You’re just saying that because it’s true

One day someone with more time than me will write about the various forms of meta debate.  By "meta debate" I mean, of course, discussions about the various forms and rules of "debate" (a word I don't like so much) or "discussion." Here's an example of a particularly pernicious form of meta debating (courtesy of Sadly,No!):

Pointing out that both sides engage in the same tactics, and that, in this case, one set of tactics seems to be unrelated to a substantive policy outcome neither presuppose the truth of one side of the debate nor does it presuppose that one side of the debate isn't actually, ultimately, right.  In the same way, it is illogical to assume that because one side distorts the debate far more than the other side, the debate itself ought to turn out in any prescribed way.  When I write things like this, it drives some partisans absolutely crazy. They don't like where the I'm drawing the "truth" line, and instead of reading the judgments that I've made — the Right is appealing to anger and fear and is distorting the debate more — they focus on the link that I won't then make — the link that I have no expertise to make — the link that, if I were to make it, I would be guilty of an offense against democracy — the link between what IS and what OUGHT to be. 

This is not actually that bad of a disclaimer (save for the confused "is-ought" business at the end.  Nonetheless, where this fellow's observations fall on rocky soil (I just heard that phrase the other day) is earlier in the piece.  He writes:

The field of cognitive neuroscience has all but given up trying to distinguish between emotion and reason, but political debate evidently lags far behind the science. Some observers of health care politics, particularly on the left, tend to accuse their opponents of trying to trigger emotional panic points rather than argue dispassionately about the facts. The implication is that the Right doesn't have any facts, so it looks to exploit voters' fears. There is something to be said for this argument, but it's not what proponents would have you believe. In policy debates where the target voter claims an independent identity, the side that's proposing something usually has a set of normative facts, and the side that's against something always appeals to that which most powerfully undercuts a fact. Democrats and Republicans both use emotion, but they use it differently, and use it to achieve different goals. 
The pro-reform side is appealing to emotion, too — albeit a wholly different emotion — the self-satisfaction one feels when one believes one has rationally deliberated something and meaningfully contributed to an important public debate.  This is called a solidary incentive. It's a powerful — and often completely ignored — sentiment, one that the Obama presidential campaign found, capitalized on, and won the election by exploiting.

As an empirical matter, I think this observation is just plain false.  Both "sides" (there are more than two for Pete's sake), appeal to facts.  The screaming Mimis at the town hall meetings (who are largely opposition types) come harmed with "facts" that have produced "emotions" although emotions of a decisively negative kind (relative to the things being proposed).  Let me put that another way: given the facts as they know them, they really hate the proposals.  The degree of their hatred of the proposals does not (for a careful observer) accentuate or diminish the basic factual assertions some of them seem to make.  In other words, they're not wronger or righter because they're screaming.  Maybe they're just jerks for that.  But that's a different question.

The real idiocy here of course consists in the claim that the side whose appeal is primarily factual (in the silly description offered here) is also appealing to emotion–the satisfaction one gets from doing the right thing.  I mean, again, for Pete's sake.  This is the lowest form of ad hominem argument: attacking someone because they're eager to have the correct position.  There's no defense against this.

I don't mean to allege that the screaming Mimi opposition doesn't have the right answer.  I think they think they do.  This author's analysis here is too shallow and too facile to bother with such weighty questions.  Instead, we are treated to the silliest form of meta debate analysis.  Everybody poops.

11 thoughts on “You’re just saying that because it’s true”

  1. “In policy debates where the target voter claims an independent identity, the side that’s proposing something usually has a set of normative facts, and the side that’s against something always appeals to that which most powerfully undercuts a fact.”
    Is this supposed to be a revelatory description of “policy debate?”  All this says is that the “side” that proposes something “usually” backs it up with facts. I’m not sure what ‘normative’ means in this context other than ‘facts that support a proposal’. And in response, the other “side” will “undercut” those facts, which I take to mean one of two things: shed doubt on the truth of those facts or point out their weak link to the proposal.
    What this has to do with how Dems and Repubs harness emotion in debate is unclear. Is the author suggesting that emotive appeals undercut a fact? If so, then we have a clear cut case of people simply being persuaded to believe something contrary to evidence. No doubt, both sides use this tactic. But to suggest that Dems (Obama) have manipulated people to believe something because people want to feel good about believing the right thing is absurd. It’s still the right thing that they believe, whatever emotion they happen to feel about it.
    Darwin, for example, knew that his theory of natural selection and acceptance of geological time scales clashed with his deep-seated religious beliefs, and lamented the fact that he undermined the literal view of the Biblical tales. But he, nonetheless believed in natural selection because all the evidence (“normative facts”) pointed toward it being the case.

  2. “The pro-reform side is appealing to emotion, too — albeit a wholly different emotion — the self-satisfaction one feels when one believes one has rationally deliberated something and meaningfully contributed to an important public debate. ”
    Ambinder’s reasoning seems to me analogous to the common argument for psychological (or theoretical) egoism: when one tries to do something and succeeds, one feels pleasure; therefore, all action is for the sake of pleasure. The Ambinder version is: the defenders of health-care reform feel self-satisfaction at having contributed to rational deliberation; therefore, their arguments rest on an appeal to self-satisfied emotion.
    As the arguments are analogous, so are the proper replies to them. To paraphrase Joseph Butler: If people had no desire for any end on its own account, they would get no pleasure from achieving any end; therefore, people must have some ends in view besides pleasure. Analogously: If the defenders of health-care reform were not trying to contribute to rational deliberation, they would gain no self-satisfaction from doing so (or thinking that they were doing so), and there would be no emotion for them to appeal to.

