image by sarah mccoy photo

Friday, August 14, 2020

The Care and Keeping of Words: Part 4 of 5

 Case Study #1: Taking My Marbles

I took a break from my Care of Words series to move houses. But words didn’t take a break while I was unpacking, and as far as I can tell, they haven’t received better care either. So today, I am back and applying the principle of definition to one particular word. This word has two main definitions and it occurred to me while I was reading the other day that the two meanings might hold one key to the toxic polarization of our politics.

That word is Compromise.

Christians and other People of the Book tend to be strict about the evil of compromising. Virtue once lost, and all that. But religions are just one variety of belief system, and orthodoxy of a different color weighs the same. In the modern stew, we can choose our ideology or our strain of relativism, but whichever frame we hang on the world, we probably subscribe to it with surprising staunchness. We elevate our pet values (usually the ones we are scoring well in). And everyone has something they just think is plain wrong.

This is actually a necessary thing, because though we don’t always agree on the contours of what’s right and wrong, ethical codes function as a safeguard against degeneracy. Of course, I would argue that the ubiquity of these codes, even in their diversity, point to an external reality. But that’s for another day. For now, what’s important is that integrity means consistency within your stated code.

But there’s a different kind of compromise. It’s the kind that kids have to do when they play together.

When I was little, I had a new Skipper doll. She was Barbie’s prepubescent sister. My bossy neighbor always took my new doll while I played with her old, tangled up Barbies because she “didn’t like the boobs.” I was sad. But usually, we encourage kids to share somewhat more evenly. The idea here is that

everyone’s personal goal (having all the best stuff!) is subordinated to the mutual goal of having playmates. Sharing wouldn’t have said anything about my neighbor’s preferences. If anyone grabs all the marbles, the game will just be over, and everyone will lose.

So what happens when we conflate personal and functional compromise? Within each fold, breaches in orthodoxy lead to shunning. Or, as the kids say, canceling. The functional compromise of playing well with others is smeared as a personal compromise of values. We fail to make the appropriate distinctions, and people get blacklisted.  

  And when that conflation becomes the primary driver of politics? Well, here’s my reductionist timeline of a democratic meltdown:

1.     Parties hold closed primaries, which encourage extremism. Politicians use language that entrenches the Us-vs.-Them mentality of suspicion.

2.     Candidates end up sidling back to the center they just demonized in order to win in general elections, but the damage to the mentality of the electorate is done.

3.     Elected politicians head to the playground, marbles and Barbies in pockets.

4.     Now comes trouble. To keep the game alive, the kids need to share. But now that their constituents have been radicalized, giving an inch means Mommy will call you in early to set the table for dinner. You won’t get to play outside anymore. The parent role has warped; the public has failed to differentiate between personal compromise (what you actually believe, or your personal integrity) and political compromise (trying to get some of what your constituents want while also doing the actual job of legislating).  

5.     So the politicians toe the party lines. Surprise! THIS is where the moral compromise actually takes place, under the guise of orthodoxy. Giving a little at the negotiating table isn’t moral compromise. It’s how our country was meant to work: we don’t all agree, and we don’t ever get everything, but we all get something. And if we really want to sway things, we work on the ground to change the actual culture so that it wants better, higher things. But toeing the party line to keep your seat subordinates the nation’s need of governance to the personal enjoyment of political power. That is a moral compromise. For the record, that’s the bad kind of compromise.

6.     Here’s the step that you won’t see happen. You’ll recall that polarizing rhetoric has made the environment inhospitable to politicians who want to act with integrity and make political compromises to accomplish their goal of legislating. That means that if change were to happen (in a magical, rational fantasy world), you’d need politicians to speak like gentle parents to children who want to eat candy for dinner, or to explain that, sweetie, we aren’t going to be able to get everything you want at the fair. It can be popcorn or it can be a pony ride, but it won’t be both. We never see this step because the day that we did, we’d see all of those noble politicians go down, tarred and feathered by their own, for doing their jobs properly and trying to vivify the mob with wiser words. But maybe one magical day.

Polarization means that the candidates with the least integrity survive, because they are willing to do what it takes to keep power, instead of what it takes to govern (which is far riskier, personally). And all of the rhetorical trickery of divisive language would be less convincing to regular people if we would differentiate the compromise of a good negotiation, which we should expect, from the compromise of personal ethics, which we should never tolerate.

Parts one, two, three here.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

The Care and Keeping of Words: Part 3 of 5

Part III: Answer Me These Questions Three…

By the gods, Meno, be generous, and tell me what you say that virtue is; for I shall be truly delighted to find that I have been mistaken. --Plato

You’ve probably heard many voices, even your own, follow up questions with the tagline, “I’m just asking.” Just as “no offense, but” usually precedes something offensive, “just asking” usually obfuscates a boatload of unquestioned implications. In a charged social and political atmosphere, putting a question out there can feel like an innocent way to spark conversation.

