Category Archives: Critical Thinking

The Democrats & the Ku Klux Klan

One interesting tactic employed by the Republicans is to assert, in response to charges of racism against one of their number, that the Democrats are “the party of the Ku Klux Klan.” This tactic was most recently used by Senator Ted Cruz in defense of Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee for attorney general.

Cruz went beyond merely claiming the Democrats formed the Klan; he also asserted that the Democrats were responsible for segregation and the infamous Jim Crow laws. As Cruz sees it, the Democrats’ tactic is to “…just accuse anyone they disagree with of being racist.”

Ted Cruz is right about the history of the Democratic party. After the Civil War, the southern Democratic Party explicitly identified itself as the “white man’s party” and accused the Republican party of being “negro dominated.” Some Southern Democrats did indeed support Jim Crow and joined the KKK.

What Ted fails to mention is that as the Democrats became the party associated with civil rights, the Republicans engaged in what has become known as the “southern strategy.” In short, the Republicans appealed to racism against blacks in order to gain political power in the south. Though ironic given the history of the two parties, this strategy proved to be very effective and many southern Democrats became southern Republicans. In some ways, the result was analogous to exchanging the wine in two bottles: the labels remain the same, but the contents have been swapped. As such, while Ted has the history correct, he is criticizing the label rather than the wine.

Another metaphor is the science fiction brain transplant. If Bill and Sam swapped brains, it would appear that Sam was guilty of whatever Bill did, because he now has Bill’s body. However, when it comes to such responsibility what matters is the brain. Likewise for the swapping of political parties in the south: the Southern Democrats condemned by Cruz became the southern Republicans that he now praises. Using the analogy, Ted is condemning the body for what the old brain did while praising that old brain because it is in a new body.

As a final metaphor, consider two cars and two drivers. Driving a blue car, Bill runs over a person. Sam, driving a red car, stops to help the victim. Bill then hops in the red car and drives away while Sam drives the victim to the hospital in the blue car. When asked about the crime, Ted insists that the Sam is guilty because he is in the blue car now and praises Bill because he is in the red car now.  Obviously enough, the swapping of parties no more swaps responsibility than the swapping of cars.

There is also the fact that Cruz is engaged in the genetic fallacy—he is rejecting what the Democrats are saying now because of a defect in the Democratic party of the past. The fact that the Democrats of then did back Jim Crow and segregation is irrelevant to the merit of claims made by current Democrats about Jeff Sessions (or anything else). When the logic is laid bare, the fallacy is quite evident:

Premise 1: Some Southern Democrats once joined the KKK.

Premise 2: Some Southern Democrats once backed segregation and Jim Crow Laws.

Conclusion: The current Democrats claims about Jeff Sessions are untrue.

As should be evident, the premises have no logical connection to the conclusion, hence Cruz’s reasoning is fallacious. Since Cruz is a smart guy, he obviously knows this—just as he is aware that fallacies are far better persuasive tools than good arguments.

The other part of Cruz’s KKK gambit is to say that the Democrats rely on accusations of racism as their tactic. Cruz is right that a mere accusation of racism does not prove that a person is racist. If it is an unsupported attack, then it proves nothing. Cruz’s tactic does gain some credibility from the fact that accusations of racism are all-to-often made without adequate support. Both ethics and critical thought require that one properly review the evidence for such accusations and not simply accept them. As such, if the Democrats were merely launching empty ad hominem attacks on Sessions (or anyone), then these attacks should be dismissed.

In making his attack on the Southern Democrats of the past, Cruz embraces the view that racism is a bad thing. After all, his condemnation of the current Democrats requires that he condemn the past Democrats for their support of racism, segregation and Jim Crow laws. As such, he purports to agree with the current Democrats’ professed view that racism is bad. But, he condemns them for making what he claims are untrue charges of racism. This, then, is the relevant concern: which claims, if any, made by the Democrats about session being a racist are true? The Democrats claimed that they were offering evidence of Session’s racism while Cruz’s approach was to accuse the Democrats of being racists of old and engaging in empty accusations today. He did not, however, address the claims made by the Democrats or their evidence. As such, Cruz’s response has no merit from the perspective of logic. As a rhetorical move, however, it has proven reasonably successful.

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Of Bans & BS

As this is being written, Trump’s travel ban remains suspended by  the courts. The poor wording and implementation of the ban indicates that amateurs are now in charge. Or, alternatively, that Trump’s strategists are intentionally trying to exhaust the opposition. As such, either the ban has been a setback for Trump or a small victory.

While the actual experts on national security (from both parties) have generally expressed opposition to the Trump ban, Trump’s surrogates and some Republican politicians have endeavored to defend it. The fountain of falsehoods, Kellyanne Conway, has been extremely active in defense of the ban. Her zeal in its defense has led her to uncover terrorist attacks beyond our own reality, such as the Bowling Green Massacre that occurred in some other timeline. In that alternative timeline, the Trump ban might be effectively addressing a real problem; but not in the actual world.

More reasonable defenders of the ban endeavor to use at least some facts from this world when making their case. For example, Republican representative Mike Johnson recently defended the ban by making reference to a report by Fordham Law School’s Center on National Security. He claimed that “They determined that nearly 20 percent of alleged facilitators in ISIS prosecutions, in our country, do involve refugees and asylees. I mean, those kinds of facts are not as widely publicized, but they should be. I think the American people have a right to know that.” This approach employs four rather effective rhetorical techniques which I will address in reverse order of use.

By saying “the American people have a right to know”, Johnson seems to be employing innuendo to suggest that the rights of Americans are being violated—that is, there is some sort of conspiracy against the American people afoot. This conspiracy is, of course, that the (presumably liberal) media is not publicizing certain facts. This rhetorical tool is rather clever, for it not only suggests the media is up to something nefarious, but that there are secret facts out there that support the ban. At the very least, this can incline people to think that there are other facts backing Trump that are being intentionally kept secret. This can make people more vulnerable to untrue claims purporting to offer such facts.

Johnson’s lead techniques are, coincidentally enough, rhetorical methods I recently covered in my critical thinking class. One technique is what is often called a “weasler” in which a person protects a claim by weakening it. In this case, the weasel word is “nearly.” If Johnson were called on the correct percentage, which is 18%, he can reply that 18% is nearly 20%, which is true. However, “nearly 20%” certainly creates the impression that it is more than 18%, which is misleading. Why not just say “18%”?  Since the exaggeration is relatively small, it does not qualify as hyperbole. Naturally, a reasonable reply would be that this is nitpicking— “nearly 20%” is close enough to “18%” and Johnson might have simply failed to recall the exact number during the interview. This is certainly a fair point.

Another technique involves presenting numerical claims without proper context, thus creating a misleading impression. In this case, Johnson claims, correctly, that “nearly 20 percent of alleged facilitators in ISIS prosecutions, in our country, do involve refugees and asylees.” The main problem is that no context is given for the “nearly 20%.” Without context, one does not know whether this is a significant matter or not. For example, if I claimed that sales of one of my books increased 20% last year, then you would have no idea how significant my book sales were. If I sold 10 of those books in 2015 and 12 in 2016, then my sales did increase 20%, but my sales would be utterly insignificant in the context of book sales.

