Comment Section Kayfabe

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Forums and comments sections are, to all appearances, scripted performances. There’s nothing new under the sun, but the web has let us see just how scripted unedited arguments between regular people can seem. You see this also with first year philosophy students; their objections to the classics are often quite predictable. Why is it that people with varying levels of familiarity with a subject will provide seemingly scripted responses? How does apparent spontaneity take on the air of professional wrestling?

The answer, I think, is that each discussion is a game, which the players were prepared for in advance. For the most part they are not even aware of this, especially if they are young and relatively unstudied on the topic under discussion. But they are prepared nevertheless, by the communities they are a part of, which induct them into certain traditions.

Following the script is a healthy and necessary part of wrestling with existing ideas yourself and making them your own. But it can also become a dead end. You can fall into the same patterns endlessly without any potential for growth.

In The Anatomy of Peace, it is argued that ongoing conflict can be sustained only by a kind of collusion among the participants. “Everyone begins acting in ways that invite more of the very problem from the other side that each is complaining about!”

In Leadership and Self-Deception, another book by the same authors, it is argued that we often feel a need to be justified in our side of the conflict, and thus ignore opportunities to find peace. One character shares an anecdote:

“On a particular Friday night, Bryan asked if he could use the car. I didn’t want him to use it, so I gave him an unreasonably early curfew time as a condition — a time I didn’t think he could accept. ‘Okay, you can use it,’ I said smugly, ‘but only if you’re back by 10: 30.’ ‘Okay, Mom,’ he said, as he whisked the keys off the key rack. ‘Sure.’ The door banged behind him.”

“I plopped myself down on the couch, feeling very burdened and vowing that I’d never let him use the car again. The whole evening went that way. The more I thought about it, the madder I got at my irresponsible kid.”

When her son returned right on time, she “felt a keen pang of disappointment.”

“After he came in the door — having made it in time, mind you — rather than thanking him, or congratulating him, or acknowledging him, I welcomed him with a curt, ‘You sure cut it close, didn’t you?’ ”

Though he had done his part in this instance, she rewarded him with immediate hostility which invited a response in kind.

In this instance it looks like it’s primarily about personal relationships between specific individuals, but it is at least as much about roles. This aspect is prominently featured in Edwin Friedman’s discussion of what he calls “emotional triangles” in his book A Failure of Nerve.

Friedman says that “there may be no such thing as a two-person relationship,” as we bring in context from our other relationships, often without noticing. For Friedman, all relationships involve at minimum three people; hence “triangles”.

The way I would put it is that a two way relationship involves playing many different games, all of which are made possible by institutional, cultural, and personal context. In these games, as Friedman observes, “it is position rather than nature that is the key to understanding our functioning in any family or work system.” This is the emphasis on role; in his examples, roles within a family or business. But for our purposes, it can be extended to roles in an argument—I’m the Black Lives Matter person and you’re the Blue Lives Matter person; I’m the conservative and you’re the socialist.

Once we take our roles, the various games we play in them “interlock in a reciprocally self-reinforcing manner,” as Friedman puts it. So much so that the dynamics are perpetuated even as there is a complete turnover in the individual players.

Seeing these engagements as games should help clarify why that might be. Novices in chess who play one another often play very predictably. A veteran could guess what they’re going to do a few moves ahead. The structure of the game invites certain approaches; you can only learn the pitfalls of those approaches with time and experience.

In the realm of arguments, studying the classics can help us see how it has played out in the past, and prepare us somewhat. This can only get you so far, however—like boxing, while the training is important, nothing can replace experience in the ring. And like boxing, mere experience can also lead to bad habits and plateaus in growth.

There’s no escaping stepping into the arena, one way or another. But be wary about falling into the same patterns over and over. If you find yourself rooting against a peaceful resolution, it is probably time to change the game.

We Are All To Blame

Featured Image is The Third of May 1808, by Francisco Goya

We are all to blame, we are all to blame…and if only all were convinced of it!

-Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Demons

Morality is not a guide for living a blameless life. It is not a method for keeping your hands unsoiled by culpability.

I do not know if anyone really believes that it is, but I have noticed many talk as if it were so.

The conversation goes like this: Bob talks about how Jane fell short of some exacting moral standard, and thus shares the blame for something wicked. Jill points out that Bob himself has fallen short of that or some other exacting standard, and thus shares the blame for the same thing or something else. Heather turns around and pulls the same thing on Jill.

In short, they proceed by negation.

This game can go on indefinitely; many never escape it. It takes a big leap to see that no one can be blameless. Our hands are always dirty, just by living in this world, supported by institutions which require an ocean of blood to create and maintain. As social creatures we always stand in relationship to other people, and these relationships always involve an element of domination and hurt.

Once you make this leap, only two paths remain open to you.

The first is nihilism. The blame game and the standards are both negated entirely. The players become disenchanted; everything beautiful about the world becomes entirely obscured by ugliness. Institutions become just tools of power, relationships become just relationships of domination.

The second is acceptance. Seeing the ugliness in the world and in ourselves, and taking ownership of it. Accepting responsibility for having a place in this world, and confronting your own wrongdoings. Above all, it is seeing everyone as well as yourself for their ugliness and their beauty and loving them for both. You must be able to do this in order to accept the world. If ugliness irreparably tarnishes the beautiful for you, then you will end up either rejecting the world, or falling into self-deception.

This path is much more difficult than the other, and more difficult still than the idle chatter of the blame game. It is a wonder that we ever find acceptance, even for a fleeting moment.

I don’t imagine I can convince you to seek this acceptance. But I hope that you can see that, although you are not blameless, you are worthy of love.


Praise for the Judgmental

Featured image is a self-portrait of Joseph Ducreaux

Let’s talk about courage for a spell. Here are a few scenarios that require courage:

  • Going into a battle
  • Standing up to a bully, especially a physically larger one
  • Highballing a salary requirement for a job you are emotionally invested in getting
  • Lowballing your offer on the house you’ve fallen absolutely in love with

There are degrees, and there are qualitative differences, but it is still appropriate to speak of courage in each case.

Here are two ways you might take this:

  1. The word “courage” can mean many things—indeed, it can be used to mean just about anything, because words only mean what we use them to mean. Therefore it isn’t inappropriate, but the use in each case means something entirely different.
  2. Using “courage” across all of them points to some sense in which there is a true unity. Within this perspective, we can agree or disagree on whether a given scenario ought to be included, while still agreeing that a big plurality of types of scenarios can be unified in just this way.

Whether or not he means to, it seems to me that Akiva is committed to a version of the first one, whereas I am committed to the second. Most of the problems we see in one another’s perspectives flows from this fundamental disagreement.

Continue reading “Praise for the Judgmental”

Rhetoric and Due Diligence

Featured image is Disputation between Luther and Eck at the Pleissenburg, by Carl Friedrich Lessing

This post has a companion piece the delves further into the details of rhetorical analysis.

I recently argued that scientists ought to take responsibility for the effects of their rhetoric. The response was largely negative. Most simply denied outright that scientists have any such responsibility, beyond arriving at accurate conclusions or generating more information. Many were concerned that such an argument would hold people responsible for the very worst appropriations of their work. If we did that, wouldn’t we say the Beatles were responsible for Charles Manson, given his fixation with Helter Skelter?

Sam half-agreed with me, but thought the burden imposed on scientists would be too great in practice. He also misread the argument—he described it as a two step process, “to seek the truth and, once found, to render it palatable to the public through the use of controlled rhetoric.”

There are not two steps, but one; rhetoric is what scientists practice from the very start. And moreover, what I am asking is not unreasonable, nor will I pretend that the uncertainty around this is any smaller than it is. All I ask is for people to acknowledge that their rhetoric has consequences. I also ask that they do their due diligence. This means nothing more than doing what can reasonably be expected of them, given how little is directly under their control.

