Tuesday, July 03, 2018


Popular opinion is sometimes outraged at an attorney mounting a suspect or even ridiculous argument.  Having watched mental health attorneys attempting to defend very unhelpful and unsympathetic clients, I am less bothered. They have to say something. If they had a better argument, they'd use it. (When an activist attorney has a stupid idea - and a wealthy or powerful institution as a target - and then goes looking for a client to use it on I have less sympathy.)

It is similarly true about PR representatives of a person or organisation caught in a scandal or error. They have to say something. "The rescue efforts are going very well." They have to put the best face on this that they can.  It's their job. Political organisations responding to the news have a similar task.  They can't say nothing.  They have to try to change the subject, or reframe the issue, or insist that you can't prove it, or that no one cares about it, or whatever.  Yes, it is infuriating, or at least it's infuriating when it's your opponents, but it is also worth paying attention to.  If they are coming up with a deceitful or foolish argument, being merely insulting or changing the subject, it's because they haven't got anything better. If they had a good defense they'd use it.

Racist used to be a reasonable good word, a useful descriptor.  There might be disagreement at the margins about it, but we knew with tolerable certainty what someone meant when they used it. As it has broadened to mean even ridiculous things now, its use is a signal: the speaker does not have any better argument.  If he did, he would use it. And he has to say something, because he can't let your comments or actions just stand.  So be of good cheer - it means he has nothing better in the quiver.

We have reached the point where it is fair to quietly point this out. "Your use of that insult is an admission you haven't got any actual arguments. I'm afraid I'll have to consider my statement a point scored, then." I'd like to see it spread.


Christopher B said...

To be a bit contrary, you might be giving ordinary people credit for thinking too much like lawyers or PR people. As professionals they should certainly be dispassionate enough to understand the implications of their statements. I'm not so sure that other people aren't actually thinking something more like 'this statement would change my opinion' without regard to the actual impact. I think Texan99 has made a number of good comments recently in this vein. The people advancing '-ism' as an argument just can't wrap their heads around the fact that some of us don't find it persuasive any more.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I'm not often accused of overestimating the thoughtfulness of the average liberal. Your theory does tie in with my claim that liberalism is spread and enforced socially, not logically. (The conservative equivalent its that it is too often spread with sentiment or emotion.)

Christopher B said...

We of a conservative bent also overestimate the persuasiveness of telling people 'but it really doesn't work that way'.

Sam L. said...

Last paragraph is dead-on.

Donna B. said...

There's a name for why "racist" is no longer a "reasonable good word, a useful descriptor":

"Perceptual and judgment creep

Do we think that a problem persists even when it has become less frequent? Levari et al. show experimentally that when the “signal” a person is searching for becomes rare, the person naturally responds by broadening his or her definition of the signal—and therefore continues to find it even when it is not there. From low-level perception of color to higher-level judgments of ethics, there is a robust tendency for perceptual and judgmental standards to “creep” when they ought not to. For example, when blue dots become rare, participants start calling purple dots blue, and when threatening faces become rare, participants start calling neutral faces threatening. This phenomenon has broad implications that may help explain why people whose job is to find and eliminate problems in the world often cannot tell when their work is done."

Assistant Village Idiot said...

That is fascinating research. It seems similar to "When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

Donna B. said...

Yes... it does resemble hammer/nail. The two organizations that came to mind immediately were the ACLU and SPLC... yet, they don't fit the "diagnosis" in all respects. But accusations of racism fit more closely.

I've recently moved from a city that is less than 50% white to a community that is probably 80% white. It's also a move from a neighborhood that is mostly blue collar (and one where I was among the more educated) to one that is mostly white collar and where I'm likely the least educated of any of my neighbors. I'm not entirely comfortable here, though I can't fault my white neighbors' hospitality and helpfulness. What's strange to me is the one black family on the cul de sac (moved in shortly after I did). They are NOT friendly. I'm not used to that.