UPDATE MAY 2, 2010: If you're coming here via the post by the always comical David Bernstein, please note that the actual subject of this 2005 entry is political blogging, not "academic discourse," though, unsurprisingly, that distinction eludes Professor Bernstein. On what gets people to change their moral and political views, do see the interesting work by psychologist Jonathan Haidt (UVA). I am informed that you may comment on Professor Bernstein's latest here.
----ORIGINIAL 2005 POSTING FOLLOWS-----
[Note: I started drafting this almost a year ago, in response to reader queries, but only returned to it recently. At last, before my summer hiatus begins, here it is.]
It has, on occasion, been noted that gentleness is not the hallmark of my postings on this blog, at least on matters of a political nature. The fans call it the "no bullshit" approach, pungent, acerbic. This law student calls me, aptly enough, "the man who blogs with a hammer," while Jeremy Stangroom at Butterflies & Wheels says I am "everyone's favorite Rottweiler." (I'm not sure about everyone's.) Dispassionate discursiveness is not the medium in which I generally operate here, a fact for which some of my philosopher friends occasionally take me to task.
Yet philosophers, of all people, should know from experience how hard it is to change anyone's fundamental commitments and beliefs through rational discursiveness--and that's true when we're talking philosophy, not politics! (Does this align me with Dreben's view of philosophy? Perhaps in some measure, though it is really Nietzsche's idea.) When it comes to politics, things get far worse: reasons and evidence appear to play almost no role in changing anyone's views.
Take the case of Arnold Kling, the economist whose transparently irrational argument became the rage of the blogosphere last summer: that it was irrational did nothing to impede its impact. Or look at how Tom Smith (Law, San Diego), someone who is otherwise a serious legal scholar, responds to Jeff McMahan's careful analysis and dissection of the moral case for the war in Iraq. This is a case study in "why bother?" with dispassionate argument, if your goal is to persuade. (There are other reasons to undertake dispassionate argument, to be sure: for example, the author may want to figure out what he or she thinks. And, of course, there are occasionally folks whose views can be shifted by such efforts, though I've yet to find a single instance in the blogosphere.)
I am sometimes presented with the following criticism: "Your rhetorical style won't persuade anyone who doesn't already agree with you." That is no doubt true, but, as we've just remarked, it is quite rare to persuade anyone by a careful, reasoned argument--indeed, so rare, that I don't see it as worth the effort to try to do so on a blog. Even quite intelligent individuals, people with PhDs from MIT no less, turn out to be completely unable to follow a rational argument!
But the criticism also presupposes that I want to persuade. I shall let the readers in on a secret (though I suspect it is obvious to my regular readers): I am not interested in persuading anyone. Bear in mind that we know relatively little about how persuasion in general works. It may well be that the specter of an educated person giving the back of his hand to the mass-media-sanctioned wisdom of the moment is, in fact, much more persuasive than dry, disapassionate argument. Who knows for sure? In any case, my goal in posting on various political topics is simply to alert like-minded readers to ideas and evidence and arguments which help strengthen their convictions regarding the truths they've already understood or glimpsed, as well as to give some expression to our collective outrage and dismay. I really wish that the unlike-minded folks would simply "go away" and read something else. (Nietzsche puts it better, of course.)
America has become an astonishingly backwards and reactionary country over the last two decades, but huge swaths of the country are still not brainwashed, not cowed, not fooled by the daily servings of moral parochialism and factual distortions from Fox TV, and CBS, and NBC, and InstaIgnorance, and The New York Times, and on and on. The pathological liars and intellectual buffoons of the right haven't succeeded in making a real dent, yet, on the universities (though they have their sights set on them, as we had occasion to note many times before).
Against this cultural backdrop, it is important, in my view, not to adopt a moderate and temperate tone with respect to the purveyors of lies and half-truths, however earnest they may be. (I've addressed this topic before.) One should not be polite and dispassionate with respect to the folks at the Discovery [sic] Institute: these pathological liars and wannabe theocrats want to harm children, make them stupid, and timid, and twisted in their own image. To treat them with civility is to dignify their pretense that they are really interested in discovery, in knowledge, in honest intellectual inquiry. So, too, one should not be respectful and calm when talking about crytpo-fascists and grinning apologists for inhumanity, even when they show up on CNN and Fox, or in the pages of The New York Times, or on blog sites with tens of thousands of visitors. Respectful, dispassionate treatment dignifies them, legitimates them, gives them a foothold in the space of reasons.
