Are Journalists Responsible For Their Rhetoric?

Argument: Scientists have a dual responsibility to seek the truth and, once found, to render it palatable to the public through the use of controlled rhetoric.

Observation: The role of the media is to adjust relative status rankings. They accomplish this through the use of controlled rhetoric. Continue reading “Are Journalists Responsible For Their 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.

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The Schismatic’s Mirror

Featured Image is Works of Mercy

We live in a schismatic era; the spirit of our age is division, negation, standing against rather than for.

Schism is an act of violence; the schismatic tears their community asunder. Violence is not inherently bad. Surgery is violent, and so is setting a broken bone. Violence, in short, can serve a medical purpose.

But surgery must be conducted under the right conditions if we don’t want surgical incisions to turn septic. If the man with the hammer too often sees everything as a nail, our current situation too often inclines us to reflexively reach for the bone saw. Amputations can be lifesaving. But it isn’t the best way to treat a flu.

When we encounter a schismatic, we are too much like Narcissus encountering Echo:

In Echo he heard himself, but was not able to differentiate himself from her, so he hated her, revealing a self-hatred, making her (and himself) nothing.

Instead we ought to see them for what they are to us: a mirror to ourselves, to the ugliness and the beauty of our shared situation.

Echo’s mom was infuriated, luring him to a reflective pool of water, wherein he saw a reflection of himself. At this point, you’re supposed to “get it.” Ah, Narcissus finally sees himself and realizes that he is lovely.


Nemesis gets her revenge, of course, but what revenge? The higher gods have short-circuited Nemesis’ plan: Narcissus is transformed, becoming the loveliest of flowers, with neck bent in utter humility, which is a love for self. Narcissus loves himself, and we love Narcissus.

The schismatic rejects to protect themselves from ugliness, but the ugliness was a reflection of something already a part of themselves. Their rejection is propaganda by deed; it invites others to join them. And the spirit of our age, impoverished as it is, seems to offer few defenses but to reject them right back.

I believe that we need, instead, to accept them. Most of all, we must accept that we are a part of the world and the age that we share with the schismatics. We must accept responsibility for our part of that world. We must be able to love the schismatic, and what they reject, and ourselves; to be able to take responsibility but also to bend our stiff necks in humility.

Martin Gurri, my father, observes:

Given our nakedness, and the endless conflict, and the intensity of our mutual loathing, one would expect a frantic search on all sides for higher-level arguments to justify our opinions.  One would expect a new golden age of moral inquiry and creative philosophy.  Instead, every trace of curiosity and humility has been bludgeoned out of our public conversations.  A police shooting might inspire a debate about the proper use of force by the authorities:  instead, it becomes a shouting match between those enraged by attacks on law enforcement and those enraged by racist cops.

In reading this piece, I couldn’t help but feel that he was reaching for the bone saw, too. But some other tools in the medical bag are hinted at, though left untouched.

Why not probe deeper into the nature of authority? Why not search (frantically or calmly) for “higher-level arguments”. Seeking to justify opinions already held can be a great provisional starting point on a longer journey. If we can have the courage to face doubt, and a willingness to press on when the certain becomes uncertain.

The narrowness of the age is rivaled only by the breadth of resources available to us. Most of the great classics are available online, free of charge. Pictures of great art can be accessed that way as well. And an army of scholars and enthusiasts on every topic under the sun are a few keystrokes away, to talk to and to learn from.

Accept the schismatic character of the age. Love the nihilists as yourself. And then accept responsibility for the serious pursuit of answers to your questions. The road to wisdom was never an easy trek, but it’s no harder than it’s ever been.

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Public Spheres

If you play a game by its rules, and can’t predict the moves of the other players, isn’t there a sense in which the game plays you?

Social participation is a far thicker thing than most people believe it to be. After the Lockean turn, we are capable of thinking of participation as only a personal choice. In as much as we feel the pull towards participating, we call it “peer pressure” or “social pressure,” and class it as a type of oppression (however mild in degree).

This thick participation, however, is central to the human experience. It is at the heart of language, art, politics, and commerce. It’s not just how we accomplish things together, but how we reach common understanding, how we fill our lives with a shared joy. It is also, of course, how we dominate and immiserate one another and ourselves.

But I don’t think we can avoid this sort of participation, nor do I think it is wise to try. The project of eliminating all power relations, pursued by 19th and 20th century radicals, has proven fruitless. All relations, from our most cherished and intimate to our most remote and official, have political implications. To eliminate power means never to love, trust, or depend upon anyone ever again. In short, it means isolation and it would result in our extinction.

