I’ve read a few things about Rush Limbaugh this last week or so. Of course, I shared my own thoughts on the man, and no, they were not be the kindest things you might read about Rush, but I meant every damned word of it. What I see in the way of praise for Limbaugh coming from the right wing blogosphere in the wake of his detah has me shaking me shaking my head and grumbling. No surprise there, of course, but it does bring to mind an extra thought on the matter of this awful man and his awful legacy.
I have often thought that people like Rush Limbaugh do more damage to conservatism than they will ever do to liberalism or progressivism. We still think what we think over on this side of the political spectrum. Professional bigots such as Rush Limbaugh may be able to drown out our voices from time to time, but they can’t force us to follow their own script, to think the way they pretend we do. Our politics remains what it is despite their best efforts to distort it.
The same cannot be said of conservatism.
More than any other right wing hack, Rush Limbaugh successfully redefined conservatism in American politics. He made it what it is today. This is what all the countless posthumous dittos written in remembrance of rush consistently amount to, a story about hoe he redefined conservatism and effectively made conservative politics the force that it is today. Throw in a couple gratuitous bits of pseudo-patrtiotism and some faux Christian sentiments, and you have the bulk of what is said to honor the man; he made conservatism what it is today.
Just think about what that means!
How it actually worked?
The Sandra Fluke debacle is a great example. It illustrates perfectly why Rush Limbaugh’s impact on conservatism is nothing to celebrate. Sandra Fluke’s testimony was about an aspect of Affordable Care Act, something conservatives generally opposed. There were plenty of things that could be said in response to Fluke’s testimony. People could have questioned her estimates of the cost. They could have pressed her to substantiate various anecdotes in her testimony. They could have argued any number of details, and at the end of the day, there would still have been one very serious question about whether or not a national policy mandating the details of insurance coverage for institutions like Georgetown is really the best way to handle any of America’s healthcare problems, let alone those that Fluke was talking about. That is the debate I would expect to have with conservatives on such a matter.
That debate did not happen.
Instead, we got a national dialogue about the sex life of a law student.
We got the debate about the sex life of Sandra Fluke, not because she invited it, but because Rush Limbaugh preferred that round of right wing gossip to the substantive debate we could have had – should have had! In dropping this gigantic red herring on the national stage, Rush Limbaugh did not merely silence Fluke, he also silenced the legitimate voices of conservatives who had something worthwhile to say about the matter. This was not the decision of a strong conservative voice; this was the preference of a cowardly man who had nothing to contribute on the topic hand. Limbaugh had to lie to get his version of the debate in the public sphere, and he did not hesitate, not this time or any other. That his intervention could be thought of as a strong expression of conservatism is damning praise for conservatives. A strong voice for any cause doesn’t start diverting attention from the real issues, which was always Limbaugh’s modus operandi.
In the end, we on the left still know why we support the ACA, some form of universal payer, or any other sweeping national reform, but the ranks of Republicans who can tell you anything more than sordid stories from the right wing gossip industry grow thinner with every passing year. They do so, because right wing media was remade in the image of Rush Limbaugh.
What Rush did for conservatives was to replace their best arguments with a range of cheap gotcha games like the one he played on Fluke. Of course, by the time of the Fluke affair, Rush already had countless allied pundits who desperately wanted to be him. Combined with Rush himself, their collective chorus of nonsense effectively drowned out any serious efforts to discuss healthcare. Instead we debated whether or not Obama was a socialist, a Muslim, or Kenyan. And then of course, there was talk of death panels. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this nonsense is merely a means to an end; it drives the public consciousness and narrows the options of those who rise to fame on the basis of such lies. To this day, countless Republicans think Barack Obama is a Muslim and that he is not a natural born citizen of the United States. I also hear talk of lizard-people, but anyway… This was the crap that filled our nations airwaves as some struggled to fix our very broken healthcare system.
This was also the crap that fed the imagination of the idiots who stormed our capital.
And the sleazy right wing pundits and politicians who spurred them on.
…and the idiots who don’t understand how the one led to the other.
We can lay this fact, the fact that conservatives all over America were so easily distracted then and now, directly at Limbaugh’s feet. It was Limbaugh who took diversions like the one he played on Fluke to the top of the media market and the stage for propaganda operations like Fox News. It was Limbaugh that crushed any hope that conservatives with anything substantive to say would find their way into the news cycle and replaced it with an endless supply of bobble-head pundits ready and willing to caricature themselves and their supposed politics.
The modern republican Party is an talent agency for right wing media. Folks run for office so they can command better speaker fees and maybe even land a spot on some cable television program pretending to be conservative. Thoughts of actual governance completely escape the modern Republican leadership. That’s why Ted Cruz ended up in Cancun while AOC and Beto went to work helping people through the crisis in Texas. Time was when we could have debated whose vision was better for America. Today, we are left with the simple fact that they tried and he didn’t. Hell, Cruz didn’t even come back to address the crisis killing people in his state; he came back to address his own PR crisis, no more and no less.
If you think that example an outlier in Republican politics, then you have not been paying attention.
Limbaugh certainly did redefine conservative politics; he transformed it into a form of low-grade pornography. It sells better than conservatism did before he came along, and it distracts voters and party officials alike from the real work that needs to be done in American government. But it does get ratings.
Our former President liked ratings.
He liked them a lot.
These priorities did not come from nowhere. They came from a right wing circus crafted in the image of Rush Limbaugh.
We all learned that two wrongs don’t make a right when we were kids, didn’t we?
And we learned that ‘you too’ arguments are a fallacy back in Freshman logic class, right?
Okay, maybe not everybody, but this is a lesson a lot of us probably have in common. Most educated people ought to know that there is something wrong with answering a criticism by saying “you do it too!” or some variation thereof. Hell, most decent people ought to know better than that regardless of their education.
So, why do we do it?
Hell, almost everybody does it on at least some occasions. To be fair, some people do it more than others. They will do it every chance they get. Others try not to, most of the time anyway. So, the penchant for answering a serious concern with a quick ‘you-too’ gambit varies from one person to another, but I don’t know that anyone avoids it entirely.
This tactic also comes and goes with the times. It’s been particularly common for the last 4 years, so much so that folks even coined a new term for it; ‘whataboutism.’ The “Your side does it too” gambit has made a regular appearance in public debate for a long time, but it’s been particularly common for the space of about one presidential administration (or an administration plus the campaign before it). So, the internet collectively coined a new term to describe it.
Okay, but why is this kind of argument so common?
One reason? It’s not always a fallacy.
Another? For some people, it really is a way of life.
Variable Relevance: The (ir-)relevance of ‘you too’ games varies in a couple of interesting ways.
If someone corrects my behavior and I respond with “you do it too?” am I really engaging in a fallacy?
Variable Conclusions: If I mean by that you-too response that I am not really wrong, because you do it too, then yes. Hell yes! If that’s what I mean, then I am absolutely engaging in the tu quoque fallacy. If, on the other hand, I mean; “Okay, I need to correct my behavior, but so should you, because you do in fact do this too,” then my response is not entirely unreasonable. I’m not denying my wrong-doing in this instance. I am just asking you to correct your own behavior right along with me.
Alternatively, I could employ a ‘you-too’ argument by of refusing to accept a rule that I have good reason to believe others are not going to follow themselves. Let’s imagine we are playing a game of soccer and you tell me I should stop touching the ball with my hands. I could then say you do it too as a means of insisting either that you stop yourself or that we are just going to continue playing an odd game of soccer in which both of us are allowed to touch the ball with our hands. In this case, I am refusing to play by unfair rules, or unfair application of those rules.
