Archive for May, 2018

Back in the 1980s when inexpensive news programs proliferated, all wanting to emulate 60 Minutes or 20/20, I recall plenty having no problem working the public into a lather over some crime or injustice. A typical framing trick was to juxtapose two unrelated facts with the intent that the viewer leap to an unwarranted conclusion. Here’s an example I just made up: “On Tuesday, Jane went to her plastic surgeon for a standard liposuction procedure. By Friday, Jane was dead.” Well, what killed Jane? The obvious inference, by virtue of juxtaposition, is the procedure. Turns out it was an entirely unrelated traffic accident. The crap news program could legitimately claim that it never said the procedure killed Jane, yet it led the credulous public to believe so. Author Thomas Sowell resorts to that same sort of nonsense in his books: a habit of misdirection when arguing his point. I initially sought out his writing for balance, as everyone needs others capable of articulating competing ideas to avoid the echo chamber of one’s own mind (or indeed the chorus of the converted). Sowell failed to keep me as a reader.

It’s not always so easy to recognize cheap rhetorical tricks. They appear in movies all the time, but then, one is presumably there to be emotionally manipulated affected by the story, so a healthy suspension of disbelief goes a long way to enhance one’s enjoyment. Numerous fanboy sites (typically videos posted to YouTube) offer reviews and analysis that point out failures of logic, plotting, and continuity, as well as character inconsistency and embedded political propaganda messaging, but I’ve always thought that taking movies too seriously misses the point of cheap entertainment. Considering the powerful influence cinematic storytelling has over attitudes and beliefs, perhaps I’m being too cavalier about it.

When it comes to serious debate, however, I’m not nearly so charitable. The favored 5-minute news debate where 3 or 4 floating heads spew their rehearsed talking point, often talking over each other in a mad grab for air time, accomplishes nothing. Formal, long-form debates in a theater in front of an audience offer better engagement if participants can stay within proper debate rules and etiquette. Political debates during campaign season fail on that account regularly, with more spewing of rehearsed talking points mixed with gratuitous swipes at opponents. Typically, both sides claim victory in the aftermath and nothing is resolved, since that’s not really the objective. (Some opine that government, being essentially nonstop campaigning, suffers a similar fate: nothing is resolved because that’s not the true objective anymore.)

I was intrigued to learn recently of the semi-annual Munk Debates, named after their benefactors, that purport to be formal debates with time limits, moderation, and integrity. I had never heard of them before they booked Jordan Peterson alongside Michael Eric Dyson, Michelle Goldberg, and Stephen Fry. Like Donald Trump did for TV and print news, Peterson has turned into a 1-man ratings bonanza for YouTube and attracts viewers to anything in which he participates, which is quite a lot. The proposition the four debaters were provided was this: Be it resolved, what you call political correctness, I call progress … Problem is, that’s not really what was debated most of the time. Instead, Dyson diverted the debate to identity politics, specifically, racism and so-called white privilege. Goldberg mostly attacked Peterson regarding his opinions outside of the debate, Peterson defended himself against repeated personal attacks by Goldberg and Dyson, and Fry stayed relatively true to the intended topic. Lots of analysis and opinion appeared on YouTube almost immediately after the debate, so wade in if that’s what interests you. I viewed some of it. A couple videos called Dyson a grievance merchant, which seems to me accurate.

What concerns me more here are the cheap rhetorical tricks employed by Dyson — the only debater booed by the audience — that fundamentally derailed the proceedings. Dyson speaks with the fervor of a revivalist preacher, a familiar style that has been refined and coopted many times over to great effect. Whether deserved or not, it carries associations of great moral authority and momentous occasion. Unfortunately, if presented as a written transcript rather than a verbal rant, Dyson’s remarks are incoherent, unhinged, and ineffective except for their disruptive capacity. He reminded everyone of his blackness and his eloquence, the first of which needs no reminder, the second of which immediately backfired and called into question his own claim. Smart, eloquent people never tell you they’re smart and eloquent; the proof is in their behavior. Such boastful announcements tend to work against a person. Similarly, any remark that beings with “As a black/white/red/brown/blue man/woman/hybrid of _______ ethnicity/sexuality/identity …” calls in a host of associations that immediately invalidates the statement that follows as skewed and biased.

