Tag Archives: Poe’s Law

Dred Scott and Godwin

Fig.1 Gay Marriage Analogy

When you’re out of arguments you go full Godwin (proposition p with which I disagree is Nazi).  When you go full Godwin Poe’s law goes into effect (we can’t tell your view from a straw man of your view–essentially).  On this score, here goes some bozo from the Witherspoon Institute, famous for their slippery slopes about Gay Marriage (society will be destroyed, eventually).  Via Talking Points Memo (the source for this kind of crazy nowadays):

In Dred Scott it was the false idea that some human beings can own other human beings, and that a democratic people cannot say otherwise. In the same-sex marriage rulings it is the false idea that men can marry men, and women can marry women, and that democratic peoples cannot say otherwise.

I suppose they’re both court cases of a sort.  In one, rights were recognized, in the other, they were denied.

Satire and Nihilism

Jim Geraghty at National Review Online has an interesting essay on the state of satire in American political culture.  He makes a contrast between satire in the good old days and the way it’s used today:

When everybody’s getting mocked, there’s not much consequence to the mockery…. The older notion of satire as a tool for addressing some wrongdoing or social ill may be falling apart before us. We don’t hold many of our national political or cultural leaders in high regard, and yet somehow they keep on with business as usual. Some of the egos attracted to political power have proven that no amount of ridicule can deter them.

So, to keep score:   old satire is taking a moral stand using irony as a means to speaking truth to power, new satire is irony for its own sake.  The new satire just heaps ridicule on everyone who’s earnest, so is incapable of communicating a coherent moral vision.

[T]here isn’t really room for a genuinely heroic or noble character in those (parodic) worlds. A storyline can’t include Mother Teresa or a Medal of Honor recipient. . .  unless, say, the protagonists had just claimed to be noble and virtuous, and the genuinely heroic figures appeared in order to make the protagonists appear pitiful by contrast. The true heroes of the real world aren’t particularly funny….

And so the new satire is simply (a) nihilistic, and (b) because it takes no substantive moral stand, can’t have any real critical bite.  Now, I think Geraghty is wrong about John Stewart’s political satire.  He does have a moral view.  But, regardless, if satire doesn’t have a critical bite and satirists are just nihilists, then why is it that satirists, according to Geraghty, only needle the Republicans?

As a close to the essay, Geraghty makes a move I find very interesting, and one I’ve been considering on and off for a while — the Poe phenomenon.  Given all the scandals and their silliness (Mark Sanford, Bob Menendez, Larry Craig, Anthony Weiner, Elliot Spitzer), the real stories of those in power sound very much like the silly send-ups of them.  Geraghty notes:

[I]n the exaggerated, ludicrous, comedic alternative universe depicted by the Onion, there is no Onion. In a real world that increasingly resembles the Onion’s satires, the Onion is superfluous.

Now, I think this is an overstatement.  I’m not sure that if Poe’s Law is true, satire is superfluous.  Satire, even if it’s the nihilistic contempt Geraghty’s worried about, is expressively different (even if not always received as different) from the events satired.  Satire is a meta-language, one that comments on and captures a reaction to the events satired.  Now, I don’t think it follows that satire is superflous, even if it’s nihilisic and difficult to tell from simple reportage, as it’s a different thing from what’s satirized.  But maybe Geraghty’s on the right track —  some forms of satire are simply self-indulgent post-adolescent pap. But that can be satired, too, and (if it’s well done) that’s not superfluous, is it?

Sunlight

There is a debate about whether everything that can be debated ought to.  The thought goes something like this: just because something can be known or discovered, does not entail that it ought to be (or it does mean it ought to be, or some variation on this thought).  A corollary to this argument involves Poe's law considerations: just because there are people who will argue for abhorrent view x, does not entail that either (a) their view deserves consideration or (b) the matter is open for debate.  We have moved beyond the KKK, the Nazis, the young-earth creationists.  They still exist, of course.  Their views no longer merit debate, but rather explanation: why in the face of so much evidence, does this person continue to believe x?  That's the issue now. 

MSNBC fired Pat Buchanan for being what he has always been: an unrepetent racist.  Good, I say.  There are things we need to get done around here, and we no longer have the time, and never should have had the time, to sit around and wonder whether some of us were genetically or culturally up to the challenge. 

Buchanan's MSNBC friends, however, thought he still had a place in the debate.  They write:

"Everyone at Morning Joe considers Pat Buchanan to be a friend and a member of the family. Even though we strongly disagree with the contents of Pat's latest book, Mika and I believe those differences should have been debated in public. An open dialogue with Morning Joe regulars like Al Sharpton and Harold Ford, Jr. could have developed into an important debate on the future of race relations in America.

