During anÂ interviewÂ with comedianÂ Chelsea HandlerÂ 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 parentsâ€™ health insurance plan.
â€œOkay, so do you have a health care plan or no?â€ Handler asked.
â€œWell, luckily Iâ€™m 24, so I am still on my parentsâ€™,â€ Lahren said.
The irony was not lost on the audience, which promptly started to boo, laugh and chant,Â â€œThanks, Obama!â€
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.
The term â€œvirtue signalingâ€ has been around for a few years now, though thereâ€™s some dispute about its origin. This guy claims he invented it. Â But that seems to be false, the term has been in circulation for much longer than that.
In any case, in its barest sense, signaling is a kind of implicature. I signal one thing by doing another. Virtue signaling borrows from this somewhat imperfectly. Instead of signaling my virtue by doing some other kind of thing, I signal virtue by making arguments or statements regarding virtue kinds of things. Itâ€™s not, in other words, the doing of one thing (taking out my recycling, for instance) to signal another (I love the planet). Rather, itâ€™s the arguing or the saying itself that is the signaling.
Hereâ€™s how the pretend inventor puts it:
I coined the phrase in an article here in The Spectator (18 April) in which I described the way in which many people say or write things to indicate that they are virtuous. Sometimes it is quite subtle. By saying that they hate the Daily Mail or Ukip, they are really telling you that they are admirably non-racist, left-wing or open-minded. One of the crucial aspects of virtue signalling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous. It does not involve delivering lunches to elderly neighbours or staying together with a spouse for the sake of the children. It takes no effort or sacrifice at all.
Iâ€™m all for neologisms in the service of argument analysis. Scott and I have even coined a few of them. This one, however, seems confusing (see above), unnecessary, and (like qualunquismo) self-refuting.
As for the unnecessary part, thereâ€™s already a handy term (or maybe two) for what virtue-signaling means to single out: ad hominem circumstantial (on some accounts). The one who employs the VS charge, in other words, means to claim that a person is making a certain claim not for epistemic reasons (because they think itâ€™s true) but rather to signal belonging in a group (Iâ€™m on the side of the angels). I donâ€™t mean to say that this is inherently wrong, people after all make inauthentic pronouncements all of the time. But itâ€™s certainly a difficult charge to make. You have to make a further claim of inconsistency to show that the person does not actually believe what they say (this would be another version of the VS). This is kind of hard. Often, in any case, itâ€™s not relevant, thus the great risk that leveling the VS charge is just to commit the ad hominem circumstantial fallacy: you ignore the reasons and go for the alleged motives.
Now for the self-refuting part. If I by making some pronouncement regarding some moral claim M virtue signal, then does it not follow that the VS charge is itself subject, or potentially subject, to the same charge? It is at bottom a claim about what kinds of claims are proper to make in certain contexts. By leveling the charge Iâ€™m signaling that certain kinds of claims are improper in certain circumstancesâ€“that, in other words, itâ€™s virtuous not to make them.
I posted a while back about the ad baculum argument. Roughly, “you hold p, but p, is false, and if you don’t agree I will punch you in the nose.” The typical account is that the nose-punching is irrelevant to the truth of p, so the ad baculum in this version is a fallacy. Â Put another way: the punching, shooting, or threatening are not epistemic reasons for p, though they may be pragmatic ones. Whether pragmatic reasons can bring about belief is another question.
A standard objection to the existence of the ad baculumÂ is that this just never really happens this way, and there are all sorts of more subtle things at work–such as consequences of one’s commitments, tests of hypocrisy, and so on. I think there’s a lot of truth to this (though I think there’s much to be said for the ad baculum). One bit of evidence in favor of the deflationary view is that it’s just hard to come up with plausible sounding examples. They all sound so contrived.
Until now. Here is Blake Farenthold, Republican Congressman from Texas (via TPM)
â€œThe fact that the Senate does not have the courage to do some things that every Republican in the Senate promised to do is just absolutely repugnant to me. â€¦ Some of the people that are opposed to this, theyâ€™re some female senators from the Northeast,â€ he said, likely referring to Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, who has been vocal about her opposition to each of the Senateâ€™s health plans from the start. She said over the weekend that sheâ€™s opposed to the delayed repeal bill.
Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Shelly Moore-Capito (R-WV) have also been clear about their opposition to various versions of the Republican health care plan.
Farenthold suggested if it were a man from his state blocking the repeal bill, he might ask him to â€œstep outside and settle this Aaron Burr style,â€ he said, referencing the famed gun duel between the former vice president and Alexander Hamilton, a former secretary of the Treasury who had longstanding political differences. The gun fight ended in Hamiltonâ€™s death.
Man or woman, that wouldn’t settle it really–well, other than to subtract one vote either way (ok, two votes, because duels are illegal).
One sense of the difficult-to-translate Italian term â€œqualunquismoâ€ (average-Joe-ism might be a start) Â 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 callÂ l’uomo qualunque, know that these disagreements are pernicious.
Much has been made of Trumpâ€™s appeal among voters whoÂ tend toward authoritarianism. But thatâ€™s not Rauner. Instead, political science offers a better explanation of the appeal of the governorâ€™s pitch: stealth democracy. The idea was outlined by John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse in their 2002 bookÂ Stealth Democracy: Americansâ€™ Beliefs about How Government Should Work. It goes like this: people are angry, but not because they donâ€™t like the policy outcomes of our political system. Rather, they donâ€™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.