It seems that there are at least some conclusions which could be reasonably drawn from a premise beginning with an assertion that is essentially saying “you do it too.”
Plus Alternatives: There is another context in which “you too” starts to become more relevant than it would otherwise be. In this case, the tu-quoque fallacy has some company, because the False Alternatives fallacy comes in here right along with it. This is the context of constrained choices. If I tell you that apples bother my teeth, so I don’t like eating them, it would normally be quite foolish to respond by telling me that cookies have too much sugar. Whether or not cookies have too much sugar, apples still bother my teeth (always feels like I am biting into styrofoam). That does not change if cookies are bad for me. So, the cookie-themed response seems quite irrelevant.
…unless I want a snack, and I have exactly 2 options!
If my universe of possible choices includes an apple and a cookie, then problems with one might very well be a reasonable answer to my expressed concerns about the other. It’s not so much a logical inference as it is a conversational implicature. A possible respondent hears me complaining about the apple, realizes I have offered it as a reason for choosing the cookie instead, and responds by reminding me of a good reason to avoid the cookie
Of course apples and cookies don’t make these arguments themselves, so if this is a concern about false alternatives, how does it relate to the tu-quoque fallacy? Well, it comes into play when the apples and cookies do make these arguments themselves, or at least when we divide ourselves up into an obviously apple camp and a clearly cookie camp.
Or maybe when we try to pick a President.
If I say that Donald Trump has been self-dealing throughout his Presidency as a means of saying he is a terrible President, it wouldn’t normally help matters to say that Hillary does it too (using the Uranium One story about her charity foundation for example). Neither would it help to raise the prospect of similar corruption on the part of the Biden family. These become relevant during elections precisely because the obvious alternative choice is understood, and so the range of viable possibilities is narrowed sufficiently to make these normally irrelevant arguments matter after all.
And here, 3rd party-proponents will have an obvious complaint of their own. What if there are better choices? What if you can point to a candidate that doesn’t have a history of self-dealing (or, more to the point, a history of having the charge of self-dealing leveled at them by political opponents)? That’s a reasonable concern and one that speaks directly to the very kind of problem that logicians are trying to call our attention to when speaking about ‘false alternatives’ and ‘tu-quoque’ fallacies. Of course, part of the concern here lies in just how viable the third parties really are and what you are trying to accomplish with your vote, both of which speak to the question of just how constrained the alternatives here really are. If a 3rd party might really win, then it would be quite illogical to respond to a criticism of one major party candidate as though it were an obvious endorsement of another. Conversely, you may know that the 3rd party is going to lose but choose to vote for them anyway as a means of signaling to the major parties that they should take you own political values more seriously. If enough others vote the same way, this could become leverage in the next election. If a 3rd party candidate is, however, not a serious contender for winning an election, and the election is just too important to risk on a symbolic statement, then we may be back in the realm of 2 real choices and dirt on one viable candidate really will have to be weighed against dirt on the other. In such cases, “your guy does it too” and “the alternative is worse” start to become relevant again.
Where your choices are constrained, criticisms of one choice can provide a meaningful response to criticisms of another, but this is still problematic. Such arguments don’t erase problems, and they don’t disprove initial claims. If you tell me, for example, that Hunter Biden was using his father’s position as Vice President under the Obama administration to make money, reminding you that the Trump family profits from his role as President (e.g. through fees paid by the Secret Service to Trump properties during his visits, use of political leverage to get Ivanka’s patents in China, or simply the profits made when foreign diplomats choose to stay at Trump properties while negotiating with him) will not prove the claims about Hunter Biden are untrue. If I want to do that, then I have to provide an argument directly debunking the claims about Hunter Biden activities. What do I get out of calling attention to similar shenanigans about Trump? I get an argument about the significance one relative to the other. I get an argument about how each balances against the other when we assume both criticisms are of roughly equal merit. That may not be the best argument I could produce on the topic, but it would not be fallacious. It’s in this context that ‘you too’ (or at least ‘your guy too’) arguments start to make a little more sense.
One fascinating thing about this is the way that the relevance of such arguments comes and goes. I understood claims about Uranium One, debunked as they are, as a concern in the 2016 election. It was fascinating to me, however, seeing Trump fans continue bringing this up in response to criticism of his actions well into the Trump administration. I found myself saying; “well let’s impeach her too” then, by which I hoped to suggest that this was no longer a relevant means of answering concerns about Trump’s own actions. As the 2020 election heated up, concerns about Biden became a more viable means of offsetting those about Trump (at least to those who care nothing about proportion or credibility of the sources). In terms of addressing the choice at hand, it was useful for the Trump camp to have a claim about political corruption in play precisely because they knew many such claims could be held against Donald. What the merits of each claim really are is of course a debatable question, but having comparable accusations on the table makes possible a kind of argument about how one wishes to weigh one relative to the other.
When we were all expected to weigh Donald Trump’s character against that of another person, complaints about that other person could pass a certain test of minimal relevance to complaints about him. So, the relevance comparison to other people to criticisms of Donald Trump came and went over the course of his Presidential administration. When he was operating on his own, and the only viable question was about his own competence and integrity, they should have gone away.
Of course they didn’t.
Constraining Personalities: This brings us to one last point; some people thrive on the sort of constrained choices I am describing here. When they face an open range of possibilities, they work very hard to create the illusion of constrained choices anyway.
Yes, I have Donald Trump in mind here.
I am also writing about his many fans.
There is a reason the Trump camp was such a source of whataboutism claims throughout his Presidency. This is both a feature of the base to which he consciously pitched his politics and to personality of Donald Trump himself.
Audience: There are people who live in a world of artificially constrained choices, and you can see it their responses to a broad range if issues. Did you say Fox news got something wrong? Well then you must be watching too much MSNBC. If there is a problem with capitalism, well then why don’t you just go try China? Don’t like Christianity? You must be an atheist! Is the American healthcare system broken? Well then, let me tell you the horror stories coming out of Canada! Concerned about police brutality? You must support riots in the streets! Don’t like coke? Shut up and drink your Beer!
And so on…
(Okay, I might not be that be that serious about the coke and beer example.)
Perhaps all of us fall into this way of thinking from time to time, but some people really do seem to think in such terms on a regular basis. They live in a world of social Manichaeism, a world in which 2 rival forces contend with one another for control of the world and of our loyalties. Anything said against one can clearly be understood as support for the other, because all questions of value must be measured according to the standard of which force one wishes to align oneself with. Other options are always illusory. You are with the lord of light or you are with the lord of darkness, and if you don’t declare your loyalties openly, then that is a good reason to suspect you are on the wrong side of this conflict. In effect, such people keep making use of the false-alternatives fallacy because they actually do live in a world in which their choices are always constrained. Their assumptions about the world around them and the choices available to all of us consistently reduce all choices to a binary opposition.
Brief Technicality: I should add that the not all binary opposition are equal. What typically happens here is that people looking at contrary relationships often construe them as contradictory relationships? What is the difference? In a Contradictory relationship between two claims, they two have opposite truth values. If one is true, the other is false. If one is false, the other is true. In a contrary relationship between two claims, on the other hand, one of them must be false, but it is at least possible that both will be false.
In the case of either a contrary relationship or a contradictory relationship, you could infer the falsehood of one claim from the truth of the other, but you could only infer the truth of one claim from the falsehood of the other in the case of a contradictory relationship, not in the case of a contrary relationship.