In the case of the facilitators Johnson mentioned, the Fordham report includes 19 facilitators and 3 of these (18%) were as Johnson described. So, of the thousands of refugees and asylum seekers the United States took in, there have been three people who were involved in this facilitation. This mostly involved encouraging people to go overseas to fight—these three people were (obviously) not involved in terrorist attacks in the United States. Such a microscopic threat level does not justify the travel ban under any rational threat assessment and response analysis.

The United States does, of course, face some danger from terrorist attacks. However, the most likely source of these attacks is from US born citizens. While the threat from foreigners is not zero, an American is 253 times more likely to be a victim of a “normal” homicide rather than killed in a foreigner engaged in a terrorist attack in the United States. And the odds of being the victim of a homicide are very low. As such, trying to justify the ban with accurate information is all but impossible, which presumably explains why the Republicans are resorting to lies and rhetoric.

While there are clear political advantages to stoking the fear of ill-informed Americans, there are plenty of real problems that Trump and the Republicans could be addressing—responsible leaders would be focusing on these problems, rather than weaving fictions and feeding unfounded fears.

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How did the polls get it wrong?

The pundits and polls predicted that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency of the United States. They were, obviously enough, wrong. As would be expected, the pundits and pollsters are trying to work out how they got it wrong. While punditry and polling are generally not philosophical, the assessment of polling is part of critical thinking and this is part of philosophy. As such, it is worth considering this matter from a philosophical perspective.

One easy way to reconcile the predictions and the results is to point out the obvious fact that likelihood is not certainty. While there was considerable support for the claim that Hillary would probably win, this entailed that she could still lose. Which she did. To use the obvious analogy, when it is predicted that a sports team will win, it is obviously possible that it can lose. In one sense, the prediction would be wrong: the predicted outcome did not occur. In another sense, a prediction put in terms of probability could still be right—the predictor could get the probability right, yet the actual outcome could be the unlikely one. People who are familiar with games that explicitly involve probabilities, like Dungeons & Dragons, are well aware of this. For example, it could be true that there is a 90% chance of not getting killed by a fireball, but it would shock no experienced player if it killed their character.  There is, of course, the question about whether the estimated probabilities were accurate or not—unlike in a game, we do not get to see the actual mechanics of reality. But, I know turn to the matter of polls.

As noted above, the polls indicated that more people said they would vote for Clinton than for Trump, thus her victory was predicted. A critical look at polling indicates that things could go wrong in many ways. I will start broadly and then move on to more particular matters.

Polling involves what philosophers call an inductive generalization. It is a simple inductive argument that looks like this:

  • Premise: X% of observed Ys are F.
  • Conclusion: X% of all Ys are Fs.

In a specific argument, the Y is whatever population the argument is about; in this case it would be American voters. The observed Ys (known as the sample) would be the voters who responded to the poll. The F is whatever feature the argument is concerned with. In the election, this would be voting for a specific candidate. Naturally, a poll can address many candidates at once.

Being an inductive argument, it is assessed in terms of strength and weakness. A strong inductive argument is one such that if the premises were true, then the conclusion is probably true. A weak one is such that if the premises were true, then the conclusion is probably not true. This is a matter of logical support—whether the premises are true or not is another matter. In terms of this logic, all inductive arguments involve a logical leap from what has been observed to what has not been observed. When teaching this, I make use of an analogy to trying to jump a chasm in the dark—no matter how careful a person is, they might not make it. Likewise, no matter how good an inductive argument is, true premises do not guarantee a true conclusion. Because of this, a poll can always get things wrong—this is the nature of induction and this unavoidable possibility is known as the problem of induction. Now to some more specific matters.

In the case of an inductive generalization, the strength of the argument depends on the quality of the sample—how well it represents the whole population from which it is drawn. Without getting into statistics, there are two main concerns about the sample. The first is whether or not the sample is large enough to warrant confidence in the conclusion. If the sample is not adequate in size, accepting the conclusion is to fall victim to the classic fallacy of a hasty generalization.  To use a simple example, a person who sees two white squirrels at Ohio State and infers all Ohio squirrels are white would fall victim to a hasty generalization. In general, the professionally conducted polls were large enough; so they most likely did not fail in regards to sample size.

The second is whether or not the sample resembles the population. Roughly put, a good sample recreates the breakdown of the population in miniature (in terms of characteristics relevant to the generalization). In the case of the election polls, the samples would need to match the population in terms of qualities that impact voting behavior. These would include age, gender, religion, income and so on. A sample that is taken in a way that makes it unlikely to resemble the population results in what is known as biased generalization, which is a fallacy. As an example, if a person wanted to know what all Americans thought about gun control and they only polled NRA members, they would commit this fallacy. It must be noted that whether or not a sample is biased is relative to its purpose—if someone wanted to know what NRA members thought about gun control, polling NRA members would be what one would do.

Biased samples are avoided in various ways, but the most common approaches are to use a random sample (one in which any member of the population has the same chance of being selected for the sample as any other) and a stratified sample (taking samples from the various relevant groups within the population).

The professional pollsters presumably took steps to ensure the samples resembled the overall population; hopefully using random, stratified samples and other methods. However, things can still go wrong. In regards to a random sample, there are obviously practical factors that preclude a truly random sample. Also, even a random sample can still fail to resemble the population. For example, imagine you have a mix of 50 plain M&M and 50 peanut M&Ms. If you pulled out 25 at random, it would not be shocking to have more plain or more peanut M&Ms in your sample. So, these random samples could have gotten things wrong.

In terms of a stratified sample, there are all the usual problems of pulling out the sample members for each stratum as well as the problem of identifying all the strata that are relevant. It could be the case that the polls did not get the divisions in American voters right and this biased the sample, thus throwing off the results.

Polls involving people also obviously require that people participate, that they honestly answer the questions, and that they stick to that answer. One concern that has been raised is that since the polls are conducted by the media and people who supported Trump tend to hate and distrust the media, it could be that many Trump supporters refused to participate in the polls, thus skewing the results in Hillary’s favor. A second concern is that people sometimes lie on polls—often because they think they should give the answer they believe the pollster wants. A third concern is that people give an honest answer at the time, then change their minds later. All of these could help explain the disparity between the polls and the results.

Conspiracy theorists could also claim that the media was lying about its results in order to help Hillary, presumably reasoning that if voters thought Trump was going to lose they would either vote for Hillary to be on the winning side or simply stay home because of a lack of hope. As with all conspiracy theories, the challenge lies in presenting evidence for this.

And that is how the polls might have gone wrong in predicting Hillary’s victory.

 

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Don’t Say the C Words

While weather disasters have always plagued humanity, there has been a clear recent uptick in such events. Naturally, the greater scope of these disasters is due partially to the human population being larger than ever and occupying more land—especially in areas prone to such events. That said, events such as the floods in Louisiana and the steady inundation of the sea in many places (such as Miami) are indications of a real change.

Nearly every climate scientist accepts that climate change is occurring and that human activity has had an influence. Given the historic record, it would be irrational to deny that the climate changes and few claim that it does not. The battle, then, is over the cause of climate change. Unfortunately for addressing the impact of climate change, it was brilliantly changed from a scientific issue into a political one. Making it into a partisan issue had the usual impact on group psychology: it became a matter of political identity, with people developing a profound emotional commitment to climate change denial. When denying climate change became a matter of group identity, it became almost impossible for reason to change minds—in the face of overwhelming evidence, people merely double down, deny the evidence, and craft narratives about how scientists are biased and environmentalists hate corporations and jobs.

To be fair, some of those who accept climate change do so out of political identity as well—they are not moved by the science, but by their group identity. They just happen to be right, albeit for the wrong reasons.

Not being an expert on climate change, I follow the rational approach to any issue that requires expertise to settle: I go with the majority view of the qualified experts. As such, I accept that climate change is real and humans play a role. If the majority shifted, I would accept that view—after all, the history of science includes numerous shifts.

If this matter were a purely abstract debate, then there would be no real worry. However, the impact of the changing climate is already doing considerable harm and the evidence suggests that it will continue to get worse unless steps are taken to address it. Unfortunately, as noted above, climate is now a political issue with deeply entrenched interest groups and strong emotional commitments. In some places, such as Florida, there is considerable political pressure to not even use the words “climate change.” The problem is, of course, that not using the words does not make the problems go away. Miami will slowly vanish into the ocean, even if people refuse to say “climate change.”

As a philosopher, I do believe in reason. However, I am also a practical person and know that reason is the weakest form of persuasion. Because of the entrenchment over climate change, trying to use reason and evidence to change minds would be a fool’s errand. As such, I suggest a purely pragmatic solution: stop using the C words (“climate change”) when trying to influence public policy, at least in cases in which there is strong ideological resistance. Using those words will simply evoke an emotional response and create strong resistance to whatever might be proposed, however reasonable.

As an alternative, the approach should be to focus on the specific threats and these should be cast in terms of risks to the economy and, perhaps, the lives and well-being of voters and consumers. There should be no mention of man-made climate change and no proposals to change behavior to counter man-made climate change. In short, the proposals must focus solely on mitigating the damage of weather events, with due care taken to present the notion that these events “just happen” and are “natural” with no connection to human activity.

It might be objected that this would be analogous to trying to combat the Zika virus by dealing only with the effects while refusing to say “virus” and not proposing any efforts to address the cause. This is certainly a reasonable point. However, if there was a powerful political movement that refused to accept the existence of viruses and citizens emotionally devoted to virus denial, then trying to persuade them to deal with the virus would be a nigh-impossible task. If they did accept the existence of the effects, then they could be enlisted to assist in addressing them. While this approach would hardly be optimal, it would be better to have their cooperation in mitigating the consequences rather than facing their opposition.

It might also be objected that I am deluded by my own ideological views and have been misled by the conspiracy of scientists and liberals who are in the pocket of Big Environment. Since I rather enjoy a good conspiracy theory, I certainly admit that it could be the case that the noble fossil fuel companies and those they pay are right about climate change and the scientists are either villains or dupes. If so, then not talking about climate change would be the correct approach—just as not talking about climate demons is the correct approach (because there are no such things). Since the weather events are really occurring, then addressing them would still be reasonable. So, regardless of whether climate change is real or not, my approach seems to be a sound one: avoid the resistance of climate change deniers by not using the C words; but enlist them into addressing those perfectly natural severe weather events that will be occurring with increasing regularity.

 

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The Gun and I: Feeling & Thinking

English: The British Baker rifle

After each eruption of gun violence, there is also a corresponding eruption in the debates over gun issues. As with all highly charged issues, people are primarily driven by their emotions rather than by reason. Being a philosopher, I like to delude myself with the thought that it is possible to approach an issue with pure reason. Like many other philosophers, I am irritated when people say things like “I feel that there should be more gun control” or “I feel that gun rights are important. Because of this, when I read student papers I strike through all “inappropriate” uses of “feel” and replace them with “think.” This is, of course, done with a subconscious sense of smug superiority. Or so it was before I started reflecting on emotions in the context of gun issues. In this essay I will endeavor a journey through the treacherous landscape of feeling and thinking in relation to gun issues. I’ll begin with arguments.

As any competent philosopher can tell you, an argument consists of a claim, the conclusion, that is supposed to be supported by the evidence or reasons, the premises, that are given. In the context of logic, as opposed to that of persuasion, there are two standards for assessing an argument. The first is an assessment of the quality of the logic: determining how well the premises support the conclusion. The second is an assessment of the plausibility of the premises: determining the quality of the evidence.

On the face of it, assessing the quality of the logic should be a matter of perfect objectivity. For deductive arguments (arguments whose premises are supposed to guarantee the truth of the conclusion), this is the case. Deductive arguments, as anyone who has had some basic logic knows, can be checked for validity using such things as Venn diagrams, truth tables and proofs. As long as a person knows what she is doing, she can confirm beyond all doubt whether a deductive argument is valid or not. A valid argument is, of course, an argument such that if its premises were true, then its conclusion must be true. While a person might stubbornly refuse to accept a valid argument as valid, this would be as foolish as stubbornly refusing to accept that 2+2= 4 or that triangles have three sides. As an example, consider the following valid argument:

 

Premise 1: If an assault weapon ban would reduce gun violence, then congress should pass an assault weapon ban.

Premise 2: An assault weapon ban would reduce gun violence.

Conclusion: Congress should pass an assault weapon ban.

 

This argument is valid; in fact, it is an example of the classic deductive argument known as modus ponens (also known as affirming the antecedent). As such, questioning the logic of the argument would just reveal one’s ignorance of logic. Before anyone gets outraged, it is important to note that an argument being valid does not entail that any of its content is actually true. While this endlessly confuses students, though a valid argument that has all true premises must have a true conclusion, a valid argument need not have true premises or a true conclusion. Because of this, while the validity of the above argument is beyond question, one could take issue with the premises. They could, along with the conclusion, be false—although the argument is unquestionably valid. For those who might be interested, an argument that is valid and has all true premises is a sound argument. An argument that does not meet these conditions is unsound.

Unfortunately, the assessment of premises does not (in general) admit of a perfectly objective test on par with the tests for validity. In general, premises are assessed in terms of how well they match observations, background information and credible claims from credible sources (which leads right to concerns about determining credibility). As should be expected, people tend to accept premises that are in accord with how they feel rather than based on a cold assessment of the facts. This is true for everyone, be that person the head of the NRA or a latte sipping liberal academic who shivers at the thought of even seeing a gun. Because of this, a person who wants to fairly and justly assess the premises of any argument has to be willing to understand her own feelings and work out how they influence her judgment. Since people, as John Locke noted in his classic essay on enthusiasm, tend to evaluate claims based on the strength of their feelings, doing this is exceptionally difficult. People think they are right because they feel strongly about something and are least likely to engage in critical assessment when they feel strongly.

While deductive logic allows for perfectly objective assessment, it is not the logic that is commonly used in debates over political issues or in general. The most commonly used logic is inductive logic.

