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.
While running on the Florida State University campus I ran over a chalked advertisement for the Young Republicans. The ad began with a paraphrase of Goldwater’s famous quote: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”
After seeing this, I thought about it for the next six miles. Like most runners, I find that I think I think best when running. This blog post will provide an interesting test of that thought.
On the face of it, the claims made in the quote seem to be in error by definition. After all, extremism seems to entail going beyond what is actually needed to defend something and that justice, by its very nature, requires a balance between excess and deficiency.
To use an analogy, imagine a doctor who said “I would remind you that excessive medication in the defense of health is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of well being is no virtue!”
Obviously, excessive medication would be (by definition) too much and hence injurious rather than beneficial to health. As such, this claim would be in error. In the case of well being Aristotle seems to have established quite well that moderation (avoiding excess and deficiency) are the key to well being.
As such, while the claims might have a rhetorical o dramatic appeal they seem to be fundamentally in error.
It could, of course, be replied that I am begging the question against Goldwater by taking “extremism” as being on par with “excessive” and taking moderation to be the mean between excess and deficiency. It could be contended that Goldwater means something else by these terms. To be specific, the extremism he is referring to could be taken as what is seen as being extreme but is, in fact, just what is needed to defend liberty. In the case of moderation, he is not talking about the mean but rather by being a political moderate and willing to compromise and take a middle ground.
Interpreted in this way, what he would seem to be saying is something like “I would remind you that doing what it really takes to defend liberty, even though it might seem extreme to some, is no vice! And let me remind you also that taking the middle ground and compromising too much in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” This seems reasonable enough.
Interestingly, if the quote is taken literally, then he seems to be simply wrong. Extremism is going beyond what is needed and moderation (neither excess nor deficiency) is what is required by justice (otherwise it is not just). If the quote is taken less literally, then it merely amounts to a rhetorical way of saying something that is true but not particularly controversial or interesting.
As a final point, I have noticed that people often use this quote in an “argument by quote/slogan” in an attempt to justify what actually are extreme and immoderate policies and rhetoric. Of course, merely quoting someone hardly serves to prove a claim (although it can be taken as an argument from authority)-though some folks seem to think that this does so with finality.
After the terrible shootings in Arizona, some folks rushed to use the spilled blood as fuel in their political machines. Some hurried to blame the right, especially Sarah Palin and her infamous map of “surveyor symbols.” Others leaped to place the blame on the left.
Among the more reasonable folks and experts the consensus arose that the shooter was motivated by neither the right nor the left. Rather, he seemed to have made his choice under the influence of his own troubled mental states. As such, the blame seems to rest (as it should) primarily on the person who pulled the trigger. This incident did, of course, raise legitimate concerns about various relevant issues such as whether or not more laws should be created in the hopes of preventing another incident like this one.
Some people do, of course, want to pass laws against speech containing violent rhetoric and images that are suggestive of violence-at least when these are directed at politicians. The hope is, naturally enough, that such laws will help prevent future incidents.
Those who traffic in angry rhetoric were quick to angrily denounce such proposals as violating their right to free expression. While I am not in agreement with the angry rhetoric, I do agree that such laws would tend to violate that right. I also contend that such new laws are neither needed nor desirable.
One reason to not add new laws is the obvious fact that actual threats of violence are already against the law. As such, there does not seem to be a compelling need to add new laws to make illegal what is already illegal.
However, some of the suggestions involve laws that go beyond outlawing actual threats. The idea seems to be that new laws should cover vaguely threatening rhetoric and suggestive images.
While this might have some appeal, to expand the laws to restrict expression that might merely be seen as vaguely threatening or suggestive of violence (like cross hairs on a map) would seem to infringe too far into the freedom of expression without adequate justification. After all, restricting the freedom of expression requires justifying that restriction-typically on the basis of harm or potential harm. Something that merely seems threatening or suggestive does not seem to be harmful enough to warrant such a restriction.
These two points could be combined into something of a dilemma: if an act of expression is an actual threat, then it is already covered by existing laws and hence no new law is needed. If an act of expression cannot be classified as an actual threat, then it would seem to be protected by the freedom of expression and hence no new law is needed. Thus, there would seem to be no need for new laws in this area.
There is also the practical concern that laws vague enough to cover what is vaguely threatening or suggestive of violence could easily be misused by politicians against their opponents and critics. This would, as some have said, have a chilling effect on free speech.
In light of these reasons, it would seem that no new restrictions on expression should be made into laws. This, oddly enough, puts me in agreement with folks who want to continue to use angry and violent political rhetoric. However, I do disagree with them in a key way.