The two point-scoring bits of rhetoric Dyson levies with frequency, which probably form a comfort zone to which he instinctively retreats in all challenges, are his blackness (and by proxy his default victimhood) and historical oppression of blacks (e.g., slavery, Jim Crow laws, etc.). There are no other issues that concern him, as these two suffice to push everyone back on their heels. That’s why the debate failed to address political correctness effectively but instead revolved around identity politics. These issues are largely distinct, unless one debates the wisdom of switching out terminology cyclically, such as occurs even now with various racial epithets (directed to every race, not just blacks). That obvious tie-in, the use of euphemism and neologism to mask negative intent, was never raised. Nor were the twisted relations between free speech, hate speech, and approved speech codes (politically correct speech). Nope, the debate featured various personalities grandstanding on stage and using the opportunity to push and promote their personal brands, much like Trump has over the years. Worse, it was mostly about Michael Eric Dyson misbehaving. He never had my attention in the past; now I intend to avoid him at all costs.


Continuing from part 1, which is altogether too much screed and frustration with Sam Harris, I now point to several analyses that support my contentions. First is an article in The Nation about the return of so-called scientific racism and speaks directly about Charles Murray, Sam Harris, and Andrew Sullivan, all of whom are embroiled in the issue. Second is an article in The Baffler about constructing arguments ex post facto to conform to conclusions motivated in advance of evidence. Most of us are familiar with the the constructed explanation, where in the aftermath of an event, pundits, press agents, and political insiders propose various explanatory narratives to gain control over what will eventually become the conventional understanding. Published reports such as the Warren Commission‘s report on the assassination of JFK is one such example, and I daresay few now believe the report and the consensus that it presents weren’t politically motivated and highly flawed. Both linked articles above are written by Edward Burmilla, who blogs at Gin and Tacos (see blogroll). Together, they paint a dismal picture of how reason and rhetoric can be corrupted despite the sheen of scientific respectability.

Third is an even more damaging article (actually a review of the new anthology Trump and the Media) in the Los Angeles Review of Books by Nicolas Carr asking the pointed question “Can Journalism Be Saved?” Admittedly, journalism is not equivalent with reason or rationalism, but it is among several professions that employ claims of objectivity, accuracy, and authority. Thus, journalism demands both attention and respect far in excess of the typical blogger (such as me) or watering-hole denizen perched atop a barstool. Consider this pullquote:

… the flaws in computational journalism can be remedied through a more open and honest accounting of its assumptions and limitations. C. W. Anderson, of the University of Leeds, takes a darker view. To much of the public, he argues, the pursuit of “data-driven objectivity” will always be suspect, not because of its methodological limits but because of its egghead aesthetics. Numbers and charts, he notes, have been elements of journalism for a long time, and they have always been “pitched to a more policy-focused audience.” With its ties to social science, computational journalism inevitably carries an air of ivory-tower elitism, making it anathema to those of a populist bent.

Computational journalism is contrasted with other varieties of journalism based on, say, personality, emotionalism, advocacy, or simply a mad rush to print (or pixels) to scoop the competition. This hyperrational approach has already revealed its failings, as Carr reports in his review.

What I’m driving at is that, despite frequent appeals to reason, authority, and accuracy (especially the quantitative sort), certain categories of argumentation fail to register on the average consumer of news and information. It’s not a question of whether arguments are right or wrong, precisely; it’s about what appeals most to those paying even a modest bit of attention. And the primary appeal for most (I judge) isn’t reason. Indeed, reason is swept aside handily when a better, um, reason for believing something appears. If one has done the difficult work of acquiring critical thinking and reasoning skills, it can be quite the wake-up call when others fail to behave according to reason, such as with acting against enlightened self-interest. The last presidential election was a case in point.

Circling back so something from an earlier blog, much of human cognition is based on mere sufficiency: whatever is good enough in the moment gets nominated then promoted to belief and/or action. Fight, flight, or freeze is one example. Considered evaluation and reason are not even factors. Snap judgments, gut feelings, emotional resonances, vibes, heuristics, and Gestalts dominate momentary decision-making, and in the absence of convincing countervailing information (if indeed one is even vulnerable to reason, which would be an unreasonable assumption), action is reinforced and suffices as belief.

Yet more in part 3 to come.

From Wikipedia:

Trial by combat (also wager of battle, trial by battle or judicial duel) was a method of Germanic law to settle accusations in the absence of witnesses or a confession in which two parties in dispute fought in single combat; the winner of the fight was proclaimed to be right. In essence, it was a judicially sanctioned duel. It remained in use throughout the European Middle Ages, gradually disappearing in the course of the 16th century.