Inductive arguments are arguments, so an inductive argument will have one or more premises that are supposed to support a conclusion. Unlike deductive arguments, inductive arguments do not offer certainty—they deal in likelihood. A logically good inductive argument is called a strong argument: one whose premises, if true, would probably make the conclusion true. A bad inductive argument is a weak one. Unlike the case of validity, the strength of an inductive argument is judged by applying the standards specific to that sort of inductive argument to the argument in question. Consider, as an example, the following argument:

 

Premise 1: Tens of thousands of people die each year as a result of automobiles.

Premise 2: Tens of thousands of people die each year as a result of guns.

Premise 3: The tens of thousands of deaths by automobiles are morally acceptable.

Conclusion: The tens of thousands of deaths by gun are also morally acceptable.

 

This is a simple argument by analogy in which it is argued that since cars and guns are alike, if we accept automobile fatalities then we should also accept gun fatalities. Being an inductive argument, there is no perfect, objective test to determine whether the argument is strong or not. Rather, the argument is assessed in terms of how well it meets the standards of an argument by analogy. The gist of these standards is that the more alike the two things (guns and cars) are alike, the stronger the argument. Likewise, the less alike they are, the weaker the argument.

While the standards are reasonably objective, their application admits of considerable subjectivity. In the case of guns and cars, people will differ greatly in terms of how they see them in regards to similarities and differences. As would be suspected, the lenses people see this matter will be deeply colored by their emotions and psychological backstory. As such, rationally assessing inductive arguments is especially challenging: a person must sort through the influence of emotions and psychology on her evaluation of both the premises and the reasoning. Since arguments about guns are generally inductive, it is no wonder it is a mess—even on the rare occasions when people are sincerely trying to be rational and objective.

The lesson here is that a person needs to think about how she feels before she can think about what she thinks. Since this also applies to me, my next essay will be about exploring my psychological backstory in regards to guns.

 

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Terrorism & Narratives

For most of us the idea that things just happen runs against our basic human intuitions. We try to impose order on chaos and find patterns in everything. In doing this we forge narratives to make sense of what might be utterly senseless. In the case of the slaughter in Orlando, people are struggling to explain and understand by weaving stories that match their understanding of the world. This is not, in general, to be condemned—it is part of how we endure the awful.

The narratives of explanation can quickly turn to narratives of exploitation; the weaving of a story to advance some ideological agenda. Sticking to the stereotypes, many liberals are weaving a narrative around guns—the ease with which they can be acquired, the special danger posed by semi-automatic weapons, the terrible threat of high capacity clips, and the scariness of “assault rifles.” On this narrative, one conclusion is that if there had only been more regulation, then the massacre might have either been much smaller or not occurred at all.

While the desire to do something through the law is understandable, the alleged shooter acquired his guns legally. While he is believed to have been a domestic abuser and was investigated by the FBI, he had no criminal record. Put simply, he passed all the reasonable tests for purchasing a gun and there was no evidence that he would commit a crime.

I have written extensively about the potential effectiveness of assault weapon bans and magazine restrictions, so I will not go into detail here. However, such bans do not address existing weapons and restricting clip size just means slightly more reloading or gun switching on the part of a shooter who lacks high capacity clips. That said, improved gun safety (one must not say “control” is something broadly accepted and can have a positive impact on reducing gun crime (or so it is claimed).

There is also a narrative about the blame: the general liberal view here is to reject collective guilt: the murderer is accountable but the fact that he claimed to be Muslim does not make Muslims complicit in his crimes. Many in the LGBT community have made this point very clear: they do not condemn or hate Islam because of what one Muslim did.

I have also written extensively about group guilt and here I agree with the LGBT community: Muslims are no more to blame for the shooting than Christians are to blame for the hate of God Hates Fags.

The general narratives on the right are rather different. Right after the bloodletting, there was the usual mobilization in defense of guns and the usual stock narratives went into reruns for the thousandth time. One of these was the story that if only people in Pulse were armed, then they would have been able to shoot down the attacker—this is the classic tale of the good guy with a gun. Some take this narrative as involving some victim blaming: if only they had been smart enough (or pro-gun enough) to be armed, then they would still be alive. Some focus on the laws that forbid guns from certain places—if only people could carry guns anywhere, there would have been armed citizens ready to blast the attacker.

Unfortunately, the restrictions imposed on studying gun violence (lobbied by the NRA and gun industry) means that the statistics needed to judge this matter rationally are not available. One would think that if the gun lobby folks truly believed the good guy with a gun theory, they would be funding research to prove their point. Their opposition should make one a bit suspicious about their faith in their own claim.

Some narratives endeavored to clarify the real victims of the killings: gun owners. As always happens after a mass shooting, there was a rush to tell a speculative tale about how this is the time that Obama is going to come for people’s guns. And, as always happens, gun sales start to spike upward. And, as always, Obama does not come for people’s guns.

The right has also generally stuck to the narrative of what they insist on calling “Islamic terrorism”—that Islam is the cause of such terrorists attacks. On the one hand, it is correct to consider religion as a motivating factor. On the other hand, the idea of collective guilt in regards to huge and diverse groups is rather problematic. While the folks in God Hates Fags claim to be acting from their faith, they do not therefore represent all Christians. If a Christian attacks an abortion clinic for religious reasons, that is not Christian Terrorism and his actions do not make all Christians accountable.

Ironically, the “Islamic Terrorism” narrative of the right is in accord with the narratives of groups like ISIS (or ISIL or whatever one wants to call these evil people). Their view is that they are Islam and that all of Islam should be at war with the West (including Western Muslims). The right’s narrative is that the West should be at war with all of Islam, so there is agreement between the right and ISIS on this matter. This should be taken as a good sign that those on the right who buy this narrative should rethink their position. Insisting that all of Islam is the enemy entails that many of our nominal allies would have to be reclassified as enemies as would many of our own citizens and citizens of allied states. This seems a foolish idea.

Trump, not surprisingly, has gone beyond even this narrative—after accepting congratulations (some Trump supporters see the Orlando attack as vindicating Trump) Trump pushed for his proposed Muslim ban once again. Trump claimed that the killer was born in Afghanistan and that his ban would have prevented the attack. As is so often the case with Trump’s stories, it is mostly fiction: the alleged killer is of Afghan descent, but he was born in America. As such, Trump’s ban would not have prevented the attack. While many are endeavoring to milk the massacre for political points, Trump deserves special mention for his handling of the matter—he really stands out in regards to his exploitation of the attack.

 

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Trump Rhetoric: naming Insulting & Mocking

Listening to one of Trump’s speeches, I tried to remember when I had heard this style of rhetoric before. While negative rhetoric is a stock part of modern American politics, he had created a brand that stands out in its negative magnificence. My first thought was it reminded me a great deal of the incoherent hate spewing I recall from gaming on Xbox Live. Then I realized it matched much earlier memories, that of the bullying and name calling of junior high school and earlier. I realized then that Trump’s main rhetorical style was a more polished version of that deployed by angry children.

One tactic that most people should recall from their youth is that of name calling. Kids would call each other things like “Stinky Susan” or “Fat Fred” in order to mock and insult each other. As people grew up, their name calling and mockery tended to become more sophisticated—at least in terms of the vocabulary.