And it often is. But not always.

And if you’re the asker, you actually have more responsibility than you think.

Questions have been the tried and true method of provoking thought since Socrates. His leading questions were calculated to draw reasoning errors into the light so that students would recognize their own ignorance. Notably, recognition of ignorance and fallibility is the only starting point for learning and become wise. The Greeks called this transformative humility (akin to repentance, or turning) metanoia.

Exhibit A
(My seven-year-old was born supremely confident in her own judgment. While this trait may serve her once it’s tempered by wisdom, right now, it actively slows the pace of learning for her. She has not reached metanoia. See exhibit A.)

Questions can also expand the possibilities for solutions. Einstein’s brainstorming process using thought experiments “built on his intuitive understanding of physics, which in turn was built on his experience with working through theories and problems. Their strength, however, was to draw attention to contradictions or confusions that may have been missed by a less intuitive physicist.” 
Linear thinking is the sinking vessel built by progressive education and its isolated subjects, so YES, by all means, let’s think outside that box and ask ourselves questions. Every scientific experiment starts with a question.
But we can still qualify the question.
If the question is meant to find an answer, we must agree that there is a way to know things. How much weight does a magic 8 ball or your grandma’s gut carry? By what measure will we evaluate or compare ideas? What do those with relevant expertise say about findings or methods? Is truth even knowable? If not, is there even a point to inquiry, or are all opinions equally valid?
Wide open questions are only starting points. In peripatetic teaching, questions become quite specific as they zero in on error. Socrates, in order to answer a broad question, say, about virtue (is it taught or acquired?) must explore very annoying minutia (mostly refining one definition after another), asking questions like, “do those who, as you say, desire evils, and think that evils are hurtful to the possessor of them, know that they will be hurt by them?”
Often his students just throw up their hands and walk away. Being responsible with words is a lot of work.
In science, likewise, a question like “what affects mold growth?” must become specific (“does temperature affect mold growth?) before it can become an even more narrow, testable hypothesis.
Some questions lead us towards knowledge by increasing the precision of our thinking. These questions reveal. But questions can do the opposite. They can, intentionally or no, muddy our thinking. When the snake asked Eve, “Did God really say…,” it’s clear that the question is meant to sow doubt by twisting or obscuring meaning.
When a trainer and blogger called Tom Nikkola asked, “What if there are motivations behind [messaging] that aren’t pure? The only way to find out is to ask questions,” he’s suggesting that encouragement to wear masks is a priming plot to program our instincts. I only care about his use of questions here, which, along with misleadingly framed statistics, aim to plant cynicism without any of the responsibility that such a charge requires. He says he’s “only asking… ‘what if’?”
But that’s simply not true, even if we assume that he honestly thinks it is.
Imagine that someone cloaked defamatory suggestions about you in a whispered question. Would the mere form save your reputation, or expunge the seed of suspicion? A common rejoinder of conspiracy theorists when asked to provide evidence for their narratives is, “You can’t prove it ISN’T true!” But this is nonsense, of course. The person making accusations or claims, even in the guise of innocent musings, must substantiate with evidence if he be a person of character.
Put differently, evidence makes the legal difference between actionable libel and plain old muckraking, but while free speech must be legal, we should still demand moral integrity from those who just ask.
Here are a few quick thoughts:
Useful questions are specific enough to be checkable. Our goofball blogger above keeps the identity of the evil “they” vague, so he’s on safe legal ground. But if you deal in vagaries, you are probably less interested in truth than in throwing up flares as a dangerous and effective distraction from the pursuit of real knowledge. In the words of Nobel Prize winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli, sometimes a question “is not only not right; it is not even wrong.”    
Useful questions seek information rather than planting it. Back when we had daily White  House briefings, correspondent Chanel Rion provided a regular and egregious example of tacking question marks onto broad rhetorical statements, thus implying that those statements are valid without having to actually defend them. This is another example of irresponsible asking, whether you agree with her statements or not. It’s a matter of form, and the forms keep us accurate and accountable. A statement wearing a question’s skin shuts down inquiry rather than initiating it.
Useful questions can make us uncomfortable, and that’s good. If a fair question makes me feel defensive, I have a choice. I can deflect, deny, and deride, all of which effectively protect ignorance. Or I can lean into the discomfort because I want to grow and improve more than I want to rest easy. That’s metanoia.
Don’t stop asking questions. Journalists, those much-maligned and courageous upholders of freedom, ask questions. And as a fan of Socrates and of Einstein and of lateral thinking, I don’t want fewer questions. Just responsible ones. They keep the conversation honest and fair. Einstein’s thought experiments helped reveal his own errors and holding ourselves to high standards does the same for us, strengthening what we do ask. Because, unquestionably, there’s still so much to learn.

