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Understanding, validating, disagreeing

Your Humble Blogger has more or less completed the latest change of domicile, and the band is broad once more. Whether this leads me to start blogging again with any frequency ... well, we shall see.

At any rate, catching up on reading, YHB wound up connecting two things on blogs by Gentle Readers of this Tohu Bohu. Gentle Reader Dan P would “love to see more discussions explicitly invoke the distinction between right and understandable.” He clarifies:

As I see it, the value of making an argument that a particular position is understandable, rather than right, is that it doesn't require your co-conversationalist (with divergent opinions) to negate their own position in order to listen openly to yours, and vice versa. It's non-zero-sum. It often seems to me like people's underlying goals in talking are more often to be understood and acknowledged than to be certified as authorities, in any case.
I find that point of view appealing, but I’m not sure it overlaps well with my perception of the universe. Or, rather, I think that the distinction between right and understandable is important and probably even useful, but I have doubts that people want to be understood, rather than validated. Well, and in casual conversations with friends, where validation is understood, coming from years of love or even acquaintance, common interests, and whatnot, I suspect that understanding is a more important goal. But when I look at political discussions over the internet, I see very little interest in being understood, unless that understanding leads to acknowledgement of Right-ness.

For instance, Gentle Reader Matt H received a rather nasty comment from a fellow named Bill McClure that seemed to typify a certain large category of internet communication. Now, the problem with this is that I can’t—I truly can’t—figure out what Mr. McClure wants to achieve with his rant.

First, what Mr. McClure knew going in. He knew that Mr. Hulan dances with joy at the thought of “landing [Our Only President’s] ass in Guantanamo.” He might well figure out that Mr. Hulan is a Discordian, or at least links to Discordian stuff, and draw some conclusions about that. He might follow the handful of links, and find that some of his blogfriends are (as we used to say) of the left. He knows that Mr. Hulan considers himself a feminist, and discusses feminism. At any rate, Mr. McClure should know before going in that Mr. Hulan disagrees with Our Only President on foreign policy, domestic policy, and religion. At least. Furthermore, as Mr. Hulan links to CNN, and, you know, blogs, I think Mr. McClure ought to have inferred that Mr. Hulan follows politics at least in its major outlines, and has heard the four or five most prominent political arguments before, and still holds the positions I mentioned above.

Now, Mr. McClure claims that “Prima Facie, you don't care about protecting citizens”. What is the purpose of that statement? What does he think that Mr. Hulan will respond? Gosh, Mr. McClure, you are correct that I don’t care about protecting citizens. You have found me out. Or perhaps I hadn’t realized that my opposition to the policies of Our Only President stemmed from my indifference to the suffering of citizens! Now that you have pointed this out, I will increase my empathy—and support the policies I once loathed. Not likely? Not terribly likely? Well, and you may be right. No, I have to believe that Mr. Hulan and Mr. McClure both care about protecting citizens (although I suspect that they would have different definitions of protecting and citizens for that purpose, but not so different as to be talking about entirely different things). Mr. McClure does not as far as I can tell seek to understand Mr. Hulan, nor to be understood by him. He wants to make sure that Mr. Hulan is aware of the disagreement, and the disagreement is about Right-ness. Who has it. Who could find it in a barrel with a strong flashlight.

Gentle Readers, how does one respond to Bill McClure? Matt Hulan wrote some interesting things in response, but it’s hard for me to imagine Mr. McClure finding them as interesting as I do. Mr. Hulan writes (in part) “I don't want our country weakened by the short-sighted, power-grabbing policies of ambitious politicians.” He asks several questions (many of them rhetorical). This seems like a good gambit, as what could make a fellow think and understand more than questions? But surely, Mr. Hulan, Mr. McClure has heard these questions before? Why would he listen to them now? Why, in fact, would he validate your claim to authority by answering the questions, when you have (in his eyes) invalidated your claim to authority by being Wrong?