Trump, however, seems to instinctively grasp the appeal of schoolyard level name calling, insults and mockery. He gives his foes (and almost everyone gets to be a foe of Trump) names such as “crooked Hillary”, “Lying Ted Cruz”, “Goofy Elizabeth”, and “Crazy Bernie.”

While name calling has no logical force (it proves nothing), it can have considerable rhetorical force. One obvious intended effect is to persuade the audience that the person given the insulting name is thus “bad” or “failed” as Trump loves to say. Perhaps the most important effect is how it impacts status: giving someone an insulting name is, at the core, a power play about relative status. The insulting name is intended to lower the targets status (from Senator Ted Cruz to “lying Ted) and thus raise the relative status of the attacker. Trump has used this with great effect against foes such as “low energy George Bush” and “Little lightweight Marco Rubio.” While these men were both professional politicians, they never seemed to hit on an effective counter to this attack. Trying to engage Trump in a battle of naming, insults and mockery is rather like trying to out squeeze a python—so it is no wonder this did not work. Trying to elevate the battle to the usual political style of negative rhetoric also proved ineffective—Trump’s schoolyard bullying seems to have won the hearts of many Americans who were not inclined to accept a change of rhetorical venue. Thus, it is hardly surprising that Trump swept aside his Republican foes like a bully swats aside the smaller and weaker children. Trump won the status battle by playing the schoolyard status game with his usual skill. His opponents were playing politics as usual, which was the wrong game to play with a population largely tired of that game.

From a logical standpoint, no one should be convinced by name calling. It has, obviously enough, no function as evidence or reasons for a claim. Calling Elizabeth Warren “goofy” does nothing to refute her claims. As such, the defense against being swayed by name calling is to be aware of this, to think “that is an insulting name…that proves nothing.”

If one is the target of an insulting or mocking name calling, then the defense is a bit more challenging. This is because what tends to matter is how other people are influenced by the name calling. While it is tempting to think about “sticks and stones”, Trump has established that name calling can hurt—at least in terms of a person’s status. Which means it hurts a lot. We are, after all, status obsessed monkeys in pants.

One way to reply is to respond with crude name calling, insults and mockery. From a logical standpoint, this proves nothing. From a practical standpoint, the main question is whether or not it will work. Part of the concern is whether or not one can engage and “beat” the name caller using this tactic. That is, whether one can out-insult the person and lower his status in the eyes of the other primates. Another part of the concern is whether or not this is the right tactic to use in terms of getting the desired result. A person might, for example, get in good shots at the name caller, yet end up losing in the long term. As might be imagined, people vary in their ability to name call as well as the impact name calling will have on how they are perceived. People expect Trump to be vulgar and insulting, so he loses nothing with this tactic. While people tend to think Hillary Clinton is corrupt, they also expect her to have a much higher degree of class and professionalism than Trump: playing his game would be a loss for her, even if she “won.”

Another way to reply is with more sophisticated name calling, insults and mockery. This, of course, is still logically empty—but can be combined with actual arguments. Hillary Clinton, for example, presented a speech aimed at mocking Trump. While she used the same basic tactic as Trump, trying to lower his status, her attacks were far more refined. To use an analogy, Trump is a barbarian hacking away with a great axe, while Hillary is fencing. The goal is the same (kill the other person) but one is crude and the other rather more elegant. The question is, of course, which will work. In the case of the rhetorical battle, the outcome is decided by the audience—do American voters prefer the axe of Trump or the rapier of Hillary? Or neither?

It is also possible to engage name calling with logic and counter with actual arguments. While this can work with some people, those who are subject to logic would tend to already reject such tactics and those who are not so amendable to logic will be unaffected. In fact, they would probably regard the use of such a method as confirming the bestowed name. Aristotle was among the first to point out the weakness of logic as a persuasive device and nothing has proven him wrong.

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Inheritance & Welfare

In general, conservatives tend to oppose welfare and similar sorts of social programs. They also tend to be protective of inheritance—for example, they refer to the tax on inheritance with the dysphemism “death tax” and have endeavored to battle this tax. While these positions might seem compatible, a strong case can be made that the arguments against social programs would also apply as strong criticisms of inheritance.

One stock criticism of programs like welfare is that receiving something without earning it is intrinsically wrong. People should, the reasoning goes, earn what they receive. This is often the logic behind proposals to make people work to receive social support.

On the face of it, inheritance would seem the same as unearned social support: a person just receives whatever is left to her. If receiving something without earning it is wrong, this would make inheritance wrong.

A sensible objection is that people sometimes do earn what they inherit. For example, young Lord Trump might have toiled in his father’s business, thus earning the inherited wealth from this business. The same would also apply to social programs. People often earned the social support they receive by the work they did before needing the support. For example, a person who was fired as part of boosting the stock value of the company would have earned unemployment benefits by his past labor. Those getting Social Security retirement benefits in the United States also paid in, thus earning what they received.

It might be contended that some do receive social support without having earned it through labor and hence it would be wrong for them to receive it. This same principle would also apply to unearned inheritance: so, if people should not get support on the basis of this principle, they should also not get an inheritance that is unearned.

A second stock criticism of social support programs is that the resources could be better spent. For example, it could be argued that eliminating benefits in favor of tax cuts for businesses would be more beneficial. After all, some claim, the poor waste the money on drugs –at least that seems to be the reasoning behind mandatory drug tests for recipients of support. This sort of utilitarian reasoning should also apply to inheritances: money that would be squandered by the idle rich like Paris Hilton should be used where it would do far more good, such as funding education or infrastructure repairs (perhaps replacing the lead pipes used to transport water).

A reasonable reply is that a person has the moral right to decide how her possessions will be distributed after her death—this is a matter of choice. In contrast, social programs involve the takers taking the money of the makers (presumably to squander on drugs). Thus, a relevant difference here is the matter of choice. Inheritance is chosen, being taxed to support the takers is not.

The easy counter to this, at least in a democratic state, is that providing such support is a choice: the citizens have decided that this is what they want. As such, the people have chosen, thus making it a matter of choice.

An individual can raise the objection that she did not chose to provide for the takers—she does not want her tax dollars going to them. As such, there is an important distinction between inheritance and social support.

I do admit that there is a certain appeal in the idea of a pay-as-you-go state system that also allows choice. That is, citizens would pay for the services they use (such as schools, roads, the legal system, defense, police and so on) and they can volunteer to pay for other things. Naturally, citizens who elected to not pay into the social support programs would be ineligible for benefits in these systems—so the makers who wish not to contribute would need to hope that fickle fate or poor decisions did not transform them into takers.

Despite the appeal of such a system, it seems likely that it would result in the collapse of civilization. This is the sort of argument Locke used when arguing why the citizens need to go along with the decision of the majority: the alternative is the destruction of the political body.

A final stock objection against social programs is that they have a harmful impact on the moral character of the recipients. Some common claims are that social support destroys the incentive to work, breeds a culture of dependence and destroys self-respect. These are, it is claimed, are the consequences of getting something for nothing.

