Tag Archives: Jay Nordlinger

Slippery Slopism

Image result for statue graveyardWandering about twitter this morning I stumbled on a couple of links I thought I’d share here. The first is an article by Steven Nadler, a philosopher at Wisconsin, who argues in a contribution at Time that the one weird trick to solve America’s stupidity crisis is a basic course in critical thinking.

What is the solution to our creeping national stupidity? Learning how to gain more information from a variety of certifiably reliable sources is an important first step. But what the American public really needs are lessons in how to be rational, how to assess that information — distinguishing between real evidence and fake evidence — and end up believing only what one is justified in believing. We could use more lessons on what it means to be rational and how to be epistemologically responsible citizens who are familiar with the difference between a valid and invalid argument, and who know an unjustified belief when they see one.

No argument here.

The second link is a medium-long piece by Jay Nordlinger of National Review on the subject of Confederate monuments. Along the way to making the (to me, obvious) point that the Confederacy represented an unequivocal moral evil, Nordlinger went meta and made the following remark about slippery slope arguments:

William F. Buckley Jr. used to warn against “slippery-slopism,” as he called it. There were always people saying, If you ban Hustler magazine from the public library today, you will ban D. H. Lawrence tomorrow. Bill hated this kind of thinking. It was a kind of anti-thinking. People should make judgments, he said. People should exercise their powers of discrimination.

I, however, have always been soft on slippery-slope arguments. And I make them. But I also think Buckley had a point: People should not be excused from thinking.

If you dishonor John C. Calhoun, do you have to dishonor Thomas Jefferson?  If you take Calhoun’s name off a college within Yale University, do you have to raze the Jefferson Memorial? Do you have to change the name of our nation’s capital, because Washington owned slaves? Oh, come on.

This is a clumsily stated but not unreasonable point. The only thing surprising to me–and I’m willing to consider this a consequence of professional deformation–is the novelty with which the subject matter is presented: “hey, have you ever thought about slippery slopes?” Of course you have. (Or maybe you haven’t, if so, you should; that’s Nadler’s point).

The slippery slope is a bread-and-butter topic of any worthy critical reasoning course. Justly so. Sadly, as Buckley correctly suggests, people frequently abuse the term as well as the argument form (for abuse of terms see this post by Scott). They do so especially when the matter regards permitting or prohibiting something. If we prohibit x, then logic dictates we prohibit y, and then it will further require that we prohibit z. The chain itself of increasingly horrible consequences does the work of the argument. In the present case, should we remove the statues of Confederate soldiers, etc., then logic requires we remove the statues of other morally problematic figures (like George Washington)  then there will be no statues (or something).

Buckley’s point is that this energy-saving line of thought absolves you of addressing the question as to whether reasons apply the same way in the separate cases. The slope is actually slippery, though I wonder whether we should use this term (maybe another time for that claim), when the reasoning applies in the separate cases. In these cases, however, what you actually have is a parity of reasons argument. The same reasons that allow x also allow y. A somewhat recent example. When the Bush administration invited religions to collect federal money for charitable activity, Wiccans showed up (to the dismay of the Bush administration). A quick note on the slope here: I hardly think the Wiccans would consider themselves the bottom of any kind of slope.

Sadly, Nordlinger seems to obscure this distinction and fall exactly into the cognitive efficiency  problem Buckley identifies, only in his case rejects the possibility of a parity of reasons case out of hand. This is a point any (again worthy) critical thinking course ought to make–not all slippery slopes are fallacious. Fallacious slippery slopes is that you don’t do any real analytical work. The problem in rejecting parity of reasons arguments out of hand is to do the same thing.

How not to say you’re sorry

In a very simple sense, you use a term when you employ it to mean something; you mention a term when you talk about the termness of the term, or if you quote someone using it.  So for instance if you say that someone called someone an ugly name, you put that ugly name in quotes. Thus, he said "word" is mentioning; those people are words is using.