Because, I think, in a lot of cases, it really is about Who Is Right and Who Is Dead. And listening to somebody who is wrong does, as Dan P. says, negate the correct opinion which you hold, at least while you are listening. And that’s hard to do. I like doing it, for my own entertainment, and because I like to think that I have a little more Right-ness than I did last year, and will have more Right-ness next year, and that (I perceive) necessarily means that some of my ideas are Wrong, and that all of them need to be negated, at least for a little while, just to find out which are the Wrong ’uns.

So. Some more questions, for Mr. McClure, for my own benefit:

You say that on the face of it I don’t care about protecting my fellow citizens. I claim that I think I do, and that I believe that the policies of Our Only President have made us less safe. Either, then, I am lying to you (which I am not, but then I could be lying about that, too) or I am a dupe, believing something that is false prima facie. But who has duped me? Does that person or organization or movement seek to gain from that, and if so, how? Does that person or organization or movement believe what I believe, or are they intentionally playing me for a sucker? And if they believe it, why do they believe it? Are they dupes? And who is duping them? I am serious about this, you know, because ...

I believe that the current leaders of the Republican Party do not, in fact, believe that terrorism is at the moment a great danger to our way of life, or to large numbers of our citizens. I think that they are using the threat of terror to siphon the nation’s treasures into their pockets and the pockets of their friends, and to maintain themselves in positions of power. I think they use foreign policy as a shield to pass legislation and executive policies that protect corporate fraudsters and screw workers, and they do so deliberately and contemptuously. In fact, I believe that Our Only President and his secretive cabal of crooks and incompetents have betrayed the rank and file of the Republican party. I believe you care about protecting American lives, but I think you have been duped, and I think I know who is duping you, and why. Does this scenario seem plausible to you, or is it the least plausible explanation of why we disagree so strongly?

Finally, assuming that you do, on reflection, think that your leaders are honest, and mine are liars and dupes—which I fully expect you will, as I do in reverse—how would you suggest testing the question? It’s all very well to make prima facie declarations, but many things are true on the face but false at the core. Would we test it by comparing what they say to what they do? Would we test it by who the leaders associate with? Would professional journalists in news-gathering organizations be helpful? Would the study of philosophy be helpful? Would the study of history? Economics? Art? Scripture? Do the results of public surveys contribute? Or the results of trials?

Can you imagine what might make you change your mind, and agree that high crimes and misdemeanors have been committed? Can you imagine what might make me change my mind, and agree that there have been none?

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,


Glad to hear you are pretty much successfully moved!

On the topic under discussion:

Gentle Readers, how does one respond to Bill McClure? Matt Hulan wrote some interesting things in response, but it’s hard for me to imagine Mr. McClure finding them as interesting as I do.

In my experience, it is highly unlikely that Mr. McClure will acknowledge that his views have been any way changed by what his opponent says or that his opponent's remarks are even worthy of careful consideration -- at least as long as he is engaging his opponent in debate or speaking in a public forum -- because our culture does not value reasoned discourse and persuasion very much in general, and because the Right in particular views listening to others seriously as a sign of weakness. So, although your questions seem like thought-provoking ones, I would be surprised if Mr. McClure even attempted to engage with them seriously. If there was any chance that he would, I think you have asked the right questions to make him do so.

My concern, were I to address Mr. McClure, would be for the audience to the exchange. There may be readers who are less certain of their positions than I or Mr. McClure, and they may be persuadable by either of us, so I want to make the better, and more sanely presented, case, for the sake of that audience and for my own sake. Your questions would also be effective ones, I think, with an audience of uncertain or undecided observers.

If you are reasonable enough and genial enough in your questions, a few months down the road Mr. McClure might present some of your positions as his own, when he no longer has to admit that he has lost an argument in order to endorse your views in another context. I've seen that happen.

Hey V

Congrats on the moving thing. Thanks for stopping by the ol' blogeroo and leaving your thoughts for the perusal thereat.

I think Chris is absolutely right - my idea in posting a response to McClure's rant was not to address McClure (who judging by his Internet presence is not a terribly reasonable person), but to address others who may stumble across (or be invited to view) my blog.


"I can’t figure out what Mr. McClure wants to achieve with his rant."