What always strikes me in debates about "tone" and "civility" is that the critics, without fail, will abandon civility and adopt a harsh tone in the presence of the views that they deem "beyond the pale." Invariably, it turns out that they simply draw the line somewhere else (a good example is here--see the last paragraph, and the second comment), and that what really galls them is not the fact of my harshness and dismissiveness--they are equally capable of that when it comes to, e.g., Noam Chomsky or Ralph Nader or me--but rather that it is directed at the views they've been taught to take seriously, to think are serious, the views they've been led to believe are entitled to respect, even if one disagrees.
Unfortunately, they are wrong about where the line should be drawn. And they're not happy when I make that all too clear.
Recently, a former student, Trevor Rosson, wrote:
Not so long ago, I was a student in your jurisprudence class. You'll be proud to know that I respected you as a teacher. You were wonderful, and I said as much on your evaluation. Today, I'm a regular visitor to your blog. I don't understand why you often sound like a lunatic on the left. Your intemperate rhetoric only alienates folks in the middle. It is indeed strange that a professor who prides himself, rightly, on his analytical rigor and logic habitually resorts to words like "pathological" and the like to do his heavy lifting. Am I mistaken?
My short response was: the pathological David Horowitz is not H.L.A. Hart. There is no reason to accord to the former the close and careful reading, the reconstruction of arguments and evaluation of counter-arguments, that the latter demands. David Horowitz is a twisted, dishonest man, who smears and lies with abandon. (For example, in response to this posting!) I'm not sure what arguments could persuade someone who didn't already recognize that. As Louis Armstrong reportedly said to someone who asked him to explain jazz, "Man, if you gotta ask, you'll never know."
More interesting, though, is the fact that Mr. Rosson really doesn't disagree in principle with my rhetorical approach at all: without pausing, he simply writes off a whole range of opinion as the "lunatic...left." The only difference between that rhetoric and my own, I'm afraid, is its target. Like everyone else, Mr. Rosson, too, is prepared to be rudely dismissive of certain opinions. I do not begrudge him his rudeness or his dismissiveness, to be sure; our dispute is about substance, not about tone or manners. (The dispute is always about substance.)
But there is a more general point here, though it is one that may be hard to impress on those of limited intellectual ability or parochial horizons: not all topics are of equal intellectual merit, and not every issue has "two sides" with equal epistemic merits. There are, to be sure, tons of "hard questions" with multiple serious answers in contention; but most of the discussion on the blog (especially the political discussion) pertains to what are "easy questions."
Start with some examples of hard questions, the kinds of questions I largely avoid on the blog (though some of them are the subject of my scholarly work):
Does the now orthodox thesis of the token-identity of the mental and the physical (the supervenience of the mental on the physical) have the unintended consequence that the mental is epiphenomenal? (Relatedly: is there really an intelligble kind of metaphysical relationship between properties [i.e., supervenience] that is intermediate between property-dualism and type-identity?)
Is there any reason to think that putative moral facts will figure in the best causal explanation of any aspect of our experience?
What exactly is Nietzsche's doctrine of the will to power, and what role is it playing in the argument of the Genealogy?
Do authoritative reasons in Raz's sense really have to be exclusionary reasons, or will it suffice if they simply have more "weight" than other kinds of reasons?
What reasons, if any, does (or can) Quine give for his naturalism, and are they sound?
Is it an obstacle to descriptive jurisprudence that the concepts central to law are (as I have called them) hermeneutic concepts, i.e., concepts whose extension is supposed to be fixed by the role they play in how people understand themselves and their social world?
What is Foucault's view of the cognitive and epistemic status of the claims of the human sciences?
I have views (in some cases, published views) on several of these questions, but in each case, I think they are hard questions, and those who have different or contrary views, may well be right, and are certainly worth taking very seriously. These kinds of questions are also, in my view, generally ill-suited to the blogosphere, which is too ephemeral (at least for my tastes) for sustained intellectual engagement with hard problems. (The success of some of the philosophy blogs is leading me to rethink this, and perhaps I, myself, will try more real philosophy on the blog in the future.)
By contrast, here are some easy questions:
Was the U.S. justified in invading Iraq?
Are Bush's economic policies in the interests of most people?
Is Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection a well-confirmed scientific theory?
Is there a social security "crisis"?
