Thursday, July 14, 2016

Wanting To Win

Note: small but important edit of changing "can't" to "can" in paragraph 5.  I think most of you would have recognised it as an error anyway.

Editorialists often take a one-sided approach to discussions.  I suppose this is not contemptible in context.  They are supposed to identify a POV and put forth the clearest expression of it.  Like an attorney arguing a case, their job is to present one side – let the other attorney provide the counterpoint. Artists sometimes present ambiguity, but more often it is a faux ambiguity – playing with the sighs and ponders and nods but coming down in the predetermined spot in the end; most often of all artists attempt to express one side as powerfully as possible.

Yet for the rest of us life is not quite so simple.  One may side pretty strenuously with feminists in general and still know women who are no more than difficult personalities who have stumbled onto feminism as a convenient cudgel for the thrashing of parents or bosses or first husbands. All Christians know some brethren who they wish would just shut up, and some commonly-advanced arguments that are ludicrous. Few they are who cannot see any reason for going to war, nor any reason for staying out of it. Plus, we have people we like at least somewhat who see things quite differently.  When we have these discussions we concede points (sometimes too readily in the cause of keeping a discussion friendly), or we hold back from full-throated expression of our conclusion that our opponent’s POV leads to the deaths of children.

Yet in the theater of debate, and certainly in online debate, we tend to the firmer expression of our ideas. I think that is entirely proper. But I think there is a limit. No quarter asked or given should only be acceptable when the consequences are dire, and this particular episode of the larger debate is actually going to affect anything. I write this because I am tired of reading people who are not trying to arrive at truth, but are only trying to win an argument - fastening on some smaller point where they think they can prevail or embarrass, misrepresenting what the opposition is saying, etc. Orwell has a nice quote about it.

The thing that strikes me more and more—and it strikes a lot of other people, too—is the extraordinary viciousness and dishonesty of political controversy in our time.  I don't mean merely that controversies are acrimonious.  They ought to be that when they are on serious subjects.  I mean that almost nobody seems to feel that an opponent deserves a fair hearing or that the objective truth matters as long as you can score a neat debating point. (Italics mine)

I have a request.  Someone find for me a recent non-liberal example of this – a moderate, or conservative, or libertarian writer or speaker who is not fighting fair in this fashion.  I have a fresh example by a liberal, but I always have a fresh example by a liberal. When I search for examples of people I more-or-less agree with who are (likely willfully) overstating their case, I can find them easily in comments sections, but those are a suspect source: they might be trolls, or sock puppets, or simple provocateurs. Even if they are arguing sincerely, they might simply be fools and pigheaded. When I seek for bad examples from my own side(s), my mind shuts down too quickly, I think, gravitating to the points the writer made that were fair.
I am tired of reading people who should not be believed yet have a large audience.  I imagine there are people who feel the same way about me.  I know, I know, this audience is likely to have similar blind spots to my own.  But not all, and certainly not exactly.  If there are none, I will not put my own example forward.


Grim said...

How prominent an example?

On the other side, I read a piece in Commentary yesterday that was scrupulously fair. It was framed as a criticism of Clinton, but it couldn't help but slam Trump every other breath. Not unfairly, either. Both of them deserved the pummeling they got throughout.

Earl Wajenberg said...

I follow the blog of SF author John C. Wright, at

I like to read him when he writes about writing and F&SF literature. But most of the time he devotes his blog to grandiloquent denunciations of "Leftists." I can't feel sure what you mean by "overstating his case," but the sheer lack of temperance gives him good odds. In particular, there are only the most fleeting instances of the idea that the other side might be trying to do the right thing as they see it. No, the Leftists want to destroy Christianity, civilization, and humanity, in about that order.

His wife has her own blog. Much more temperate, seldom touching on the culture wars. I really wonder what dinner conversations are like at their house.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I didn't mind that particular essay so much, but a couple of his others fit the bill. And he reminded me of Vanderleun, who is sometimes brilliant but often crazy. So we have a start, here.

To refine the thought, it would be someone who is considered reputable by by some other reputable writers, and thoughtful - but actually has a lot of paranoid/crackpot/dishonest stuff on board as well.

Laura said...

Just off the top of my head... I see quite a bit of criticism of Hillary Clinton which seems to be primarily based on her looks, her weight, and her choice of clothes. And really, when you have so many other, far more substantive and important issues to raise-- whether she wears a pantsuit or has fat ankles shouldn't ever get to the top of the stack. (I've seen some mockery of The Donald's hair, of course, but nowhere near as much or as persistent as with Hillary). Likewise, the persistent "birther" questions about Obama-- this one is even more ridiculous, because even if his mother had mysteriously flown from Hawaii to Kenya to give birth, he would STILL be a natural-born citizen because he was the child of a US citizen (as was McCain, born in Panama but still a natural-born citizen). Now, that's something: even if their crackpot conspiracy was true, they'd still be wrong. And again: aren't there many, MANY more substantive issues to be raising?

In terms of "right wing" rhetoric, there's the widespread use of "cuckservative" to mean "any Republican who disagrees with me", "feminazi" for "any liberal woman", and any number of mocking misspellings of Democratic politicians' names. In terms of "right wing" media personalities, we can talk about Glenn Beck's maybe-maybe-not endorsement of assassinating Trump; Milo Yiannopoulos's endless provocations (just look at the titles of the last 10 articles he's published); Andrew Breitbart calling Ted Kennedy a "special pile of human excrement" just a few hours after his death; Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a "slut" and "whore"; and so on. None of these are arguments on the merits-- they're just straight up personal attack or mockery.

