Okay admit it!
When you learned about “Confirmation bias,” your first thought was that this totally explained how some other guy could be so completely wrong.
You did, didn’t you?
…at least, I hope it wasn’t just me.
Okay admit it!
When you learned about “Confirmation bias,” your first thought was that this totally explained how some other guy could be so completely wrong.
You did, didn’t you?
…at least, I hope it wasn’t just me.
One of the most beautiful gifts of the internet is the ability to learn at a glance the wisdom of America’s founding fathers. In fact, one can often find these pearls of wisdom beautifully packaged in nice visuals. They are perfect for a tweet or a quick illustration, and so very informative. Most of all, they are ever so conveniently one quick google away.
Take for instance the warning these men left for us regarding the evils of big government! Thomas Jefferson is particularly valuable in this regard. Why you could almost imagine him to be commenting directly on current affairs couldn’t you? Isn’t Tom just swell?
(You may as usual click to embiggen any of these quotations)
Thomas Jefferson was particularly keen on the importance of political dissent.
Thinking along similar lines, our founding fathers spoke directly to the issue of gun control. I mean, these comments are just so perfect. You’d almost think some of these quotes had been written by folks working for the NRA. Check it out!
More than that! Our great founders were no friends of the nanny state. They were quite clear that people shouldn’t expect too much from government. It’s there to give everyone a chance, but folks really shouldn’t expect any more than that. You read some of these things, and you can’t help thinking it’s almost as if they were actually thinking about the New Deal. I guess these guys were just prescient or something.
James Madison wouldn’t have any truck with this notion of a living constitution. He’d school the modern liberals right quick about that nonsense!
On religion, let me tell you, the founders of our great nation were clear about the importance of the Christian faith!
Oddly, the founders were also pretty damned clear about the evils of Christianity. Apparently, they had strong views on that too.
…It’s just a little strange.
I know this is getting to be a tiresome theme in this post, but the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson is not to be outdone. At times, he could almost seem to be a contemporary motivational speaker. Watch out Tony Robbins!
Not to be outdone, George Washington even carved his legacy into this little gem about taking responsibility for one’s personal mistakes.
Honestly, the wisdom of the founding fathers would seem to be amazing at times. Sometimes their prescience is uncanny. It’s an amazing thing to see just how well-suited their statements can be to present-day matters. Luckily, that wisdom was not limited to the original founders. It was around in the civil war era too. Could anyone possibly be more on the mark than Abraham Lincoln?
Listen to Abe folks.
So I finally watched Religulous. I found it a truly underwhelming experience. Honestly, I think I must be over the joys of poking holes in religious thinking. In other news, boxing with Girl Scouts no longer brings me quite the same thrills that it used to.
…at least on Thursdays and Saturdays. It is entirely possible that I may relapse on Tuesdays and Fridays.
Okay, it’s not always that easy, I know; sometimes I meet a religious person with genuinely challenging thoughts, but perhaps that is my point. One can find a pretty broad range of qualities fitting under the heading of ‘religion’, and it can be just a little too easy to look for the easy pickings. Some people treat debunking religion as a sport, and those people rarely seek out the challenging thinkers. No, they hunt the naive in remote and highly uneducated corners of the globe; they sniff out the cooks and the crankcases. I should point out that the sport-debunker isn’t always an atheist, but of course, this time it is.
Religulous is the intellectual equivalent of a canned hunt. In this movie, Bill Maher seeks out and makes a fool of one believer after another and I cannot help but think most of those interviewed have been selected for their capacity to appear nutty to the rest of us. Maher does little to explore the intellectual lives of any of those interviewed in Religulous. His discussions bear a strong-resemblance to a cross-examination in a courtroom (or at least a courtroom drama). Maher’s questions rarely veer far from the effort to produce a contradiction or an implausible claim, and he doesn’t hesitate to interrupt, argue, or insult his subjects at any point in the movie. Not wanting his subjects to go-off half-mocked, Maher includes several segments in which he trashes those already interviewed while driving about, presumably on the way to the next ambush interview. When he does interview intelligent believers, Maher’s sole interest seems to be getting them to help debunk their brethren. The most interesting and complex thinkers in this movie would easily include a number of Priests but they are of interest to Maher only insofar as they help us to dismiss the beliefs of others.
I have to admit, there was a time when I would have been into this. Now, I just find it rather predictable.
…and pointlessly rude.
Ironically, I think Maher’s snide disrespect for his quarry in this film actually blunts the force of his criticism and lets them off the hook. In interviewing John Westcott, an ex-gay minister, for example, Maher makes a point to suggest the sexuality of the man’s children remains in question. In the commentary track, he further laughs at the irony of a man denying his homosexuality when Maher can tell by his behavior that the man is gay. Personally, I think this underscores the irony of a man proporting to call a believer to task for mistreatment of homosexuality while exhibiting all the insight and sensitivity one might expect to find in the boys locker room of a high school football game. Maher’s games do absolutely nothing to reveal the intellectual dishonesty and outright harmfulness of ex-gay therapies and related ministries. While Maher plays to the cheap seats by making fun of the man and his children, the interview goes nowhere. Maher learns nothing about the minister’s actual point of view, and he does nothing to show us just how harmful these organizations can actually be.
