Case Study: Winning the Argument Through Framing

2014-07-21 Explaining Conservatism

What explains conservatism? Famous left-leaning magazine MotherJones wants to know, and Chris Mooney writes about new research that might explain the puzzle in a piece that’s making the rounds on Facebook: Scientists Are Beginning to Figure Out Why Conservatives Are…Conservative. Here’s a part of the solution to the puzzle, right from the article:

The occasion of this revelation is a paper by John Hibbing of the University of Nebraska and his colleagues, arguing that political conservatives have a “negativity bias,” meaning that they are physiologically more attuned to negative (threatening, disgusting) stimuli in their environments. (The paper can be read for free here.) In the process, Hibbing et al. marshal a large body of evidence, including their own experiments using eye trackers and other devices to measure the involuntary responses of political partisans to different types of images. One finding? That conservatives respond much more rapidly to threatening and aversive stimuli (for instance, images of “a very large spider on the face of a frightened person, a dazed individual with a bloody face, and an open wound with maggots in it,” as one of their papers put it).

In other words, the conservative ideology, and especially one of its major facets—centered on a strong military, tough law enforcement, resistance to immigration, widespread availability of guns—would seem well tailored for an underlying, threat-oriented biology.

The reason I love this paper is because it’s not often that life hands me an example of prejudicial thinking so perfectly gift-wrapped for analysis. In this case, there’s absolutely no reason why the exact same underlying experimental evidence couldn’t be presented using a totally different frame. Instead of talking about a “negativity bias” and wondering why conservatives are so negative and speculating that this might explain conservatism, one could take the exact same data and talk about a “Pollyanna bias” and wonder why liberals are so unaware of threats and speculate that this might explain liberalism.

This is how political partisanship works, folks. It’s not that conservatives and liberals have different conclusions. Sure, that’s what most of the debates are about (for or against gun control, abortion, gay marriage, etc.) Those debates never get anywhere, however, because they miss the point. Conservatives and liberals see the world in different ways, and the way their conflicting world views actually compete with each other for followers is by spreading the assumptions that–if you accept them–lead logically to their policy positions. The way to win a debate is not by having more evidence or better reasoning because people don’t actually pay very much attention to evidence or reason. The way to win the debate–or at least to gin up your own side–is to frame it in such a way that you must be correct before the debate even starts.

Thus, in this case, Mooney starts out with the question: how do we explain conservatism? What he doesn’t actually come out and say–but what is actually the most important part of his piece–is the assumption that conservatism is an aberration and liberalism is the norm. There’s nothing about liberalism we have to explain; it’s just natural. But conservatism? It begs for some kind of explanation. Once you accept that premise, there’s really not much left to talk about. C. S. Lewis even invented a term for this debate style: bulverism:

The modern method [of argumentation] is to assume without discussion that [your opponent] is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it Bulverism. Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father — who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third — ‘Oh you say that because you are a man.’ ‘At that moment’, E. Bulver assures us, ‘there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.’ That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth [and Twenty-First] Century.

As pleased as I am to have such a clear case study of Bulverism / winning the argument through framing ready at hand from now on, the thing that makes me sad is that it isn’t just MotherJones engaging in it. The researchers, by using the term “negativity bias” without an accompanying “positivity bias”, are jumping right in as well. (The name of their paper is: “Differences in negativity bias underlie variations in political ideology.”) Although sad, it’s hardly surprising. Dr. Jonathan Haidt was quoted about this very problem in the NYTimes back in 2011. Commenting on total domination of social psychology by the political left, he has said:

Anywhere in the world that social psychologists see women or minorities underrepresented by a factor of two or three, our minds jump to discrimination as the explanation. But when we find out that conservatives are underrepresented among us by a factor of more than 100, suddenly everyone finds it quite easy to generate alternate explanations.

The article goes on to quote him again:

Dr. Haidt argued that social psychologists are a “tribal-moral community” united by “sacred values” that hinder research and damage their credibility — and blind them to the hostile climate they’ve created for non-liberals.

It’s bad enough to have MotherJones serving up the Kool-Aid, but it’s really quite sad to have academic researchers as their direct suppliers.

As a coda: I do think that there are real and interesting psychological differences to study with regards to politics. But I think that this research is most useful when, as Haidt’s own Moral Foundations Theory does, it seeks to take all sides seriously and create room for understanding and common ground. And not when, as with the articles in question, it serves as a flimsy excuse to pathologize your political opponents.

The Real Story Behind the Prisoner Exchange

2014-06-03 Bergdahl Parents Press Conference
Bergdahl’s parents at a White House press conference.

As I understand it, the news cycle has gone something like this:

  1. Five detainees from Guantanamo were traded for the only American POW in Afghanistan, Bowe Robert Bergdahl.
  2. Republicans cry foul, making a variety of allegations about why the exchange was a bad idea, or at least not something to celebrate without reservation.
  3. Democrats mock Republicans for being willing to criticize everything they do, even when it’s the return of a POW.
  4. News stories from mainstream outlets start to validate some (but not all) of what Republicans were complaining about.