Mr. McClure may be interested in persuading Mr. Hulan or understanding him better. Mr. McClure may be concerned, as Mr. Cobb rightly is, with the audience of the uncommitted. Mr. McClure may be rehearsing for arguments with others, or may be mindlessly blowing off steam at the expense of others, or may be attempting to hurt his perceived enemies. But I think these are dwarfed by the ugliness of the agenda that Mr. McClure is aiding -- an agenda of dehumanizing those who dare question or criticize. This often reduces to Democrats since Democrats, as the only minority party given a voice in the popular media, are those who are heard to question or criticize.

We are now entering the fifth year of a growing campaign to paint Democrats (and those who support them) as enemies of the American people. It's a simplistic campaign, and hideously wrong, but it's persistent. It depends for its present and growing success on a sequence of encouraging abiding fear of external enemies (both real and conjured), on linking Democrats with those enemies as unwitting and then deliberate accomplices, and eventually on equating Democrats with those enemies.

Some of the leaders of this campaign appear to view this as a convenient means to gain (or keep) political power and money. Others appear to seek a religious hegemony of some sort. Many are furthering various corporate agendas of increased power, reduced oversight, and greater profits. And some appear to be motivated by enjoyment of hatred as a state of being. I doubt there is broad agreement as to what the next steps should be, but some would no doubt enjoy untrammeled fascism. For purposes of this discussion, I will treat fascism as a prima facie and ab initio abhorrence because of its integral destruction of human rights and brutal oppression of large numbers of people. And by saying "untrammeled fascism", I am going to dodge any argument about how best to describe our current national condition.

If fascism is to succeed, it requires both leaders and willing supporters. Leaders will always be easy to find, and demagogues are quick to rise from any muck of public discontent. But willing supporters in a relatively open society are harder to come by in large quantities.

Willing supporters of fascism must be convinced that they face terrible enemies, that those enemies pursue interests that are not just different but are fundamentally incompatible with their own, and that those enemies deserve to be treated as less than human. When the long-accepted state of affairs is that Democrats and Republicans hold a duopoly of sorts over mainstream America, it is a major shift to cast one half of that duopoly as the sort of enemy that untrammeled fascism here would require. And I believe the explanation for Mr. McClure's motivation lies in that difficulty. Mr. McClure, like many others today, is having trouble fully accepting Democrats as true enemies. He seeks to convince himself that Democrats hate America, and that Democrats threaten his way of life or life itself. He finds repetition comforting, both to listen to and engage in, and knows on some level that repetition creates perceived truth. He flings absurd accusations to drown out the noise of disagreement and to justify his failure to engage in actual conversation. And he can later convince himself of his reasonableness because he tried to bridge the gap by reaching out to a Democrat.

As for what we should seek to achieve in a response? I'll second Chris and Matt.

And as for how to resolve the problem of Republicans and Democrats each believing that the other side has been duped and is not a possible partner in the task of governing American or finding solutions to difficult obstacles? The Republican answer has been to ignore or eliminate the other side, while the Democratic answer has been to pretend that the other side is still or could again be a partner. I disagree with both answers. The Republican answer is wrong under my political philosophy, because I believe that we are far better served by having a multitude of voices and governing through compromise and experimentation. The Democratic answer is wrong both factually and tactically, because the Republicans have no intention of resuming the role of partner of any sort. I would prefer to see the Democrats break out of the current accepted framework and seek new partners. We have an opportunity to splinter the Republican party, to support new parties, to change the perception of Democrats as a party of opposition to a party of inclusion, and completely alter the dialectic.

Perhaps we could regain a Democratic majority with a Republican minority. But it doesn't seem all that certain, and it doesn't create a healthy system. I would rather see a Democratic plurality with Libertarian and Green and Conservative minorities, with the remaining Republican minority marginalized. Let's have a healthy debate about national issues between Democrats and Greens and Libertarians and Conservatives, and see what answers we come up with. Let's be the 35% party that stands for something other than striving for 51%, the 35% party that can lead a political coalition, the 35% party that recognizes the value of several other 15-20% parties and that is both unapologetic and successful about saying that political compromise can be a good result on some issues and in some directions, but not on all issues and not in all directions.