Case in point: If I know that John is voting for Biden, I can conclude he is clearly not voting for Trump (unless he wants his ballot to be thrown out). If, on the other hand, I know he is not voting for Biden, I could not normally conclude that he is voting for Trump. He might be voting for a third party after all (and whether or not that is a good idea brings up all the points made above). So, political loyalties are not usually well modeled on the basis of a contradictory relationship. Such loyalties are contrary at best even if specific choices made on the basis of those loyalties (e.g. voting) might be framed in terms of contradictory relationships.
Another example? If you like capitalism, it’s probably safe to assume you are not in favor of communism, but could we really infer from a criticism of capitalism that you were a communist? No. You could be in favor of some alternative political economy. Old fashioned trade guilds, perhaps coupled with mercantilism, subsistence economics (as practiced in many indigenous communities), or good old Georgism (which may or may not be a form of socialism, depending on who you ask), all come to mind. (So, does rejecting the terms ‘capitalism’ or ‘communism’ outright as being to vague and sweeping.). Inferring support for one of these highly loaded terms from opposition to the other is hardly reasonable, and yet, people do it all the time.
People who should know better.
But people often treat contrary relationships as though they were contradictory, thus enabling a faulty implicature, the inference of a specific loyalty from criticism of an alternative commonly understood to be its opposite. This empowers both false alternatives and tu-quoque arguments. For some people this approach to decision making is just too gratifying to resist.
We sometimes encounter simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions, and hence make choices between contradictory values, but much of our thinking takes place in a world with a broader range of possibilities. Those locked into the mindset of Social manichaeism are constantly pushing us to think in narrower terms to begin with. If all of us are prone to miss the possibilities from time to time, then some people seem to take this as a point of principle.
Personality: Enter a living train-wreck such as Donald Trump! He thrives on constrained choices precisely because his own actions and his own statements cannot stand up to scrutiny on their own merits. Whatever the man may have been like when he was younger, he has long since accumulated a range of of bad deals, unpaid debts, and obvious lies in a personal history of chronically abusive behavior. His own credibility would never stand up to scrutiny, not from anyone making an honest effort.
So, how does he manage?
He always brings with him a broad range of bluffs and diversions, and one of the most important is a constant penchant for attacking someone in virtually any context, and for doing it in the most humiliating way possible. Every claim he might make, every question one might ask, is then subsumed under the effect of this personal attack. For those under attack, this means trying to balance the need to defend yourself against the effort to address any objective issues that may be on the table. For bystanders, it is a question of balancing concerns over Trump’s behavior against those he raises about others. In the ensuing hostilities, trump can raise and drop any issues he wishes, make false claims, and set them aside at his liesure. If he is caught flat footed, the solution is as simple as insulting the person who pointed it out or any source they may rely upon. The end-result is a choice between him or someone else, and any doubts about that other person whatsoever will be enough for Donald. He has spent his lifetime exploiting the benefit of the doubt. It is a benefit does not share with others.
The logic of the whataboutism gambit suits Trump’s style perfectly.
Is Trump University credible? What about Hillary!?!
Did Donald tell a lie? Ask Obama if you can keep your insurance!?!
Is he mistreating immigrants? What are the Dems doing to protect us!?! (…and after 2016, ask Obama, because he did it first?)
Is the Trump family self-dealing through their position in government? Where is Hunter!?!
You get the idea.
This is a man in deep need of enemies. The closest he will ever get to redemption lies in the hope that those around him will think him better than the alternative. Small wonder that he preferred to keep Hillary on the table as a kind of shadow President, a mythic character he could use as a whipping woman even in the 2020 election. At the peak of his Presidency, when she should have been off the table entirely, she was still the answer to concerns about Trump, replaced only when Biden stepped in to become Trump’s new foil, and only partially so at that. Trump has always needed a constrained choice to make a case for himself, because he is of no value on his own.
To know the worth of Donald Trump, one has always to ask what about someone else.
A man like that is made for the sort of strife we have seen this week, and throughout his Presidency. He is at his peak when the whole world has to think in terms of the constrained choices he seeks to bring about in all times and all places. For most of us these moments come and go. For the likes of Donald Trump, such moments are the only ones that count.
Is Donald Trump the only person like this? Not by a long shot, but he is my exhibit ‘A’, and as he is still in a position to do us all harm, he seems to be a relevant example. It was the dramatic nature of our recent elections that got me thinking about the way that certain arguments seem more compelling at some times than other.
I could just as easily have written an epitaph for nuance.
Perhaps that would have been more to the point.
Let us hope that subtlety finds room to breathe in all our minds sometime soon! It is one thing to say ‘no’ with conviction when that is what is called for, and it is quite another to live in a world that is polemics all the way down.
In the end, the point here is that there seem to be some folks who really thrive on the ability to reduce the world to a pair of choices under the assumption that to affirm one is to deny the other. Elections may be a special time to such folks, a moment in which certain patterns of thought seem a little less flawed and a moment in which the rest of the world may just be happy to join in that same pattern of thinking.
We probably all engage in similar patterns of thought in many other contexts, sports rivalries and all manner of brand loyalties come to mind. For my own part, I hope soon to set some of this aside and think about other things. I can’t quite say that i am ready yet.
I can’t quite say that the rest of America is either.
So, the Trump campaign has launched a brand new website intended to help their supporters ‘win’ arguments over the Holiday dinner tables. (No, I’m not linking to the damned thing; you can find it yourself if you like.) I seem to recall the deplorable pundits encouraging their faithful to harass us at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Now they’ve decided to press the fight on into Christmas as well.
…and supposedly, it’s liberal secularists that are trying to ruin Christmas, but whatever!
How are they pitching this little bundle of disinformation? According to CBS News:
“We’ve all seen the news articles about liberal snowflakes being afraid to see their MAGA relatives at Christmas or holiday gatherings, so the Trump campaign wants people to be ready,” Kayleigh McEnany, Trump campaign national press secretary, said in a statement. “We’re not helping snowflakes avoid arguments – we’re helping Trump supporters win them! As 2019 draws to a close and 2020 approaches, President Trump and Americans are going to be winning, winning, and winning, and then winning some more!”
Which brings to mind a certain question. Why is it that we liberals are the ones ducking these Holiday discussions? Why is it that we are the ones consciously trying to avoid politics with friends and family over the Holiday season. I suppose there may be some counter-examples, obviously there are, but I do think the general pattern is those pushing this sight see it; liberals are the ones who would rather not engage even as deplorables are only too happy to spill their love of the Manchurian Cheeto all over the room, regardless of the season.
Frankly, I think this quote, commonly attributed to Bill Murray sums it up rather nicely. (Speaking of which, does anybody out there know when Murray said that? Or if it really was him?) It isn’t a fear of losing the argument so much as the knowledge that any argument worth making will be wasted on some folks. We’ve all been there, and the headache just isn’t worth it. Also, quite frankly, the fear of seeing the darker truths about people we know and love. It sucks when you realize that someone you really care about shows you that that they are only of egg-nogs away from telling a bunch of really racist jokes. It’s unpleasant to realize that a close friend or relative doesn’t check his facts before opening his mouth and can’t be corrected when called out on it. It’s genuinely horrifying to realize that someone you love is just fine with seeing certain people suffer needlessly (ahem! Children in cages on our borders or living under the bombs in any number of places around the world). It isn’t just the unpleasantness of disagreement that makes some of us wary of Holiday discussions, it’s those moments when you can’t help seeing a trace of cruelty or willful deceit underlies the politics of some people you’d like to love. Sure, sometimes people make a reasonable argument from the other side. Even a right wing clock is right twice a day, so to speak, but sometimes, all-too-often really, it isn’t the challenging case that makes us uncomfortable, much less the cold hard-to-explain fact, it’s the moment you see the genuine cruelty in a friend or family member. Politics brings that out in people, some people at any rate.