Let me give you two examples. The first comes from The Daily Beast and the headline says it all: We Lost Soldiers in the Hunt for Bergdahl, a Guy Who Walked Off in the Dead of Night. According to the story, Bergdahl deserted his post of his own volition (bad enough), which led to a vast manhunt that resulted in American soldiers dying while looking for him (worse) and culminated in strict orders that the American soldiers not speak of the incident at all (worse still). The article, written by one of the soldiers who was out risking his life and jeopardizing the greater counterinsurgency operations looking for Bergdahl, concludes by saying:

And Bergdahl, all I can say is this: Welcome back. I’m glad it’s over. There was a spot reserved for you on the return flight, but we had to leave without you, man. You’re probably going to have to find your own way home.

It’s a really poignant, fair, eye-opening piece. Read it. And then there’s this piece, published by conservative Mormon and Islamic scholar Daniel Peterson about some of the conservative complaints that are decidedly less reasonable. Peterson shoots down the theory that Bergdahl’s father “sanctified the White House for Islam” when he said, upon entering that building, “Bi ism Allah al-rahman al-rahim whih” meaning (in Arabic): “in the name of Allah the most gracious and most merciful.” Sounds ominous (if you have no idea what you’re talking about), but Peterson explains that the phrase “is routinely used at the beginning of formal statements and speeches in Islamic societies.” Bergdahl’s next words, apparently in Pashto instead of Arabic, were “I am your father.” Why speak Arabic and Pashto to a returning American POW? Because he spent the last 5 years speaking only Arabic and Pashto and is having trouble adjusting back to English, that’s why. 

In short: this is another one of those stories where everyone who is convinced that the other side is ripe for ridicule ends up looking rather ridiculous themselves. Whether it’s Mother Jones embarrassing itself by attributing the (entirely factual) notion that Bergdahl was  a deserter to “a few fringe types” (thus making The Daily Beast, USA Today, etc. all out to be right-wing nutjobs) or conservatives with zero comprehension of Arabic language or culture concocting weird fantasies about the White House being baptized into Islam, people ought to settle down and just do a little bit of digging. And maybe a little bit of waiting.

As far as I can tell the reason that conservatives were ahead of the main stream media on this story is partially paranoia but also because conservatives are much, much more tied in to the US military and therefore knew early that something was up. I knew because I follow Michael Yon, and he issued an early warning on this story, saying:

Mixed Reaction on Bergdahl release from Taliban
Be careful with this. He needs to be welcomed home, given a full physical and time with his family, and then charges against Bergdahl should be considered.
A piece of information you likely never will see in the news: Taliban and al Qaeda shared joint custody of Bergdahl. He converted to a hardcore strain of Islam, according to reliable sources.

Yon linked to an Army Times piece citing “mixed” reaction from the military community. (He added information in further updates like this one and this one.) So the military community, which is no fan of Obama, was out early with suspicion about holding a press conference for the return of someone who had, by his own derelection of duty, ensured that other Americans never made it home. Now the Pentagon will review claims US soldiers killed during search for Bergdahl. Looks like there was at least some fire to go with all this smoke.


Mike Rowe On Political Partisanship

2014-05-26 Mike Rowe

Mike Rowe is best known as the host of the Discovery Channel series Dirty Jobs, but I’ve noticed he’s been writing about politics more and more these days, and I like what he has to say. Here’s a story he shared, along with the photo above, on Facebook recently.

[Bob Reidel: “Mike – Saw you hangin with Bill Maher. I had no idea you were a liberal. Really blew me away. Love everything you do but now that I know who you really are, I won’t be tuning in to watch anything your involved with.”]

Well, hi there, Bob. How’s it going? Since your comment is not the only one of its kind, I thought I’d take a moment to address it.

Bill Maher is opinionated, polarizing and controversial. I get it. So is Bill O’Reilly, which is probably why I heard the same comments after I did his show. (“How could you Mike? How could you?”)

Truth is, every time I go on Fox, my liberal friends squeal. And every time I show up on MSNBC, my conservative pals whine. Not because they disagree with my position – everyone agrees that closing the skills gap is something that needs to happen. No, these days, people get bent simply if I appear on shows they don’t like, or sit too close to people they don’t care for.

What’s up with that? Is our country so divided that my mere proximity to the “other side” prompts otherwise sensible adults to scoop up their marbles and go home?

Back in 2008, I wrote an open letter to President Obama, offering to help him promote those 3 million “shovel-ready” jobs he promised to create during his campaign. (I suspected they might be a tough sell, given our country’s current relationship with the shovel.) Within hours, hundreds of conservatives accused me of “engaging with a socialist,” and threatened to stop watching Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe if I didn’t come to my senses.

When I made the same offer to Mitt Romney (who actually responded), thousands of liberals chastised me for “engaging with a greedy capitalist,” and threatened to stop watching Dirty Jobs if I didn’t take it back.

You may ask, “But what did these people think about the issue at hand?” Who knows? They were too busy being outraged by my proximity to the devil. (Poor Ed Shultz at MSNBC nearly burst into tears. “You were on the wrong stage, Mike! The wrong stage!! With the wrong candidate!!!”)


Here’s the thing, Bob – Profoundly Disconnected ( is not a PR campaign for Mike Rowe. It’s a PR campaign for skilled labor and alternative education. PR campaigns need … that’s right, PR, and if I limit my appearances to those shows that I personally watch, hosted only by those personalities with whom I personally agree, I might as well start a church and preach to the choir.