In terms of issues framing: there's the way that welfare recipients are always depicted as permanently lazy grifters (vs. temporarily down-on-their-luck), whereas (say) people who file for Social Security early are not, even if the dollar amount to the taxpayer is the same. Redefining "middle class" well into the top 1% for purposes of tax policy, with the photogenic example always being some charming family farmer or businessman (vs. an investment banker or lawyer). You get the gist-- everybody does it, but when you agree with their goals, you ignore the unfairness of the choice of "poster child" or example case.

james said...

Earl: after having read examples of published fiction from both of them, I think dinner table conversation is about writing. And kids, presumably.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Laura - I don't think I have seen many writers make fun of Hillary's appearance - no more than is usual for a political campaign. Bush as a monkey or stupid-looking came from supposedly respectable sources. Commenters, sure. Lots of that. But I don't recall seeing writers in news-sources - not even bloggers, though I imagine there are some, using feminazi or cuckservative.

People being insulting is not quite what I was talking about, though I think that's fair to bring up. And I think some of your examples fall into the "that's not quite what they said." I don't want to push that too far, because it may be pretty close to what they said. But if we go the "over-the-top insult" route, then we have all the Hitler references, which trend pretty strongly to one side, including Rachel Maddow this week.

Asking a presidential candidate to provide supporting data for his biography is not in the least inappropriate. They lie all the time. We still have no grades, transcripts, SAT's for Obama (and he's not the only one.) Not accepting reasonable explanations, however, does get more into what I am talking about. We get into territory where the writer should know, and perhaps even does know, what the basic data is. Refusing to acknowledge that, even with faux politeness, is misrepresenting reality. So the birthers, if they were in any clearly conservative outlet like National Review, Weekly Standard or whatever, would fit that description. But not guys ranting in the comments section.

So too with Kennedy. In this particular exercise, I would object if someone called him a drunk when he wasn't, accused him of killing a girl when he hadn't, or claimed he was a serial philanderer when he wasn't. But he did do those things. It isn't dishonest to shrug and say it's nothing nor dishonest to call him a vile name. That's a value judgment that we're all entitled to.

I had forgotten Beck. I can't think of examples of misrepresentation offhand, but I recall thinking that years ago when I used to hear things he said. There's likely something in that.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

On third thought, Laura, the Limbaugh quote is actually a very good example. If he wants to be insulting, fine. He can make his own decision whether that helps his cause. Yet it is the being tricky with language that is the part I object to. IIRC, he said something along the lines of "If she wants to be paid (by having her contraception purchased for her by others) for having sex, doesn't that make her a slut, a whore?" Something like that. He is trying to twist a technical meaning into a solid one. But that's not what "whore" means. It shares some elements, but only comes up to 20% true. And Limbaugh is smart enough to know that, so he is guilty of misrepresenting his opponents, misrepresenting their arguments.

Laura said...

That the Democrats also use frankly insulting language, including lots of exactly the same kind of insults (e.g., "Bushitler" meets "0bama")-- I think that's indisputable. But I'm not trying to show that one side is worse than the other, only that the conservative/Republican side does this too.

As for Hillary being mocked for her looks more than anyone else-- my gosh, I think that's past argument. But she's also being called a sloppy drunk, a lesbian, murderer of Vince Foster, complicit in serial rapes by her husband-- using your Ted Kennedy example, why aren't you outraged when these sorts of accusations are bandied about? The evidence for these accusations ranges from "thin" to "hallucinatory", after all.

And again, there are so many genuine scandals-- payments from foreign governments, competence in handling the Libya situation, the classified emails, clear concerns about nepotism and insider dealing, etc.

I think it's very destructive to bring up dubious, "stretching it" claims (to say nothing about pure fabrications) like those above, because it leads reasonable people to dismiss the serious issues as just "oh, those cranks are just yammering on again". Much like you might have done when somebody known for ranting about "Bushitler LIED!" changed topic to whether "extraordinary rendition" is even legal, let alone something which should be US policy.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Laura - I would plead again that I am not talking about commenters at sites but what are at least theoretically respectable sites and writers. My complaint I have not shared, for example, is from The Atlantic. As for the other accusations, the evidence for being a sloppy drunk is more than thin, as lots of people have seen it and reported it, though not in the last decade. Lesbian and murderer are devoid of hard evidence. Complicit in serial rapes by her husband - well, she is now. There's fair evidence for his actions, that was on display but the Senate Democrats refused to cross the street to look at in 1998. So those would depend. And still, I would ask by what authors, in what publications?

Texan99 said...

Attacking Clinton's looks is not the same as overstating an argument--it's not really an argument at all, only a gratuitous insult--but I find it constantly. Honestly, not a day goes by without it. I really can't stand Clinton, but boy does someone instantly lose my attention when that's the point he chooses to make about her. And it is all over the conservative blogosphere.

boxty woot said...

Hey AVI,

I was going to suggest Christopher Hitchens but he was an avowed commie. I can't think of any conservative bomb throwers such as Ann Coulter that can't back their barbs up with facts and logic.