Continue reading “Public Spheres”

Scott Adams and the Anti-If-By-Whiskey

If-By-Whiskey is a beloved rhetorical device dating from the decline of the prohibition era in 1950s Mississippi. It was a strange, transitional time when whiskey was still officially banned, and yet widely consumed, sold and even taxed. As the saying went at the time, people staggered to the polls to vote dry.

Thus when Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat, Jr. delivered his famous speech in the state legislature he could not simply come out and call for an end to prohibition. That would have been political suicide. Instead, he recited what has come to represents a quintessential example of the double doctrine; of saying two seemingly contradictory things at once to appease multiple audiences.

“If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty …” he began, pausing for applause from the temperate in the audience, “then certainly I am against it. But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes … then certainly I am for it. This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.”

As a blog in large part about persuasion and rhetoric, Sweet Talk has published versions of If-By-Whiskey on contemporary subjects of controversy, including If-By-Feminism, If-By-Child-Labor, and If-By-Open-Borders.

Overtime, I have come to think of it less as an act of deception, and, on the contrary, more of an exercise in good faith discourse. A well constructed If-By-Whiskey ought to pass the Ideological Turing Test by demonstrating that one can articulate his or her opponent’s view as forcefully and convincingly as they could. That encapsulates the persuasive method, and reveals persuasion’s direct connection to empathy, sympathy, and perspective taking.

If-By-Whiskey is therefore in a sense an anti-troll. Trolls are good at perspective taking, too, but use it to know the precise things to say that make partisans the most angry. Why? Because vitriol in the face of someone who doesn’t give a damn can be quite amusing. Whereas irony is a bridge between absurdism and righteousness, trolling is purely nihilistic, the act of bashing the absurd over the righteous’s head and laughing all the way.

Scott-AdamsEnter Scott Adams. He is the man best known for the absurdist office cartoon Dilbert, but has made a new name for himself through his blog as an internet troll extraordinaire. Behind the guise of quixotic psychoanalysis, Adams has essentially perfected the Anti-If-By-Whiskey: esoteric posts which somehow manage to piss off everyone who reads them.

Take his recent post, “Why Gun Control Can’t Be Solved in the USA.” At its heart is a fairly valid and almost banal point: The groups that either support or oppose gun control generally belong to different demographics with different relationships to the risk of being shot. As he puts it, “Our situation in the United States is that people with different risk profiles are voting for their self-interests as they see it.”

But that’s not how he begins his piece. No, he begins it in the most hilariously incendiary way possible:

On average, Democrats (that’s my team*) use guns for shooting the innocent. We call that crime.

On average, Republicans use guns for sporting purposes and self-defense.

If you don’t believe me, you can check the statistics on the Internet that don’t exist.

Democrats use guns to shoot the innocent? Wow.

Of course, he’s referring to the fact that, comparatively speaking, inner city gun violence is committed by a demo who tend to vote for Democrats, while the archetypical Republican gun owner sits peacefully in his castle, gun loaded. There’s just a lot nicer ways to say that. Ways that don’t end up pissing off Republicans and Democrats alike.

And whereas the classic If-By-Whiskey is conciliation bookended by proclamations of embracing controversy (“I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be”), a typical Scott Adams post is outrageous bridge burning bookended by claims to being totally noncommittal and disinterested in anything but the science of persuasion.

As a self-described persuasion expert himself, Adams surely knows the story behind If-By-Whiskey. So what then is the goal behind his trololololing?

The lulz, for one: Adams clearly has fun at the expense of the righteous.

Selling books, for another: Not a post goes by that doesn’t include a link to his Amazon page. Stoking controversy with a veneer of plausible deniability is just expert #content marketing.

Third, and more speculatively, I also think Adams wants to impart real opinions to a knowing audience by using a trick pioneered by Nigerian email scammers.

Ever wonder why that email from the Nigerian Prince is so full of basic spelling errors, and so obviously suspicious on its face? Far from a sign of incompetence, it’s in effect a gullibility sorting mechanism. If you make a scam obvious the only people dumb enough to respond are also likely the same cohort who will be wiling to hit send on a money transfer down the line.

Who remains on the other side of Adams’ troll-sensitivity filter? Sociopaths, rationalists, nihilists, comedians, individualists, neuro-atypicals, and fellow trolls. All of which overlap to a degree. And each of which is an important and underrated audience, insofar as the least partisan and most discerning thinkers represent a swing vote, both literally and in the larger battle of ideas.

Discourse of Free Cities

Every political change must be accepted by the populace, either tacitly or explicitly. On a more granular level, different types of political change require different levels of acceptance from different networks of people. Therefore, types of political change can be categorized by the intensity with which they affect networks of people. Given my interest in free cities, cities with a degree of legal autonomy, I thought I would take Adam Gurri’s kind invitation to discuss the discourse on free cities.