With Trump in the White House, politics is bringing it out of them a lot more often.
If Hell is the impossibility of reason, then Holiday Hell is the impossibility of reasoning with a half-drunk uncle. The White House wants to see more of that happening today and tomorrow. Apparently, this year it isn’t enough to fight an imaginary war on Christmas or to do as Trump has done in the past, which is to take credit for the fact that people are wishing each other Merry Christmas again, and hope that people won’t notice that most never stopped in the first place. Now they want us to argue more over Christmas.
This is just one more example of trump’s old promise that he will deliver countless wins to his followers. Like so many other ‘winning’ moments, this one is a manufactured moment of one-up-manship, a pointless battle designed to give someone lacking any semblance of character a chance to feel he got the better of someone else. It is neither patriotism nor conservatism. It certainly isn’t Christianity.
And it really isn’t much of a win when you think about it.
Which is to say that it is just like everything else Trump has brought to us over the last 3 years.
I’m often amused at the things that people say in defense of Donald Trump and his supporters. Okay, I’m as likely to be outraged as I am amused, and often I manage to be both, but for the moment, let’s concentrate on the amusing part.
Plenty of time to be outraged later. We get new reasons with each passing moment of the Orange Reich!
One of the most amusing twists in the defending-Donald game has always been the angle many deplorables took on the Serge Kovaleski incident. This would be the disabled reporter that Donald Trump once mocked at one of his rallies. Trump supporters have long since settled on a standard line of defense against this criticism. They will say that Trump’s decision to effect the speech and physical demeanor of a disabled person is actually a common bit that he runs on lots of people. They can even provide evidence for this in the form of several video clips in which Donald Trump mocks a variety of people in a similar way. So, the argument runs that Trump was not really mocking Kovaleski for being handicapped, because he actually mocks lots of people (including those who don’t appear to be handicapped) by pretending that they are handicapped.
…which would of course make him as juvenile as he is cruel.
This whole line of reasoning is a REALLY fascinating defense of Trump, because it amounts to the claim that Donald Trump actually makes fun of disabled people all the time. How this is supposed to prove he wasn’t mocking the particular individual, Serge Kovaleski, for being disabled is beyond me, though perhaps the notion here is that Donald Trump wasn’t consciously making fun of Serge for being disabled, because Donald Trump wouldn’t have been happy to mock him in the same way whether he was disabled or not.
It’s a particularly damning defense.
Seriously, how pathetic is that? That the best thing you can think to say about a man is that he wasn’t making fun of a particular disabled person, because he actually does that all the time.
…also, there is the whole matter of Donald telling us we should see the man before embarking on the whole charade. A reasonable person might take that as an indication that the coming display was a bit more than a coincidence, that it was perhaps meant to illustrate something about his actual demeanor of the person in question. A reasonable person might take it that way.
Not a deplorable.
But anyway, I really do think the most amusing thing about this really is the notion that it’s somehow better if this is a standard act in Trump’s bag of tricks. Of course this is also one of the most sad things about Trump and the politics of trumpetry; the normalization of things that ought to be outrageous. This particular defense doesn’t just ask us to let the whole thing go, it asks us to think of it as a normal thing, an acceptable mode of public engagement for a major politician.
…and thus the movement to make America great again serves in practice to make it a more pathetic place.
The nation recently got a whole new dose of that pathetic quality from Roseanne Barr, who, as we all know by now, recently chose to mock an advisor from the Obama administration in racist terms. Valerie Jarrett had her time in the cross-hairs of right wing hacks quite some time ago, and apparently, she is still a favorite target abuse among those whose pornography consists of mocking all things connected to Obama. At any rate, Roseanne chose to suggest that Jarrett was the product of a union between the Planet of the Apes and the Muslim Brotherhood.
There is of course a lot wrong with Roseanne’s joke, but the thing that most seem to have focused on was the racist imagery. The equation of African-Americans with apes has long been one of the major themes of racism, and that theme flourished in political-pornography aimed at the Obama family. Given Jarrett’s own African-American ancestry, it’s not hard to see where Roseanne was going with this.
We all know the fall-out by now. Barr’s show has been cancelled. She apologized. She also made excuses, and she now seems to believe she’s been mistreated. And so on…
One of the more pathetic angles in this already pathetic story is the effort to equate Roseanne’s behavior with that of various left-wing personalities. Much like the right wing response to the Kovaleski incident, those attempting to defend Roseanne show little but their own lack of concern with the very themes in question.
Several have tried pointing to Cathy Griffin, asking why the left didn’t condemn her for posing with a fake severed head. Why doesn’t this work? Among other things, because a lot of people on the left really did condemn Griffin’s gag. Right wingers keep pretending this isn’t so, but it is.
Then of course, there are a variety of people (among them Bill Maher, Keith Olbermann, and Joy Behar) who have said horribly mean things about Donald Trump over the years. Bill Maher, in particular, has been singled out, because he has apparently compared Donald Trump to an Orangutan. No matter how you slice this, it still comes up as pathetic whataboutism, but what’s particularly pathetic about this argument is that it misses the point. Calling someone an orangutan is rude, but calling an African-American woman an ape carries specific racist overtones. Does that seem like a double standard? Perhaps it does if you just ignore the entire history of racism. At the end the day, this argument proves little except that Roseanne’s defenders (who are at this point essentially Trump’s defenders) do not see racism as a problem. To them, Roseanne’s gaff was simply rudeness, nothing more.
Now add Samantha Bee into this mix. What did she do? She called Ivanka Trump a ‘c*nt’. This is at least a little bit more of a concern insofar as that particular term is perhaps the most derogatory insult you can use in American English, and that fact alone suggests use of the term may not be the most helpful thing someone can do if they care about the status of women in American society. Still, does it rise to the level of toxicity one finds in racial stereotypes equating African-Americans with apes? No. Not even close. Once again, the argument proves very little, other than that those fielding it don’t really have a problem with racist imagery at all. To them, this is a battle over rudeness, which is why the efforts they keep making to field a charge of hypocrisy against those on the left focus on rudeness more than social justice. They keep trying to accuse the left of violating its own principles, but they consistently mistake what those princples happen to be.
Of course this is just another example of the meta-hypocrisy shuffle. The right wing is fielding the charge of hypocrisy in order to cover up their own hypocrisy. While we debate whether or not any particular comic can say this or that rude thing, Trump’s defenders celebrate him for that very quality.
…but perhaps, this is fitting after all.
The king (and that is what Trump is to his supporters, not a President, a king) is entitled to certain privileges. Perhaps being able to insult people as he sees fit is, in the mind of the deplorables, simply one of the great privileges to which a man of his stature is entitled. What makes Donald Trump great in their eyes is precisely what would make anyone else terrible.
There are many reasons to reject the kind of rhetoric, not the least of them being the obvious foibles of what aboutism, or false equivalence, or the tu quoque fallacy, or any number of idiotic twists in this hollow game. Yet, the most disturbing thing about these arguments would remain just how little appreciation those making these arguments seem to show for the toxic impact of racism in America. Each of these defenses shows us mainly that those making them do NOT see racism as a serious problem.
…which is why I say this is a damning defense of Roseanne.
Of course the real question here is who will be damned by it? Those making these arguments reveal their own racism in making them, but if they succeed in transforming the issue into one of mere rudeness, then the public at large loses. If these idiots succeed, then we damn ourselves to a world in which Roseanne’s joke is just another form of edgy comedy.