Because we believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant, Mika and I strongly disagree with this outcome. We understand that the parting was amicable. Still, we will miss Pat." 

Sunlight hasn't disinfected anything, obviously.  It was time for an amputation.

Not sure if Troll, or just illustration of Poe’s Law part #1834

The other day I posted something on Senator Grassley's attempt to find a contradiction in Democrats' support for more robust child labor laws–it would keep children from being physically active, he said.  That sounded like a joke–but it wasn't.  Now comes Keith Ablow, of Fox News, arguing that Newt Gingrich's adultery makes him a better candidate for President than non-adulterers.  He argues:

1) Three women have met Mr. Gingrich and been so moved by his emotional energy and intellect that they decided they wanted to spend the rest of their lives with him.

2) Two of these women felt this way even though Mr. Gingrich was already married.

3 ) One of them felt this way even though Mr. Gingrich was already married for the second time, was not exactly her equal in the looks department and had a wife (Marianne) who wanted to make his life without her as painful as possible.

Conclusion: When three women want to sign on for life with a man who is now running for president, I worry more about whether we’ll be clamoring for a third Gingrich term, not whether we’ll want to let him go after one.

The people, by whom I mean three women who have been married to Gingrich, have spoken.  Clearly the nation as a whole will like him.  There's more:

4) Two women—Mr. Gingrich’s first two wives—have sat down with him while he delivered to them incredibly painful truths: that he no longer loved them as he did before, that he had fallen in love with other women and that he needed to follow his heart, despite the great price he would pay financially and the risk he would be taking with his reputation.

Conclusion: I can only hope Mr. Gingrich will be as direct and unsparing with the Congress, the American people and our allies. If this nation must now move with conviction in the direction of its heart, Newt Gingrich is obviously no stranger to that journey.

Hm. Not sure if Ablow means he hopes Gingrich dumps the US for a younger, sexier country, which he will carry on a secret affair with (Iran maybe).

Bachmannalia

Michelle Bachmann has some interesting ideas on how to pay for the Iraq war, namely, the Iraqis should pay for it:

It’s over 800 billion dollars that we have expended [in Iraq]. I believe that Iraq should pay us back for the money that we spent, and I believe that Iraq should pay the families that lost a loved one several million dollars per life, I think at minimum.

It's been a long time that she has superpassed plausible parody; why not just run Stephen Colbert in her place.

On the bright side, however, she seems to think at least that the war has cost money.

A variation on Poe’s Law

Here's Rick Perry:

Remember when you had to show your aunt Snopes.com because she kept emailing you forwards with animated angel GIFs about how drinking Coke can kill you? Someone needs to do that for Rick Perry. In New Hampshire Friday, Perry noted an email forwarded by his son that quoted a 38-year-old Occupy Toronto protester named Jeremy who whined that bankers work so hard he can't wake up early enough to protest them. Perry paraphrased Jeremy's complaints: "We got here at 9 o'clock, and those people … those bankers that we came to insult, they'd already been at work for two hours when we got here at 9 o'clock, and when we get ready to leave, you know, they’re still in there working. I guess greed just makes you work hard." Perry and everyone else laughed. But Jeremy isn't real; he was made up by theToronto Globe and Mail's Mark Schatzker, whose column was clearly labeled "satire."

Conservatives have been mistaking fake Jeremy for a real protester for a week. He just too perfectly fits their idea of an Occupy Wall Street protester not to be real. The power of Jeremy is most evident at The American Specator, where Shawn Macomber quoted it sincerely under the headline "Deep Thoughts from Occupy Wall Street Toronto" on October 24 before updating that it was satire. But the fake quote was so good, The Spectator's J.P. Freire quoted it as real three days later: "Self Parody Alert: Occupy Toronto Doesn't Get It." But alas, it is J.P. Freire who doesn't get it. He quickly updated, "Is this a parody? Maybe?" Not maybe. Actually.
Actually, I think this is a variation on Poe's Law: Poe's Law has it that it is almost impossible to distinguish satire from actual religious fundamentalists (and other similar groups).  This one has it that the excessively ideologically committed cannot identify satire of an opposing view as satire.
 