And I wonder if I am supposed to be pleased with this?
Maher is casting religion in a bad light, and in this movie (as in other contexts), he does sometimes score a hit, or even a home-run. I should be able to enjoy this, and I would, if I thought Maher was doing a consistently good job of it, but what bothers me most about this movie is a sneaking suspicion that it isn’t an exercise in healthy skepticism, that in fact Maher is selling a message that doesn’t quite fit the label on the packaging. Shallow as it is, Maher’s engagement with the proponent’s of God-talk is not merely intended to show us how foolish they are. He is building a narrative with assumptions going well beyond the foibles of his hapless quarry.
One particularly telling moment occurs during an interview with a Muslim cleric. the man’s cell phone goes off, and the ringtone is Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir. Maher suggests that this is odd. The prospect that a song called ‘Kashmir’ might strike a cord with a Muslim seems to have completely escaped him. More to the point, he doesn’t ask why the Cleric uses that ringtone or what it means to him. To Maher it seems to be self-evident that the Cleric’s choice of music reveals an inconsistency. He drives this point home further in the commentary track, suggesting that people steeped in outdated beliefs should not get to use modern conveniences.
The mode of engagement used here is consistently that of polemics. Maher wants to poke holes in religion; he doesn’t want to understand anything else about the people he is talking to, or at least he doesn’t want to show us anything else in the final cut of the movie. To describe the end result as superficial would be giving superficial a bad name. But of course there is something a little more insidious at work here. It arises in the notion that religion is simply outdated, that the cleric’s interest in a cell phone is simply incommensurate with religious beliefs. This is old fashioned unilineal evolution, the belief that human history follows a set course. To Maher (and evidently his producer) it goes without saying that religious beliefs are chatter out of place, so to speak, and that history is incomplete so long as these throwbacks remain with us. This is the key to his polemic approach. He wants to show us that religion is stupid, urge us all to leave it all behind, and thereby advance one further step in human history.
In taking this approach, Maher is unfortunately (and ironically) doing a good deal more than debunking the beliefs of his interview subjects; he is advancing a faith of his own, a faith in Progress with a capital ‘P’, and a specific vision of that Progress. The film ends with an emphasis on growing conflicts between Muslims and Christians, and a recurrent expression of fear that these faiths will lead us to nuclear disaster. Maher addresses the claim that these conflicts are really political, and of course it is easy enough for Maher to assert that they are also religious, but of course this is a unique marriage of the fallacies of straw man false alternatives. The question is not which category various conflicts fall into, but rather how politics and religion intersect in actual human history. That is a question Maher is completely unprepared to answer, or even ask. He relies on a stock vision of humanity’s course throughout the film, and herein lies the value of his deceptively simple interview agenda. So long as we are focused on the foibles of the faithful we may not take the time to think critically about Maher’s own millenarian vision of the future.
This is bait & switch.
Maher quite rightly calls some of his interview subjects to task for glossing over the role of faith in political violence, but his refusal to address the politics is itself a telling source of ignorance. He is telling as simple story in which the source of modern evil is found in beliefs and beliefs alone. If only we can deal with the bad beliefs once and for all in the fashion of lunch-room debate tactics, then the world will be a better place.
In advancing this simple message Maher shows us that he has a lot more in common with believers than he would suppose.
I still remember the first day I learned to dread the power point presentation. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve seen good ones. I have at times been well pleased to take in a well designed power point presentation. If only I could have more of those days, and fewer of the kind that I have so often grown to expect.
I was sitting in a lecture hall many years ago listening to a colleague do a training for the rest of the faulty at our college. She was trying to teach us something about assessment techniques for accreditation, but the fact is that this particular colleague had nothing to say about the topic, and she was painfully slow in the way she was not saying it. The overall effect was a lot like a sedative and one of Pink Floyd’s longer and slower songs. Every point this woman made began with a new slide that added a phrase or quick sentence. She would stop talking, click a button, wait to see the new phrase appear and then pause long enough for us to read the phrase ourselves (twice). She would then read the phrase and give us a little more time to let it sink in. In a rare moment of personal empowerment, our illustrious lecturer would add a comment or two about the phrase before moving onto the next one. Mostly, she just let us take in the power of each individual bullet point. So, I’m sitting there watching this and trying desperately not run screaming from the room as I study the slide-show and wonder why I hated it so much. Of course training days are often a painful experience, but this was a special kind of heck, and the source of my particular sorrow on that day wasn’t immediately apparent. Eventually, I come to a realization.
It’s her outline!
What my colleague had chosen to pass off as a power-point presentation was nothing more than the outline for her speech, exactly the sort of outline we had all learned to write in our Freshmen Composition and Speech classes. There it was, unfolding there on the screen, one line at a time, as if it were some sad librarian’s version of dramatic tension.