Unlike trial by ordeal in general, which is known to many cultures worldwide, trial by combat is known primarily from the customs of the Germanic peoples. It was in use among the ancient Burgundians, Ripuarian Franks, Alamans, Lombards, and Swedes. It was unknown in Anglo-Saxon law, Roman law and Irish Brehon Law and it does not figure in the traditions of Middle Eastern antiquity such as the code of Hammurabi or the Torah.

Trial by combat has profound echoes in 21st-century geopolitics and jurisprudence. Familiar phrases such as right of conquest, manifest destiny, to the winner go the spoils, might makes right, and history written by the victors attest to the enduring legacy of hindsight justification by force of arms. More broadly, within the American system, right of access to courts afforded to all citizens also admits nuisance suits and more than a few mismatched battles where deep-pocketed corporations sue individuals and small organizations, often nonprofits, into bankruptcy and submission. For instance, I recently learned of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) “used to silence and harass critics by forcing them to spend money to defend these baseless suits.” They employ brute economic power in place of force of arms.

Trial by combat fell out of practice with the onset of the Enlightenment but the broader complex of ideas survived. Interest in medieval Europe as storytelling fodder in cinema and fantasy literature (notably, the shocking trial by combat depicted in the extremely popular HBO drama Game of Thrones where the accused and accuser both designate their proxies rather than doing battle themselves) lends legitimacy to settling disputes via violence. Even the original Karate Kid (1984) has a new YouTube Red series set 30 years later. The bad-boy acolyte replaces his scorched-earth sensei and seeks revenge from the titular character for being bested decades before, the latter of whom is yanked back from quiet obscurity (and the actor who portrays him from career limbo) to fight again and reprove his skills, which is to say, his righteousness. The set-up is surprisingly delicious to contemplate and has considerable nostalgic appeal. More importantly, it embodies the notion (no doubt scripted according to clichĂ©) that only the pure of heart (or their proxies, students in this case) can claim ultimate victory because, well, it’s god’s will or some such and thus good guys must always win. What that really means is that whoever wins is by definition virtuous. If only reality were so reliably simple.

The certainty of various religious dogma and codes of conduct characteristic of the medieval period (e.g., chivalry) is especially seductive in modern times, considering how the public is beset by an extraordinary degree of existential and epistemological uncertainty. The naturalist fallacy is also invoked, where the law of the jungle (only the fittest and/or strongest get to eat or indeed survive) substitutes for more civilized (i.e., enlightened and equanimous) thinking. Further, despite protestations, this complex of ideas legitimizes bullying, whether (1) in the schoolyard with the principal bully flanked by underlings picking on vulnerable weaklings who haven’t formed alliances for self-protection, (2) the workplace, with its power players and Machiavellian manipulators, or (3) a global military power such as the U.S. dictating terms to and/or warring with smaller, weaker nations that lack the GDP, population, and insanity will to project power globally. I daresay most Americans take comfort in having the greatest military and arsenal ever mustered on their side and accordingly being on the right side (the victorious one) of history, thus a beacon of hope to all who would conflate victory with virtue. Those who suffer at our hands must understand things quite differently. (Isn’t it more accurate that when bad guys win, rebellions and insurgencies are sparked?)

One remarkable exception deserves notice. The U.S. presidency is among the most heavily scrutinized and contentious positions (always under attack) and happens to be the Commander-in-Chief of the self-same greatest goddamn fighting force known to man. It’s no secret that the occupant of that office (45) is also widely recognized as the Bully-in-Chief. Despite having at his disposal considerable resources — military, executive staff, and otherwise — 45 has eschewed forming the political coalitions one might expect and essentially gone it alone, using the office (and his Twitter account) as a one-man bully pulpit. Hard to say what he’s trying to accomplish, really. Detractors have banded together (incompetently) to oppose him, but 45 has demonstrated unexpected tenacity, handily dominating rhetorical trials by combat through sheer bluster and hubris. On balance, he scores some pretty good hits, too. (The proposed fist fight between 45 and Joe Biden turned out to be a tease, but how entertaining would that bout have been without actually settling anything!) This pattern has left many quite dumbfounded, and I admit to being astounded as well except to observe that rank stupidity beats everything in this bizarre political rock-paper-scissors contest. How quintessentially American: nuthin’ beats stoopid.