Rhetoric All the Way Down

As I have said elsewhere, there is no valid distinction between rational evaluation and rhetoric. The way we evaluate things is by attempting to persuade others as well as ourselves. In a companion piece, I have attempted to demonstrate this at length by drawing on excerpts from academic papers, an essay, a tech blog post, and newspaper articles. That piece focuses on the nuts and bolts of this; here I will focus on the bigger picture.

What is an academic paper, if not rhetoric? The author must invite people to read it, in such a manner that they are more likely to actually do so. She must establish the credibility of her research, to say nothing of her own credibility. And she must persuade readers that her conclusions follow from the results of her research.

How does one go about getting a PhD? The dissertation process requires navigating the turbulent waters of department politics. Ultimately, you have to defend your work in front of a group of department veterans, who have the luxury of taking their time to pick you apart.

The name of the game, in each case, is anticipation. If you can anticipate your dissertation committee’s objections, you can have specific answers prepared. If you can anticipate what will catch the eye of a peer in your field, you can take that into account when writing your abstract. If you can anticipate which technical terms will illuminate rather than obscure the point you are making, or what research methods will be taken seriously, or what caveats will help to defend the ones that aren’t, you will have a better shot of winning your readers over.

And if you can anticipate what moral implications people will draw from your work, you can do your best to forestall the bad ones.

Due Diligence

The creative powers of human beings should not be underestimated. As such, the entire range of meanings that people are capable of reading into the same words or same arguments is impossible to anticipate in advance.

Let us grant that from the outset.

Nevertheless, where does that leave us? Scot free, where responsibility is concerned? I think not.

Let us return to my argument about Charles Murray. In hindsight, I should not have made such an argument without liberally excerpting passages from his work. But never mind whether my criticism was correct, for now. I made it because I thought he was a clear example of a certain kind of problem; it was poor judgment on my part to think that so contentious a subject could ever render “clear examples” without marshaling a stronger defense.

My argument went like this: if you look at Murray’s perspective, which I outlined, certain dangers should be obvious. If someone looks both ways before crossing the street, and only goes after he gets the light, then when a drunken driver comes barrelling through the light from the wrong direction, we certainly wouldn’t blame the pedestrian. But if the pedestrian doesn’t look either way and walks against the light, we would certainly say he failed to do his due diligence, whatever the faults of the driver. Murray was staring very intensely at the politically correct crowd, but from his vantage point he had only to turn his head to see other ways his work could be misused.

The companion piece goes into greater detail on what exactly is entailed in a given standpoint and how it makes certain possibilities easier to see than others. But I don’t think the basic idea is all that complicated: Murray believed that our current system encourages us to think people with less than average intelligence are morally deficient. Thus it should have been obvious that some people could both think that and be hostile to political correctness, and so misread his work on different average IQs by group as an indictment of those groups. Murray was too fixated on making political correctness his enemy to do his basic due diligence against a much, much worse group.

Let’s focus on a more recent and clearer example of irresponsible rhetoric. This past week, Glenn Reynolds was temporarily suspended from Twitter because of the following:


In his post justifying himself, he talks about what one ought to do in a situation where people are rioting and you’re in a car, and so forth. But that’s rather besides the point. Does Reynolds have some special expertise here? Is there some way in which “run them down” would have actually been of help to anyone? Does he delude himself into thinking he was doing anything other than venting, expressing a feeling, and working up his like-minded audience?

“Run them down” is not a contribution, and tweeting it is certainly no way for a public figure with influence to behave. It is not how anyone should behave.

Reynolds and his friend immediately redirect the topic to the issue of how one-sided Twitter and other platforms’ enforcement is. This is a slick rhetorical move, to be sure, and stokes up their side quite effectively.

But it is a side issue. Of course Emmett Rensin and Matt Bruenig also behaved terribly—all the worse, in fact, because they were much more calculated about it. But that doesn’t make what Reynolds did right.