Far from enhancing the presentation, this visual was slowing the speaker down and enabling her to avoid the responsibility even to explain the connections between the points of her talk. The speaker didn’t need to decide how each individual bullet point related to the major themes of her discussion; all she needed to do was read them at us. The visual served to occupy our attention and help us to forget that she had crammed a whole 5 minutes of information into an hour-long presentation. In effect, the presenter had looked into the heart of her software and found a new and improved means of bluffing.
…Would that this was a unique experience!
This technique also seemed to lend an ontological claim to the individual bullet points. Things that a person might just say offhand, or as part of a larger argument often seem to acquire a objectivity all their own, standing up there on a screen. A list of bullet points might contain causes, effects, and side comments to a larger heading, all quite unmarked in the visual. The verbal presentation did nothing to clarify matters. I grew slowly to realize the presenter did not herself know exactly how each sub-point of her presentation related to the main themes. She knew only that the topics traveled in a pack together, so to speak, and she wanted us to know that too. The visual solved this problem by telling us exactly how each point related to the next.
This was the secret of the power-point visual, it lent the illusion of mystic substance to each individual point while undermining the need to explore rational connections between the. Each individual point on the screen in front of us looked terribly important in its own right, certainly more important than the explanations that connect each point to the others. Those connections didn’t appear on the screen. the bullet points did. They mattered more.
…and critical thinking wept!
Time was when Antonin Scalia seemed fairly dedicated to the pretense of Judicial restraint. These days he appears content to be known as a political lobbyist for the right wing echo chamber. We can see this in the increasing number of public statements he has made on a range of political issues, effectively tipping his hand to those weighing their prospects in the legal arena.
…all of which makes Scalia’s role in the gay rights cases recently argued before the Supreme Court (Hollingsworth v. Perry and United States v. Windsor) that much more disturbing. Not surprisingly, the subject has come up in his extra-judicial engagements. Asked to defend his equation between homosexuality and sundry horribles such as incest, bestiality, and child pornography (among other things) in Lawrence v. Texas, Scalia made the following remarks at Princeton University:
It’s a form of argument that I thought you would have known, which is called the ‘reduction to the absurd,'” Scalia told [freshman Duncan] Hosie of San Francisco during the question-and-answer period. “If we cannot have moral feelings against homosexuality, can we have it against murder? Can we have it against other things?
Condescension aside, what Scalia is saying is basically Freshman Logic material. In his Dissenting opinion for Lawrence, Scalia had indeed used the standard argument form of a reductio ad absurdum against the position taken by the majority (holding that a Texas law banning sodomy was in violation of the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment). A reductio ad absurdum essentially consists of an attempt to derive an absurd conclusion from a given claim as a means of refuting it. If a given assertion can be shown to lead to absurd implications, so the logic goes, then one ought to reject it. In this case, the claim at stake would be something along the lines of a restriction on judgements (or laws) against homosexual activity. Scalia hopes to show that this holding will lead to an intolerable list of absurdities.
I sincerely doubt that Hosie failed to recognize the argument form, and Scalia’s response does little to shed light on the logic of his argument. The question in this case is more properly, whether or not Scalia’s had successfully shown that the claim made by the majority in Lawrence was actually absurd. In essence, the question is whether or not Scalia had successfully negotiated the transition from the claim he wished to refute to the absurdity he wished to assert in his argument. That transition is sometimes described as the ‘Sub-deduction’ of the argument. That is, in this instance, where the real argument lies.
And here is where the story gets interesting.
The sub-deduction of Scalia’s argument comes in a weak and a ‘strong’ version. By ‘weak’, I mean ‘truly shitty’ and by ‘strong’ I mean rather heartless’, but allow me to demonstrate…
Sub-Deductions in Need of a Workout: Sundry net warriors will be familiar with the weak version, because we’ve heard it from conservative Christians for years. It is essentially an argument against moral relativism, or at least a certain straw rendering thereof. We heard it a little more in the wake of Lawrence, and frankly, Scalia’s remarks in this instance tended toward the weak version, if only because their brevity does little to shed light on the logic of his original argument on the subject. Rick Santorum gifted us with one of the best examples of this tripe in an interview with USA Today back in 2003:
You have the problem within the church. Again, it goes back to this moral relativism, which is very accepting of a variety of different lifestyles. And if you make the case that if you can do whatever you want to do, as long as it’s in the privacy of your own home, this “right to privacy,” then why be surprised that people are doing things that are deviant within their own home? If you say, there is no deviant as long as it’s private, as long as it’s consensual, then don’t be surprised what you get. You’re going to get a lot of things that you’re sending signals that as long as you do it privately and consensually, we don’t really care what you do. And that leads to a culture that is not one that is nurturing and necessarily healthy. I would make the argument in areas where you have that as an accepted lifestyle, don’t be surprised that you get more of it.
