loathe to give up on threats and violence as common distortions of dialectical exchanges. They happen too often, I think, for us to ignore them. If our model of fallaciousness can’t capture them, then we need to rethink it.  I have therefore two suggestions. The first is this: the aim of the ad baculum is indeed an action–the action is “accpetance.” You are going to “accept” (rather than believe) that some proposition is true. You are going to include it in your practical reasoning. If I threaten you to accept some proposition as true, then you will act as if it is. Whether you believe it in your heart of hearts is irrelevant.

The second suggestion: my threats are not aimed at your believing, they’re aimed at your doing and the believing of others. If I can get you to stop blabbing on about the CBO score, even though you think it’s important, I can shield that evidence from others and therefore control (however indirectly) their believing. You control believing, after all, in this indirect way.