We live in an era that prizes “being yourself” in public and deplores any perceived artifice. Far from being a more worldly perspective, it requires the utterly naive assumption that the rhetoric of what we do and what we say has no consequences. Once you acknowledge these consequences—and we must, we have ignored them for too long—it becomes simply obvious that you should be thoughtful about how you act and what you say.


If you want to take a deeper dive, you can continue to the companion piece.

A Few Tools for Analyzing Rhetoric

Featured image is Still Life With a Skull and Medical Book

This post is intended to be a companion piece to this one

This is going to be a nuts and bolts piece, fleshing out a few technical concepts with examples from a sample of texts. It is meant to be a companion to a shorter, more readable piece. I would suggest starting there, and then returning here if you feel the urge to dig deeper.

Contrary to Sam’s point that rhetoric is an extra skill that scientists would have to learn, I want to demonstrate here that scientists live and breathe rhetoric. A scientific paper is a work of rhetoric; the authors seek to persuade their peers in a number of ways beyond simply accepting their conclusion. This is what Deirdre McCloskey has been saying about economics for decades.

My corpus for this exercise will be the following:

Continue reading “A Few Tools for Analyzing Rhetoric”

Scientists Are Responsible For Their Rhetoric

Featured Image is The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, by Rembrandt

What is the duty of the scientist, the researcher, the pursuer of facts, data, and insights? The consensus in our culture is that the duty of the scientist is to the truth. That is, he or she ought to follow their research, regardless of how it challenges established norms or makes people uncomfortable. We cannot persist in ignoring reality anyway, and so we owe it to ourselves to gaze at every new discovery unblemished by spin or political appropriation.

This, it seems to me, is a deeply naive doctrine. Every discovery can only be understood as a truth in the context of some larger projection of the whole truth. In a social world rife with contradiction, the partial contributions of the researcher will feed into the political struggles of various factions. This occurs at as low a level as the politics of academic careers as well as at the highest level of national politics.

In what follows, I will attempt to demonstrate that academics’ duty is not simply to the content of their conclusions, understood as something neutral and true on its face. On top of what they conclude, they also have a duty to attend to the rhetoric of their work—how they pursue their research, and most of all how they present it. How, they could anticipate, it will be received into existing frameworks. How they can tailor their work to preclude appropriation by some of those frameworks.

Continue reading “Scientists Are Responsible For Their Rhetoric”

A Very Brief Look at Lower Ways of Life

Featured Image is Parable of the Wheat and Tares, by Abraham Bloemaert

Fellow Sweet Talker Akiva is uneasy with virtue ethics and related families of theories. His chief concern is that the underlying assumptions about human nature will be used to shout down people’s voices about their own self-conceptions. In short, taking seriously what Charles Taylor calls strong, qualitative evaluation, will push us away from respecting individual dignity. And this is especially so when we are speaking of higher or lower ways of life, as Taylor says we must.

We could go back and forth hashing out the details of a virtue ethics position that might be palatable to him, but I’d rather find an example where I can dig in my heels and we can discuss the matter.

Let’s visit a common scenario; an adult who lives with his parents, and further, lives off his parents—he has no income of his own. Let’s say that he’s 35 years old. Crucially, let’s say his local economy is in a state equivalent to the height of the dot com boom; unemployment is so low, the job offers are practically knocking at his door. It would take very minimal effort for him to get a job that paid enough for him to live on his own, or with roommates. Or at least to pay his parents rent and cover his own costs.

Instead, he stays at home, and watches TV; primarily reality TV and cable news. He has minimal contact with his friends, and hasn’t dated since he was in school. His parents live to a very old age and he lives this way until they die. He needn’t have been perceived as a burden; perhaps they could easily afford to support him and were happy to do so.

Forgive me, but I cannot help but see that as a lower way of life than someone who puts in effort to provide for himself, is married and has children, has numerous friends, and continues to better himself in multiple ways. It seems to me that our hypothetical sloth has cut himself off from everything that imbues life with meaning, that is admirable or good.