Here, Santorum treats the right to privacy as an abandonment of moral principles altogether, arguing that if we can’t condemn homosexuality, then we can’t condemn anything. We can’t stop people from molesting children; we can’t stop polygamy; we can’t stop any number of horribles from happening. It’s worth noting that in this instance Santorum was arguing that the sex abuse scandals of the catholic Church were essentially a problem of homosexuality, which is in itself a pathetically ignorant position to have taken. But I suppose it’s fitting that someone facing what he takes to be the obliteration of moral judgement would respond to that by abandoning any honest effort to address the actual claims at stake in the issue.
Yes, Rick Santorum lives in a special place where ignorance and dishonesty come together and start a family, but sadly, he has a lot of neighbors in the land of ignorance which is the weak version of this argument. A large number of conservative Christians have approached the notion of a right to privacy in precisely these terms.
Setting aside the folk-demon of relativism, the problem with this take on right to privacy is it ignores the essential balancing tests by means of which that right enters into the American legal system. The point of a right to privacy has never been that you actually get to do anything you want so long as it’s in the privacy of your bed-room, but rather that government interest in stopping you must be weighed against the right to privacy. In simple terms, if the government has a legitimate interest in doing so (say if you are hurting a child), then the right to privacy folds and the government wins. If no such government interest is present, or if that interest pales in significance to the cost to others, then the right to privacy wins.
Here the sub-deduction fails for precisely the same reason that moral opportunists find it attractive in the first place. They hope to refute the notion of a right to privacy by connecting it to a range of genuinely harmful activities. Faced with a choice between condemning homosexuality and allowing child abuse, practitioners of this stratagem hope that most of us will throw the gay folks under the bus. But when real harms can be shown, the right to privacy would not prevail, and the sub-deduction fails.
The courts have never presented the right ti privacy as an absolute boundary to government regulation; it is if anything a sort of raising of the ante, a provision that requires government officials to show they have a good reason for what they are doing. Rick Santorum and Christian net-warriors all over the land don’t seem to understand this.
Scalia does, at least when he needs to.
Mach-Macho-Subdeductions: Now we come to the strong version of Scalia’s argument which is a rejection of the balancing tests themselves, at least as applied in Lawrence. In this case, Scalia isn’t making a broad point about the value of moral judgements. His point isn’t that granting a right to privacy leads to the destruction of western civilization, or that it will lead us to turn our children over to the nearest sexual predator. No, in Lawrence, Scalia was saying that the courts should not be the ones to weigh the benefits of legislation against the costs to people’s privacy, or at least that the court had failed to articulate a principle in that case which would enable it to make a sound distinction between issues like homosexuality and those likely to be regarded as more abhorrent, even to those in favor of gay rights. Absent a clear and coherent principle on which to make a decision, Scalia suggested that the court was making just the sort of judgement call that legislators ought to be doing, not judges. Such judgement calls are intrinsically political, and ought in Scalia’s view to be left to those branches of government best suited to making political judgements. It is in other words a variant of his oft-repeated call to Judicial restraint. Hence, the following remarks from Scalia’s dissent in Lawrence (at 603-4):
Let me be clear that I have nothing against homosexuals, or any other group, promoting their agenda through normal democratic means. Social perceptions of sexual and other morality change over time, and every group has the right to persuade its fellow citizens that its view of such matters is the best. That homosexuals have achieved some success in that enterprise is attested to by the fact that Texas is one of the few remaining States that criminalize private, consensual homosexual acts. But persuading one’s fellow citizens is one thing, and imposing one’s views in absence of democratic majority will is something else. I would no more require a State to criminalize homosexual acts-or, for that matter, display any moral disapprobation of them-than I would forbid it to do so. What Texas has chosen to do is well within the range of traditional democratic action, and its hand should not be stayed through the invention of a brand-new “constitutional right” by a Court that is impatient of democratic change. It is indeed true that “later generations can see that laws once thought necessary and proper in fact serve only to oppress,” ante, at 579; and when that happens, later generations can repeal those laws. But it is the premise of our system that those judgments are to be made by the people, and not imposed by a governing caste that knows best.
There is in the strong version of Scalia’s argument a logical consistency which is entirely lacking in the pop-Christian variants of this same position as articulated by Santorum and legions of faith-bigots happy to explain why homosexuality is wrong. Where Scalia was actually making a point about the nature of Judicial reasoning, various cultural conservatives have carried forward that argument in the form of a simplistic claim that if we can’t condemn homosexuality, then we can’t condemn anything.
In the babblerized version of the reductio ad absurdum, the sub-deduction simply does not follow. In scalia’s, it is at least plausible.
Balancing the Unbalanced: But where does that leave us? Scalia would say that that it leaves us with a better balance of powers and a stronger system of checks and balances. Yet, one can see in Scalia’s own writing and comments hints at the costs of such an approach. Regarding the prospect of overturning Roe v. Wade, for example, Scalia offers the following:
Many States would unquestionably have declined to prohibit abortion, and others would not have prohibited it within six months (after which the most significant reliance interests would have expired). Even for persons in States other than these, the choice would not have been between abortion and childbirth, but between abortion nearby and abortion in a neighboring State.