  3. Ouch. That’s some really really bad philosophy, so, very confused. Is it really true that neuroscientists have given up trying to distinguish between emotion and reason?  I have to guess that he means something like “neuroscientists don’t think that emotion and reason are two completely separate functions of the brain” or something like that. His link seems to be this guy though I can’t find any reason to believe that this is what neuroscientists as a whole think based on the picture of the pop science writer or the links to the articles. Maybe it’s in the book he’s trying to sell. Perhaps Ambinder was listening to the book on cd and not really paying attention and out game this garbled nonsense when he sat down at the computer. Its almost Brooks-esque in its punching out of its weight class.

  4. I just read some blog entries from Lehrer. He seems to cite some erudite articles. But, his commentary on them is fairly laughable.
    “The self feels like a singular thing – I am me – and yet it comes from no single brain area and depends on a vast network of neurons, distributed across the brain. This means that we are not a place: we are a process…What subjects like Adam demonstrate is the fragility of the self. It’s impossible for me to imagine reality from a perspective other than my own – I am the sole [sic] perciever of all my perceptions. And yet, and yet…All it takes is a traumatic blow to the head and that delicate ghost disappears. I am suddenly someone else, convinced that my mother is a fake.”
    Sounds really deep. Neuroscientists should stick to science and neurons.

  5. The pro-reform side is appealing to emotion, too — albeit a wholly different emotion — the self-satisfaction one feels when one believes one has rationally deliberated something and meaningfully contributed to an important public debate.”

    What a bunch of postmodernist dribble.  And it’s not even accurate.  The emotion being played on by the left here is guilt.

  6. Nice bold and italics Andrew.  But you once again show you’re failure to grasp the point.  I guess Ambinder’s point just wasn’t silly enough for you.

  7. The bold was unintentional.  And of course i got the point.  Arguing that being motivated to be correct is the equivalent of an emotional appeal is silly.  It’s like saying that 2 + 2 = 4 and 2 + 2 = 5 are both wrong, because they assume standard base-ten mathematics.  It is ridiculous.  I was simply wondering why the need to make such an asinine claim when there was a much more obvious equivalent emotional argument that the pro-health care reformers were making (guilt) to the emotional argument presented by the opposition (fear.)
    Now as to the synopsis describing arguments as not needed to be devoid of emotion, I would certainly agree.  (A valid argument might make one experience guilt or fear) but will of course not use the emotion itself as the justification for the argument.  I’m not disagreeing with you.  I’m simply wondering (aloud, as I tend to) why someone opposed to health care reform would make such an argument.  I mean I guess he might be (and this is a big benefit of the doubt here) attempting to say that feeling intellectually superior or more enlightened means nothing without the actual knowledge and understanding that might lead justify such a feeling.  But this does a horrible job of expressing that position and comes off appearing to say that being right means nothing.

  8. I don’t think your math analogy makes the point.   The “guilt” claim, however, is guilty of the same silliness and another–the repetition of the narrative that liberals are motivated by feeling sorry for people.  Besides, even if your caricature of liberals were accurate, which it’s not, you’d still be missing the point.  One can, after all, have good reasons to feel guilty.  I think I supposed that right wing opponents of health care were motivated by their understanding of the facts (which I think is wrong, but that’s another thing).  Perhaps you could be similarly disposed in your interpretation of left leaning stuff.  No need, in other words, to psychoanalyze.  They’re just like you.

  9. I don’t really see the appeal to guilt. Perhaps it looks like appeal to pity? But, if so it isn’t the fallacious sort of appeal to pity (though some defenders may commit the fallacy, I haven’t come across a nice clear instance of it.) I’m thinking of the hearings about insurance companies cynical  “recission” of policies when they’re at risk of having to actually fulfill the service for which they’ve been collecting premiums. The stories are pitiable, but the argument does not rest on the appeal to pity, but utilizes the emotion to help persuade that without regulation the insurance companies are harming people unjustly.
    Ambinder is confused about the difference between motivation and justification among other things. To justify a claim (health care in immoral) by appeal to an emotion is seemingly fallacious. To be motivated to hold a claim like that on the grounds of a strong emotion is psychologically familiar though presumably irrational. But, in order to level the field here, Ambinder would need to argue that the reason that defenders of the public option hold their view is that they are motivated by some emotion. He hasn’t done this. He seems to hold the general view (people’s moral views are effects of their emotions) and then supply an emotion (self-satisfaction) in order to make it fit his general view.
    I suppose if we are all emotivists or maybe Haidtians this might seem more persuasive.

  10. Ambinder’s basically saying that because people making rational arguments feel emotion, they’re making an emotional appeal.  It’s logic worthy of Richard Cohen.  Perhaps a robot would pass muster with him.  Ambinder does some decent work occasionally, but for the past few weeks, he’s been engaging in all sorts of contortions to claim that the Democrats opposing the privatization of Social Security under Bush were just as violent, rude, etc. as that angry conservative mob type at town hall meetings now.  It’s ridiculous, but he seems very set on pushing false equivalencies at the moment.  

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