You Don’t Have a PR Person Telling You What to Say

For years after the success of Pygmalion, his play later adapted into the more famous musical My Fair Lady, George Bernard Shaw spilled a lot of ink arguing that Eliza would not marry Higgins. But he never edited the script to make this explicit within the play itself. Yet he wrote the play, so presumably he knew his own intentions—surely his take on the matter is authoritative?

This is wrong. The meaning of a text, or a play, or a film, or a song, is not subjective. Nor is it objective. It is conjective; Deirdre McCloskey’s word for what John Searle refers to as an “institutional fact” (or even more of a mouthful, “ontologically subjective but epistemologically objective”). Shaw could only write the play at all because he was educated and gained experience within a particular storytelling tradition at a particular place and a particular period of history. Certainly a great deal of subjective thoughts, feelings, intuitions and understandings played a role in the process of writing the play.

But the meaning exists in the space between the play and the audience, not in any one person’s head. So despite Shaw’s protests, the interpretation that, having now fully become a lady, Eliza would not settle for anything less than marriage, has a lot of strength given the culture the play is supposed to take place in. Certainly that’s how audiences have largely interpreted it for as long as it or its musical adaptation have been shown.

There are some strange implications to this point, once you accept it. If text takes on a life of its own once you’ve put it out there, what about text with a less artistic intent? Say…a tweet?

Consider this telling statement from indie game developer Tim Schafer:

Game-fame, he says, is a tool. It is not to be taken personally and certainly not to be taken seriously. But there is always a price.

“If you’re going to create a high-profile media version of yourself, you have to accept that person is sometimes going to be a magnet for animosity. But early on, I always realized there was a difference between me the person and me the media creation who was generated to help me get games funded.

“Some people get driven kind of crazy by confusing the two things.”

Does this mean that the person who is presented to the public is a complete fake, a phony, a hypocrite? No, nor need he be.

The point is that every statement has an implied author, and that the character of this implied person is not the subjective vision you have of yourself. No, the implications are conjective; your audience will piece together that character from the context they have available to them.

Rhetoric is much maligned in our authenticity obsessed era, but it is nothing more than than the art of wrestling with how you will be interpreted. To see why rhetoric is so important, look no further than Suey Park, one of many who found her life turned upside down by a few tweets that went viral:

She grew uncomfortable when I asked why conflict on Twitter had once ensnared her to such an extent. “You don’t have a PR person telling you what to say. Sometimes I feel like a child celebrity, defined by some things said and done in immaturity forever.”

Public Relations, being a subset of rhetoric, is another thing that people look down their noses at these days. Yet Suey Park clearly wishes she could have had some of its insights in mind before this incident occurred.

An important part of communicating the meaning you intended to, and representing the implied author you had in mind, is to consider your implied audience. Sometimes the enterprising rhetorician will create this implied audience where it did not previous exist—McCloskey’s example is Robert Fogel creating an audience of economically literate historians. But most of the time this is just a recipe for not getting your intended meaning across.

We live in a difficult time. It has grown harder to control what your audience will be.

For most of history, a speech, a newspaper, or a magazine all had fairly clear audiences. Now, anything you say anywhere can suddenly go viral. This includes private conversations, given how trivially easy it is to record audio or make a video on a smartphone. Donald Sterling certainly didn’t think he was announcing his racist attitudes to the world.

Given that meaning depends on context, the fact that a statement can instantly jump contexts is troubling. But that does not mean that we should give up hope. We need to channel Tim Schafer’s detachment from the implied author we present to the world, and to take our rhetoric more seriously. The fact that meaning can be more easily snatched away from us than ever is all the more reason why we need to prepare ourselves to contest hostile interpretations, if we wish to have any influence at all.

Three cheers for PR, public personas, and rhetoric. We would all do well to take persuasion as seriously as the ancients our medieval ancestors.

Property and Personal Dignity in the Ancient World

The Spivonomist brings forward some of his usual light-hearted polemic, and he has every confidence to be light-hearted and incisively dismissive of the “property is theft” meme that seems to crop up with every new round of vampire movies, for “property is respect” is not far removed from the basic precepts of human dignity since the very beginning of Western Civilization. To shovel up and turn over that foundation would be one heck of a people’s revolution, overturning at least 4500 years of precedent, inculcated in our several language systems and in our various justice systems.

Moreover, those precedents are rooted in narrative history, meaning the precepts represented within the earliest organizing legal documents have been forged through the human experience and practice of Mesopotamia, the Levant, Egypt, and Anatolia. In other words, not only are these precepts organic in their nature, but their systematization also reflected generations of legal application, balancing the varied uses of force and mercy to maximize stability and prosperity.

For example, one of the earliest complete examples is a treaty created by my best friends, the Sumerians, a royal inscription known as the Eannatum Treaty, created during the 25th Century. Its significance lies in no small part that the treaty was not of one subjugating nation over a subjugated nation, as the later Hittite treaties exemplify, but is a treaty between two allied cities who were susceptible to boundary disputes and the occasional ambitious, conquest-minded ruler, conflicts which flared up during the course of hundreds of years. A few things emerge when working through the treaty:

  1. The basis of the treaty is a narrative rooted in historical realities, witnessed by heaven and earth (the deities).
  2. Once the frontier was secured, the concern was rebuilding infrastructure and returning soldiers to their ordinary occupations.
  3. Once the army was largely disbanded, the concern was defense of the frontier against outside invasion, as opposed to civil disputes between two cities.