Here Scalia makes an interesting point, that removing the precedent of Roe v. Wade would not necessarily have meant an immediate ban on abortions everywhere, but rather the creation of legislative options which some states would take and others would not. The actual choices presented to women with unwanted pregnancies would then be a question of travel (at least for those in geographically unfortunate circumstances). It’s an interesting scenario, and one in which the right to have an abortion does not die with Roe v. Wade, but that scenario would of course be cold comfort for those women unable to travel. The right to an abortion now enjoyed under Roe would translate through this scenario into an option more or less available, depending on one’s finances and/or family obligations.
The right thus becomes a privilege, and that privilege then falls beyond the reach of many that need it most.
One imagines that the right to engage in homosexual acts (or any number of proscribed sexual practices) would translate into a similar choice under Scalia’s approach, and residence might soon become a function of sexual proclivities. Do you want the right to have sex with your own gender? Better then to move out of a red state under this approach. And we can only imagine just how much more heartache this will cause in some instances, and how many lives lived through deception in others.
Apparently, this is an acceptable outcome in Scalia’s view.
It may well be that the right to vote as a minority could also become a function of where one lives if we are to give up the ‘racial entitlements‘ included in the present voting rights act, as Scalia terms them. Granted the issue there is a technical one, pre-clearance of voting procedures for selected states, but the language of Scalia’s recent questions in reference to the Voting Rights Act is more than a little disconcerting.
Or consider Scalia’s remarks in Oregon v. Smith, 1990. In the majority opinion for that case he argued that the free exercise clause of the First Amendment did not provide members of the Native American Church with a valid reason for exemption from generally applicable state laws banning use of peyote. Scalia then moved on to suggest that while states might allow for such an exemption, it was not required of them, hence leaving the rights of religious freedom for the Native American Church open to the political process. What Scalia wrote next has always struck me as one of the most telling features of his approach to jurisprudence.
It may fairly be said that leaving accommodation to the political process will place at a relative disadvantage those religious practices that are not widely engaged in; but that unavoidable consequence of democratic government must be preferred to a system in which each conscience is a law unto itself or in which judges weigh the social importance of all laws against the centrality of all religious beliefs.
Here Scalia has essentially conceded to the tenuous status of minority rights under his approach (though perhaps he would say that they are not rights, as such). Those with less leverage over the political process must simply accept a reduced set of options? What are the benefits? The court will behaving as it ought to under Scalia’s view, showing proper restraint and deference to the legislative branch of government.
The problem in this instance is not as simple as the utter foolishness seen in remarks like those of Santorum, or even that of Scalia’s answer to Hosie; Scalia’s argument in Lawrence seems plausible to me, at least on the face of it. The problem is that the value which is central to Scalia’s argument in this instance (the strong version of the sub-deduction) is awfully hollow in comparison to the conceded costs of its adoption. What Scalia offers us is a narrative in which every part of government rests in its proper place. What he is willing to sacrifice in order to get that value is the actual liberty of countless minorities seeking only the enjoyment of options fully available to the rest of us. The absurdity to which Scalia points us is one in which judges behave a little less like judges, and quite frankly some of us find that a little less absurd than the notion that liberty is best preserved by leaving this and so many other issues central to the happiness of many at the mercy of a political process which has proven time and again that it is inadequate to ensure.
Irony of Ironies: It is worth noting that the strong version of Scalia’s argument empowers the weak version. Whatever else he is saying, Scalia is also saying that if enough people seem to think that the only way to save our children from a list of horribles too awful to bear is to deny those of homosexual orientation the liberty to conduct themselves as they see fit, then they are within their rights to pass all manner of laws restricting gay rights. No effort to show that homosexual conduct really will hurt anybody would be needed in Scalia’s approach, at least not i the courtroom.
And in the legislatures and the court of political opinion, flippant remarks like those Scalia gave to Hosie, and patently offensive rhetoric like that of Santorum will be all that is needed to consign some people to lives lived without the benefit of meaningful liberty.
Do you remember the first time you heard this little Gem? If you’re like me, you might even remember going on a little mental roller-coaster ride from “Okay, good” to “I guess that’s reasonable” to “no it’s not” to “not even close actually” and then on to “fuck you asshole for saying that shit!” all in the space of less than a second.
Okay, so I take that particular roller coaster ride all the time, but let’s not dwell on that! The point is that this particular line of reasoning has a certain seductive quality to it. If you are lucky, you escape its wiles within a moment; if you are a Fox News Fan, you probably still think it’s gospel.
And yet, I hear the voice of Nietzsche calling back to me, reminding me of the dangers of staring into a void, and suddenly I feel naked, and I want to say; “you stop staring back at me you damned void. You just stop that right now!”
And I somehow manage to squirm free.