â€œPeople tend to see their own attitudes as typical, so they overestimate the degree to which others share their opinions,â€ Hibbing and Theiss-Morse write. Last week, Rauner said Illinoisans needed to make their voices heard in the Capitol: â€œWe need democracy to get restored in Illinois, and we need the people to put pressure on members of Speaker Madiganâ€™s caucus to do the right thing.â€ Of course, thousands of people are doing just that. But among the Democratic supermajorities in the House and Senate, theyâ€™re being pressured to do a â€œright thingâ€ 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 heâ€™s done again and again, Rauner is playing on the Stealth Democracy idea that most voters donâ€™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 â€” if that â€” they canâ€™t see what all the fuss is about: â€œWhen it is apparent that the political arena is filled with intense policy disagreement, people conclude that the reason must be illegitimate â€” namely, the influence of special interests.â€
â€œPeopleâ€™s tendency to see the policy world in such a detached, generic and simplistic form explains why Ross Perotâ€™s claim during his presidential campaigns in 1992 and 1996 that he would â€˜just fix itâ€™ resonated so deeply with the people,â€ Hibbing and Theiss-Morse explain. Remember Raunerâ€™s campaign slogan? â€œShake up Springfield. Bring back Illinois.â€ And Trumpâ€™s? â€œMake America great again.â€ They could slogan-swap without missing a beat. Stealth Democracy tells us that that since most Americans think everyone else agrees with them on whatâ€™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. Itâ€™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 donâ€™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 thereâ€™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 theyâ€™ve seen through the disagreement about the subject they know nothing about. Theyâ€™ve seen that itâ€™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 thatÂ qualunquismo has a built-in defense: it’s almost impossible to explain why, if they don’t trust disagreement, they’re wrong.
You very often cannot control the basic circumstances of argument, especially public argument. A public argument, letâ€™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 â€œscore political points,â€ or the more general comedic injunction to avoid making jokes, â€œtoo soon.â€
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.
A curious pathology among paleoconservatives and their reactionary brethren is to embrace and even celebrate their status as ‘deplorables.’Â I earlier mentioned the strange do this to antagonize your liberal acquaintances phenomenon.Â 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.Â 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.Â #1.Â I don’t think anyone said “can’t” in any robust sense.Â 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.Â #2.Â 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.Â In the latter case, that’s the state endorsing a particular worldview by putting a symbol out to represent it.Â 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.Â <deep sigh>
The argument in the background, regardless of the dialectical miss, is interesting.Â On the strong interpretation, I think the paleoconservative here is using the George Costanza Rule — that every instinct he has is wrong.Â So he should do the complete opposite.Â
Liberals, so the reasoning goes, have the exact opposite reaction to every circumstance.Â 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.Â 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.Â The whole point of sane conservatism, as I see it, is to appreciate the old things, to revel in the sacred.Â 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.Â 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.Â (As Roger Scruton says: “never look too closely at the things you inherit”).Â 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.Â 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.
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, Â money, and shame to change them? There’s a cost to everything.
Your bodyâ€™s immune system includes little proteins called proinflammatory cytokines that cause inflammation when youâ€™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. Theyâ€™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 â€” at least certain types of speech â€” can be a form of violence. But which types?
That last question is a critical one. Barrett’sÂ answer seems to depend on the duration of the stress caused by the speech:
Thatâ€™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:
Thatâ€™s why itâ€™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. Â 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.
Dear Prudence at Slate.com is an advice site for some of the more progressive of the progressives.Â 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.Â 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.”Â The point, Hillard wants to emphasize, is that:
Regular people â€” â€œthe great unwashed,â€ in Edmund Burkeâ€™s oft-repeated phrase â€” 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.Â The second point is that “Regular people” know instinctively and by experience that it’s terrible advice.Â Â Sigh.Â Â To the first point — what do you expect?Â If NRO ran an advice column, I would expect it all to be conservative and religious material.Â You go to the kind of advice you want, so it’s really a problem with affiliated advice columns, isn’t it?Â (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?Â 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.Â His biggest complaint is that:
The problem with these cubes of p.c. baloney â€” aside from the fact that, if heeded, theyâ€™re likely to leave Ortbergâ€™s readers in worse shape â€” 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.Â It’s part of the regular right-side nonsense that liberals are bad at argument, don’t argue, are fact-avoidant, and so on.Â But I looked at some of Prudie’s replies, and they are full of argument.Â 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 donâ€™t want a child, and Dave and Sue are about to have one. You donâ€™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.Â 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’sÂ 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.Â 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.Â 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.Â 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.)
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. Hereâ€™s a video.
Itâ€™s a little long (well ok itâ€™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 donâ€™t.
Thatâ€™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 â€œI just donâ€™tâ€ ever an answer to such a question?
I just donâ€™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.
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 of Higher Educationor Inside Higher Ed within days of the election. They have followed at a steady trickle.
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 someoneâ€™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 canâ€™t think of much thatâ€™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 Iâ€™m all ears. Â 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: