Thursday, October 16, 2014

You Just Don't Get It, Do You?

I saw this montage over at Steve Sailer’s column

It's a fun line.  It's a Hollywood cliche because it's a cultural cliche. Let me jump over four paragraphs of argument and just announce: it's still more Hollywood than Holly Springs, and it's not an accident.

This is not new ground for us here.  This is how Hollywood sells its values, with social cues of what one should think, not logical argument.  Not just Hollywood, of course.  All forms of media and communication between human beings use at least a little of this, while some rely on it entirely.  The sudden silence when one makes a joke about a person or a topic signals that one has crossed into unacceptable territory. People seldom bother to explain these silences, you’re just supposed to get it. Condescension, eye-rolls, tones of voice, these are the armaments of a society keeping everyone on the same page culturally, and even more, of a group which considers itself superior trying to create change in others.

(I wonder if in some circumstances it could be considered discrimination against people in the Asperger’s clusters. Job interviews and training; school awards; critical remarks about someone in the media.  Someday the cards will fall just so and there will be a Wheelchair Moment.  Just a thought.)

People in churches or workplaces signal this way. You can see it in waiting rooms and social gatherings. It is so common in highschools and colleges that I have concluded it is a form of communication we learn early, before we quite know how to reason. The signals vary in different groups – one of the ways one shows membership is by signalling back that the message has been received.  If you just don’t get it, then you aren’t one of us.

A quick review, from the first paragraph of CS Lewis’s The Inner Ring.
May I read you a few lines from Tolstoy’s War and Peace?
When Boris entered the room, Prince Andrey was listening to an old general, wearing his decorations, who was reporting something to Prince Andrey, with an expression of soldierly servility on his purple face. “Alright. Please wait!” he said to the general, speaking in Russian with the French accent which he used when he spoke with contempt. The moment he noticed Boris he stopped listening to the general who trotted imploringly after him and begged to be heard, while Prince Andrey turned to Boris with a cheerful smile and a nod of the head. Boris now clearly understood—what he had already guessed—that side by side with the system of discipline and subordination which were laid down in the Army Regulations, there existed a different and more real system—the system which compelled a tightly laced general with a purple face to wait respectfully for his turn while a mere captain like Prince Andrey chatted with a mere second lieutenant like Boris. Boris decided at once that he would be guided not by the official system but by this other unwritten system.

It is powerful.

It may be a bit strong to call something so basic to human communication evil, yet I think relying on these social rather than rational cues goes bad so easily that it’s justified.  An interesting example of the power of the social cue trumping the logical one came across my FB feed recently.

Disclaimers are an annoyance and distraction, I know.  Great writers make their points solidly, vividly, in order to express and persuade.  Orwell and Shaw were quite specific on the point.  But I am not a great writer, just a person trying to make a point fairly, so I find the need to put in qualifiers that are likely damaging to my effect.

Hitting “like” on a post is not always much of an endorsement.  I am quite careful to check the doors and windows before endorsing things myself, but that’s not universal. People skim, approve of an issue in general, want to support a pal or a cause and just click without much more thought. My brother often clicks to show his support of feminism or of particular feminists.  I don’t know how closely he reads each one.

Cartooning is also the most unfair of communications by its very nature.  In all fiction one gets to make the characters say whatever one likes, so that the villains are really evil, the heroes very noble, etc.  We get to win every argument, because our opponents are obligingly stupid, rather like storm troopers in Star Wars. But cartooning exaggerates even this.  No one gets to answer it back, as they might in a movie review, an op-ed, on talk radio, or in a live setting.  The cartoonist gets to hit and run, claiming it was “just a joke” if something goes wrong. It can be a cowardly medium. Effective, though.

So when I encounter a cartoon that makes its point unfairly there is a certain element of facepalm myself.  What did I expect? Here's the cartoon.  It's had a lot of "shares" and a lot of  "likes" on many of those shares.

A: The woman gets off to a good start here in the top two panels.  Then in the 4th panel she wins the argument with an angry, illogical, personal attack. Here's a possible 5th panel. It would be better if I could draw the woman above alone and have her saying it.

Well, That was logical.

Or one could have the man alone saying the same thing, with similar expression. In fact, if one added either fifth panel, one could use the cartoon as a deeply insulting characterisation of how women reason.  And what would be unfair about that?  It is indeed an example of a woman reasoning that lots of other women have endorsed, followed by accurate mockery. It's one of those things that if one used it as a made-up example - say, in a cartoon - it would be called unfair.  But as it really happened, I guess it's fair game.

B: By social cue, he was wrong from the start. Given his first word balloon, you can erase all the others (Try it).  Feminist has entered the language as a common term, many women take the label to themselves, and he is being a bit of a jerk - remember that someone is putting words in his mouth - for even asking.  It carries a whiff of trap and accusation right out of the gate, as does his expression. He just doesn't get it. Yet he could have asked it reasonably, and his reasoning in panel 2 is fine.  Panel 3 he makes a bit of a leap and unfairly uses "only," which she has given him no reason to.  It's a common rhetorical tool, to force the other to defend a point at an extremity they haven't embraced.

But that's not uncommon.  Immediately under this cartoon in one of its shares were two photos of Jon Stewart asking "Does sexism still exist?" Followed by "Many men say 'no'," which has got a lighter touch and is funnier - but still cheats.  The proper question is never whether some evil exists - does racism exist, does cyberbullying exist, does poor nutrition exist, does bad spelling exist - but how serious a problem it is. Most evils go on forever, conveniently for those who oppose them.


Sam L. said...

Hugh don't get it.

Texan99 said...

I try to remember this sort of thing when I'm exasperated with someone who can't seem to understand what's wrong with racism in the form of affirmative action. Such a person could reasonably tell me that life's too short to worry about white people being disadvantaged for the benefit of black people. It happens, but it pales in comparison to what's happened to black people and, in their view, still is happening.

Similarly, I sometimes want to say that I'll worry about unequal rights for men when they've been ground underfoot for a few thousand years.

The fact remains that, no matter how much trouble a racist or sexist culture can cause, we usually do more harm than good by turning the tables and becoming anti-male sexist or anti-white racist. So I'm still going to call myself a feminist, while limiting myself to egalitarian policies as a cure. Because for me, the problem isn't so much that women have gotten the short end of the stick as this: I detest the inability to look realistically at an individual because one is blinded by preconceptions about the group.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

T99 - there's an interesting difference here. You are stepping back and looking at questions of what is logical and reasonable, and evaluating what might be the best course of action in light of that.

On any issue, I might disagree thereafter as to what square we should land on. But I am not going to be shaking my head in frustration at your inability to make a coherent argument.

The woman in the cartoon has further arguments along her original lines, some of them pretty solid. That she even begins them suggests that she (well, her creator), could make logical arguments if she chose to. But she doesn't. Very telling for that particular feminist, and probably those who hit "like." The social argument is the real one.

Texan99 said...

I agree, of course. I'm willing to argue with people about issues like feminism and use the stepping-back technique. For interactions with my husband and friends, I demand something better: that they "get it." And about that demand, I'm probably not prepared to be particularly rigorous or fair! I just find an "in crowd" that I can be comfortable with, and not be on my guard all the time. I recognize them by all kinds of "tells."

I used to pay very close attention, for instance, to my male bosses' attitudes, because I knew it would make all the difference whether they had wives who worked, what kind of jokes they thought were funny, and so on, when it came time for them to trust me or not trust me with responsibility. It wasn't something I was going to be able to argue them into. They had to "get it" that I was a person, not just a chick.

Texan99 said...

And now I'm going to be noticing that line in every show I watch. I heard it just last night.

bs king said...

A small addition to your final point: I think you can't leave "what is the proposed solution" out of the "is this a problem/to what extent" chain. I've had some really odd conversations with people where they have claimed that certain problems did not exist because they disliked the solutions the other side was offering.

On the other hand, there are many who want to act like having a big problem automatically means any solution they come up with is justified.

Going after an ant with a rocket launcher is never a good response, no matter how annoying it may be.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I'd be interested in you expanding on that, Bethany - both sides.

I feel much that way myself about racial issues. I am deeply opposed to doing expensive stuff we know isn't going to work in education and crime, and even more especially blaming people who are doing their best in an impossible situation as if they were the problem. But I have no idea what we do instead.

bs king said...

Well, I think the most common direction you see it is Republicans denying something exists and Democrats wanting to kill the ant with the rocket launcher, but on issues like say, religious freedom, I think it goes the other way (at least with the denial a problem exists part). I actually have a running joke with my dad about this "that person's the kind of Republican who believes sexism and racism are things the left made up just to annoy them."

I think Megan McArdle did a nice piece a while back on the wage gap that addressed this. She essentially went through the wage gap issue, and pointed out that no research has ever concluded it doesn't exist, and all the likely sources. What I loved was when she got to the "so how are we supposed to combat what seems to be largely subtle society based pressures?" and basically said "I don't think we can".

I've seen this happen in personal lives too. A particularly unbalanced person whose path crosses my family's quite frequently has a rather disastrous life of her own making. She has spent decades moving from sob story to sob story...which always compels someone to do something. As we were trying to figure out how to manage this, one of my points was always "we can acknowledge her emotional state without being compelled to act". At this point, her life legitimately sucks, and denying that added fuel to the fire. Acknowledging this while declining to act however, left her no recourse. Benevolent indifference I believe it's called. It was rather striking to me though how much my own family had seemingly internalized that problems compelled one to do something. They just don't.

Texan99 said...

Yes: sometimes the best thing to do is acknowledge and regret someone's misery, without either trying to fix it or blaming them for not trying to fix it, much as I'm always tempted to do one or the other of the latter.