It was John Stuart Mill, and he did say ‘most’ rather than ‘all’ in that last part, and he definitely meant something different by ‘Conservative’ than I was thinking when I started down this route. …and I’m really not sure if all those caveats help or hurt my case, so we are just moving on now.
Hell, I’m not even sure if the quotation is all that accurate.
Okay, this post is getting to be a guilty pleasure, I know. But the point is that we can turn this logic around and apply it in all sorts of different directions. If it hasn’t escaped you that I have failed to apply it to my own political camp, well then let’s just treat that as an object lesson in how this particular gambit works. You apply it to your enemies, silly, not your friends.
It does get sillier!
Seriously, do I have to provide links to the American Nazi party? Cause I’m not gonna.
You’re just going to have to get the point. And you know, it’s entirely possible that is even the point of this meme (or even the last one), because that damned Nathan Poe dogs my every judgement.
Besides everything else, this one is completely out of date, but what else can you expect from a thinking dinosaur. Not all anachronisms are philosophical lizards, but all… nevermind!
Maybe we could take this quotation in a positive direction? This sounds wonderful and warm and smart, and …well I should probably verify the quotation and discern it’s context and what not, but that would take time away from basking in the glow if literositude that this one kindles in my heart. I just want to sit here and think about how leading and reading go together like carrots and cake.
Or Christmas and BB Guns. Or lingerie and a live wallaby.
…I’ve said too much.
But hey, let’s get even more positive. Boy you just read this one and you can’t help but feel the love. Doesn’t it just make you want to reach down inside your soul and let the good stuff out for a walk in a park called Success.
Seriously folks, you just gotta let your awesome blossom!
That’s all I’m sayin’.
And who the Hell is Mark Gorman?
Okay kids, that was a rhetorical question. I just googled him and the only thing I learned is that I really don’t want to know anything more about him at all. We are moving on again.
No really, it does.
Honestly, I’m not sure what to do with this one. It’s actually rather clever. I might even like it. But I don’t know much about Hentai, or porn, …or one of those anyway.
Not me! Huh uh!
er, not all men watch porn, but… nevermind!
Okay, that one doesn’t even begin to make sense, and I probably should have left it out. But you know, you turn over a rock and see something gross underneath…
…so, you post it on the internets for all your friends to see,
…and to feel just a little creeped out by the whole thing.
Which is fine with me, actually, I believe in sharing the misery.
…in case you hadn’t noticed.
But part of what makes this so fun is that it breaks the mold a little; gender politics aside, this is a nice little exercise in creating an expectation and then violating it. …which is very cool in a joke-I-just-killed-by-explaining-it kinda way, but the point is that the whole meme rests on a manipulation of expectations. You start by repudiating a generalization, thus leading people to expect a smarter wiser replacement and hope they won’t notice that you left them with a whole new pile of dumbitude sitting there in place of the one you repudiated. This one just takes that approach and drives it to Hawaii.
…Yes, I said drives.
So anyway, I guess you can file all of this under the category of, “Shit we oughtta know better”
I enjoy a good meme as much as the next guy, but sometimes it’s a guilty pleasure. Other times, it’s just damned irritating to see what passes for smartitude in various corners of the net. Case in point?
This little bit of net-douchery. It certainly does sell a seductive message. What thinking person couldn’t identify with that sense of standing alone against a crowd of idiots, all bent on some tragically wrong-headed notion with all the certainty of gravity. And who among us who has gone that far hasn’t indulged in the thought that all those in the crowd weren’t just a bunch of gullible morons, no more and no less?
Could it be that simple?
Well, it appears that whoever put this meme together thinks it is, or at least he wants the rest of us to think so. But it’s all just a little too self-indulgent for my tastes.
I have no problem with the first sentence… Wait a minute? Yes, I do.
Oh, I certainly agree that the notion that majority rule does not make the majority right. But does this point really need to be made? Why say it? I’m not entirely too sure how many people really believe that majority consensus constitutes objective truth, though it’s a common enough claim in the heat of an argument. This is an interesting problem itself, mapping the relationship between specific claims onto something like a belief, …pardon me, Belief. It isn’t at all clear that there are a lot of people out there who think that majoritarian principles constitute a procedure for getting at the truth. At the very least, I think it is safe to say that the number of people using ad populum arguments far exceeds the number of people prepared to vouch for the existence of some epistemological principle that justifies them. So, the first statement strikes me as a bit of grandstanding.
If only it were limited to that.
That first sentence serves also to engage in a little bit of cognitive priming. Having suggested what majority rules do NOT mean, the meme proceeds blissfully onward to tell us what majority rules DO mean. Apparently, it means that the majority are gullible.
And if you bang your head against a table enough times, perhaps that inference will seem plausible. Alternatively, you could visit the atheist reddit and keep reading bullshit like this one until it starts to pass for normal.
Bashing your skull against a solid object / reading the atheist reddit
Tomaeto / Tomahto!