My interest in free cities stems largely from my understanding of political change. Politics is highly path dependent. Free cities offer a way to break that, potentially accelerating institutional improvements. However, there remains a great deal of hostility to free cities.

First, there are three groups with interest in free cities, libertarians, Silicon Valley, and developers. Libertarians largely have the ideas right. Some focus on outlandish Rothbardian ideas of property rights unlikely to work. However, a strand of libertarians has focused on best practices for institutions and how to recreate them in the developing world. Paul Romer largely fits this description, though I expect he would deny the association with libertarians. Unfortunately, while libertarians have the ideas, they lack the influence and money to build free cities. Hopefully Honduras can break this generalization.

The second group is Silicon Valley. They have some overlap with libertarians, but are distinct enough to justify a second category. Initially led by Peter Thiel and Patri Friedman, Silicon Valley focuses more on achieving the best institutions, rather than improving those in the developing world. Y Combinator is a welcome recent addition to Silicon Valley discussions about cities. Silicon Valley largely has the ideas, as well as some of the money, but lacks the influence to implement free cities.

Much of the difficulty that libertarians and Silicon Valley have faced in their quest to build free cities is their aversion to politics. A free city is seen as opting out of politics, rather than an inherently political act. They want a blank slate on which to build a city, but don’t fully understand how to achieve the autonomy required for a blank slate. Luckily, they have also been realizing this over the past several years, and will hopefully have more luck in the future.

The third group is international developers, a group which should be interested in free cities, but isn’t yet. The New Cities Foundation has an annual forum, Cityquest, which brings together developers building new cities. These are multi-billion dollar projects, but they, by and large, conceive of cities as construction projects, not realizing the value of legal institutions. Luckily, again, based on conversations with development groups, they are slowly realizing the value of legal institutions.

The last relevant question is, what prevents the emergence of free cities? Of course, countries are still reluctant to allow such high levels of autonomy, but what are the particulars? My current understanding is that the primary barriers are McKinsey and World Bank types. They are often presidential advisors in countries that could host free cities. However, they are unimaginative and risk averse. When presented with free cities, their response is to suggest a special economic zone with slightly lower taxes.

Building free cities means changing the mind of McKinsey and World Bank types. Free cities have to be normalized. As such they can no longer be fevered dreams to create a libertarian utopia or a techno-futurist city. Instead, free cities must be seen as adopting the best practices of governance, as an addition to the existing world order, not an attempt to opt out from it. Institutional change requires the ruling elite. Advocates of free cities should heed that lesson.

Funny in Theory

Featured image is Democritus, by Johannes Moreelse.

Francis: I would like to apply some of what I have read recently, if you wouldn’t mind.

Paco: Unless you’ve recently been reading murder mysteries, I don’t see why not.

Francis: I’ve been reading theories of humor.

Paco: Oh, that is so much worse.

Francis: Come on, I want to try to make you laugh!

Paco: I would rather you killed me in a more direct way.

Francis: Don’t be such a spoilsport. Try this one on for size: what happens if you eat yeast and shoe polish?

Paco: Do you really need me to ask “what”?

Francis: The next morning, you’ll rise and shine!

Paco: …

Francis: You see, that was an example of “wordplay”. It makes use of the flexibility of meaning to subvert expectations.

Paco: Well, now that I know why it’s funny, I guess that’s my cue to laugh.

Francis: You’re right, you’re right. I shouldn’t need to give you the theory, if it’s really funny. Let me try an ethnic joke to help you overcome your sociocultural inhibitions—

Paco: You know what, I think I’m comfortable with my inhibitions. Thanks for the thought, though.

Francis: OK, but I’ve got this wonderful one that lets us indulge in our shared superiority to the outgroup—

Paco: Have any of these theorists ever successfully cracked a joke in their life?

Francis: I don’t see how that’s relevant.

Paco: …

Francis: Let’s not confuse theory and practice, here. I know you haven’t read as much as I have, but that’s pretty elementary.

Paco: So there’s some value in observing comedians as if they were chimpanzees, then?

Francis: How else could we really explain what it is that they do?

Paco: But if the theorists are completely incapable of cracking a good joke, what good are their theories? In what sense have they understood humor, at all?

Francis: Would you expect a particle physicist to be better at…being…a physical thing?

Paco: I see you bring a similar wit to your jokes and your rejoinders.

Francis: Well, is application all that there is to theory?

Paco: Surely you would agree that physics and comedy are very different.

Francis: Knowledge is knowledge.