Point is, I didn’t go on Real Time to endorse BM, and I didn’t go on The Factor to endorse BO. I went on because millions of people watch those shows. I approached our liberal president for the same reason. Likewise, his conservative opponent. And I showed up on Sesame Street with the same agenda that I took to Congress.

Closing the skills gap is bigger than you or me or any particular venue, and Real Time gave me an opportunity to reach 5 million people. I’m grateful for that, and I’ll do it again if they want me back.

As for Bill Maher off-camera, you’ll be pleased to know that the guy was a perfect gentleman. His staff is excellent, and his after-party included an open bar with a spread I’ve never seen in such a setting. Bill took the time to hang out with his guests and their friends after the show, chatting about this and that for over an hour, and taking pictures with anyone who wanted one. Trust me, that’s rare.

Yes, he’s outrageous, inflammatory, and to many, a jagged little pill. But he’s also gracious, generous, engaging, and taller than he appears on TV.

Which, frankly, surprised me.

The world could use a few more guys and gals like Mike Rowe.

Silencing Dissenters or: The World Gone Mad

This post will be a little bit more free-form than what I usually write. So buckle up, we’ve got some ground to travel.

What The Elders Know

I read a story as a kid that stuck with me. It was about a team of 1990s archaeologists who decided to excavate a 1950s landfill just to get an objective measurement for what ordinary, everyday life was really like 4 decades before. When they dug up the trash, they found human remains. Skeletons. First it was just a couple, and they thought it might have been mob violence, but then they found more and more. Something horrible had happened in this town, just 40 years ago. But it was forgotten to history. The elderly folks of the community, the only ones who would know the secret of what had happened, came to the digging site and stood staring at the excavation. Saying nothing. Whatever had happened, no one would ever know because they never broke their silence.

At the time, the story mostly just made me reconsider what we know, really know, based on our limited first-hand experience. But it also planted this idea of a group of people who are bound together by some common knowledge that they have that nobody else does.

I realize there’s a sinister spin to that tale, and that’s not what I’m going for. It’s just that idea that there are experiences that no one can tell you about. You can’t understand unless you’ve  been there yourself. And, if you have been there, no explanation is necessary. From what I understand, combat is like that. I’ve read books, like On Killing, that describe some of the effects, but it’s really just enough for me to know that I don’t really get it. And, as a non-military guy, never will. Veterans understand something I can’t comprehend.

In my experience, being married is like that, too. Marriage, for me and my beloved wife, has been really, really hard at times. From talking to our close friends we’ve learned that that’s pretty common. All the couples that I know well enough to have discussed this with describe going through harrowing bad times that shook their faith in themselves, their spouse, their marriage, and pretty much everything they believed in. And nobody warned us. Nobody told us how bad it could get, and probably would get. I think partially that’s because we just forget–the bad times are already receding into memory for me–but I think it’s also just because you can’t convey what it’s like to someone who hasn’t been there. And you certainly can’t simultaneously convey how much it’s going to hurt and how much it’s still going to be worth it. There’s just nothing to say.

It’s true of raising kids, too. There are a lot of parenting jokes, and even before I was  parent I more or less got them, but the most traumatic, mundane experiences of being a parent–like the sheer terror of holding a little baby that is sick and can’t tell you what’s wrong–there’s just absolutely no way to convey that feeling to someone who hasn’t been there. There’s deep connection between parents that crosses pretty much every other social boundary you can think of. I’m reminded of Jerry Holkins’ description of the birth of his son. Holkins writes often excessively vulgar comics about video games for a living. He’s a West Coast atheist with a troubled family history who jokes about porn, who never went to college, and who has a multi-million dollar company that runs giant conventions in Seattle, Boston, Australia, and now San Antonio. So, other than that we’re both geeks, we don’t have a lot in common. But when he described the way he felt after watching his wife deliver their son, I knew that there was one deep, defining experience we had in common:

I am not trying to jostle for primacy over the birth act, the utter valor of which is indelible – I’m fairly certain the credit is going to the right people. There is, however, a parallel experience that I never hear much about, something amazing and profound about the helplessness, the desperation of events which are perhaps a million long miles beyond your control. I just want to find other fathers and, looking at them across the aisles in the grocery store, hold my right fist aloft. I am with you.

There are lots more experiences like this, as well. I think of all the times I got advice from mentors–friends and family with more experience than me–about life decisions. What to study in school, whether to buy a house, what to do with my career, how to follow my passions. Time and time again I’ve found that some of the most important advice was always the advice that, no matter how much I earnestly wanted to learn from these people, I just couldn’t follow. I couldn’t follow it because I couldn’t even understand it. It didn’t compute. I might have thought I understood, but I lacked the perspective and the context to see when and how it applied in my life. I only figured out, years and mistakes later, what it was that they had been trying to tell me.

All of this means that the older I get the more I respect my elders. They’ve been there. They’ve been through a lot of the big experiences but also just the accumulated weight of life under uncertainty. They’ve been on the ride longer. The highs, the lows, what changes, what stays the same. I think they know things, things that maybe I won’t be able to understand until I get there myself. My father’s father passed away too young. As the years go by, I find that I miss him more. Not less. I wish he were here.

Maybe he could help me make sense of this crazy world.

Sound and Fury

Let me be clear about what I mean when I say “this crazy world.” I mean the world is full of people who hold such absolutely wildly divergent opinions and perspectives that if you try to get out there and really understand what’s motivating them all your brain feels like it might break under the strain. Humans handle complexity primarily through abstraction. We find patterns, drop the details, and hold onto the narratives. But when the thing that interests and concerns you is precisely the narratives and paradigms that other people are seeing the world through, abstraction is easier said than done.

Here, enough generalities, lets get to some specifics.

Just a few hours ago, a friend posted an article from Mother Jones about How Gun Extremists Target Women. It starts with the experiences of Jennifer Longdon, a woman who uses a wheelchair because she was permanently paralyzed when a random assailant shot her and her fiancee for no apparent reason. Since becoming a vocal advocate for more gun control laws, she has been spat upon, cursed at, threatened, and even had some guy jump out of the bushes at night and spray her with a realistic-looking water gun. My friend’s comment when he posted the article was just, “Wow. Um, wow.” I guess he believes this is accurate of a small but vocal minority of gun rights activists? My first reaction was that, hey, I’ve been involved in this movement for years (only loosely, but still) and I’ve never seen any behavior like that.

Except that, hours later, I realized that I kind of had. On one particular gun forum I used to hang out at things got way out of hand in a heated debate and next thing you know people are trying to use the real world to intimidate their ideological foes, everything from digging up personal photos to threatening civil and criminal action. I don’t think death threats were involved–and none of the participants were women–but it was ugly enough that I still have screenshots saved on my computer more than 5  years later just in case I ever need to defend myself.

Let’s move on rather than analyze. What else have we got? Oh, how about this gem from the Daily Mail about how a respected climate scientist with over 200 publications joined the board of a skeptical organization (the Global Warming Policy Foundation) because:

I thought joining the organisation would provide a platform for me to bring more common sense into the global climate change debate. ‘I have been very concerned about tensions in the climate change community between activists and people who have questions.

So, he tried to bring some reason and cross-partisan talk to a contentious and serious debate? Big mistake. Next thing you know he’s being harassed online and it got to a point where an American co-author of a paper pulled out because he refused to be associated with someone who was associated with a skeptical organization, even if the person had joined the skeptical organization to try and temper it. Not good enough. Professor Lennart Bengtssen lasted a grand total of three weeks in his new position before the pressure forced him to resign.

Or how about the rash of colleges that have withdrawn invitations to commencement speakers because students protested against allowing anyone who was insufficiently ideologically pure to contaminate their ears. It’s gotten to a point where The Daily Beast[rerf]Not exactly a bastion of conservative sensibilities.[/ref] published an article with the headline proclaiming that The Oh-So-Fragile Class of 2014 Needs to STFU And Listen to Some New Ideas. Olivia Nuzzi writes about how Christine Legarde (head of the IMF) got uninvited from Smith College’s commencement in the same month that Condoleeza Rice pulled out of a speaking gig at Rutgers. (Nuzzi doesn’t mention a third example that we covered at Difficult Run: Brandeis decided that Ayaan Hirsi Ali didn’t deserve an honorary degree after all.)

Wait, wait. There’s more. How about Neil deGrasse Tyson slamming philosophy–yes, the entire discipline of philosophy as ‘useless’. A quick review of his comments is instructive. He frames it as an objective, and pragmatic stance (i.e. non-ideological) but seems to lack the philosophical sophistication to realize that far from brushing philosophy off, what he’s actually doing is engaging in a purge of the wrong kind of philosophy. Materialist reductionism? That’s fine. It’s just all those other kinds of philosophy that are useless. I guess he has so dogmatically accepted his own particular philosophical stance that he’s forgotten it isn’t an unyielding element of the fabric of the objective universe. It’s just the particular brand of philosophy he happens to prefer.

Meanwhile, the UN is trying to get pro-life perspectives classified as “torture.” No, really. The Center for Reproductive Rights submitted a letter stating that:

CRR respects the right of each individual to freedom of religion and acknowledges the importance of religious institutions in the lives of people, including the role they may play in ensuring respect for human dignity. As with any party to an international human rights treaty, however, the Holy See is bound to respect, protect, and fulfill a range of human rights through its policies and its actions. As such, this letter focuses on violations of key provisions of the Convention against Torture associated with the Holy See’s policies on abortion and contraception, as well as actions taken by the Holy See and its subsidiary institutions to prevent access to reproductive health information and services in countries around the world.

So, freedom of religion is a nice idea, but if it entails opposition to abortion then you’re in contravention of the Convention against Torture. Uh… OK?

And, as long as we’re hitting pretty much every hot-button issue of the day, let’s move right along to gay rights and Hollywood’s Sex Abuse Cover Up. Describing the wall of silence about growing allegations of sexual abuse of children by Holywood elites, conservative writer Andrew Klavan observed simply that:

If these [people accused of pedophilia] were conservatives, if these were priests, if they were religious people, this would be a huge story. But as it is, it’s gonna get swept under the rug unless more people come forward.

The article describes sexual abuse detailed by Corey Feldman (of Boy Meets World) in his new memoir, abuse that started when he was 11, along with allegations of abuse against director Bryan Singer and then an absurdly white-washed version of history in the film Kill Your DarlingsThe film is supposedly a biopic centering on Lucien Carr, who assembled the original Beat Generation. It portrays Carr’s professor David Kammerer as a kind of mentor and possible romantic interest. The reality? Kammerer was a pedophile stalker who sexually abused Carr to such an extent that, when Carr finally fatally stabbed his tormenter with a Boy Scout knife, the history of abuse convinced the judge to be lenient in sentencing him. That history–the real history, according to Carr’s family–is swept under the rug. Maybe this is about preserving the image of the gay community during the height of the gay rights movement, but hey: Hollywood has been a safe haven for child rapists of the heterosexual persuasion too, so maybe it’s just a generic “Your rules don’t apply here,” kind of thing.

I started with a kind of anti-conservative example, then moved onto a series of anti-liberal examples, so now let’s get back to conservative nuttiness. This YouTube video hails from 2007, so it’s not new, but it was stomach churning for me to watch.

In it, a Hindu guest chaplain tries to offer the opening prayer in the Senate when he is shouted down by Christians saying stuff like “forgive us Father for allowing the prayer of the wicked which is an abomination in your sight.” You’d think folks who tend to think God had a hand in founding this nation might have more reverence for the principles of tolerance and religious freedom that went into it. Well, I’d think that. If I weren’t so cynical.

Here’s what these examples all seem to have in common to me. It’s not about politics. It’s not even about a particular issue. It’s about the idea that we shouldn’t be tolerant of views that contradict our own. It’s about the idea that we should squelch views that we disagree with, rather than engage them. Gun rights proponents issue death threats to paralyzed women who disagree. Climate scientists sabotage the careers and reputations of one of their own when he so much as appears to depart from the orthodox view. College kids block speakers who might disagree with them from being able to speak. The Catholic Church (and, by extension, anyone who is pro-life) gets labeled as a torturer in contravention of international norms and human decency. Hollywood directors silence their critics and rewrite history to protect the reputation of favored groups and individuals. Christians won’t even let a man pray just because he has a different faith.

Look, I’m on all sides of these issues (and maybe off the charts on a couple of them), but that’s just my point. It’s not about the issues. This is not civilized, rational, healthy behavior. Here’s my absolute favorite one, though. It delves deep, deep into crazy town to showcase a meeting of Anarcho-Syndicalists getting shut down because Students of Unity refused to allow one of the anarchist professors to speak. (Warning: video has lots of swearing.)

I actually got curious to figure out what was behind the kerfuffle. Apparently Students of Unity are mad that anarchist Kristian Williams wrote some stuff that included “survivor shaming” and “survivor doubt” and that constitutes “violence.” Williams isn’t feminist enough, and needs to be “accountable for all the people who feel unsafe by the words [she chooses].” I did a little Googling to find the offending piece. It’s called The Politics of Denunciation. It’s absolutely fascinating and spooky to read, because in it Williams writes against exactly what I’ve been describing. She takes a stand against those who try to pre-empt differing views from ever being expressed at all.

The particular target she has in mind is the idea that a survivor of an attack (like sexual assault) must be the only voice allowed to speak at all:

Under this theory, the survivor, and the survivor alone, has the right to make demands, while the rest of us are duty-bound to enact sanctions without question. One obvious implication is that all allegations are treated as fact.

So what she’s saying is that, “Hey, just because someone accuses someone else of sexual assault, it doesn’t automatically mean that whatever that person said is automatically true and that no other perspective is relevant.” Seems pretty tame. But the more general argument she makes is that quashing differing views is a bad thing to do:

While attempting to elevate feminism to a place above politics, the organizers’ statement in fact advances a very specific kind of politics.  Speaking authoritatively but anonymously, the “Patriarchy and the Movement” organizers declare certain questions off-limits, not only (retroactively) for their own event, but seemingly altogether. These questions cannot be asked because, it is assumed, there is only one answer, and the answer is already known. The answer is, in practice, whatever the survivor says that it is.

It seems like a very obscure, tiny, fringe discussion, but it’s actually not. It’s the same pattern as every single example I’ve expressed so far. Someone claims to be above politics (like Neil deGrasse Tyson is above philosophy) but in fact they are just trying to elevate a very particular political statement beyond question and thereby silence all dissenting views. Williams argued that we should make room for multiple viewpoints. And for that she and her whole panel were shouted down and silenced.

Nowhere To Turn

It may seem that I’m focusing on some weird, esoteric issues. And I’ll definitely admit that what dragged me down this rabbit hole in the first place was my attempt to delve deeper into the SFWA controversy I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.  That, in turn, spawned the article that I wrote about trigger warnings. I took a mostly conservative view in those posts because that’s who I am, but maybe the saddest thing about this whole controversy is that, from where I’m standing, there are no good guys and bad guys. I’d love to just toss my hat in with the conservatives and feel like I have a home, but I can’t. I can’t because–much as I have no beef with folks like Wright, and Torgersen, and even Correia–the more I dug into what Vox Day had said (and he’s the conservative who really got the liberals angry in the first place) the more I decided that a lot of what the liberals said about him is true. The central allegation is that he’s a racist, and it’s based on comments that he made about an African-American writer N. K. Jemisin. So I found the blog post in question, and I read it. Here’s the money paragraph:

Unlike the white males she excoriates, there is no evidence to be found anywhere on the planet that a society of NK Jemisins is capable of building an advanced civilization, or even successfully maintaining one without significant external support from those white males.  If one considers that it took my English and German ancestors more than one thousand years to become fully civilized after their first contact with advanced Greco-Roman civilization, it should be patently obvious that it is illogical to imagine, let alone insist, that Africans have somehow managed to do the same in less than half the time at a greater geographic distance.  These things take time.

In other blog posts, Vox Day denies being a racist. I can see he might be trying to get off on a technicality, something like “it’s not about race, per se, it’s just that civilization takes time, and Africans have been exposed to (Greco Roman) civilization for a shorter period of time.” Yeah, I’m not buying it because Vox Day is obviously not arguing in good faith. He talks about the “greater geographic distance” it would take for Africa to become civilized (let’s just not even touch that one for a moment) when the person he is calling “half-savage” was born in Iowa.

So there’s your microcosm of what is wrong with the world. We’ve got just enough folks like Vox Day to enable folks like the Students of Unity who shouted down Kristian Williams to feel justified in trying to intimidate anyone into silence who disagrees with them.

And that’s why I want to ask those old folks–those elderly men and women with decades’ worth of life lessons I haven’t experienced yet–is it always like this? I wish someone could tell me it’s gonna get better–or at least that it’s been worse–because it’s kind of lonely and scary to feel that not only have the loonies taken over the asylum, but they broken down the walls, invaded city hall, and taken over there, too.

Because, yeah, I’d love to chalk this up to upstart young idiots not knowing any better and how every generation always thinks the generation after them is going to destroy the world. And that might work for all those stories of college undergraduates protesting against speakers they don’t want to hear or Students of Unity shouting down anyone they don’t like, but Vox Day is not a kid. The gun control opponents who spit on Longdon are not kids. The Center for Reproductive Rights is not, to my knowledge, run by kids. The Christians who shouted down the Hindu chaplain didn’t sound like kids. These are grown ups, in theory at least, and they are occasionally in positions of real power.

And  yeah, every generation thinks the world is going to hell in handbasket once the next generation starts to take over, but every now and then they’re right, aren’t they? Sometimes the sky is falling.

Me, I guess I’ll just keep on doing what I’m doing. I’ve got my views, and they are mostly conservative, but I also believe in tolerance and intellectual diversity. Maybe it’s foolish and naive, but I like the idea of having noble ideological adversaries that I oppose, but that engage in a fight that has rules and principles. So, although it’s not as loud or as exciting or as clear-cut as what other sites can offer, that’s what we’ll keep doing here at Difficult Run.

One More Thing: About that Right to Free Speech

XKCD recently had a comic about the right to free speech.

Mouse over text: “I can’t remember where I heard this, but someone once said that defending a position by citing free speech is sort of the ultimate concession; you’re saying that the most compelling thing you can say for your position is that it’s not literally illegal to express.”

Technically, of course, it’s correct. But it’s a deeply disturbing view. The right to free speech has always been more than a strict legalism in American culture. It’s always been about more than just the freedom from government censorship. It has always involved a culture of tolerance. A view that not only is the government legally prohibited from regulating speech, but also that we as Americans ought to relish our chaotic, free-wheeling, marketplace of ideas. No, there’s no law that says people have to listen to you and there never should be. No, there’s no law that protects people from being free from other people telling them that they think their speech is crap. And again: there never should be. But when a bunch of people get together and use their own freedom of speech to silence someone they don’t like: it’s a violation of who we are as Americans even if it’s not technically a violation of someone’s legal rights.

Randall Munroe (author of XKCD) is right on the letter of the law, but he’s wrong on the spirit. I don’t know exactly where to draw the line, and I’m not saying we should never boycott. We have a comment policy here at Difficult Run, after all. Communities need to regulate what is and is not considered acceptable for that community. But I just wish that tolerance–real tolerance of genuinely conflicting ideas–was something that more communities would actively choose to embrace. Not because the law requires them to do so, but just because it’s the right thing to do.


Trigger Warnings and Sanity

2014-05-02 Trigger Warnings

If you aren’t familiar with the term, trigger warnings are disclaimers that folks put at the top of blog posts (or other written materials) which they believe may cause post-traumatic stress reactions in some readers. As The Guardian describes it:

In the early days of feminist blogging, trigger warnings were generally about sexual assault, and posted with the understanding that lots of women are sexual assault survivors, lots of women read feminist blogs, and graphic descriptions of rape might lead to panic attacks or other reactions that will really ruin someone’s day. Easy enough to give readers a little heads up – a trigger warning – so that they can decide to avoid that material if they know that discussion of rape triggers debilitating reactions.

This makes sense to me. Although I do not have traumatic experiences in my own past, and am grateful for that fact, even I have been seriously affected by particularly tragic or graphic news stories. I have also seen people have real-world reactions to topics of rape or sexual assault that have convinced me that there is a legitimate concern. I don’t know that I”m really up-to-speed on exactly when and how to issue a trigger warning, but the general principle seems both sensible and compassionate. Recently, however, I came across a piece in my exploration of the sci-fi political controversy that had nine trigger warnings: “slurs, ableism, racism, sexism, transmisogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, anti-semitism, colonialism.”

I found the whole list a bit odd. I try to be empathic and compassionate, but this seemed to be pushing it. When I got to to “colonialism” there at the end I found I had passed my limit. I just can’t take that seriously. In fact, I think such absurd over-sensitivity is downright counter-productive. For starters, it seems disrespectful to those suffering with Rape Trauma Syndrome to put them in the same category as people who are sad about the history of colonialism. It turns the whole thing into a joke. And that’s not just bad for victims of rape. It’s bad for all of us because it makes people who care about these kinds of issues look totally insane. Which is why we get pieces like  Big Boy Panties from the Mad Genius Club (a group blog run by conservative sci-fi writers):

Seriously. You now need to put a warning label on a blog post or something because somewhere, somehow, someone might have a reaction to something that may or may not cause them to react in a way… that’s a lot of stinking cow excremental right there. Aside from our usual society response to any sort of speech which might deemed “racist” (oh yeah, I used air quotes when I typed that), we now have this burning need to placate individuals who forgot their big boy panties and now must be warned before reading something.

See, if trigger warnings were used exclusively for discussion of rape and sexual assault I would respond to someone like this by saying, “No, you don’t really get it. There’s a legitimate reason for this.” But I can’t really do that now, because this person will just point to “trigger warning: colonialism” and collapse in a fit of hysterical laughter. I want to stake out a moderate middle position, but it’s hard when the left and right are both doing the absolute darnedest to live down to their stereotypes: irrational sentimentality on the one hand and unflinching callousness on the other. Not that conservatives are the only ones to complain that the trigger warning thing has gone way, way too far. The article from the Guardian that I quoted at the top is actually headlined: We’ve gone too far with ‘trigger warnings’, and it has an even more impressive list of trigger warnings then the one I found, including:

misogyny, the death penalty, calories in a food item, terrorism, drunk driving, how much a person weighs, racism, gun violence, Stand Your Ground laws, drones, homophobia, PTSD, slavery, victim-blaming, abuse, swearing, child abuse, self-injury, suicide, talk of drug use, descriptions of medical procedures, corpses, skulls, skeletons, needles, discussion of “isms,” neuroatypical shaming, slurs (including “stupid” or “dumb”), kidnapping, dental trauma, discussions of sex (even consensual), death or dying, spiders, insects, snakes, vomit, pregnancy, childbirth, blood, scarification, Nazi paraphernalia, slimy things, holes and “anything that might inspire intrusive thoughts in people with OCD“.

Seriously. We’ve gone from “rape” to trigger warnings for spiders, holes, and slimy things. But it’s much worse than just over-sensitivity. Colleges are starting to either require trigger warnings or just encourage teachers to remove material from the curricula that might be triggering.

Oberlin College recommends that its faculty “remove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals”. When material is simply too important to take out entirely, the college recommends trigger warnings.

2014-05-02 Things Fall ApartAnd we’re not talking hardcore stuff, here. The classical work Things Fall Apart (which I read as a freshman) is listed as an example, and requires trigger warnings for: “racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more.” I realize that a trigger warning is not the same thing as outright censoring, but the trend is deeply disturbing and illustrates the conservative case that even if your intentions are laudable the end result can be sinister. The trigger warning logic isn’t just about adding disclaimers to what you read, it’s about reading less. It’s about removing objectionable work (and all work can be classified as objectionable on the basis of triggering someone somewhere). It’s not about individuals opting out of particular works as a matter of conscience (as conservatives sometimes do), but about applying rigidly overprotective standards for everyone.

It is deeply and tragically ironic that important literary works by minority voices who come from cultures that have suffered under colonial imperialism are now on the verge of being suppressed by the folks who claim to be the most concerned with colonial imperialism. Shouldn’t we be encouraging more  people to read a book by Africa’s leading literary voice that includes discussions of the impact of colonialism on Africa precisely because the history is so tragic that it can be distressing? Is this what it looks like when radical ideology begins to eat its own tail?

Even The New Republic can see that this trend, especially when it comes to colleges, is both absurd and ominous: Trigger Happy: The “trigger warning” has spread from blogs to college classes. Can it be stopped? The article starts with another collegiate example:

Last week, student leaders at the University of California, Santa Barbara, passed a resolution urging officials to institute mandatory trigger warnings on class syllabi. Professors who present “content that may trigger the onset of symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” would be required to issue advance alerts and allow students to skip those classes.

Sounds OK in principle, but in practice it makes you wonder if there’s anything that won’t need a trigger warning. Over at Rutgers, a “sophomore suggested that an alert for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby say, “TW: suicide, domestic abuse and graphic violence.” Really, is there a single work of serious literature that wouldn’t require a whole slew of trigger warnings? Off hand, I can’t think of one.

This, my fellow moderates and sane people on the left and right, is why we can’t have nice things. And let it no longer be said that censorship is primarily a hobby of the right! On the plus side, evangelical Christians who protested that Harry Potter promoted satanism will at least now have some company out there in loony town. Let this be further evidence that the real conflict is not left vs. right, but rather reasonable vs. not-reasonable.

Now, maybe this kind of insanity is just part of life on Earth. I’m sure there’s some truth to that. This is hardly the first time ever that someone has taken an otherwise good idea too far. That’s pretty much what history is all about. But in conjunction with the political infighting that is splitting the sci-fi community apart and partisanship in the US to all-time highs I have to wonder if there’s something about social media and the way it lets us democratize the spread of ideas that is turning what used to be a nuisance into a major hazard. Think about the way improving technology led ancient societies to gradually shift from rural to urban communities. A lot of good came from that, but sticking so many people in confined areas created new problems for the spread of disease. Well, on the Internet, “some dumb idea” is the effective equivalent of disease. The whole trigger warning nonsense (and it has become nonsense, even if it didn’t start out that way) is no dumber than stupid ideas of the past, but it has a chance to spread much more widely and quickly.

That’s the downside to free flow of information, folks. You all get to go and watch TED talks and get your minds expanded, but stupid fads like trigger warnings for spiders and holes get a chance to infect our brains, too. It’s all fun and games when your relatives send stupid stories that they should have checked on Snopes first, but once these infectious idiocies start sprouting up as official policies on college campuses we’re officially in trouble. As long as this is an Internet-only phenomena, it’s just one more thing to complain about. Once it hits the real world

No Honorary Degree for Ayaan Hirsi Ali

2014-04-23 Ayaan Hirsi AliEarlier this month, Time posted a letter written by Ayaan Hiris Ali, which she had written in response to Brandeis University’s decision not to give her an honorary degree after all. If a university decides not to give someone an award, you can pretty safely bet it’s because someone might be offended. But it’s always interesting to me when the person who might be offended (in this case the primary victim appears to be CAIR) and the alleged victimizer (Ali) are both members of politically correct identity groups. After all, Ali is not only a woman, but also black. She is also a woman’s rights activist. But she’s an atheist and a harsh critic of Islam. So who do you side with, the WoC or Islam?

I’m partially interested in this out of morbid fascination, like watching a car crash. But it’s also a kind blend of fatalism and professional interest. Given my aspirations (to be a fiction writer) and my politics (anything other than party-line left) it’s more or less a question of how much I’m going to pay for my beliefs, professionally speaking, not whether or not I will. So, which are the most taboo taboos? What matters more?

Turns out, though, we can’t really tell from this story. Ali is a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Suddenly: everything is clear. Doesn’t really matter what the rest of her liberal bona fides may be; she is tainted by association with the right. She’s even married to Niall Ferguson (who is practically a colonial apologist) so there’s really no hope for her at all.

I guess Brandeis didn’t really have a hard call to make after all.

Climate Change Solutions

[V]irtually every major national environmental organization continues to reject nuclear energy, even after four leading climate scientists wrote them an open letter last fall, imploring them to embrace the technology as a key climate solution. Together with catastrophic rhetoric, the rejection of technologies like nuclear and natural gas by environmental groups is most likely feeding the perception among many that climate change is being exaggerated. After all, if climate change is a planetary emergency, why take nuclear and natural gas off the table?

While the urgency that motivates exaggerated claims is understandable, turning down the rhetoric and embracing solutions like nuclear energy will better serve efforts to slow global warming.

So concludes an excellent op-ed in The New York Times. I remember reading in The Economist a couple years ago that America’s CO2 emissions had decreased largely due to fracking and the shale gas boom. Yet, many environmentalists continue to object to both natural gas and nuclear power as solutions to climate change.

Just one more reason why I think a serious scientific issue has been hijacked by political agendas.

A New Supply-Side Economics

This article at Business Insider is one of those articles for political moderates who want to know about practical, non-ideological, expert-approved policies we can do to grow our economy. The premise of the article is that demand-side economics (think: government intervention and redistribution) has been the right response to the fiscal crisis, but that in the long run sustainable growth depends on supply-side economics (think: deregulation). Rather than a return to the supply-side theories of prior decades, however, the article lists 8 new supply-side policies, and a lot of them are exactly the sane, sensible policies that could make our country better.

This pic has nothing to do with the article, really, but BI used it so I did, too.
This pic has nothing to do with the article, really, but BI used it so I did, too.

Precisely because they are sane, sensible, and not easily classifiable as left or right, they will probably be totally ignored. Don’t let my cynicism get you down, though! At a minimum, if you read the article you can trot them out whenever you feel the need to browbeat your partisan friends (from either end of the spectrum) into submission the next time they explain why it is that their particular political ideology is the One True Way for America.

And that’s…. something, right?

Upworthy Stories are Not So Great

2013-10-09 Upworthy

The left-wing slant of the web’s fastest-growing media company is definitely not hard to detect, but I’m a little surprised that Upworthy’s Wikipedia entry leads off with: “Upworthy is a left-wing website.” That first paragraph ends with: “It is dedicated to publicizing progressive narratives.” Well, OK. I don’t have to bother trying to prove that point, I guess.

Here’s what bothers me about Upworthy: they are tackling a lot of issues that should be universal with a specific partisan slant. Most of the Upworthy stories I’ve seen have been about responses to bullying. I have disagreed with them (as I’ve described), but I’ve also really appreciated that it’s a site dedicated to raising important issues and also that it goes for a positive approach rather than tearing down the opposition.

But there’s something deeply and profoundly wrong about trying to politicize everything. The story that prompted this response is about a young 11-year old kids response to bullying. The headline: This Kid Was Bullied A LOT. He Could Have Told His Teacher Or His Principal. He Had Bigger Plans.

2013-10-09 Cain Smith

So what were his “bigger plans”? What did it look like when he “he stood up and did something about it.” He gave a speech to local politicians and asked them to do something about it. 

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What To Do About the Science of Political Bias

2013-09-13 Irrational Politics

It’s not new news, but here’s another article about another study that confirms that people loose their ability to think rationally (including doing fairly basic math) when politics are at stake.

Everyone likes to share these stories, but most folks don’t really think about them very much. Here are two thoughts I’ve had. 

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