These same consequences should also arise from inheritance, which is also getting something for nothing (the matter of earned inheritance and support was addressed above). As such, if social programs should be eliminated on this ground, so should inheritance. Mary Wollstonecraft argued at length in support of the claim that inherited wealth is morally deleterious in her Vindication of the Rights of Women.

One reply to this is to argue that there is relevant difference between the two: most inheritances are very small and thus do not destroy incentives or breed dependence. For example, if a young person receives $1,000 from an inheritance, that will not suffice to destroy his incentives or breed dependence. This is because $1,000 will not last long. In contrast, social support can provide a person with enough to live on, thus allowing dependence to take root and incentive to rot away.

This argument does show that small inheritances would be fine, but would show that substantial inheritances would have the harmful effects attributed to the social programs. If having bare survival support from the state suffices to create dependence and destroy incentive, then receiving considerable wealth from an inheritance should inflict massive harm on the recipient. As such, if people need to be protected from the harms of social support, they must also be protected from the terrible danger presented by significant inheritances. Since most people receive little or no inheritances, the majority of people will be safe from this harm and their inheritances should be allowed. However, the wealthy are in danger proportional to their wealth and must be protected from this dire threat to their independence and ambition.

It could be countered that only the poor are especially vulnerable to the danger of unearned wealth and the wealthy can, in general, safely accept it without harm. This is certainly an empirical matter and objective research should suffice to show whether this is true or not.

It would seem that many of the arguments against social support would also apply to inheritance. As such, if these arguments work against social support, they should also work against inheritance. But, perhaps so much social support would not be needed if wealth were less concentrated.

 

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The Incredible Shifting Hillary

When supporters of Donald Trump are asked why they back him, the most common answers are that Trump “tells it like it is” and that he is “authentic.” When people who dislike Hillary are asked why, they often refer to her ever shifting positions and that she just says what she thinks people want to hear.

Given that Trump has, at best, a distant relation with the truth it is somewhat odd that he is seen as telling it like it is. He may be authentic, but he is most assuredly telling it like it is not. While Hillary has shifted positions, she has a far closer relationship to the truth (although still not a committed one). Those who oppose Hillary tend to focus on these shifts in making the case against her. Her defenders endeavor to minimize the impact of these claims or boldly try to make a virtue of said shifting. Given the importance of the shifting, this a matter well worth considering.

While the extent of Hillary’s shifting can be debated, the fact that she has shifted on major issues is a matter of fact. Good examples of shifts include the second Iraq War, free trade, same-sex marriage and law enforcement. While many are tempted to claim that the fact that she has shifted her views on such issues proves she is wrong now, doing this would be to fall victim to the classic ad hominem tu quoque fallacy. This is an error in reasoning in which it is inferred that a person’s current view or claim is mistaken because they have held to a different view or claim in the past. While two inconsistent claims cannot be true at the same time, pointing out that a person’s current claim is inconsistent with a past claim does not prove which claim is not true (and both could actually be false). After all, the person could have been wrong then while being right now. Or vice versa. Or wrong in both cases. Because of this, it cannot be inferred that Hillary’s views are wrong now simply because she held opposite views in the past.

While truth is important, the main criticism of Hillary’s shifting is not that she has moved from a correct view to an erroneous view. Rather, the criticism is that she is shifting her expressed views to match whatever she thinks the voters want to hear. That is, she is engaged in pandering.

Since pandering is a common practice in politics, it seems reasonable to hold that it is unfair to single Hillary out for special criticism. This does not, of course defend the practice. To accept that being common justifies a practice would be to fall victim to the common practice fallacy. This is an error in reasoning in which a practice is defended by asserting it is a common one. Obviously enough, the mere fact that something is commonly done does not entail that it is good or justified. That said, if a practice is common yet wrong, it is still unfair to single out a specific person for special criticism for engaging in that practice. Rather, all those that engage in the practice should be criticized.

It could be argued that while pandering is a common practice, Hillary does warrant special criticism because her shifting differs in relevant and significant ways from the shifting of others. This could be a matter of volume (she shifts more than others), content (she shifts on more important issues), extent (she shifts to a greater degree) or some other factors. While judging the nature and extent of shifts does involve some subjective assessment, these factors can be evaluated with a reasonable degree of objectivity—although partisan influences can interfere with this. Since Hillary is generally viewed through the lenses of intense partisanship, I will not endeavor to address this matter—it is unlikely that anything I could write would sway partisan opinions. I will, however, address the ethics of shifting.

While there is a tendency to regard position shifting with suspicion, there are cases in which is not only acceptable, but laudable. These are cases in which the shift is justified by evidence or reasoning that warrants such a shift. For example, I was a theoretical anarchist for a while in college: I believed that the best government was the least government and preferably none at all. However, reading Locke, Hobbes and others as well as gaining a better understanding of how humans actually behave resulted in a shift in my position. I am no longer an anarchist on the grounds that the position is not well supported. To use another example, I went through a phase in which I was certain in my atheism. However, arguments made by Hume and Kant changed my view regarding the possibility of such certainty. As a final example, I used to believe in magical beings like the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. However, the evidence of their nonexistence convinced me to shift my view. In all these cases the shifts are laudable: I changed my view because of considered evidence and argumentation. While there can be considerable debate about what counts as good evidence or reasoning for a shift, the basic principle seems sound. A person should believe what is best supported by evidence and reasoning and this often changes over time.

Turning back to Hillary, if she has shifted her views on the basis of evidence and reasoning that justly support her new views, then she should not be condemned for the shift. For example, if she believed in the approach to crime taken by her husband when he was President, but has changed her view in the face of evidence that this view is flawed, then her change would be quite reasonable. As might be expected, her supporters tend to claim this is why she changes her views. The challenge is to show that this is the case. Her critics typically claim that the reason for her shifts is to match what she thinks will get her the most votes, which leads to the question of whether this is a bad thing or not.

A very reasonable concern about a politician who just says what she thinks the voters want to hear is that the person lacks principles, so that the voters do not really know who they are voting for. As such, they cannot make a good decision regarding what the politician would actually do in office.

A possible reply to this is that a politician who shifts her views to match those of the voters is exactly what people should want in a representative democracy: the elected officials should act in accord with the will of the people. This does raise the broad subject of the proper function of an elected official: to do the will of the people, to do what they said they would do, to act in accord with their character and principles or something else. This goes beyond the limited scope of the essay, but the answer is rather critical to determining whether Hillary’s shifting is a good or bad thing. If politicians should act on their own principles and views rather than doing what the people want them to do, then there would seem to be good grounds for criticizing any politician whose own views are not those of the people.

A final interesting point is to argue that Hillary should not be criticized for shifting her views to match those that are now held by the majority of people (or majority of Democrats). If other people can shift their views on these matters over time in ways that are acceptable, then the same should apply to Hillary. For example, when Hillary was against same-sex marriage that was the common view in the country. Now, most Americans are fine with it—and so is Hillary. Her defenders assert that she, like most Americans, has changed her views over time in the face of changing social conditions. Her detractors claim she is merely pandering and has no commitment beyond achieving power. This is a factual matter, albeit one that is hard to settle without evidence as to what is really going on in her mind. After all, a mere change in her view to match the general view is consistent with both unprincipled pandering and a reasoned change in a position that has evolved with the times.