It would seem that the author of this bit hoped we would be so happy to reject the epistemological certitude of majority rule that we wouldn’t notice he had slipped en entry of his own into the competition for supreme foolishness on this subject. Even if we assume that the majority in this fantasy scenario is in fact gullible, it is by no means clear that the one leads to the other in any substantive manner.
But of course the meme gets a lot of mileage out of the expectations of its intended audience. Many of the atheists encountering this meme will be only to happy to think of believers as gullible, all the more so when they are depicted as a formless mass of people menacing the lone nay-sayer in the image. Poor guy! Who wouldn’t be happy to think ill of the collective bunch of bullies in that caricature? So, it’s easy to give the inference a pass, to accept the logic because we are easily tempted to agree with its conclusion.
It should also be said that many of us unbelievers will identify with the feeling of being alone against a tide of believers, though I suspect quite a few believers could point to similar experiences. But of course underdog elitism is far less effective when you let too many people in the kennel of kicked puppies. Far more satisfying to pretend the experience is unique to one’s own kind.
And herein lies the real danger of preaching to the choir, as this meme does. It suggests that the real difference between the believer and the non-believer is an innate quality, something we don’t really have to work at. Whether that quality is intelligence or moral courage, or both, the meme presents a just-so explanation of the difference between believers and non-believers. They are gullible and we are not. Yippee! We are in the good camp
…and also very convenient.
But here is where the medium does not fit the message. If there is something of moral courage, intelligence, and honesty in the position of the non-believer, it is not present in the smug assertion of some monopoly over these qualities. These qualities are not present in the asinine assertion that all of these qualities are miraculously absent in the multitude of believers. These qualities are present in the slow, patient process of sorting claims against evidence and logical support, of constructive dialogue and small careful adjustments to one’s views on this and myriad other subjects. They are present in anyone who is willing and prepared to engage in that sort of process, regardless of what side of the line they fall on for this particular question. And they are present in messages that open up such dialogue and invite others to come and play in the sandbox of reason, so to speak.
These qualities are not present in self-congratulatory sound bites that invite us to point and laugh at the other guys.
This may seem ironic, but among the topics generally falling under the purview of logic and/or critical thinking is a little gem called the “principle of charity.” Simply put, this entails an obligation to interpret any given argument in the strongest sense possible, consistent with its actual wording. In other words, when you come to one of those moments where you could think of more than one way to take what someone else is saying, pick the one that gives them the strongest case possible. You don’t have to rewrite an argument for someone, or pretend you don’t see obvious flaws, but when there are genuine questions about the intent of an author, opt for the interpretation that gives him a fighting chance.
Then give him a hug.
This isn’t really about being nice. One of the most important reasons for applying the principle of charity is that it helps to ensure your own analysis will not be wasted. If you take advantage of some ambiguity in the text of an argument and spin it into something utterly foolish, then your own evaluation of that argument becomes all that much more trivial. If you are in actual dialogue with someone, then it’s easy enough for the other guy to simply restate his argument, filling in the gaps so as to avoid whatever silliness you have read into his claims. By sticking with the strongest version of an argument, you an help to ensue that you really are evaluating a case worth considering.
And then it’s open season!
I’ve often had occasion to reconsider this approach to critical thinking, not the least of reasons being that there seem to exist a rather large number of occasions when folks don’t want to use it. And by ‘folks’ in this instance, I mean “me too!” Whether reading or listening to an argument, sometimes I just don’t feel all that charitable. More to the point, sometimes, I think there are substantial reasons to set the principle aside.
I first noticed this, sitting in an anthropology class, listening to a critical theorist shred some text I have long since forgotten. Simply put, the principle of charity was quite lacking in that analysis, as it was with many similar texts I had been reading in that program. This was no accident. Where my critical thinking teachers had been preparing me for open dialogue with people with whom I might disagree, the critical theorists I had begun to read were far more interested in exploring the role of a given text in promoting power relations within a larger social context. Where the one approach talked about what a text might mean, the other talked about what it did in fact mean, at least under the prevailing circumstances.
And it occurs to me that I did this sort of thing myself in my post on the California law for the protection of the Indian, …i.e. the Law that enslaved Indians in California even as that very state entered the union as a “Free state.” The text is not an argument, but it raises many of the questions I am talking about here. The text sets up a range of legal mechanisms which include indentured servitude as a possible alternative to incarceration. Bearing, in mind the principle of charity, one could ask if it is really fair to think of this law as a means of establishing slavery? You have to read between the lines, or you have to know some facts about the politics which produced it and guided its implementation. Once, you do know these things, the answer very quickly becomes ‘yes’.
And herein lies the crux of the problem. Application of the principle of charity means setting aside important questions about the actual impact of an argument in order to engage in dialogue with its proponents. This begs the question of whether or not you want such a dialogue in the first place (or whether or not it is even possible). And sometimes, the answer to that question is just ‘no’.
Case in point? Let’s look at this moment of Mitt Romney fame.
Now I know you think I’m going to attack him, and the truth is that I probably am, but not until after I am done defending him.
…I know; it confuses me too.