But Rick Perry isn't much of a target.  Low-haning fruit I say.  Here's Powerline.com blogger John Hinderacker speaking of the same satirical article:

Via the remarkably good Say Anything, a North Dakota-based blog, a hilarious news story about Occupy Wall Street protesters in Toronto who really want to take a stand against “greed,” only…they’re too lazy:

“It’s weird protesting on Bay Street. You get there at 9 a.m. and the rich bankers who you want to hurl insults at and change their worldview have been at work for two hours already. And then when it’s time to go, they’re still there. I guess that’s why they call them the one per cent. I mean, who wants to work those kinds of hours? That’s the power of greed.” – Jeremy, 38

It probably is news to the occupiers that getting into the 1% actually requires work. So, who is greedy–the guy who works hard and wants to keep most of what he earns, or the guy who wants someone else’s money, but isn’t willing to pay the price to earn it?

UPDATE: Upon further review, prompted by my wife, I think the quotes attributed to occupiers at the linked site are jokes. Pretty funny ones, too. The point, I think, remains valid.

This ought to have been a lesson for Hinderacker about distinguishing his straw man of someone's view from reality.  His consequent insistence on the validity of his critique itself raises just the question Poe's Law does: cannot tell if Hinderacker is troll.  For that, there ought to be an award.  Indeed now there is, courtesy of the students of Phil 210.

Iron man

Corresponding to the three versions of the straw man scheme (straw, weak, hollow), one may identify three forms of dialectical distortion going the other way–i.e., that is the "positive" way.  That is to say, one may be guilty of not being critical enough, or of being too nice, or too interested in analyzing good arguments to bother with all of the bad ones.  The last one here, I think, is a typical philosopher problem.  

This idea of being too charitable has come up before.  See here. And here and to some extent here.

Like the classic straw man, this sort of distortion would admit of both fallacious and non fallacious varieties.  The non fallacious varieties one might employ in class (among other places), for the kids sometimes make crappy arguments that could be made better with a little tweaking.  It's the same kind of tweaking one does to make them worse, only the point is to then evaluate the better argument, the argument not given.

One type of fallacious employment, let's call it the iron man, consists in being insufficiently critical to an obviously weak argument (or arguer) when that criticism is right, proper, and necessary.  Here's an example from Jennifer Rubin's "Right Turn Blog" at the Washington Post:

Bachmann’s greatest challenge, should she run for president in 2012, will be to convince a wide cross-section of voters that she isn’t the media’s cartoon figure. But she’ll have to do it without dampening the enthusiasm of her most devoted supporters. However, candidly, the biggest challenge will be for the other candidates, who will have to debate a very smart, articulate and entirely underestimated woman. As one Republican operative told me, “Hey, I wouldn’t want to get on that stage with her.” And that is precisely why a Bachmann candidacy, far from being a “joke” or a “farce,” might be the most interesting thing to happen to the 2012 GOP primary race.

Bachmann has many more obvious challenges, but this alternate reality post happily refutes itself, as it seems to suggest her most ardent supporters will be turned off by her losing the alleged media caricature.  Bachmann may be smart in some sense, but she's nowhere near the serious contender Rubin makes her out to be.  And this doesn't help–it doesn't help Republicans in particular–clarify what the viable options are.  Bachmann, on even Bill O'Reilly's accounting, isn't a serious candidate (or person or thinker).  Why we should waste precious minutes in the 24 hour news cycle is beyond me. 

There a Poe's law corollary here somewhere.

 

   

Poe’s Law and Straw Men

Poe's Law is one of the many eponymous laws of the internet.  It runs, roughly, that you can't tell the difference between religious crazies and people parodying religious crazies.  And vice versa.  That means that anything you find, for example, on LandoverBaptist.com you can find a real religious nutcase who believes it and says it

If Poe's Law is true, then I think it would be very difficult for charges of straw-manning to stick.  That is, no matter how crazy a view you can dream up about religion, you would likely be able to find someone who really holds that view. As a consequence, you'd never really be distorting the dialectical situation with the issue — there's always someone dumber and crazier than you'd anticipated. 

One thing to note, now, is that there's a difference between straw-manning and weak-manning.  That is, it's one thing to distort what some speaker or another may say and it's another thing to take the weakest and dumbest versions of your opposition and refute only them.  Straw-manning is the former, weak-manning is the latter.  The point is that if Poe's Law is true, it may be impossible to straw man, but the dialectical terrain is littered with weak men.  Your job is to sort them.

My worry is that without that distinction between accurate but selectively inappropriate representations of one's opposition (nutpicking one's versions of the opposition so they always are the dumb ones) and accurate and the best representations of one's opposition, we lose the thought that discourse is possible.  If you think that Poe is true about the religious (that they're all borderline nutcases or people who are simply enablers of nutcases), then there's not much of a chance at reasoned exchange with them.  Same goes for politics.  That's bad.

N.B.: Robert Talisse and I have a longer version of this thought over at 3QuarksDaily. I also have a longish essay on it up over at  my website on Academia.edu.