Ironic, in other words, tu quoque

Target stores are doing their best to fight the unions.  They've made some anti-union videos to be shown during training sessions.  They employed union actors to make the videos.  Here's the story in, and the author, Justin Elliot, sees the tension:

Oh, the irony! Target Corp., long locked in a battle with labor organizers, filmed a notorious internal anti-union video with union actors and under the jurisdiction of one of the biggest unions in the entertainment business.

The trouble with the observation, at least argumentatively, is that it's clearly a critical statement, but it's not clear yet what the criticism amounts to.  What follows from the fact that Target used union workers to make a video against unions?  The actor who is one of the spokespeople in the video, Ric Reitz, felt it was "awkward" for him, not for Target.

Tu quoque arguments, like with many of the fallacy forms, usually are deployed cursorially, and one element of this cursorial presentation is conclusion suppression.  And so it has been said: 

Have you ever noticed that liberals want to kill babies but save the lives of hardened criminals?

Have you ever noticed how Christians worship someone who calls himself the prince of peace, but they themselves are crazed warmongers?

What follows from either of these tu quoque cases?  Not clear in either, but they are clearly critical.  And so some reconstruction is in order.  Perhaps with the liberals one, the observation is that the values are upside down, and so we know something about the kind of person who'd make that error.  Perhaps with the Christians case, the point is about self-deception.  Those are pretty charitable, but, hey, even fallacy forms deserve a little love.

So what's the charitable interpretation of the Target case?  One interpretation of Target's actions is that they did not look into whether the actors were union-affiliated, or if they knew so, their being in a union is immaterial, because these employees are utterly temporary, and Target won't have to deal with them again.  Store employees are different, and that's what they are out to prohibit.  Another charitable interpretation of Target's actions is that they genuinely do believe that unions get in the way of good business practice, but they won't begrudge individual actors and actresses who've made the error of joining one.

How about charitable interpretations of the argument as criticism, though? Here's one: Target has a double standard. On the one hand, there are actors, and they deserve the protections that unions can provide.  And on the other hand, there are the people that Target employs.  Target treats them however they like. Here's another: Target will play ball with unions. They just don't like to.  Here's one more: Target recognizes the quality of work that unionized workers provide, and they use them for crucial jobs.  But store workers are replacable, and so get no such treatment.  So far, they are just ad hominem arguments about character, but that's an improvement from cursorial tu quoque.

New Books in Philosophy

Just a brief announcement that a new podcast platform is up,  New Books in PhilosophyCarrie Figdor (U of Iowa) and Robert Talisse (my colleague at Vanderbilt) co-host the podcast, and each episode features an in-depth interview with an author of a newly-published philosophy book.  Interviews will be posted on the 1st and 15th of each month. 

The inaugural interview, posted today, is with Eric Schwitzgebel (UC Riverside), author of Perplexities of Consciousness (MIT Press).  An interview with Jerry Gaus (Arizona), author of The Order of Public Reason (Cambridge University Press), will be posted on July 1st. Upcoming podcasts include interviews with Robert Pasnau, Sandy Goldberg, Carolyn Korsmeyer, Fabienne Peter, Allen Buchanan, and others. Please click over to the NBiP site, and keep track of what's new.

Make me one with everything

Jokes often work because of some unexpected but intelligible ambiguity in the circumstance or in some utterance.  That's how puns work.  For example:

Why do farmers give their cows money to eat?  Because they want rich milk!

The crucial thing is that the (i) the ambiguity be detectable and (ii) the slippage be understandable.  Same goes for amphibolies.  For example:

Boy: I broke my arm in six places!

Mom: I told you to stay out of those places!

Hilarious.  And, again, notice that in order for the joke to be appropriately posed, the ambiguity must be detectable by the audience and the audience must judge the slippage as understandable (that is, sees how both interpretations are reasonable).

Now check out this joke fail.  This reporter tells the joke:

So the Dalai Lama walks into a pizza shop, and he says: "Make me one with everything!"