 

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The shame of public shaming

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

Public shaming is not new. It’s been used as a punishment in all societies – often embraced by the formal law and always available for day-to-day policing of moral norms. However, over the past couple of centuries, Western countries have moved away from more formal kinds of shaming, partly in recognition of its cruelty.

Even in less formal settings, shaming individuals in front of their peers is now widely regarded as unacceptable behaviour. This signifies an improvement in the moral milieu, but its effect is being offset by the rise of social media and, with it, new kinds of shaming.

Indeed, as Welsh journalist and documentary maker Jon Ronson portrays vividly in his latest book, social media shaming has become a social menace. Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (Picador, 2015) is a timely contribution to the public understanding of an emotionally charged topic.

Shaming is on the rise. We’ve shifted – much of the time – to a mode of scrutinising each other for purity. Very often, we punish decent people for small transgressions or for no real transgressions at all. Online shaming, conducted via the blogosphere and our burgeoning array of social networking services, creates an environment of surveillance, fear and conformity.

The making of a call-out culture

I noticed the trend – and began to talk about it – around five years ago. I’d become increasingly aware of cases where people with access to large social media platforms used them to “call out” and publicly vilify individuals who’d done little or nothing wrong. Few onlookers were prepared to support the victims. Instead, many piled on with glee (perhaps to signal their own moral purity; perhaps, in part, for the sheer thrill of the hunt).

Since then, the trend to an online call-out culture has continued and even intensified, but something changed during 2015. Mainstream journalists and public intellectuals finally began to express their unease.

There’s no sign that the new call-out culture is fading away, but it’s become a recognised phenomenon. It is now being discussed more openly, and it’s increasingly questioned. That’s partly because even its participants – people who assumed it would never happen to them – sometimes find themselves “called out” for revealing some impurity of thought. It’s become clear that no moral or political affiliation holds patents on the weaponry of shaming, and no one is immune to its effects.

As Ronson acknowledges, he has, himself, taken part in public shamings, though the most dramatic episode was a desperate act of self-defence when a small group of edgy academics hijacked his Twitter identity to make some theoretical point. Shame on them! I don’t know what else he could have done to make them back down.

That, however, was an extreme and peculiar case. It involved ongoing abuse of one individual by others who refused to “get” what they were doing to distress him, even when asked to stop. Fascinating though the example is, it is hardly a precedent for handling more common situations.

At one time, if we go along with Ronson, it felt liberating to speak back in solidarity against the voices of politicians, corporate moguls, religious leaders, radio shock jocks, newspaper columnists and others with real power or social influence.

But there can be a slippery slope… from talking back in legitimate ways against, say, a powerful journalist (criticising her views and arguments, and any abusive conduct), to pushing back in less legitimate ways (such as attempting to silence her viewpoint by trying to get her fired), to destroying relatively powerless individuals who have done nothing seriously wrong.

Slippery slope arguments have a deservedly bad reputation. But some slopes really are slippery, and some slippery slope arguments really are cogent. With public online shaming, we’ve found ourselves, lately, on an especially slippery slope. In more ways than one, we need to get a grip.

Shaming the shamers

Ronson joined in a campaign of social media shaming in October 2009: one that led to some major advertisers distancing themselves from the Daily Mail in the UK. This case illustrates some problems when we discuss social media shaming, so I’ll give it more analysis than Ronson does.

One problem is that, as frequently happens, it was a case of “shame the shamer”. The recipient of the shaming was especially unsympathetic because she was herself a public shamer of others.

The drama followed a distasteful – to say the least – column by Jan Moir, a British journalist with a deplorable modus operandi. Moir’s topic was the death of Stephen Gately, one of the singers from the popular Irish band Boyzone.

Gately had been found dead while on holiday in Mallorca with his civil partner, Andrew Cowles. Although the coroner attributed the death to natural causes, Moir wrote that it was “not, by any yardstick, a natural one” and that “it strikes another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships.”

Ronson does not make the point explicit in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, but what immediately strikes me is that Moir was engaging in some (not-so-)good old-fashioned mainstream media shaming. She used her large public platform to hold up identified individuals to be shamed over very private behaviour. Gately could not, of course, feel any shame from beyond the grave, but Moir’s column was grossly tasteless since he had not even been buried when it first appeared.

Moir stated, self-righteously: “It is important that the truth comes out about the exact circumstances of [Gately’s] strange and lonely death.” But why was it so important that the public be told such particulars as whether or not Cowles (at least) hooked up that tragic evening for sex with a student whom Moir names, and whether or not some, or all, of the three young men involved used cannabis or other recreational drugs that night?

To confirm Moir’s propensities as a public shamer, no one need go further than the same column. She follows her small-minded paragraphs about Gately with a few others that shame “socialite” Tara Palmer-Tomkinson for no worse sin than wearing a revealing outfit to a high-society party.

You get the picture, I trust. I’m not asking that Moir, or anyone else, walk on eggshells lest her language accidentally offend somebody, or prove open to unexpectedly uncharitable interpretations. Quite the opposite: we should all be able to speak with some spontaneity, without constantly censoring how we formulate our thoughts. I’ll gladly extend that freedom to Moir.

But Moir is not merely unguarded in her language: she can be positively reckless, as with her suggestion that Palmer-Tomkinson’s wispy outfit might more appropriately be worn by “Timmy the Tranny, the hat-check personage down at the My-Oh-My supper club in Brighton.” No amount of charitable interpretation can prevent the impression that she is often deliberately, or at best uncaringly, hurtful. In those circumstances, I have no sympathy for her if she receives widespread and severe criticism for what she writes.

When it comes to something like Moir’s hatchet job on Gately and Cowles, and their relationship, I can understand the urge to retaliate – to shame and punish in return. It’s no wonder, then, that Ronson discusses the feeling of empowerment when numerous people, armed with their social media accounts, turned on badly behaved “giants” such as the Daily Mail and its contributors. As it seemed to Ronson in those days, not so long ago, “the silenced were getting a voice.”

But let’s be careful about this.

Some distinctions

A few aspects need to be teased out. Even when responding to the shamers, we ought to think about what’s appropriate.

For a start, I am – I’m well aware – being highly critical of Moir’s column and her approach to journalism. In that sense, I could be said to be “shaming” her. But we don’t have to be utterly silent when confronted by unpleasant behaviour from public figures.

My criticisms are, I submit, fair comment on material that was (deliberately and effectively) disseminated widely to the public. In writing for a large audience in the way she does – especially when she takes an aggressive and hurtful approach toward named individuals – Moir has to expect some push-back.

We can draw reasonable distinctions. I have no wish to go further than criticism of what Moir actually said and did. I don’t, for example, want to misrepresent her if I can avoid it, to make false accusations, or to punish her in any way that goes beyond criticism. I wouldn’t demand that she be no-platformed from a planned event or that advertisers withdraw their money from the Daily Mail until she is fired.

The word criticism is important. We need to think about when public criticism is fair and fitting, when it becomes disproportionate, and when it spirals down into something mean and brutal.