It really is a bad-ass line. It’s the kind of thing you’d say to put someone else right in line. The line comes with a few variations, of course, but all of them just smack of really great smack-downatude. You think about saying that line, and you can practically hear the people around you going ‘booom!’ as the object of your derision shrinks in abject humiliation.
I wonder how many people remember where this line comes from?
Just when you thought the whole damned controversy was in your rear-view mirror, along comes some damned blogger to put all the ick right back on the table. Well suck it up, dear reader, cause I got a bloggitation to bloggitize over this.
We all know the story, right? A little while back, the comedian, Kathy Griffin, posted a picture of herself holding up the severed head of Donald Trump. Don’t worry, it was fake. Donald survived the whole ordeal, but suffice to say, it was a rather controversial image. Naturally, a great deal of outrage was soon to follow. I have no doubt that a good number of those complaining about her stunt were simply using it as grist for the mill. I also have no doubt that a number of her critics were genuinely appalled by Griffin’s stunt. Which critics fit into which category is another question, and not a very interesting one at that.
What I find especially interesting about this story is the role hypocrisy as a theme in this particular kerfuffle. It’s hardly surprising to see that theme pop up here. Really, it’s just the sort of story that begs for accusations of hypocrisy, and those accusations soon made an appearance. Various parties on the right wing accused ‘lefties’ or ‘liberals’ of hypocrisy for making such a big deal of violence and violent rhetoric on the part of the Trump campaign when we produce violent rhetoric such as that of Griffin. Those of us on the left (myself among them) complained that the right makes hay out of Griffin’s image while condoning the actual violence of people like Montana’s Greg Gianforte or for that matter supporting Donald Trump’s flirtations with mob violence. Of course each side is fully capable of responding to accusations of support for violence (whether tacit or overt) by pointing at still more support for violence on the other side.
…and the internet becomes an angry infinity mirror.
So, what’s interesting about that? It’s the role that accusations of hypocrisy can play in facilitating, …well, hypocrisy. Think of it this way: You see somebody do something outrageous (and by outrageous, I mean something likely to rouse disapproval in the public sphere), and you want to criticize them for it. The problem is, you’ve done something like that yourself in the past, or at least you’ve supported other people who did. This creates a problem in that your own condemnation is likely to come across as an inconsistency. One potential solution to that is to conjure the image of critics who have condemned this behavior before and castigate them for supporting the behavior now. That way, you don’t have to actually put your own cards on the table. You don’t have to actually say that you are now condemning the behavior your once supported. Instead, you just say; “look at the guy who is now supporting behavior he once condemned!” If you do this right, you can effectively play both sides of the game without anyone noticing. All they see is that you are commenting on someone else who is playing both sides of the field. It’s an exercise in projection of course, and a remarkably effective one at that. It’s what I like to call the meta-hypocrisy shuffle.
I should add that it isn’t really necessary to point out any actual instances of hypocrisy on the part of any particular person to make this stratagem work. It is often enough to talk about ‘liberals’ or ‘conservatives’ (or any other group) and simply tell the story of how the other side is full of hypocrites. The ploy can be just as effective in this abstract form as it can be with real life examples. Plus, it avoids the inconvenience of having to address the details of anyone’s actual behavior, much less to deal with their own response to your criticism.
So, what am I saying here? I am saying that a lot of people on the right used Kathy Griffin to field an argument about liberal hypocrisy all the while hiding their own hypocrisy on the very same subject. That’s the argument I want to make anyway, but reflexivity being what it is, I must also concede that a lot of liberals did the same. What I don’t have to concede is that all parties involved in the controversy are equally guilty of this vice. Quite a few people on the left really did condemn Griffin’s behavior, and I certainly have known a number of Republicans who have condemned Donald Trump’s more violent rhetoric. (I’d say that’s one of the differences between a ‘conservative’ and a ‘deplorable’.) Griffin did in the end, lose at least one gig (actually several, it seems) over the whole matter. I could only wish the same was true of Donald Trump. Be that as it may, the point is that this trick (and the criticism I make of it) can indeed cut both ways, but that possibility does not mean the cut is equally warranted.
I don’t know how productive a debate would be over which political groups are more consistent on this (or any other) issue, but I do think some individuals at least have managed to show some consistency on the issue. Sadly, they are often tarred with the same hypocritical brush as their flip-flopping allies have been. Again, the story of hypocrisy alone is often sufficient to make the argument stick, sufficient even to the degree that those who are rigorously consistent on an issue may well be accused of hypocrisy by someone who is himself or herself simply doing the meta-hypocrisy shuffle.
It’s worth bearing in mind here that there is at least one angle on such issues that the whole question of hypocrisy doesn’t seem to address, and by this I mean the integrity of a committed partisan. You could take a relentless commitment to one side of a debate as a kind of integrity in itself. You could see the willingness to field arguments in direct contradiction to one’s own personal record as an instance of taking one for the team. Perhaps it is even a kind of courage. If so, that’s a courage I hope never to have, but so be it, the ethic is out there. Some clearly ascribe to it. Most of us, I think, prefer to field arguments that we find personally plausible, and most of us at least try to accomplish some level of consistency in our moral judgements.
Some try harder than others.
One thing worth considering here is the medium that delivers this message. In person, I suspect we are more likely to forgive each other’s inconsistencies, if for no other reason than because we are likely to see them coming from people whose shifting patterns parallel our own. If I contradict myself in the process of complaining verbally about some damned Republican, odds are rather likely that I am talking to somebody who is just as pissed about that damned Republican as I am. Confirmation bias being what it is, they are just as likely to grab the nearest rhetorical hammer, and just as likely to think it oughtta be used to smash him as I am. Likewise, a Republican jabbering on about a liberal is likely to be doing so in the company of other Republicans who also think rathe rpoorly of the bastard. It could be, that I’m missing something here, but I tend to think verbal exchanges make it a bit easier to skate by on this issue, to shift around one’s values without anyone noticing, and more particularly to avoid becoming the target of someone who seeks to hide his own inconsistencies in a story about ours.
Not so, the net.
All sorts of different people read controversial statements on social media, and that includes the guy who likes to complain about your kinda people even as you’re trying to vent spleen about his kind. In some places, like Facebook, I think, folks may make an effort to set aside their grievances and remember that the guy who just posted the outrageous meme will be sitting across from them at Christmas dinner. In other places, like Twitter, each and every comment expressing a different point of view seems to be fair game. What’s worse, the 140 character limit on tweets thins out the context of any statement a great deal, so it’s tough to tell how people generally approach these things. If someone criticizes Kathy Griffin (or doesn’t) only those who follow him carefully will notice whether or not that criticism squares with his general approach to the issues. The temptation is of course to assume the worst, not for the least of reasons being that the worst often seems to be driving the public debate on such media platforms. So, if a given Twitter-Republican really is just as hard on right wingers who make use of violent rhetoric, few of his more liberal readers will ever know. Likewise, a Twitter-Democrat who doesn’t support images like those produced by Kathy Griffin is as easily accused of liberal hypocrisy as any of those who simply laughed and retweeted her without the slightest thought about the matter.
The way Twitter (among others) thins out the context of political rhetoric facilitates a degree of hypocrisy. That same thinness also makes it easier to substitute general stories about this side or that side of a given debate for genuine comments on actual behavior, stories which fill in the details of people’s political orientation without checking those details against their personal history. This I think, makes the meta-hypocrisy shuffle just a little bit easier. You can always pretend the other side flipped first.
…and that makes it a little easier to flip yourself.