To the Dalai Lama himself.  That's totally funny.  But the joke bombs.  Watch it here.

'Make me one with everything' is amphibolous.  On the one hand, it is a directive about pizzas — one with the works, please!  On the other hand, it is a directive about mystical vision — enlighten me, please!

The funny thing is that the joke fails on both fronts.  First, the joke has to be translated, so it's not going to have the same amphiboly.  Moreover, I'm not convinced that the DL really understands what a pizza is with everything.  But that's not the biggest failure.  Second, the DL, when he hears that he asks to be one with everything, he says, "That's not possible."  (At least, that's what I hear).  Which makes it even funnier, because it's a presentation of the DL's views that the DL doesn't seem to recognize as his own.  Moreover, why would the DL ask someone else to do that for him… isn't he the mystical teacher?

It would be like telling the following joke to Descartes:

So Renee Descartes walks into a bar.  He orders a drink, and the bartender asks him if he wants a fancy umbrella in it. Descartes replies, "I think not!"  And then he disappears.

Descartes' reply would be something like: I don't get it.  I said I know I exist so long as I'm thinking, but my thinking isn't what makes me exist.  You're worse than Hobbes.  Read Meditation II more carefully, moron.

If it impedes economic growth

I watched the first Republican debates this last Tuesday.  Michele Bachmann, I felt, got the short end of the stick. Even for her coming out party (she declared herself in the race at the debates), she was too often talked over and seemed to get the fewest direct questions. John King spent way too much time asking "Elvis or Cash," "Iphone or Blackberry," "Boxers or Briefs."  Bachmann didn't get a chance to shine. Too bad for fallacy hunters like me.  But when asked what government program she'd cut to reduce the deficit, she did offer up a classic false dilemma (video):

And I would begin with the EPA, because there is no other agency like the EPA. It should really be renamed the job-killing organization of America

Short reply: it is part of the government's job to think 20+ years down the road even when you don't.  Too many complain about the government being on people's backs, but, you know, if you have dangerous chemicals that could end up in my drinking water, the government should be on your back like a family of spider monkeys.  Got toxic waste and need to dispose of it? G-man, I hope, has a long, long, long list of forms and so on that you need to fill out and verify before so.  Why?  'Cause nobody (not even the polluters) wants to live in a world of trash.

(N.B., I once had a colleague who confessed that he rooted for the polluters when watching the late 80's cartoon series Captain Planet.  So I will back off my statement that polluters don't want to live in filth.  Apparently, one of them does, or at least doesn't see the comic book justice of having his trash ending up in his bedroom.)

Writing echo chambers

Double-dipping on the recent series of articles from Inside Higher Education.  In "The Facebook Mirror," Lisa Lebduska makes an interesting observation that the more you think your writing's audience is like you (especially holding similar beliefs about what you're writing about), the less likely you are to be explicit about your reasoning.  And as a consequence, the quality of your writing suffers.  On the one hand, it's good to preach to the choir every once in a while, but, on the other hand, without a devil's advocate around, it becomes pretty empty verbiage.  Lebduska sees this in spades with the writing on Facebook:

On Facebook we never think outside the four walls of the self, and we need never imagine readers different from us. We expect neither argument nor curiosity nor challenge. Just a thumbs up or down.

This is an interesting observation, but  a few things.  I've kept a journal off and on since I was in high school.  My audience for the journal is me.  Usually me 5-10 years down the road.  It's an  exercise.  I don't imagine myself all too different from me when making entries, but but I do expect some skepticism.  So how is facebooking different from journal entries? Facebooking, according to Lebduska, doesn't even have that critical distance.