While I do agree that people should be free to spew hateful rhetoric that does not cross over into actual threats and incitements to violence, I also believe that people should tone down the violent rhetoric and the anger. At the very least, people should consider whether their anger is proportional to reality. Political discussion and the general good are not well served by vitriol. They are not aided by disproportionate anger. They are not enhanced by rage. While we do have disagreements, we should remember that we are not blood enemies and that we can discuss our differences in a rational way, free of allusions to violence. Before sputtering in rage, we should think of those people lying dead on the tar and temper our words. After all, their blood shows us the true fruits of hatred and rage.
My point is, of course, that there is an important distinction between what people should be allowed to express and what they should choose to express. To use an analogy, there should be no law that forbids spouses from referring to each other as “whore”, “sh@thead” and so on. However, spouses really should not use such language with each other. Likewise for the angry rhetoric-people have the right to use it, but they should really consider not doing so.
The Fall semester is spinning up, although for me the summer semester never spun down. I’ve chaired a search committee, concluded my summer class, been part of the massive return to our renovated building, and have been attending meetings and advising. This, not surprisingly, has had an impact on my blogging. As such, I’ll just be able to ramble for a short bit today.
Writing about the evolution of irrationality got me thinking about the value of reason. Since I am a philosopher and make a living by teaching people to reason, it is natural that I would regard reason as valuable. However, it is well worth inquiring into the matter.
As I mentioned in my post on the evolution of irrationality, I tell my students that people often use fallacies and poor reasoning because they are effective means of persuasion. So, if you want to get someone to believe something or buy a product, then using a fallacy or rhetorical tool will generally be more effective than taking the effort to craft a well reasoned argument. To put it crudely, syllogisms do not sell beer and modus ponens never got a politician elected.
However, reason is useful even in regards to persuasion. After all, even if a person is employing fallacies and rhetoric to sway others, she would benefit from reasoning about what methods to employ to reach her ends. As such, reason has value even for those who might claim that the power to persuade is greater.
Also, while poor reasoning might serve as an effective means of persuasion, it serves poorly as a means of sorting out exactly what people should be persuaded to believe. Methods of persuasion serve good ideas as readily as bad ideas. They also serve the true and effectively as the false.
While people can persuade others to accept bad or false ideas, persuasion does not alter the nature of those ideas from bad to good or from false to true. Obviously enough, people who go through life on the basis of false and bad ideas are likely to run afoul because of these beliefs. This points to another use of reason.
While poor reasoning can be an effective tool of persuasion and hence desirable to some, people also have to consider that they will be on the receiving end of such persuasion. As such, to avoid being duped, deluded or misled they will need to use reason to pierce through the poor reasoning and avoid being taken in by it. Of course, while those who rely on persuasion no doubt value reason as a defense against their fellows, they would prefer that others were lacking in it.
Academics in general and scientists in particular are often stereotyped as being brainy but lacking in social skills. While this is a stereotype, it does have some merit.
One example that illustrates this is the debate over climate change. While the scientists present data and logical arguments, they seem to be ill prepared to deal with the political machinery that has been arrayed against the idea that the climate is changing.
Part of the problem might be that scientists have faith in reason and think that because they find numbers and logic compelling, that other people will as well. However, as I always point out in my critical thinking class, people tend to be more swayed by emotions, rhetoric and fallacies than by good logic.
Part of the problem might be that the scientists generally do not get how the political process and public perception works. Anyone who has suffered through a painfully lifeless and dull lecture in a college class is well aware of this phenomena. To be fair, the job of the scientist is not to amuse or entertain and, of course, the most important facts and theories often strike people as dull. However, the reality is that being unable to deal with the persuasive component of dealing with the public is a serious flaw and can render all that logic, data and science ineffective.
As a final point, it must also be noted that scientists sometimes shoot themselves in the foot by being arrogant, condescending and creating the impression that those who dare to disagree with them are fools. While this works for many pundits, it seems to be less effective for scientists.
While learning to play the social game requires some effort and perhaps some natural talent, it can be done and is well worth doing. After all, if you have something to say and no one will listen, that is almost as bad as having nothing at all to say.
Politics is a theater of rhetoric. One common rhetorical tactic is to make use of a dysphemism. Doing this involves using a term or phrase with negative connotations in place of a neutral or positive term or phrase. The purpose of this is to influence how people feel by appealing to their emotions rather than using an actual argument.
One current rhetorical favorite is the phrase “nuclear option.” This name is applied to the process by which a majority can put an end to a filibuster or comparable delaying maneuver. Trent Lott is credited with providing the name in 2003. Interestingly, Republican Bill Frist was the person who is often credited with making this option famous in 2005.
Interestingly, Frist threatened to use this tactic against the Democrats and this resulted in quite a furor. This was eventually resolved.
Currently the term is being used by the Republicans (and Fox News) to refer to the reconciliation tactic (in which the issues can be settled by a simple majority without the possibility of filibusters). Of course, when the Republicans used reconciliations they did not refer to this as the nuclear option. Naturally, people tend not to refer to their own tactics using dysphemisms.