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to a question from the audience at one of the New England Council’s “Politics and Eggs” breakfasts in Manchester, New Hampshire November 11, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder – RTS6IWM
I think I found the source for Donald Trump’s approach to public speaking. There is a clear precedent for his technique.
It’s Jane Elliot!
Jane Elliot is of course the Ohio grade-school teacher made famous for a classroom exercise in which she taught her students to discriminate against each other on the basis of eye-color. If you watch her in action, you can see the elements of Donald Trump’s rhetoric style unfolding before you.
It’s funny, because I’ve been thinking for some time that I have never seen anyone lie so readily, so easily, and in the face of such clear counter-evidence. Never have I seen anyone whose praise or whose censure was so obviously a function of his own self-interest. It is as if facts have no bearing on his evaluation of anything or anyone, and the only thing that registers significance in his evaluation of the world around him is what he wants to happen. Those who support his goals are terrific, and those who oppose him are failures, sad. I keep thinking, no-one I know of has ever been so obvious about it. But no. The man has a clear role model. If you watch Elliot teaching her students to mistreat each other, it’s all there. She may have meant her exercise to warn people against this sort of thing, but I can’t help wondering of Trump didn’t watch her at some point and say to himself; “Yep! That’s exactly what I want to be.”
Elliot set out to instill prejudice in her third graders in the space of a single day, and then to reverse that prejudice the following day, before debriefing the lot of them and ending the lesson. She didn’t have a lot of time and she wasn’t the least bit subtle about it.She employed all manner of tactics to communicate contempt for the wrong-eyed children in her classroom.
You might think Elliot’s lessons less relevant to real-world politics, because, well third graders, right? But of course, Donald Trump’s own rhetoric has all the features of grade school communication. Far from a detriment, it turns out childish vocabulary and simplistic arguments are actually one of the keys to his success. With his simple words and constant repetition of basic themes, Trump leaves a very clear impression. It is the single-mindedness of Trump’s presentation that seems to resonate with his supporters, and in that respect, his approach is very much like that of Elliot.
But does the nature of the message matter?
You bet it does.
It’s not just any simplistic message that Trump offers supporters; it is a simplistic message about who is a better person; them or someone else? In this respect, his approach mirrors that of Elliot. It isn’t merely that Trump advances a message of hatred; it is that he presents that hatred in terms of a clear pay-off. You are are better than they are! That is what Trump keeps telling people (whoever you are and whoever they might be). It’s an invitation to enter a world with a clear hierarchy of value, and to enter that world on the value-laden side of that hierarchy. You don’t even need to do anything. You are already better than the many scapegoats he offers you (Muslims, Mexicans, the Media, minority activists, etc.) Trump really doesn’t call on supporters to do much more than vote for him. Their role in his his America is to be the real Americans while the rest of us take our lumps. It’s this message that survives all the messy details. It is a message not the least bit undermined by questions of fact, reason, or even the evidence of the senses. In this respect, Trump is very much like Elliot teaching half of her classroom to think of the other half as lesser people.
When I watch Elliot tell a child (at about 5:20) that a blue-eyed parent would never kick his son while using the apparent claim that a brown-eyed parent had done that very thing, I can’t help but think of Trump’s many anecdotal attacks on immigrants. It shouldn’t take much critical thinking to see past the argument, but is that more important than the invitation to be better than someone else?
Apparently not for a lot of people.
When Elliot begins telling the Brown-eyed children they can’t use the drinking fountain (at around 6:10), and when she restricts their playground privileges, she is effectively telling the blue-eyed children they are special. The things they all used to take for granted now belong only to the blue-eyed children (at least for a day). The pay-off is not substantially different from that enjoyed by an audience assure more of their kind of jobs will be created while watching others threatened by cuts, told their own health-care will be taken care of (somehow) by cutting others loose, and of course their citizenship will not be sullied by the presence of certain kinds of people. (And no legality was NEVER the issue in Trump’s new-fangled Know-nothingism) We on the left haggle over the details of these policies as if they matter. To the average Trump supporter, I do not think they do. He may be right about this or wrong about that, but what matters most to those who support them is that he keeps elevating them above someone else. He does it free of charge. They don’t have to understand anything difficult; they don’t have to work harder (at least he doesn’t say they will); they don’t even have to listen very carefully. Being better in Trump’s world is as simple as saying yes to him and his gold gilded message. In scapegoating enemies domestic and foreign, Trump is telling anyone who cares to accept him that they are special. They get to drink at the fountain. Others don’t.
When Elliot tells her children that the brown-eyed people are slow or stupid, she creates the very facts she purports to describe. Elliot noted (at 13:15) how the student performance rose or fell with the changes in their status during the course of her exercise. There is little to distinguish this from the effects of social stigma and/or poverty on groups for whom prejudice is not simply an exercise. When Trump promotes such distinctions, he generates real harm.
(At about 12:10) “Do blue-eyed people know how to sit in a chair? Very sad. Very very sad.” …this one speaks for itself.
One might think that folks would see past such a thinly disguised gambit. Elliot is working with third graders. Surely, adults would know better!
In the end, this may not be a question of what people actually think. It’s a question of what narratives they circulate. We keep hearing that Steve Bannon isn’t really an antisemite or even that Donald Trump isn’t personally against homosexuals, Mexicans, women, etc., but the Trump camp and its supporters keeps producing stories denigrating to these groups and anyone who gets in their way. Like Elliot, they may know better, but like Elliot, they do it anyway.
Except for one thing.
There will be no debriefing at the end of Trump’s Presidency. There will be no great learning moment, no sudden transformation of the whole situation into a great learning lesson. Whatever cynical reasons he and his supporters may have for throwing the rest of humanity under the bus, there is little reason to believe it will stop any time soon. The only credible promise this man ever made is that he would hurt people in their name, and for whatever reason, that was reason enough for a number of people last November. We can only hope that enough people come to their senses, and that if and when they do, something can be done about it.
In the interim, the Trump administration continues its own experiment in social control. The continue teaching us to humor this man’s fantasies, and to think of ourselves as better for doing so.
Let us hope the nation as a whole can respond a little more appropriately than Jane Elliot’s third graders!
It’s a popular response in political debate, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a powerful denunciation (delivered in the midst of an amazing performance), a line that serves both to deny someone the right to an honest answer and to place responsibility for that denial on those to whom the truth is denied. It’s the sort of response one could follow with a mic drop. Really it is.
What people seem to forget is that this is a line issued by a character who really is lying in defense of a crime he really did commit. When you keep that in mind, it puts efforts to use the line in real life in a whole new perspective.
Saw this in Cedar City this summer (I think Moni took the picture.)
Atheists can’t provide a sound basis for their morality.
…it’s the kinder gentler version of “atheists can’t be moral,” which is a common theme among Christian apologists. To be sure, some folks go back and forth between the two messages, but at least some apologists do seem to keep a clear distinction between the claim that atheists cannot be moral and the claim that whatever morals we may have, we simply cannot justify them in rational terms.
Some folks express this position in the form of an architectural metaphor; we have no foundation for our ethics, so the argument goes. Alternatively, we cannot ground our moral principles in a sound basis of judgement; our morals aren’t based on anything objective, and so on. The sheer physicality of this rhetoric is always striking to me.
Still, I can’t help thinking some of those using this language could stand to think about those metaphors a little bit. It would be nice if they at least recognized them as metaphors. As often as not, I suspect many of those producing such messages take these terms rather literally.