Paco: The principles that govern a catapult or a nuclear power plant are the same everywhere and at any time in history. What makes something funny is almost entirely tied up in a particular situation. It’s tied to life! It’s not something you know in advance, it emerges as practice, it is understood in application, and nowhere else.

Francis: That’s an interesting theory.

Paco: Nice try, but you have got to work on your timing.

Francis: I mean it! You’ve just made the classic mis-step of theorizing about the impossibility of theoretical knowledge! The argument defeats itself.

Paco: But this is different.

Francis: How?

Paco: Because I’m right.

Francis: I know just the theory that explains why I find that response humorous…

Paco: Is murder still on the table?

Francis: Come on, admit when you’ve been bested.

Paco: It’s very possible that I have been. But I worry that we may fail to distinguish just because we’ve used the same word for something. Surely the knowledge it takes to understand a joke in a way that makes us laugh is different from the knowledge of Pythagoras’ Theorem or the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. And surely the kind of theory that allows us to build a catapult is different from the kind of theory that helps us understand jokes in a general way.

Francis: And is this theory of theories yet another kind of theory?

Paco: All right, I admit I don’t know all the proper distinctions and can’t anticipate your traps. I’m sure you’ve read much more about this than I have.

Francis: No need to be cranky about it. Here, this will cheer you up: why did the picture go to jail?

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Minding the Overton Door

It’s often said that public advocacy of radical reform, such as that of ‘open borders’, is good because it can create space for public advocacy of less radical reform. In smartypants terms, the advocate for radical reform is thought to serve the purpose of opening wider the “Overton window,” which contains the range of policy ideas deemed currently reasonable or acceptable.

I’m not aware, though, that any hip jargon exists for conveying the following possible downside of advocating radical reform: When one steps out to advocate a very radical reform, any ensuing public debate will necessarily pit many supporters of incremental reform against the advocates of radical reform. And it seems very plausible that such a debate, in which the radical reform is soundly rejected, might displace a debate over an incremental reform. And what if the would-have-been debate over incremental reform could have been won by the pro-reform side? The initial advocacy of radical reform might then be interpreted as a counterproductive distraction.

Certainly, whatever it is that is displaced by radical advocacy in a given situation might not be a healthy and winnable debate over incremental reform. The point here is not to dispute that radical advocacy can sometimes valuably open a window, but to say it ideally would be wielded carefully enough so that shifting air pressure ‘in the room’ does not cause a good door to shut.


Against Temper Tantrums

Featured image is Argument Over A Card Game, by Jan Steen.

Remember South Park Conservatives?

At some point, the whole political and social spectrum bought into the cult of authenticity. The sloppy and spontaneous, the vulgar and unrestrained, are more truly human, have more integrity, than the polished, disciplined, and polite. Or so the story goes.

That the elites who believe this still feel the social pressure to be somewhat polished and polite is no object here—if anything, it merely heightens their admiration for those able to break the chains of decorum.

This is one of the great imbecilities of our age. For one thing, it mistakes mere childishness for some higher virtue, some deeper connection with nature. For another, it merely substitutes one script for another, and pretends to have done away with artifice as a result.

Continue reading “Against Temper Tantrums”

An Aggressive Argument for More Aggressive Argument

The comment and contribution guidelines for this blog open with an observation, “internet discussions frequently are neither respectful nor enjoyable, nor really conversations.”  That is a point that is difficult to contest. Everyone knows the internet is an intellectual and political shithole.  Thus the instructions continue: “Conversation here is respectful.  That means it is not insulting and it gives the benefit of the doubt.” These are laudable goals.  We would like folks to be good and charitable listeners.  But it is not clear that saying, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all,” is the best way to get more—and more open—discussion.

Elites, in my view, want to have it both ways.  We want to cherish and protect the rights of the screaming plebes . . . but keep them out of our back yard.  I will argue here that without more fully embracing screaming plebeianism, the otherwise sophisticated and correct academic prescriptions for more rhetoric, more debate, more interdisciplinarity, more ideological diversity, will stay unrealized.  Academic culture varies between a self help group, kindergarten sharing circle, and a buttoned-up sixteenth century court.  These performances of dispassion and emotional empathy are well intentioned, but they frustrate real intellectual confrontation.  Should we give up the game completely and just scream at each other?  No.  But probably more screaming is good for us.

Sharp argument, barbed snark, one liners, insults, can and often do lead to sweet talk and understanding.  It is not the case that in an argument (any more than an actual fight) if one party pulls a gun, the other will pull a nuke.  There is an intuition we have that if person A gives offense, person B will up the ante, and both will end up in a prisoner’s dilemma.  In this view, anything nasty starts a race to the bottom of the shithole.  That strikes me as a cynical view that forgets that there is more than one way to fight.