The common take on this topic is that Romney was echoing the sentiments of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), namely the principle that corporations possess many if not all of the same rights as people. The notion that corporations are fictional people is hardly new to the political landscape. My Constitutional History Teacher was quite clear about that matter back in 1992, long before the current outrage, but for various reasons which needn’t concern us here, Citizens United brought about a frightful new firestorm of controversy over the notion, and that was fresh in a lot of people’s minds when Romney made this speech. Add to this a general sense that the Republican party is responsible for the relevant composition of the Supreme Court and for backing its rationale, and you have a ready-made battle just waiting for someone to drop in with the perfect phrasing
But is that what Romney was actually trying to tell his audience? If you look at the video, he was in the midst of making a very different point at the time, namely the fact that someone will have to bear the cost of raising taxes. Urged to levy the tax on corporations, Romney adds quickly that corporations are people. So, the question is this; was he affirming the legal rights of corporations, as per Citizens United, or was Romney trying to suggest that any costs applied to corporations will be paid by people somewhere in the marketplace (investors, employees, or even customers)? Although the categorical language suggests the former, Romney’s subsequent comments suggest the latter. The video itself doesn’t really yield a clear answer, and it is entirely possible that both lines of thought came together in one big mutant two-headed reason with no clear notion of the relationship between its sources.
At some point you have to make a choice as to the meaning of his comment.
If it’s the former choice, then well, go get him Lizzy Warren! And I must admit to a certain soft-spot for this inquiry as to the kind of person that a modern corporation would be, if indeed it were a person. But if Romney really was trying to tell us that costs accrued to corporations are ultimately borne out by people, then he is right.
Broken clocks, and all that!
Hell, there really isn’t much to gainsay that proposition that people will ultimately pay for costs imposed on corporations. There is a lot room for debate about how that works (or doesn’t) and whether or not it adds up to the kind of policies Romney wants to advocate. But that is a debate in which those of us on the left have as much responsibility to chase the devil through the details as Romney and the conservatives.
It’s a lot easier to tell Romney that corporations aren’t really people.
And here is where questions about the willingness to grant someone the Principle of Charity shade into larger questions about whether or not one wishes meaningful dialogue with them to begin with. If you really are exploring an issue with someone, and if they are approaching it in the same spirit, then the effort to assess their views in the strongest light possible facilitates that discussion. If no such goodwill exists, then extending the benefit of the doubt can cost more than its worth.
If the target audience for a debate is more responsive to cheap shots and sound bites, then failure to respond on that level begins to look a lot less like the responsible (grown-up) approach to a discussion and a lot more like failure on the horizon, all the more so if the point of the debate is really is to win something (a legal case or an election for example). If the other guy is just being a jerk, then you can always walk away. But if that jerk is trying to take something of value, then it may well be time to roll up your sleeves and pull out that roll of dimes hidden in your pocket.
Metaphorically speaking, of course.
So, do you really want to have a thoughtful discussion, or do you just want to kick the other guy’s ass? I know the Dudley Dialogue-Right in me wants to say “let’s have that thoughtful discussion,” but years of figurative blunt head trauma combine with political realism to say that sometimes the answer is just ‘no’.
Sometimes the answer is ‘no’, because the larger social context removes all doubt as to intent (the California example); sometimes it’s ‘no’ because the expectations of dialogue are essentially “no quarter given” (Romney?); and sometimes the answer is ‘no’, because you just don’t want to grant any legitimacy to the other side. This is why responsible scholars rarely debate holocaust revisionists, flat-earthers, or creation science hacks. It’s why feminists often give Men’s Rights Activists the face-palm instead of an argument, and its one of the reasons that both sides of the recent debate over Atheism-Plus have done a wonderful job of talking right past one another (just to name a couple netroversies currently bubbling over in sundry parts of the blogosphere). It’s also why you should never read the comments on any article posted anywhere (except here). And of course it’s why only a fool would debate anyone with a 160 character limit on each tweet.
…okay guilty as charged on that last one, but the point stands.
There are of course many ways in which one can shut off meaningful dialogue with others, but at least one of them occurs when you are no longer willing to give someone the benefit of the doubt. One takes their statements at face value and fills in the ambiguities according to a standard script; the possibility that the other guy may have something more interesting in mind is simply not worth the effort to give him a chance. This isn’t the kind of approach folks normally recommend, but it is the kind many of us engage in at one time or another. Combine this with the increasing role of discursive minimalism in public discourse and we have an ever increasing premium on short snide answers to arguments that never really came into their own to begin with.
There is no clear formula here; no objective test to distinguish those who have earned the benefit of the doubt from those who haven’t. While it can be particularly satisfying to see someone you think unworthy of debate forced to talk to the hand, it is equally frustrating when you are looking at that palm yourself. When neither side of a given debate seems capable of engaging the other in meaningful discussion, the results range from entertaining to downright tragic, often within the space of a single paragraph.
I certainly don’t have any great notions about how to make the call, but I do find it a interesting feature of public debate.