All that aside, lately, I’ve been thinking about this less in terms of the argument at hand and more in terms of the narrative about that argument. Questions about the nature of morality go back a rather long way in the history of western philosophy, to say nothing of countless other contexts in which people could ask about what people ought to do and whether or not they can provide a sound reason for their answer. This is not just one ongoing debate; it is many, and while that debate rages on with no likelihood of a clear winner, this story of the unique moral failure of atheism flourishes in its own right. The notion that atheists can’t provide an adequate account of the nature of morality may be a contention to be argued in select circles. It can also be a story told about the difference between us and them.
…in this case, I’m a them. Damn! (Othered in my own blog post.)
First an anecdote!
This theme reminds me of a time a college friend took me to see Gary Habermas speak at his church. Habermas is a renowned apologist, so I was expecting to hear an interesting argument in favor of Christianity. Suffice to say that I didn’t. I don’t know how to convey just how unimpressive Habermas was on that occasion. I could hardly believe my ears. To this day, I wonder if I missed something important or if Habermas was just having an exceptionally bad day? I don’t know.
The whole performance got a great deal more interesting though after Habermas stepped down, and the regular pastor for this church took a moment to add a few thoughts of his own. The pastor himself struck me as a fairly nice guy. I couldn’t help but like him, but there I sat listening to him try to put Habermas’ presentation into perspective for his audience. What impressed the pastor was the notion that someone could field a complex and sophisticated argument in favor of the Christian faith. He ended his own comments by saying how good it felt to know that people of intelligence could defend the faith, that smart people did in fact believe in Jesus and that they could justify that faith.
So, there I sat thinking on the one hand that Gary Habermas might be a smart guy, but we sure as Hell hadn’t seen anything to prove it on that particular day. More importantly, I couldn’t help noting how much had been lost on the pastor. He had nothing to say on the topic at hand, or the arguments Habermas had made, nothing at all. The mere fact that Habermas had fielded an argument in favor of Christianity was what interested the pastor. Such an argument did exist, and its existence was a comfort to him. It should also, he thought, be a comfort to others attending his church.
This is what I mean by the narrative value of the argument. Habermas and people like him continue to make their arguments, and people like me continue to be unimpressed by them. Still, the arguments seem to hold a value in believing circles, a value almost entirely unrelated to the soundness of the arguments themselves, much less the impact of those arguments in contested circles. An apologist may fail to engage unbelievers entirely and still count as a success in believing circles. For some, it is enough to know that smart people defend the faith.
Toward what end is another question.
So what? Conflict is a common source of good narrative material, and conflict over religious beliefs is no different. We unbelievers have been known to tell a story or two out of season ourselves, but I don’t think we’ve established quite the market for selling to the non-choir, at least not yet. A few unbelievers may be working tales of battle into a profession of sorts, but we are generations behind the business of Christian apologetics. So, our narratives are generally more fluid, the pay-off less certain, and the likely consumers for such stories less obvious. When an atheist fields an argument against a believer, it is still reasonably likely that the believer is the actual person we are trying to communicate with. Christian apologetics, by contrast is full of people framing arguments in terms of a confrontation with unbelievers only to produce them for the benefit of other believers. It is in effect a business aimed at producing stories like those told by the pastor above, stories of reassurance.
Let’s come back to the notion that atheists can’t justify our own ethical principles. What does this contention provide when it’s construed in terms of narrative themes? I think the payoff is very clear, namely in the implied contrast. If we non-believers can’t justify our moral principles, so the argument seems to suggest, those who believe in God can. As much as people working this argument may be trying to tell us about the failures of unbelief, they are also claiming a victory for theism, or at least for specific variations of theism.
What is wrong with us, so the story goes, is we cannot justify our moral principles. We may be moral people, but our morality is lacking something, and that something is important. Don’t get me wrong; this story a damned site better than the argument that non-believers are inherently immoral, but this particular concession that we are moral without a sound reason damns us with faint praise.
What’s so infuriating about this is the difficulty of the issue. It really is very difficult to establish a rational justification for ethics. We can often establish reasonable connections between certain basic value judgements and more specific propositions (Kant’s categorical imperative could be used for example to suggest that one ought not to lie to someone else as that would entail reducing them to the status of a means to an end), but providing those basic value judgements with a non-circular justification is damned difficult. I won’t say it’s impossible, but it’s certainly difficult, and always subject to contention. Is morality deontological or consequentialist? Universal or some variety of relative? These are all pretty difficult questions, and belief in a god simply doesn’t provide an obvious solution to any of them.
When apologists pretend that atheists are uniquely unable to handle the matter, it always strikes me as a rather premature declaration of victory. As often as not, they seem to confound two or more sub-themes in these discussions. When for example a theist claims their oral principles are objective because they have been mandated by God, I find myself at a loss for words. Even an ultimate subject is still a subject, and a morality derived from the will of a subject, even an ultimate subject, is still a subjective ethics. …unless of course one can demonstrate that the subject (God) has Herself based her judgement on something objective. Or perhaps, there is an objective reason why we as subjects are obligated to do what God (that uber-subject) wishes, but that would be stretching the meaning of objectivity a bit thin. I can certainly understand someone expressing skepticism at any of the attempts to establish an objective or absolutist form of ethics, but atheists simply are not uniquely implicated in this problem. I’ve known Christians who handle this issue very well. They are not among those proclaiming to failures of atheist ethical theory to the faithful in their churches.
In the end, I think this theme has two significant practical implications:
First, it reverses the point of morality, at least for purposes of the narrative in question. One might expect that the value of ethical behavior would in some sense be found in the behavior itself. Those hawking the notion that atheists are unable to demonstrate a sound basis for our moral judgements are, in those moments at least, shifting the focus of the work at hand. They are in effect, presenting the intellectual justification for morality as an end in itself. The point of morality is in such stories a bit intellectual exercise. I might do right by my neighbor, so the story goes, but I don’t really know why I should do so.
And thus doing right by my neighbor becomes just a little less important.
Second, this theme seems to produce a kind of moral hierarchy. There are those of us who do right, so the story goes, and those who know why we do right, or at least why we should do so. I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise to see this kind of division of labor appearing as a theme in apologetics, but it is fascinating to see the way it takes shape in this rhetoric. The authority of the faithful seems to colonize the world at large in these stories, and those of us who are merely moral (at best) are just a little less than those that know why we should be so. Our actions are just a little less significant than those who claim to know the objective basis for moral principles. We can say no, as I surely do, but that’s to be expected of us. The faithful know.
But of course this isn’t simply a claim to authority over the rest of us, and it isn’t even a claim that privileges the perspectives of priests and pastors, much less the avergae everyday believer. It is a claim that privileges the perspectives of apologists. Simple pastors like the man I mentioned in the story above can do their best, but it is up to the smart people who defend the faith to do the real work of ethics. The rest of us, believer and unbeliever alike can be moral, sure, but our morality will always be missing something.
Which of course makes Christian thought into a rather esoteric enterprise.
Let’s say I post a criticism is Islam (or of some Muslims) somewhere on the net. What is the most likely impact of this action? I know. Crickets chirping, right? But let’s think about the possibilities. Even if it is an e-drop in the digital ocean, I, like others who add their comments to countless social media accounts are trying to communicate something to someone. That may or may not happen, but as it is the point of posting in the first place, it’s worth thinking about it. So, my question is, what kind of impact will my criticism have?