...and there you go again, plunging to the heart of the question while I was busy putting together a response to your set-up bounce (I'm trying out a diving metaphor here, how's it working?) over at my place. I guess my order of action is to finish my false start and then come back here for the, er, splash.

I have just one question: Is he related to Troy?

Irilyth - I was wondering that myself :)

irilyth: Glad I'm not the only one with that reference stuck in my head. It *does* sound better when you imagine it as delivered by Phil Hartman.

Okay, so, the false start (scroll down) is done -- on to the main. Let's see if I can do a short version (hah).

Mr. McClure asserts knowledge of a (morally and factually) right stance on the subject at hand; he also asserts an (uncomplimentary) understanding of Mr. Hulan's personal stance.

The latter is clearly an error: there is no greater authority on Mr. Hulan's personal stance than Mr. Hulan. Whether it's an error of habit (like constistently spelling the same word wrong, like I often do) or of momentary high temper (like doubling a word when I'm too angry to edit) or actual bad faith intended to provoke a reaction (like the words "Rethuglican" or "feminazi") is open to question, but I wonder whether treating it as an error (prima facie, natch) in one of the many ways that people have at their disposal for addressing errors (ignoring, gentle correction, mockery, etc.) would be better than engaging with the erroneous content that is a by-product of the error.

But what about the former? It's not an error so much as a self-defeating choice (or habit): despite Mr. Hulan clearly stating his personal opinion as a personal opinion in the original post and despite the context being, you know, a blog, where the prize of certified rightness is not really on the table, Mr. McClure has decided to use it as a platform to declare his own personal opinions as fact.

I'm curious about why he would do that. Sure, I can imagine motivations for him, as Chris Cobb and Michael do above (with insight, I think). It's likely that my curiousity would be rewarded with a rather dull reality. Still, I think that responding with curiousity (as V. does in this post) is ideal on many axes: it cedes no ground, it provides an opening for further (and possibly less-heated) conversation if the statement was made in good faith, it exposes the instigator as acting in bad faith if they never come back to answer (which I think is likely here) or continue attempting proof instead of communication, and I think it sets a good example for future conversations everywhere -- I know I've wasted too much time on the bad habit of jumping ahead to conclusions and then backfilling with justifications instead of the superficially-similar alternative of laying out what troubles/pleases me and trying to communicate why.

I came to your site via Matt's - you're on to some real old school Aristotlean rhetorical concepts. One thing Aristotle discusses at length in the Rhetoric is the idea that there is a difference, often subtle, between being "right" and being "good" - that following the law is often right, but the law may well be "not good" (or vice versa - doing something "wrong" may well be "good" (speeding to get to the hospital for your wife's delivery &c.).

Aristotle goes on to argue that being "right" will ultimatly persuade an audience and that being right was far more important than "winning" (it was the sophists, led by Gorgias and Isocrates, who made the "win at all costs" argument).

It's interesting stuff, and if polls are to be believed, the Right will find themselves hard pressed, in the months to come, to "win" arguments because they are drifting farther and farther from being "right".