These questions, and many others, are easily addressed in the blogosphere, since there is no serious--or at least no honest or intelligent--dispute about the epistemic merits of the possible answers. Where I get into "trouble," of course, is with those who can't tell the difference between the two kinds of questions, the ones who think that the dialectical care, caution, and intellectual humility required for the genuinely "hard" questions ought to apply to the easy questions as well. These folks are a bit miffed when I dismiss their positions out of hand. But that is what their positions usually deserve.
Part of intellectual maturity is being able to tell the difference between questions where humility is required and questions which are not worth one's time. The so-called "blogosphere," like the public culture in general, is not a rich repository of intellectual maturity, needless to say. And, unsurprisingly, intellectual lightweights with trite opinions, and limited analytical skills, take offense when I make it all too clear what the answers to the easy questions are. Many of these folks are no doubt honest, well-intentioned, decent people, who have been led down unhappy paths by circumstances or indoctrination. It is an important question, far beyond my ken, what can be done to set them straight. But it is not the aim of this blog to do so.
UPDATE: Patrick O'Donnell writes:
[W]hile most versions of this or that sort of philosophical naturalism (especially in philosophy of mind) rub me the wrong way (and fall into the category of 'hard questions'), I'm of like mind with you when it comes to the 'easy questions,' and thus do appreciate the information and links I find at your site (e.g. '95 Theses' has been circulating in and around my acquaintances at the college). It is of course naive to think that blogs such as yours could 'persuade' the dim-witted, the obtuse, the ill-educated, and so forth, but a conscience or two may, on occasion, be pricked and at the very least a little light is let into the cave.And it is important to know that our battles are not solitary, that there are others 'out there' fighting the good fight if only to keep us from despair and depression.... I teach a 'comparative world religions' course, and chills run up and down my spine when we come to Christianity and must discuss such things as apocalyptic eschatology and substitutionary atonement, knowing what power such doctrines and ideas have held over the masses then and now, here and elsewhere. Reading your blog reminds me that not everyone has gone mad, that not everyone has succumbed to the 'pathology of normalcy' Erich Fromm diagnosed as lacking a disposition toward truth, in his words: 'the fact that millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane.'
To my great chagrin, I find that the concern with "civility" during
political discourse seems to be more and more an obsession of the left
leaning folks who are tied up in knots about not appearing rude and
forgetting to say pretty please. In the face of being lied to, insulted,
ridiculed and its patriotism questioned at every turn by the rabid right,
the left seems preoccupied with "niceness" and "civility", lest it be
called "liberal", the most feared term in today's politics... thanks mostly
to Clinton & Clinton and their muddy, middle of the road postures. While
Rick Santorum evokes Hitler in Paris during the filibuster debate (a false
analogy), Dick Durbin has to apologize for drawing a parallel between
Guantanomo Bay and the Nazi / fascist tactics, which in my opinion was
somewhat more apt. Tom DeLay, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and the barkers on right wing radio and TV abuse the opposition daily in the language of
juvenile school yard bullies and hear applause from their supporters and
the left is terrified that Howard Dean might speak the plain truth in words
that everyone understands ! You make this point eloquently in your own post.
I too do not think that postings on the blog necessarily persuade any one
to change political opinions. But they may well embolden those who are
thinking along similar lines but may be too timid to speak their minds. So
please keep talking in the same vein, your philosopher colleagues'
admonishments notwithstanding. We have enough cravenness on the left
already. A spinal implant is urgently needed.
The weirdest item (alluded to above, thanks to John deVille for the reference) is by some fellow named Marc Danziger, who uses the moniker "Armed Liberal" when he is playing make-believe on his blog. He apparently didn't notice that this was an essay about blogging, rather than about campaign strategy, which is what seems to interest him. For unknown reasons, he also seems to think everyone else has to be interested in what interests him. (Even weirder, but not worth belaboring, is that he thinks the Democratic Party helps poor people. The key to this fellow's problems may be that he elsewhere dismisses Howard Zinn as a "puerile Marxist," thus confirming one of my original points.) The moniker "Sanctimonious Illiterate" might be more apt than "Armed Liberal". Predictably, the Rush Limbaugh of the blogosphere, InstaIgnorance, linked to Mr. Danziger's silliness. Mr. deVille takes Mr. Danziger more seriously than he deserves, but makes some useful points in the process. (Addendum: A propos Mr. Danziger--though not only him!--a reader points out this cartoon is apt.)