Tag Archives: Sean Hannity

An argument with an expiration date

The talk-show host Sean Hannity had a segment the other day about the “exploitative” nature of rushing in after mass shooting events to score “political” points. You can watch a video of him here:

And here’s a link to an NRA lobbyist saying the same kind of thing. Though I’m skeptical of the sincerity of these sorts of arguments, (see here for a sort of rebuttal), if not for the sole fact that running a spot on how others have violated norms in a time when we’re not supposed to be scoring points seems like an attempt to score points, I think it’s worthwhile to take a closer look at what might be a reasonable version of taking things on too soon.

The first question is this: what does it mean to “politicize” something or to “score political points”? My guess is that the events are going to be used as a premise in a policy argument. Something like this:

“the events of the other day have policy implications a, b, and c.”

Simple enough, but there’s more to this. Much hinges on what we mean by “political,” as in “political points” or “politicize.” My guess is that what makes these particular issues “political” is that those policy implications are (1) already well-known, (2) the subject of intense dispute, and (3) unresolved or in a kind of argumentative stalemate. By “argumentative stalemate” I mean that the positions of each side are well known and well defined, not that the sides have exhausted the possibility for resolution. The dispute is still live. Oddly, the only example I can think of is gun violence. Maybe readers can suggest different cases.

Now consider by way of counterexample that the injunction does not apply to one-off events where most people have not occupied ideological positions. Should there be, for instance, some kind of random event tomorrow with casualties, I’m going to guess that we’ll immediately discuss the policy implications. We’ll do so before anyone is buried or all the wounded are accounted for. The injunction against politics is not universal. It only applies to certain debates.

There’s a second thing to notice about such debates: the side that invokes the injunction will typically be the side that has the most to lose by the added evidence. This was covered (satirically) here.  Or, if not invoked by them, it will be invoked by others on their behalf.

Their concern might not be an entirely unreasonable one, but it underscores the somewhat limited scope of the injunction. They might fear rhetorical disadvantage by the tendency of people to run with latest piece of evidence adduced in deciding a question (by, in other words, availability bias). The politicization of the debate, or the “cheap points scoring” is therefore winning rhetorical advantage without working for it or by taking advantage of the temporary set-back of the other side.

This brings us to the key feature of such arguments: the invocation against talking “too soon.” It’s a temporal restriction rather than a content one. The presumption is that we can talk about it later, just not now. This can take a couple of forms. One argument is that the “the bodies are not in the ground, and the people have not had time to mourn” among other claims. This is a sensitivity claim. Arguing about the policy implications are alleged to be (1) insensitive to the people affected and (2) bad form for the participants, as their thoughts should be directed elsewhere. These don’t seem to be entirely unreasonable.

A second, and I think more problematic, version of the “too soon” injunction concerns the management of evidence “too soon.” This is an epistemological concern: we haven’t had time to learn the relevant facts or mull over the meaning of the evidence. Besides, as we’ve already noted, remarkable new evidence might bias us. Our haste will undermine the quality of our discussion.

Neither of these concerns is essentially unreasonable. We do care, after all, about the quality of our evidence and there is something to be said about hitting the pause button on civic disputes to focus on the needs of the large numbers of people affected. But, I might add here in closing as this has gone on longer than I meant, there’s something of a conflict between the state of the argument (stalemate) and the regularity of the need to hit the pause button. I think, furthermore, this takes concerns about making hasty decisions or corrupting our evidence off the table. We’ve seen all of this before. And our requiring frequent pauses to bury the dead seems to underscore the need to bring this thing to a resolution. If anything, this suggests that the “too soon” argument has an expiration date.

This guy gets it kind of

Here's Michael B.Keegan, one of The Huffington Post's (sorry!) various bloggers, on Ann Coulter:

When you put Ann Coulter on TV, she may say something provocative. She is also guaranteed to say something offensive, tasteless, and meant only purely to provoke controversy. These are not the same thing.

George Stephanopoulos, host of ABC's This Week, appears to have forgotten the difference between provocative discussion and straight-up trolling.

Last Sunday, This Week invited Coulter to participate in a roundtable discussion for the third time this year. Reliably, Coulter managed to fit as many ignorant and insulting statements as she could in her time on national television while shamelessly plugging her latest book. She announced that civil rights are only "for blacks" – not for "gay rights groups, those defending immigrants, and feminists." She continued, "We don't owe the homeless. We don't owe feminists. We don't owe women who are desirous of having abortions, or gays who want to get married to one another."

We could spend our time countering Coulter's anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-feminist, anti-homeless rant, but that would be a waste of time. Her cheap attempts at provocation have kept her in the public eye for years but have never, as far as I know, led to a productive discussion. Her attacks on 9/11 widows, women voters, abortion providers, Jews and Muslims are not designed to start an honest conversation. Instead, they were shameless attempts at self-promotion at the expense of decency and civility.

Is there any other commentator who's invited to "mainstream" talk shows simply to hurl ignorant insults?

Coulter is the epitome of the false "balance" the mainstream media is trying to bring to political debate, treating right-wing conspiracy theories and animosities as just the "other side" of the news. Coulter's not presenting anyone's "side." She's just talking trash and calling it an opinion.

This sounds pretty much right to me.  Coulter's participation in our national discussion is completely unserious and only someone sadly unable to distinguish seriousness from sophistry could conclude otherwise. 

The problem, however, lies in trying to identify what's so bad about it.  Keegan here has argued, correctly I think, that Coulter isn't really trying.  There isn't any value, he implies, in refuting views she holds only as provocations.  What to do, however, with people who do hold these views.  The other day (I can't remember where), Alan Colmes said that Sean Hannity, a Fox News blowhard, holds his views sincerely, and that he admires him for that.  I'd still think that Hannity has no place in ordinary debates, no matter how serious he takes himself to be.  He's not really up to the task of critical self-evaluation. 

So, yes, Coulter's probably not serious.  But more importantly, her views have been decisively refuted already.  Why bother giving them more life?

Taking pride in being ignorant

In response to distortions of story, Obama said it seems like certain people "take pride in being ignorant."  Enter Newt Gingrich and Sean Hannity:

GINGRICH: Well, I got a very funny e-mail from a retired military officer in Tampa who pointed out that most tire inflation is done at service stations and you pay for it. And it’s actually a higher profit margin than selling gasoline. So Sen. Obama was urging you to go out and enrich Big Oil by inflating your tires instead of buying gas.

Video here.  The tire inflation advice was not only a strategy to deprive BIG OIL of vast profits, but one to save you money on gas.  So the amount invested on tire pumping (50 cents) will save you much more in fuel efficiency (with all of the accompanying benefits, such as depriving Big Oil of its profits, not filling the atmosphere with that much more carbon, etc.).  In case you're keeping score at home, this would amount to, I think, a fairly textbook case of suppressed evidence.