Teachers spend years working to broaden students' intellectual worlds beyond their own virtual backyards. We challenge them to discover ideas that come from individuals who might be very unlike them; people they would never conceive of friending, or if asked to friend would be more than likely to ignore

So Facebook backyardifies writing (my term!).  That said, I think there are some subfields in philosophy that function similarly.  Elsewhere, I've called them "societies of mutual verbal petting" (Forthcoming in Philosophy and Rhetoric 44:3).  In light of this, Lebduska does make a nice point at the end:

The ability to imagine a perspective other than our own — the idea of an audience consisting of curious minds rather than adoring fans — defines our most effective writers. . . . If in reading their words we find that our young people have no sense of others beyond and/or different from themselves, we should supply them with that sense.

I'm not sure what Lebduska's suggestion amounts to in its specifics, but is it that we should be like essay graders in making responses to Facebook walls?  I, by the way, have opted out of facebook — maybe it is my duty as a blogger and commenter on other blogs?  It certainly seems that blog comments do that already.  Is there a Facebook norm against criticism? It's certainly the case in the societies of mutual verbal petting!

Closed-minded conservatives excel at detecting liberal bias

Inside Higher Ed just ran a story titled, "Eye of the Beholder," which reports on an article showing that there is a strong correlation between being conservative and not open to changing one's mind and perceiving liberal bias in the classroom.  Similar thing happens with closed-minded liberals — they have the habit of seeing conservative bias.

The study found that students — even in the same classrooms — didn't perceive bias in the same ways (or at all), and those who perceived bias were those who were resistant to changing any of their views. The finding extended to some who identified themselves as being far on the left and resistant to change, and who believed that they had some biased conservative professors. But among both left-leaning and right-leaning students who didn't score high on resistance to new ideas, there was little perception of bias.

In short, if you're dogmatic about your views, you're likely the one to report having a biased professor. (Sidebar: my experience is perfectly consistent with this, as pretty much every person who's ever accused me of classroom bias has either been a blinkered conservative or a raging Marxist.  That said, this, apparently is true of me.)

What explains this variation in perception of bias in the classroom?  The lead researcher, Darren Linvill of Clemson University, proposes:

…[T]here may be elite colleges and universities where students arrive as freshmen used to having their views challenged by teachers, and that might still be "an ideal." But he said that the reality he sees from his research is that this is a foreign concept to many entering college students today.

That's it – challenging a view is a case of bias.  In a way, yes, it is.  It is biased against dogmatism.  (A question: is this a case of self-serving bias, as the dogmatic students tend to do poorly in discussion and blame it on professor bias instead of their own lack of preparation? Is it self-serving to offer that as an explanation?)


My grandmother called hot dogs "weinies."  That used to send my brother and I into fits of laughter when she served them to us for lunch.  This reaction isn't a whole lot different from the coverage of the recent "Weiner" scandal.  If only his name had been something else. 

The question has been raised as to whether Weiner should resign.  There seem to be two reasons for this. 

1.  He broke some kind of law or congressional code of ethics.


2.  He is now politically castrated.

Ad. 1.  He didn't break any laws–I think.  Other people have done far worse (looking at you Senator Vitter).

2 seems to be the strongest reason.  Nonetheless, it is reasonable to make a distinction between the two reasons.  And it's also reasonable to think of analogous cases (Vitter, etc.).  This seemst to be something local columnist John Kass does not grasp.  He writes:

There's not much fun left in watching that New York liberal, U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-Pervert, twist in the political winds.

But there's a great deal of amusement still to be had watching liberal commentators twist themselves into all sorts of bizarre and unseemly shapes trying to protect Congressman Priapic.

They're hysterical.

"He lied to his wife, he lied to us, he lied to his colleagues," cried Bill Press, a liberal radio talk show host and rabid Weinerista who still doesn't think Weiner should resign.

"That is totally unacceptable," Press said of Weiner's behavior on "The Ed Show" on the liberal MSNBC the other day. "I pointed it out. Others have lied. Lying in Washington, D.C., is not a cause for losing your job, or else this would be a ghost town."

Lying isn't cause for losing your job if you're a politician, though it certainly should be.