In a word, the concern was establishing peace in order for the people to prosper. A rising tide lifts all boats, including the boat on which sits the throne.

More importantly, this particular treaty has parallels throughout the entire larger region, including a contemporary treaty found at Ebla, near Damascus. Unlike the Eannatum Treaty, however, it was one nation subjugating another. Nevertheless, its primary concern was the provision of mutual protection of merchants, detailing how sojourners were to be received and how the sojourners themselves were to conduct business. Continue reading “Property and Personal Dignity in the Ancient World”

Property is Respect

I find it easier as time passes to suppress the urge to giggle that naturally accompanies my reading of the oft-repeated claim that property is theft. The odd case of IP law that renders genetic sequences subject to copyright protection suggests to me that theft is the nearest description of ownership that might be applied. Similarly, I still recall with a crawling sense of disdain a (perhaps satirical) proposal I once heard while working one season at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to sublet a stretch of the park to a developer who would build an extensive waterslide from the rim down to the mighty Colorado. Privatizing pristine wilderness  of special aesthetic or cultural value to crass commercial ends is a takings, a theft of sort against the interests of persons living and not yet born.

But ordinary property? The land my house sits on? The car I drive? The textiles I wear?

Congratulations to Jean Tirole, this year’s recipient of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. On my shelf is a copy of the textbook he and Drew Fudenberg wrote on Game Theory (titled, unassumingly, Game Theory). In it, they write of models that might be applied to notions of property as described by Enlightenment philosophers. Locke wrote as if ownership of the wild places of nature emerged through felicitous mutual cooperation, where men of like spirit pursued joint agreements to tame the wilderness and promote useful industry. Contrast this with Hobbes, who contrived a brutal state of nature, red in tooth and claw, where hapless primitives died early and painfully, enduring the din of a merciless God’s laughter. Between Locke’s Coordination Game and Hobbes’s Prisoner’s Dilemma is Rousseau’s Stag Hunt, whose organizing maxim lives on in Orwell’s Animal Farm: all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.

Whatever your game theoretic bent, if you squint your eyes hard enough, you can make the “property is theft” trope fit. A peaceful Lockean farmer still has to bar marauders and arsonists from his land to render it fertile, thus restricting their natural “liberty” to burn and pillage. However, given the choice between “property is theft” and “property is respect”, I have found respect to more comfortably fit each of the game theoretic models above. In Locke, property is supported by a widespread mutual respect, and the sovereign is there to recognize and enforce the terms of respect. In Hobbes, constituents are unable or unwilling to generate the rules of mutual respect, so the sovereign arises to provide that valuable service. In Marx, the direction of respect has been bloodied and perverted to flow in the wrong direction, to be restored by revolution.

What can we gain by thinking of the institutions of property as arising from the sentiment of respect rather than the crime of theft? Well, I can’t speak for anyone else, but it helps me a little easier to spot those specific instances where respect becomes corrupted or ignored. Staying off my lawn when I’m seeding it is a sign of respect for me, preventing folks from fleeing across my lawn when a fire rages across the street is also a measure of disrespect, this time on my part. This trope predisposes me to easily assign a hierarchy of wants, of justice to the ownership in a way that theft does not. Respect better matches the established order of law, better channels moral intuitions, and is better reflected in the folklore and received wisdom of the civilization. I don’t know if “property is respect” true or not, but it’s a lot more useful to me than “property is theft.”

You can’t spell “property” without “proper.”

[published without editorial review]

I Love [Sex Workers]

Adam Gurri threatened to kill my dog if I didn’t finally write a post. Knowing his penchant for quick and extreme violence, I knew I’d dilly-dally’ed long enough.


David Duke asks “Among us Sweet Talkers, what’s the general feeling about whores?” You can see my answer in the title. This post is really about putting a marker down to, first, keep my Fluffy safe from Adam’s anger, and, second, to lay out a rough outline on how I plan to answer this particular question and address what I see as the, inevitable, extended commentary.


Central Thesis: Sex work, in its many forms, is a prosocial institution.

The libertarian argument for sex work.

The public health argument for sex work.

The feminist argument for sex work.

The conservative argument for sex work.


To set some expectations: I don’t plan on writing long, complete treatises on the above but do plan on writing smaller morsels of an extended conversation to savor and chew over. I reserve the right to add more “The [X] argument for sex work” in the future. For better or worse(better), I feel this conversation, and its attendant tangents, will be my biggest contribution to our sweet, sexy musings here.

The World’s Oldest Euvoluntary Exchange

Among us Sweet Talkers, what’s the general feeling about whores? This one is kind-of the ultimate crass libertarian litmus test: two people are entering into a contract from which both benefit. I thought I’d toss it up here to see what the general contours are with regard to unbound liberty/libertinism vis-a-vis institutionalism in order to know how to appropriately manipulate my intended audience with my next post.

Is prostitution the archetypical euvoluntary exchange?