Much to discuss. I may need a whole new post on this. Or three or four. But in brief, or what passes for brief around this Tohu Bohu...
Your point about the audience is well-taken, and your point about presenting opinions as one's own when doing so no longer means losing an argument is extremely well-taken. I've done that ... oh, a lot.
I agree with much of what you say (and would like to subscribe to your newsletter), but I disagree that our current constitutional framework could work with a multi-party electorate. Perhaps that's sufficient reason to change the framework, but I think that a change of that nature is even less likely than a Republican return to moderation and responsibility. I still think that most Republicans—even Mr. McClure, likely as not—are well-meaning people who (a) can work with others under the right circumstance to govern this country, even if it isn't in exactly the direction I would like and (2) are capable of throwing out their incompetant, corrupt and criminal leadership. Eventually. I hope.
Dan P,
I like the idea of distinguishing the error from the erroneous content, but can't help wondering if that's cheating somehow. I mean, if it's a habit to get into, do I wind up dismissing any actual substantial arguments because it appears to be to be based on a process error? Not on purpose, I mean, but out of habit? Perhaps not, perhaps I need to trust my own ability to distinguish real argument from egregious error.
Kelly Lowe,
Welcome! Can you be our resident defender of Aristotle? I tend to give the Aristotelians a lot of shit on rhetoric, probably a lot more than their deserts, so you'd be doing me a valuable service. As for the difference between Right and Sophistry, my problem is that (a) being Right does not, in the short run, necessarily win arguments, and (2) while you are hawking your superior wares in the Marketplace of Ideas, the guys with the cheap knock-off ideas are invading Iraq. Yes, in the long run, they will be discredited, and that is already starting to happen, but the butcher's bill is a bit high for me to be satisfied with Aristotle's answer.
Which leaves me with the sophists, and I don't like their answer, either. The problem, for me, is that the sophists (and of course this is the direst slander) wanted Right to be irrelevant to persuasion, and Aristotle wanted Right to be integral to persuasion, and I don't think either are correct. Right is one of many persuasive things (fear, as Michael points out, is another), and what I want, I suppose, is to work towards a Marketplace of Ideas where Rightness counts for a lot more than it does, while keeping in mind that it doesn't so much exist as I like to think it does.


The problem with the Iraq case as an example showing that Aristotle does not provide a wholly satisfying model for rhetorical practice is that what might have been called "The American Debate on the Iraq invasion" wasn't really a debate. The Bush administration was determined to invade Iraq, so they presented a pile of false or misleading claims to justify what they were certainly going to do to the public, and then, before the public really had an opportunity to weigh fully the arguments, went ahead and invaded Iraq, so that much of the public felt obligated to, you know, support the troops by backing the President.

Our Only President and his corrupt cabal of incompetents and cronies didn't win the debate with sophistry, they pre-empted the debate, justifying their pre-emption with the doctrine of pre-emptive war. It turns out, of course, that it was a pre-emptive strike against deliberative democracy, not against WMD in Iraq . . .

Aristotle is correct, I think, on the best course of action to pursue in the context of arguments, but his dictum is an insufficient guide to political action because that encompasses so much more than debate. At present, politics in America seldom rises to the level of actual debate. Insofar as the Republican strategies for pre-empting debate are losing their effectiveness, the party could be in serious trouble, because it will take some very slick sophistry indeed to persuade an audience that is demanding reasonable justifications for the Republicans' disastrous policies, and reasoning isn't a strong suit with Republican elected officials of late. They are brilliant at avoiding the occasion of reason, but if they run out of devices for doing so, their inability to reason may hurt them significantly.

Actually, Aristotle would claim that the fault lies with the audience - that our inability to decipher (sp?) right from wrong in the "debate" (and rhetoric, it's important to remember, is different from debate/dialectic) over Iraq leaves us with as much blame as the speaker/rhetor. Aristotle repeatedly argues that the educated citizen needs to know politics and science and art and history and literature &c. (it's why we have gen ed).

The fact that "they" were able to persuade many of "us" to sanction a war is due in no small part to the complacency of the citizenry (think of all of the folks who STILL believe that there is some sort of relationship between Iraq and al quada (sp?)).

We can talk all we want about media manipulation and misinformation out of Washington, but if the average citizen had paid closer attention to things in 2001-2, they would have understood the various logical fallacies that the argument for war had been built upon.

Actually, Aristotle would claim that the fault lies with the audience - that our inability to decipher (sp?) right from wrong in the "debate" (and rhetoric, it's important to remember, is different from debate/dialectic) over Iraq leaves us with as much blame as the speaker/rhetor. Aristotle repeatedly argues that the educated citizen needs to know politics and science and art and history and literature &c. (it's why we have gen ed).

The fact that "they" were able to persuade many of "us" to sanction a war is due in no small part to the complacency of the citizenry (think of all of the folks who STILL believe that there is some sort of relationship between Iraq and al quada (sp?)).

We can talk all we want about media manipulation and misinformation out of Washington, but if the average citizen had paid closer attention to things in 2001-2, they would have understood the various logical fallacies that the argument for war had been built upon.