But lying about taking your clothes off and about sending rather urgently excited photographs of your special purpose to random women — including a blackjack dealer, a porn queen and two college girls — kind of disqualifies you for public office, doesn't it?

And though the liberal press just doesn't get it, many Democrats have finally realized what Republicans would have known instinctively:

You don't want Weiner as the poster boy for your party.

Weiner sent around photos of his weiner.  People apparently do that, but it's a real question as to whether someone deserves to lose their job over it; as it is not, by most accounts, actually illegal (unlike, say, prostitution).  And asking that question doesn't constitute twisting yourself "into all sorts of bizarre and unseemly shapes."  Nor does it really amount to "defending" weiner. 


If it’s on a spectrum, it doesn’t mean anything

Phyllis Schlafly is a culture warrior.  Long ago, it was about the Equal Rights Amendment.  Nowadays, it's about gender.  Her recent post at the Eagle Forum is about an Oakland elementary school that had a presentation about gender identity.  It was paid for by the California Teacher's Union. 

The major message was that "gender identity" means people can choose to be different from the sex assigned at birth and can freely "change their sex." According to Gender Spectrum, "Gender identity is a spectrum where people can be girls, feel like girls, they feel like boys, they feel like both, or they can feel like neither."

Yep.  That's why there were terms like 'tomboy' and 'girlyboy' and so on.  Schlafly knows about those things, for sure.  Surely she's not objecting to the fact that someone's saying something true. She's objecting, instead, to how this is being presented.

Kindergartners were introduced to this new subject by asking them to identify toys that are a "girl toy" or a "boy toy" or both, and whether they like the color pink. They were read a story called "My Princess Boy.". . . . The lessons seem more likely to confuse the kids about who they are and, indeed, Gender Spectrum boasted that its goal is to confuse the children and make them question traditional ideas about who is a boy and who is a girl.

It is the confusion that's objectionable, you see.  That is, it can't be that Schlafly is objecting to it being made clear that some people are tomboys, it's that it is being taught that it's OK.  That, she thinks, is confusing.  Her thought seems to be: if you are going to educate children, it cannot be in the form of showing them that things are difficult, complex, and confusing.  That's bad. 

I'd like to know what Schafly thinks about teaching long division to third graders, because when my kid was in third grade, she had more trouble with remainders than she did with the idea that her classmate had two moms.  Oh, and she still had to do the long division — being educated means that you have the cognitive tools to face confusing facts, not deny them. 

But, you know, it's never really about the children with Schlafly.  It's all dogwhistling for cultural conservatism.  And the destruction of the intelligibility of sexual reality.  Ready for the conservative culture-warrior dogwhistling money shot?

Gender Spectrum is determined to make children think that boy and girl don't mean anything anymore, and that it's no longer normal to believe people are born male or female or have different roles.

Phew!  Now, I don't think that's possible, if they are on a spectrum.  Otherwise, it wouldn't be a spectrum.  Schlafly's point is confusion. An analogy: Black and white are on a spectrum, and you can have lots of things in the penubral space between the two.  But for it to be a penumbra, the two must be different.  The point of gender spectrum is that there isn't one way to be a girl or a boy.  But that doesn't mean the terms don't mean anything.  It's just that many of the things that we'd thought distinguished the two are irrelevant (playing with trucks, for example) and that a person's sex doesn't determine where that person is on the gender spectrum.  Sure, it's complicated and confusing.  But, geez, the only things that aren't complicated and potentially confusing are the mindsets of conservatives.  Well, to clarify, they aren't confusing, but they are all too often confused.

Scare tactic escalations

Bill O'Reilly uses the two wrongs approach to argumentative moves: if they use this tactic, you use it right back on them.

Right now, Democrats are scaring senior citizens into believing their present benefits will be cut if Obama and the Democrats lose. In order to counter that fiction, the GOP must scare right back. If America's debt is not arrested, the country will decline rapidly and in drastic ways.

Too bad the tactics weren't, instead, use clear and honest argument.