Furthermore, we can distinguish between 1) Moir’s behaviour toward individuals and 2) her views on issues of general importance, however wrong or ugly those views might be. In her 2009 comments on Gately’s death, the two are entangled, but it doesn’t follow that they merit just the same kind of response.

Moir’s column intrudes on individuals’ privacy and holds them up for shaming, but it also expresses an opinion on legal recognition of same-sex couples in the form of civil unions. Although she is vague, Moir seems to think that individuals involved in legally recognised same-sex relationships are less likely to be monogamous (and perhaps more likely to use drugs) than people in heterosexual marriages. This means, she seems to imply, that there’s something wrong with, or inferior about, same-sex civil unions.

In fairness, Moir later issued an apology in which she explained her view: “I was suggesting that civil partnerships – the introduction of which I am on the record in supporting – have proved just to be as problematic as marriages.” This is, however, difficult to square with the words of her original column, where she appears to deny, point blank, that civil unions “are just the same as heterosexual marriages.”

Even if she is factually correct about statistical differences between heterosexual marriages and civil unions, this at least doesn’t seem to be relevant to public policy. After all, plenty of marriages between straight people are “open” (and may or may not involve the use of recreational drugs), but they are still legally valid marriages.

If someone does think certain statistical facts about civil unions are socially relevant, however, it’s always available to them to argue why. They should be allowed to do so without their speech being legally or socially suppressed. It’s likewise open to them to produce whatever reliable data might be available. Furthermore, we can’t expect critics of civil unions to present their full case on every occasion when they speak up to express a view. That would be an excessive condition for any of us to have to meet when we express ourselves on important topics.

More generally, we can criticise bad ideas and arguments – or even make fun of them if we think they’re that bad – but as a rule we shouldn’t try to stop their expression.

Perhaps some data exists to support Moir’s rather sneering claims about civil unions. But an anecdote about the private lives of a particular gay couple proves nothing one way or the other. Once again, many heterosexual marriages are not monogamous, but a sensational story involving a particular straight couple would prove nothing about how many.

In short, Moir is entitled to express her jaundiced views about civil unions or same-sex relationships more generally, and the worst she should face is strong criticism, or a degree of satire, aimed primarily at the views themselves. But shining a spotlight on Cowles and Gately was unfair, callous, nasty, gratuitous, and (to use one of her own pet words) sleazy. In addition to criticising her apparent views, we can object strongly when she publicly shames individuals.

Surfing down the slippery slope

Ronson discusses a wide range of cases, and an evident problem is that they can vary greatly, making it difficult to draw overall conclusions or to frame exact principles.

Some individuals who’ve been publicly shamed clearly enough “started it”, but even they can suffer from a cruel and disproportionate backlash. Some have been public figures who’ve genuinely done something wrong, as with Jonah Lehrer, a journalist who fabricated quotes to make his stories appear more impressive. It’s only to be expected that Lehrer’s irresponsibility and poor ethics would damage his career. But even in his case, the shaming process was over the top. Some of it was almost sadistic.

Other victims of public shaming are more innocent than Lehrer. Prominent among them is Justine Sacco, whom Ronson views with understandable sympathy. Sacco’s career and personal life were ruined after she made an ill-advised tweet on 20 January 2013. It said: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” She was then subjected to an extraordinarily viral Twitter attack that led quickly to her losing her job and becoming an international laughing stock.

It appears that her tweet went viral after a Gawker journalist retweeted it (in a hostile way) to his 15,000 followers at the time – after just one person among Sacco’s 170 followers had passed it on to him.

Ronson offers his own interpretation of the Sacco tweet:

It seemed obvious that her tweet, whilst not a great joke, wasn’t racist, but a self-reflexive comment on white privilege – on our tendency to naively imagine ourselves immune to life’s horrors. Wasn’t it?

In truth, it’s not obvious to me just how to interpret the tweet, and of course I can’t read Sacco’s mind. If it comes to that, I doubt that she pondered the wording carefully. Still, this small piece of sick humour was aimed only at her small circle of Twitter followers, and it probably did convey to them something along the lines of what Ronson suggests. In its original context, then, it did not merely ridicule the plight of black AIDS victims in Africa.

Much satire and humour is, as we know, unstable in its meaning – simultaneously saying something outrageous and testing our emotions as we find ourselves laughing at it. It can make us squirm with uncertainty. This applies (sometimes) to high literary satire, but also to much ordinary banter among friends. We laugh but we also squirm.

In any event, charitable interpretations – if not a single straightforward one – were plainly available for Sacco’s tweet. This was a markedly different situation from Jan Moir’s gossip-column attacks on hapless celebrities and socialites. And unlike Moir, Sacco lacked a large media platform, an existing public following, and an understanding employer.

Ronson also describes the case of Lindsey Stone, a young woman whose life was turned to wreckage because of a photograph taken in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. In the photo she is mocking a “Silence and Respect” sign by miming a shout and making an obscene gesture. The photo was uploaded on Facebook, evidently with inadequate privacy safeguards, and eventually it went viral, with Stone being attacked by a cybermob coming from a political direction opposite to the mob that went after Sacco.

While the Arlington photograph might seem childish, or many other things, posing for it and posting it on Facebook hardly add up to any serious wrongdoing. It is not behaviour that merited the outcome for Lindsey Stone: destruction of her reputation, loss of her job, and a life of ongoing humiliation and fear.

Referring to such cases, Ronson says:

The people we were destroying were no longer just people like Jonah [Lehrer]: public figures who had committed actual transgressions. They were private individuals who really hadn’t done anything much wrong. Ordinary humans were being forced to learn damage control, like corporations that had committed PR disasters.

Thanks to Ronson’s intervention, Stone sought help from an agency that rehabilitates online reputations. Of Stone’s problems in particular, he observes:

The sad thing was that Lindsey had incurred the Internet’s wrath because she was impudent and playful and foolhardy and outspoken. And now here she was, working with Farukh [an operative for the rehabilitation agency] to reduce herself to safe banalities – to cats and ice cream and Top 40 chart music. We were creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland.

This is not the culture we wanted

Ronson also quotes Michael Fertik, from the agency that helped Stone: “We’re creating a culture where people feel constantly surveilled, where people are afraid to be themselves.”

“We see ourselves as nonconformist,” Ronson concludes sadly, “but I think all of this is creating a more conformist, conservative age.”

This is not the culture we wanted. It’s a public culture that seems broken, but what can we do about it?

For a start, it helps to recognise the problem, but it’s difficult, evidently, for most people to accept the obvious advice: Be forthright in debating topics of general importance, but always subject to some charity and restraint in how you treat particular people. Think through – and not with excuses – what that means in new situations. Be willing to criticise people on your own side if they are being cruel or unfair.

It’s not our job to punish individuals, make examples of them, or suppress their views. Usually we can support our points without any of this; we can do so in ways that are kinder, more honest, more likely to make intellectual progress. The catch is, it requires patience and courage.

Our public culture needs more of this sort of patience, more of this sort of courage. Can we – will we – rise to the challenge?

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

[My page at Academia.edu]