I like the idea of distinguishing the error from the erroneous content, but can't help wondering if that's cheating somehow. I mean, if it's a habit to get into, do I wind up dismissing any actual substantial arguments because it appears to be to be based on a process error?

Well, it all depends on how you choose to approach that error. Most of the time, an incorrect word choice (using "nonplussed" when "unfazed" is meant, for example) won't cause me to disregard a person's whole statement, but I'm not obliged -- in fact, I would be in error -- to take to heart the content of a mistake. Depending on the situation, I might come back with, "did you really mean to say 'X'? Because as you have it written, you're saying 'Y'."

See, and this is a problem I have with Aristotle. He is describing a debate outside of the context of, say, a war dance manipulated by the dishonest and deceitful, engaged in before an audience of discriminating, educated citizens. There ain't no sech animal.

Which is not to say that there isn't a good deal to be learned from Aristotle. But one of the things that is easiest to learn from Aristotle is that it's best to skip the honest debate and the educated audience, and play games with people who are distracted with other matters. And if you believe in democracy (as I do), you accept that Mr. McClure's vote counts as much as Your Humble Blogger's, and so it should. It's better for me, of course, if Mr. McClure isn't being duped (and I should say that Mr. McClure is well-informed and well-educated, as far as that goes), but the votes fall on the just and the unjust.
So, we go another step beyond. Before we can decide how to address the educated citizen, we have to decide how to educate the citizen, or more to the point, how to make the citizen care about being educated. How to make the citizen care, and be willing to spend the time and energy to pay closer attention than they did in the lead-up to war.
And then still decide how to address those citizens who we didn't reach with that last part, because they are us, too.


You've got two different arguments going on here, both of which are valid. The first is your argument about de-contextualization - actually, Aristotle would argue that the "war dance manipulated by the dishonest and deceitful..." DOES go on, but an educated citizenry is the counter to this. Aristotle never denies that the Sophists existed, he just argues that being right is more important than winning (actually, he argues that being right will always allow one to win - but remember, he comes from the platonic school where there is such a thing as absolute right and wrong...but that's another story).

Your second, and more important, argument is about education, where you argue "we have to decide how to educate the citizen, or more to the point, how to make the citizen care about being educated."

I don't want to oversell this, but it is perhaps the most important question we as a nation have to ask ourselves. As an educator, I have faced nearly 20 years of apathetic students, parents, and yes, teachers. This, more than anything else, will be (and I'm biased here) the decline and fall moment.

There are lots of answers of course - my very self-important conservative relative would like to see us move in the direction of the Adams democracy, where only educated landowning citizens (I would, in my lesser moments, probably tack on "white" and "male" to that eqution, but I only have circumstantial evidence for that) could vote. I tend to disagree with this, but there is a problem when only 50 percent of elegible voters are voting, and of those, few seem to have much ability to think critically about issues (What's the Matter With Kansas does the best job on this issue).

So what do you do? I've seen more than 20 years of battles over general education (in my mind the place where students should be taught to be citizens) and it's a watered-down mess.

We could/should do this in high school, but we can't because of the politics of it all (we can't define citizen well enough to please all of the parents who do care, let alone all those who don't).

And we still can't interest the parents who are more interested in themselves that their disinterest is ruining our children.

It's a bloody mess. The American educational system is the greatest experiement in progressive politics in the history of mankind (I'm not kidding - who else has every tried to educate ALL of their children through age 18?). But the project is failing. What do we do to fix it? I wish I knew.


i recall some washington post people saying in 2004 or so that the story of trumped-up evidence was old in 2002. strongly implying that when it counted, the discriminating, educated citizens who were in some position to say, "BS"... shrugged. then what, they just watched the dogs and ponies and green mushroom clouds and took it on faith that there really wasn't enough room in the powerpoint templates to fit "maybe not" anywhere except in relation to budgets, staff/stuff needs, regional outcomes, and catching the original killers? it was so strange. unless cowed by popular anxiety and/or bloodlust.

right/good/understandable: seems like tons said. is "right" the same as "atomic wedgie"? or is a wedgie another category of goal.

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