People use dysphemisms for an obvious reason: they work. For example, opinions on health care can be influenced by the use of this tactic. Interestingly, people who favor an idea when it is put in neutral terms can often be led to reject it merely by recasting the neutral terms in the form of dysphemisms.
While dysphemisms are part of the political toolbox, their use does raise concerns. The main concern is that they (and other rhetorical devices) can be used to influence people into accepting claims they would otherwise reject or to reject claims they would otherwise accept. Such manipulation is, at best, morally questionable.
Of course, it can be argued that if people are swayed by such rhetoric, then the fault is partially their own. After all, learning basic reasoning is rather easy and hence people have no real excuse for being such easy victims of these tactics.
This same logic could be applied to many scams as well. After all, people who fall for scams should generally know better and hence are partially to blame for their deception. But, this does not seem to diminish the wrongness of using such scams against people who do not know better.
Likewise, the use of rhetoric to manipulate people also seems to be wrong.
It can also be argued that the use of such rhetoric is acceptable because it actually helps people reach a decision. After all, one might argue, if people did not have the negative feelings in question, then a dysphemism (or other negative rhetoric could not trigger them. So, for example, if people did not have bad feelings about health care, then the Republican’s dysphemisms would not have any such bad feelings to tap into.
However, dysphemisms generally do not work by revealing a person’s true feelings about the subject. Rather, they do their work in virtue of the negative connotation of the term or phrase used. For example, suppose some people are referred to as terrorists. If someone take a negative view of them because of this, this just reveals that the person doesn’t like terrorists. It does not prove that the people dubbed “terrorists” are terrorists nor does it prove that the person’s negative feelings are justified.
While politicians will clearly not stop using rhetoric, people should work on their critical thinking skills so as to avoid being swayed by such things.
When I teach my critical think class I include discussions of survey methodology and the use of persuasive rhetoric. A few years ago I started discussing microtargeting in my class within the context of these discussions. Microtargeting, put in simple terms, has two steps.
The first step consists of gathering very specific data about the target population in order to learn about its members. For example, a politician might have her minions examine voters in order to discern qualities that might affect their voting. As another example, a company that sells running shoes might study athletes to see what sort of shoes they are likely to buy. The data is refined and focused to enable the identification of “microgroups” within the larger group. For example, a political survey might find some people who are conservative on social values but liberal in regards to the environment. As another example, a business survey might find a group of people who do not run but like to purchase very expensive, high end running shoes.
The second step is to use the data in order to microtarget the microgroups. For example, a politician’s minions might tailor a mailing that focuses on the politician’s pro-environment stance in order to try to win over the voters who are socially conservative but environmentally liberal. This method can be very effective. As I point out to my students, rhetoric is more effective when it is specific rather than generic. After all, the more that you know about a person, the better you can tailor your pitch to try to persuade them.
While politicians have long relied on persuasion, microtargeting does raise some ethical issues. The first is the concern that microtargeting will allow politicians and others to utilize more effective means of persuasion. The main concern is that this could be used to persuade people to purchase something or vote for someone when doing so is not in their interest. For example, a person who is a social conservative and an environmental liberal could be persuaded to vote for a pro-environment candidate who will support laws that violate the person’s conservative views. As another example, a person could be targeted and persuaded to spend more than he should be spending, thus contributing to his financial hardship.
In reply, it can be argued that this is just a more refined method of doing what has always been done. As such, it is no more unethical that the other methods. Of course, persuading people to do what is contrary to their interests could be regarded as unethical in general. Unless, of course, their interests are unethical. It can also be replied that such targeting merely allows the politician or business to learn more about their customers and hence serve their needs better. This does have a certain plausibility, except for the obvious fact that politicians and businesses are rarely devoted to serving the good of others. Their main concern tends to be serving their own interests.
A second concern is that this method might lead to deceptive practices, especially in the case of politics. The deception would most likely be a deception of omission in that one way to use this tactic is to emphasize certain things while concealing or playing down others. For example, the politician targeting the social conservative/environmental liberal would have her minions play up her environmental views while downplaying her liberal social views. Such deception seems morally questionable.
The obvious reply is that this sort of thing is already done. Politicians have long targeted their speeches to their audiences and have also taken pains to conceal certain things. For example, a politician speaking to the NRA will speak positively of guns and hunting. As another example, a politician with some questionable past associates will want to hide that fact. Of course, the mere fact that it has been done does not prove that it is correct.
A final concern is that such microtargeting in politics will actually serve to have a detrimental effect on the process of consensus building. If a politician spends too much time focusing on the micodetails, she could lose track of the bigger picture and end up taking positions that are aimed to try to please everyone. This could prove to be problematic. Of course, it can be replied that this would help increase the role of the individual. After all, if politicians have to learn about the voters and target them on a microlevel, perhaps this will enable them to better serve the needs of the people. Unless, of course, they simply use the data to get elected and then do not use it to help the people who voted for her.