This is germane to something Jay Nordlinger of the National Review Online has recently written.  In a nutshell, in a recent post he used a derogatory term for Mexican immigrants.  In a follow up post, he claimed it was obvious that he was mentioning.  His defense, however, is weak.  Here's the original remark.

In today’s Impromptus, I have some comments on Chief Justice Roberts, including a gibe. (Columnists must gibe.) A reader writes, “I fear he has grown in office, and will keep growing.” Yes, that is a fear. For political newcomers, we’ll need a brief history lesson.

During the 1980s, Tip O’Neill and other liberals said, “We were hoping that Reagan would grow in office, but he hasn’t grown at all.” What they meant was, he had not shed his small-government principles and his hawkish views. He had not accepted the post-LBJ state, and détente. He had not learned to love Big Brother. He was still clinging to guns and religion, so to speak. He was as provincial, blinkered, and right-wing as ever.

Truth is, some conservatives lamented that he had indeed “grown” in office. He had gone out of his way to accommodate liberals and moderates, and to accommodate the Kremlin. He was raising taxes, spending like crazy, welcoming wetbacks, pursuing arms control. One common cry from the right was, “None of this would be happening if Ronald Reagan were alive.”

Here is his defense:

What has gotten knickers in a twist is that word “wetback.” What should have been clear is that I was reflecting a certain mentality: the mentality of Reagan’s critics, some of them, at that time. The angst over tax deals, amnesty deals, arms deals, etc.

I have no doubt that most readers knew what I was doing. But I guess you have to issue these little “clarifications” for the benefit of the dim.

Look: I am not a politician. I’m a writer. And if you don’t like what I write — for heaven’s sake, there are 8 billion others you can click on. I would further say to the complainers, using a phrase I’ve never liked, frankly: Get a life. Get a frickin’ life.

One more word: If people wet their pants on seeing the word “wetback,” this country is as far gone as the most pessimistic and alarmist people say it is.

Two more words: Good grief.

I find this very sad.  In the first place, Nordlinger's defense fails.  There is no distance between the people (not him allegedly) who use the term "wetbacks" (see, quotation marks are easy to use!) and Nordlinger.  Indeed he counts himself among them.  Second, he claims to be a writer, but then he whines about people who criticize what he writes.  That's what people do to writers.  Writers write, they get a reaction, they deal with it.  Nordlinger instead goes ad hominem on the people who think his employment of this offensive term offensive.  What is therefore most sad about this response is that Nordlinger bothers (like so few actually do) to address criticism of his view but then fails to learn from it or take it seriously. 

Maybe this really was a failure of the use/mention distinction on Nordlinger's part.  It's so easy to cop to that.  He could have simply added that he should have made it clear that he was mentioning "wetbacks" and that it was a term he finds inappropriate.  But he couldn't do that, because it was central to his point about how Reagan was justifiably criticized from the right.

Definitional hackery

A hack is someone who can be relied on to make any argument–sound or not–for his preset view and against any perceived opposition.  Somehow our media and political culture relies in large part on this sort of person's insights, however completely predictable and frequently unreasonable or irrational.  Here is a fun case in point. 

Obama was photographed on vacation riding a bicycle with one of his daughters.  This provoked the following comment from Jay Nordlinger at the National Review Online:

I’m sorry, but a grown man wearing a bicycle helmet, when he’s not training or racing like LeMond, is just — is just . . . Well, I think Dukakis looked better in his tank, is all I’m saying.   

In the first place, he's not really sorry.  Second, Greg LeMond has long retired from cycling.  So has Lance Armstrong.  I'd suggest in the first place that this jack ass update his references.  I'll suggest "Andy Schleck" because (1) he's currently a famous cyclist; (2) he's got a cool-sounding name.  Third, this is completely asinine.  As anyone who rides a bike ought to know, you're wearing a helmet because someone might run into you.  If you fall from your bike going slow, you might end up as brain damaged as someone going a whole lot faster.  Finally, Dukakis?

via Sadly, No.

And by the way, helmets off to the commenters at NRO online for pointing out the stupidity of Nordlinger's argument.