And it seems to me that virtue ethics provides a useful framework for talking about this. Just as we can tell when someone is born with an unhealthy heart because we have a normative sense of what a good heart is, so too do we have valuable notions of what a good person and a good life are. These are much more fluid and manifold than something as concrete as a heart, but a lot of the basic things that characterize such lives are the same in broad outline: love, initiative, integrity, responsibility, and so forth.

Akiva’s argument is that everyone deserves to have their dignity respected, and to categorize the layabout as living a lower way of life is to impose ourselves on them. In short, disrespecting their self-conception is the same as encroaching on their dignity.

I cannot agree. I am not going to crash into this person’s house and start imposing my authority upon him and his parents. I can respect their dignity as human beings able to make their own choices without thinking that all of their choices are good. To attempt to discard our ability to speak of whether other people are making good choices or not seems to me to simply embrace nihilism—a rather severe consequence if preserving ethical egalitarianism is your goal.

But I invite Akiva, or anyone else, to persuade me otherwise.

Restoring Humanity to the Human Sciences

Featured image is A Hopeless Dawn, by Frank Bramley.

With rare exceptions, 20th century social scientists from B. F. Skinner through Paul Samuelson adopted methodologies which eliminated meaning and the mind from the study of human beings. The former believed that nothing existed beyond our external behavior, whereas the latter treated the mind like something that could be boiled down to an optimization formula.

A number of heterodox schools of social science have reacted to this. The Austrian school of economics, for example, has always been critical of the heavily mathematical models of mainstream economics, as well as the information lost in macroeconomic aggregation.

However, the Austrian school is not innocent here, either. In its crudest incarnations, it simply collapses into a formalism. This is not much better than mathematical optimization.

Its best incarnation, which I think is embodied in the subset of GMU economics under the stewardship of Pete Boettke, is much more sophisticated and open to other schools of thought. His students draw heavily on public choice, institutional economics, and philosophy.

Nevertheless, it is missing something essential. Thirty years ago, Don Lavoie attempted to fill in that gap by marrying GMU-style Austrian economics with hermeneutics. This would have brought human meaning into the social sciences in an unprecedented way. Sadly, he was rebuffed, and then he died tragically young.

As a result, even the most sophisticated treatments of meaning and mental content by members of this school are empty in important and systematic ways. Vlad Tarko’s paper “The Role of Ideas in Political Economy” is an example of this approach at its highest caliber. To understand its strengths and weaknesses, and how it could be humanized, I will evaluate this paper below.

Before we begin, I want to emphasize that I have picked this paper because it is very good. It offers a sophisticated framework that is of great value. In criticizing its treatment of meaning and mind, I do not want that fact to be lost.

Continue reading “Restoring Humanity to the Human Sciences”

Moral Enchantment

Featured image is Starry Night Over the Rhone, by Vincent van Gogh

My fellow Sweet Talker Paul offered some thoughts on moral objectivity this week. It was not so long ago that I was looking for this very sort of answer to this very question. As few as two, perhaps even one and a half years ago, I might have quibbled with the details but agreed with the spirit of the piece. Eight years ago I took a stab at something like it, though much less sophisticated.

My situation was very different then.

Lately it is not the substance of the answer that I struggle the most with. It is the question itself: is morality objective or subjective? Even intersubjectivity seems dissatisfactory, when most simply treat it as either one or the other–either pseudo-objectivity, or just as arbitrary as plain old subjectivity.

In what follows I will offer, if not an answer, then a picture, an attempt to portray how matters appear. I am not yet at a stage where I could tell you the question to which this picture is a provisional answer.

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Coping With Contradiction

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

-Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself

Featured image is Luncheon on the Grass, by Edouard Manet.

Practices are organized around constitutive goods that we strive to articulate, however imperfectly. But how adept are we at this, by nature? Is there a natural harmony between theory and practice?

Not only do I suspect this is far too optimistic a framing of the relationship between theory and practice, I suspect it is too optimistic about the internal divisions of theory and practice themselves, considered separately. And I think it is precisely this sort of optimism that leads people to trample over the politics of truth without noticing what they’ve done.

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