One can respond to aggression with ever nastier aggression, sure.  Or one can respond with passive aggression.  For every British imperialist there is a line of Gandhi salt marchers.  It is important to embrace and invite British imperialists to the table.  Violent comments are often the first sputters of something that has not been broached before. Transgressing commonly held beliefs is like a breakup.  There is no good way to do it.  It is uncomfortable, but people are not cowards who cannot handle being dumped.

We generally recognize the the benefits of resolving issues—even issues that are being spat at us—and the value of defending our reputations at an insult.  Screaming matches are exhausting and no one can keep them up forever.  So screaming matches often evolve into passive aggressive battles to gain the moral high ground.  We cannot have passive aggressive argument—sweet talk—to the exclusion of shit-giving direct aggression.  They rely on one another.  Without journalists and television pundits, scientists and humanists have no claim to superiority.  Without coddled and cotton mouthed academics, journalists and television pundits have no claim to keepin’-it-real superiority.

Allow me propose a hypothesis: all argument is a fight and that the goal is to win, but it is a fight more like economic competition than a street fight.  Like market exchanges, one party may win more handsomely than the other, but both get ahead.  We seem to have characterized some arguments as non-aggressive not-fights because we are terrified that aggressive argument is zero sum, a street fight.  We are (maybe reasonably) scared that aggressive arguments lead to fists, or to taking our ball and going back home to our epistemic camp.  But that is not the case! Argument, even the “you’re acting just like your mother” kind, is for the most part prosocial and positive sum.

George Lakoff points out in Metaphors We Live By, that a foundational metaphor in America is that Argument Is War.  Take these examples:

  • “His criticisms were right on target.”
  • “You disagree? Okay, shoot!

We all seem to intuitively agree that argument is a fight.  The question then becomes why rational agents would continue to fight, to argue, if argument a zero sum assurance of mutual destruction.  The answer seems pretty simple: it’s not. And so we ought to be less afraid of argument.

Both sides of an exchange, even an aggressive exchange, in the marketplace of ideas inevitably concede points in order to gain others.  Sometimes people concede points in more humble and direct ways, “I take your point, and…”  But even the interlocutor who is too freshly disabused to admit error takes the lessons home.  Poignant phrases haunt him until he reasons them through.  He leaves behind arguments he’ll never make again, and gives his opponent bits that she will digest later.

Not every argument can or should be polite and disinterested.  In fact if we take the metaphor of market exchange seriously, when we put people to debate who have no interest in the outcome, and who want to avoid high stakes exchange, we impoverish everyone.  We elites ought to not just ensure and protect a society where Donald Trump can sound off like a racist sack of dicks, or where Larry Flynt can show up to the Supreme Court with his balls wrapped in an American flag.  We ought to accept, welcome, embrace, and encourage it.  Even and especially on the internet and more so on campus.

Such is my purpose in making this point, again, to academics on the internet.  I once argued on a different blog that, “no one was ever persuaded that slavery was inhumane without a conversation that started with a lot of profanity.”   I stole the point from Jonathan Rauch, who argues (as a homosexual Jew pleased with the outcome of debates over homosexuality and Jewry) that bias and bigotry are not a hindrance but the foundation of enlightening discussion.   Gay kisses on church steps carried as much semiotic significance in the liberation of homosexuals (if not more) than did smoking-coat debates about sexual history.

Offending people is a skill and an important one.

Our most cherished beliefs are precognitive.  They go unaddressed and unannounced because we are already on the same page as our friends.  These priors live in the nerve complex in the gut and spinal cord.  Attacking them makes us feel sick to our stomachs. They arouse anger and stumbling-over-our-words disbelief.  We are often at a loss to justify or articulate these deepest beliefs.  That is precisely why we must offend one another into justifying and articulating them.  We cannot achieve an intelligent and empathetic society without stomping on nerves.  We need to be badgered and insulted and zinged into accounting for ourselves.  From insult there results understanding.

That means welcoming profanity and offense—in all of its glorious and mischievous fuckery—into polite society.

Questions remain here.  How much fuckery is optimal?  Relentless fuckery does in fact produce a screaming match or ultimately a fist fight.  How much empathic listening in the mode of National Public Radio’s Terry Gross or your high-school guidance counselor is necessary to thin the salt in the intellectual soup?  Can we effectively toggle between being aggressive and charitable, between being insulting and polite?  These are questions worth arguing over, aggressively.  A world of, “dignified sweet talk or shut up,” is both impossible to achieve and anyway undesirable for people who are interested in empathy and learning.