(Parts one and two are here.)

Saturday, June 27, 2020

The Care and Keeping of Words: Part 2 of 5

Part II: Analogies: Clearing Up our Parallels

Although defining terms, which I wrote about last week, must precede meaningful discussion, sometimes the clarification must extend to expressions and ideas. We often throw out catch-phrases that, while themselves containing real wisdom, may not apply in the given situation. When that happens, it is easy to think that the person who rejects your use of the term is rejecting the idea itself.

When ideas represent religious beliefs (and even secular beliefs that define reality and govern action are functionally religious), we are often emotionally attached to them, and rightfully protective of our freedom to hold them. This becomes fraught quickly. Clarity diffuses eruptions.

In his book, Analogies at War, Yuen Foong Khong discusses the ways in which drawing comparisons from history has influenced policy decisions, often with dismal results. This, he says, is because of how poorly we do analogical reasoning.

But, we can’t NOT do analogical reasoning. Humans always think analogically, using parallels to synthesize new information. These are “knowledge structures [that] help them order, interpret, and simplify, in a word, to make sense of their environment. Matching each new instance with instances stored in memory is then a major way human beings comprehend their world.”[1]

This is good, because there is too much information to process without the organizational system of generalizing. But it can be bad when we carry these structures too far. I think (here comes an analogy!) that the error we make when using analogies is similar to putting on training wheels, and then continuing to use them forever, even as they become an active hindrance. Or when helpful generalizations (This is a street. Some streets are dangerous. I should be cautious about crossing this street.) become harmful stereotypes.

Khong explains the structure of analogy with his equation: AX:BX::AY:BY.[2] What this means is that we recognize that situations A and B share a characteristic (X). We use this fact to infer that the two will also share other characteristics (Y). This can sound good and convincing over airwaves or in an argument. But we have to make sure that the inference is also true. We have to make sure the training wheels are still working for us.

One way that classical educators teach young people to do this is using the 5 Common Topics. Unlike many schools, which ask children to judge works by consulting their own opinions (breeding cynicism), the Common Topics help them to ask questions that help them better understand it. Coming to you straight from ancient Greece, they are: Definition (what is its nature, its category, subset, etc.), Comparison (how is it like this, or not like that? How similar or how different is it?), Circumstance (what else is happening? Context?), Relationship (What came before and after? Causes and Effects? Contradictions?), and Testimony (What do authorities say? What laws apply?).

We sit and ask, honestly, “So this reminds me of that Other Time. How are both situations similar? How are they different? What else was happening? What were other factors in how that ended up? What was said about that Other Time that might apply here?” and then, for good measure, we might ask again, “How is this DIFFERENT?” Is there really an instructive parallel?

For a controversial example, I refer to a phrase everyone heard applied to the reopening of churches. We kept hearing, “Christians don’t fear death!” and “God hasn’t given us a spirit of fear!”
Does that apply to the situation? It does not. Now, biblically, Christians need not fear death because we know our eternity is secure. All biblical exegesis must be systematic (consonant with the whole of scripture on the topic), and so fearlessness is limited by context. Russian Roulette, for instance, would not be well defended by the Christian security of heaven. Rather, it would conflict with the biblically defined sanctity and purpose of human life.

On the other hand, this claim is well applied when the Christian refuses to renounce his faith at gunpoint. Or if the Christian must rush across a crowded highway to save a baby. In these instances, the courage to act rightly is drawn from our hope in the historical resurrection. Acting rashly, of course, is not anything like acting courageously.

BUT, the statement also doesn’t apply because the issue at hand is not about fear at all, but about the biblical definition of authority, and the biblical grounds for rejecting it. (This article and this article handle that question beautifully.)

My point is that referencing an ill-chosen analogy or schema or principle muddies the question at hand by falsely tethering the X and the Y in Khong’s equation. It tries to make rejection of the bad conclusion tantamount to rejection of the original principle. It makes the discussion polarized and unnuanced. A bad analogy is a man of straw.

Because analogy uses similarities to help us assimilate data, we need to be sure we also know how instances differ. That point of divergence? That’s where we take off the training wheels. The comparison has served its purpose. If we hang onto the analogy beyond that, it becomes dead weight. We have seen it drag our national dialogue down. We need to ask the right questions. And next week, you guessed it, we’ll talk about questions.

[1] [1] Yuen Foong Khong, Analogies at War, Princeton University Press, 1992. Pg. 13.
[2] Ibid. Pg. 7.