If I say something about the mistreatment of women or homosexuals in Islamic countries, will my words have any positive impact on the lives of vulnerable people in places like Saudi Arabia, Iran, or those living in ISIS controlled territories? Or will my criticism simply add to the din of anti-Muslim rhetoric in the west? Will I in some small way help to ease the pressure on those oppressed by Muslim strictures? Or will I in some equally small way help others to make a case for bombing runs abroad and discriminatory policies at home? If I complain that Muslim women are oppressed through the need to wear a burqa, will this help to give some poor lady the right to bare her face in public? Or will my comment be just another insult to Muslims in general, even the women wearing those burqas? If I complain about female circumcision, will I help to spare woman this procedure, or will my comments serve simply denigrate those who have already had it? If I simply disagree with something Muslims believe, will my comments to that effect give them something to think about? Or will they just add to the stigmas already placed upon Muslims now living in the west? Might my comments (whatever the specifics) help to inspire some nutcase to go scapegoat a random Muslim on some random street corner in America?
And by random Muslim, I could well mean a Sikh, not because I’m unaware of the difference, but because those inspired to such random violence generally don’t.
Could my criticism have more impact on the lives of Muslims actually living in the west? Perhaps. But what would that impact be? Will I inspire people in a predominantly Muslim community to be more accepting of some of some of their own members? Will I make them a little less likely to entertain acts of terrorism? Is that even a real concern, much less a real hope? Or will my criticism simply provide one more signal that the western world is truly hostile to their own ways? Will I give them one more reason to insulate themselves against the rest of us, and live apart even as they live nearby?
I can do some things to increase or decrease the likelihood of positive impact. I can study-up to make sure I have a reasonable point, or I can pass along a meme with a real gotcha kinda gut-punch? If I choose the former route, what then? A reasonable criticism presupposes a basis for constructive dialogue, even a willingness to listen to the response. Sitting up here on the northern edge of northiness, I’m not sure I have such a basis for constructive dialogue, and I suspect your average Muslim (whether living in the West or otherwise) will have even less reason to give a damn that some random guy has a bone to pick with his or her religion. There may be inroads to make such conversations possible, but they don’t begin with the criticism. They don’t begin with me sitting down and saying; “I’m gonna take Islam down a notch today.”
I write this because some people seem to think criticism of Islam is a moral obligation. They can often point to bad things happening in Muslim circles, and I can often agree that some of those things really are bad. But how the Hell do I express concerns about things without making life more miserable for the countless Muslims here or abroad who just want to get through their day?
Much as I do.
It’s not at all uncommon to see net-warriors goading certain parties to be more critical of Islam. This is often coupled with an effort to minimize criticism of some other interest. Evangelical Christians, for example, will sometimes complain of atheists that we criticize Christianity while ignoring Islam. (A common gambit here is to suggest that we are too scared to criticize Islam. …chicken if you don’t, so to speak.) Voices within the right wing echo chamber frequently ask why the left complains of homophobia in their own circles when the executioners of ISIS literally throw gay men from rooftops. The answer frequently strikes me as obvious. No-one from ISIS gives a damn what I type. The far right here in America probably doesn’t either, but they are a lot closer to it than anyone living in ISIS-controlled regions of the world. Net battles are all sound and fury, this is true, but there is a lot more cause for hope when speaking to people with more cultural baggage in common and less political baggage piled up between them.
I used to hear and read similar games played on the subject of communism. Some folks would wonder out loud how the American left could be so critical of our own nation when we have so little to say about the crimes of the Russians. Why didn’t we protest their policies, I recall a few folks saying. I always thought the answer was damned obvious. The
The political context of such conflicts simply don’t give us a clear line from a criticism to a positive outcome or even a constructive dialogue. More to the point, the criticisms themselves suffer in this case from a lack of attention to context. It isn’t just that Muslims are unlikely to listen to a random criticism from a random non-Muslim; that criticism is unlikely to be worthy of consideration in the first place, still less so if it is made under the illusion that the value of such a criticism could be determined in the abstract.
All in all, it’s a pretty childish game, I am talking about, but it’s one that seems to have extra traction as applied to Islam. The right wing has done a good job of generalizing the sense of war in our present age. In the days immediately following 9-11, George Bush was careful to tell the public that we were not at war with Islam or with Muslims in general. That didn’t ensure authorities would treat Muslims with anything near the respect deserved by any human being or even with the respect that should simply go with due process, but at least the man did make an effort to define America’s wars (reckless as they were) in ways that didn’t make innocent Americans into the enemy. The right wing echo chamber has been working damned hard to change that in the years sense then. Whether it was the fight over the so-called Mosque at ground zero or the constant drum-beat of professional bigots such as Pamella Geller, Ann Coulter, or virtually the entire Fox News Network, they consistently nudged the nation (and the world) toward a vision of one grand apocalyptic battle between the western world and the Islamic World. To be sure, there are voices within the Islamic world that agree with them on the terms of this war, but the mating calls of violent people will always resonant with those of their own enemies. The bottom line is that an awful lot of people see Islam itself as a force to be reckoned with, an enemy to be defeated with rockets abroad and with rhetoric at home.
This situation has the effect of skewing a number of general conflicts between Islam and its would-be critics. The philosophical arguments fielded against Islam by atheists, Christians, and others take on the significance of a political agenda. Sam Harris, for example, has suggested that 9-11 inspired him to become a vocal atheist. At the end of the day, atheists and Christians will have our disagreements with Muslims. If there have ever been paths to constructive dialogue between these communities, the notion that violence rests on the consequences doesn’t help much. Too often those of us on the other end forget just how much of that violence falls on Muslim communities. As the question is framed in popular culture, it is almost always about what they might do to us. What we have done to them never really seems to be on the table. Muslim and an atheist (or a Christian) could theoretically have a thoughtful discussion about their beliefs. Such debates are not the norm.
It wasn’t too log ago that I encountered a white nationalist on twitter claiming that Islam was a virus. He didn’t want that virus to infect the western world, and so his tweets on the subject moved back and forth between the notion that Islam itself was a virus and the notion that Muslims were the virus, that they must be kept out of western nations. To say that this was dehumanizing rhetoric would be putting it mildly. I have always regarded the dangers of comparing people to diseases (mental or otherwise) as one of the legitimate lessons of Nazi history. What surprised me about this example was the number of people who joined the conversation in order to defend the notion that Islam was a mental illness. Their interest in the argument, of course, stemmed from Richard Dawkins notion of religion as a kind of mental virus. That the specific comments in question were nowhere near so abstract was lost on the majority of those chiming in to defend the man’s comments. That the man producing them was a committed white nationalist was also lost on his many defenders. And thus a group of philosophy dude-bros came to the aid of an outright bigot without ever realizing the point at hand was more than a theoretical matter about the nature of religion.
Sometimes a philosophical discussion is anything but.
A second, and perhaps more serious problem lies in the nature of human rights abuses carried out by Islamic regimes or by militants under the expectation that such regimes will protect them. These deserve a response of some kind, but the countless war-mongers spreading news of every atrocity ever committed in the name of Allah certainly aren’t doing anything to promote respect for human rights. (Honestly, I think some folks suffer from terrorist-envy.) I often pass along what I take to be credible news accounts of atrocities, and I am happy to support the efforts of organizations such as Amnesty International or other such organizations working to prevent human rights abuses. That may sound weak, but at least it doesn’t strike me as adding fuel to a fire. If there are better ways to address such atrocities, ways that don’t amount to promoting violence and prejudice in their own right, then I am open to reading about them.
All of this may be much ado about less than nothing. Someone wrong on the net and all, but to degree that any of these criticisms matter, my point is that telling the world you don’t like Islam isn’t all that helpful. Being helpful at this point in history is a little more difficult than usual, but a good number of people could stand to try a little harder.
Cue comments about the “regressive left” in 3, 2, 1…