Compromise and Purity (Pt. 1)

When I first began to pay attention to politics, it seemed to me that the problem was clear: people started out with good principles, and then compromised them for short-term gains, and so we should never compromise. Change happens because someone sets a far goal and refuses to be moved.

Then I got more involved in various kinds of change—not just what we think of as “political,” but institutional and even personal changes. And that complicated my notion that change was best achieved by someone setting a far goal and refusing to compromise. I came to think I had misunderstood the role that compromise plays in progressive politics.

I can partially blame my misunderstanding on how history is taught in American high schools—Rosa Parks is presented as an extreme case, as opposed to someone who was part of a very savvy and deliberate campaign; King was actually a moderate; the most effective abolitionists were savvy about their compromises. Of course, one can also create a long list of appalling compromises (I think it’s plausible that LBJ decided to escalate in Vietnam because he thought it was a compromise that would get him what he wanted in terms of domestic policy, FDR may have gone along with Japanese internment as part of a nasty political compromise).

A long swim in the murky waters of the history of progressive (and reactionary) politics has persuaded me that compromise is sometimes a great move and sometimes a disastrous one. And, while, in the abstract, I can repeat what other scholars have said about the conditions under which compromise is savvy, I’m still not very good at knowing the right move in specific moments.

Part of my uncertainty involves what it means to compromise. It can mean that you’ve listened carefully to what everyone involved has to say, and you really think you’ve made all the compromises that can be made. You believe the deliberative possibilities are exhausted because you haven’t been treated as a part of the conversation.

It can also mean that you’re certain that you’re right, that your position is the best one, and that everyone who disagrees with you is spit from the bowels of Satan—you don’t need to listen to anyone else because you’re right.

Here’s the short version: it depends on whether you’re in a bargaining or deliberative situation (refusal to compromise in an expressive situation is just wanking). In a deliberative situation, the refusal to compromise can be very persuasive, if it’s grounded in good evidence that all the compromises have been made, that the compromise being requested is unreasonable, and that the power situation is imbalanced—you’ve listened, but not been listened to (listening doesn’t mean agreeing with—it means the ability to summarize someone else’s argument in a way they would say is accurate, even if you disagree with it).

If it’s a faux deliberative situation (people are claiming it’s deliberative and it isn’t), then shifting to strategies appropriate for bargaining is what a sensible person does.

Bargaining situations aren’t as simple as I used to think they were. Basically, bargaining situations are all about power. When you’re in a bargaining situation, it doesn’t matter if you’re right—that only matters in deliberation—your threats or promises only matter to the extent that they’re strategically useful, and that’s determined by:

  1. whether it’s plausible that you can enact your threat/promise,
  2. whether your interlocutor cares very much about your threat/promise (they really fear your threats and really desire your promises),
  3. whether you can offer more than they can get without you or cost them less than they can get with you,
  4. whether s/he can thwart your ability to enact them.

So, if you threaten to take your ball and go home, and it isn’t your ball, and you aren’t big enough to take it away from anyone else, no one is going to care (this is also known as the “I’m going to hold my breath till I turn blue” threat). If it is your ball, and you could take it and leave, and no one there wants you to stay, and they have another ball, you aren’t bringing a lot of power to the bargaining situation. If people really want you to continue to play, but you tell them you’ll leave unless they let you win, then keeping you there will cost them at least as much as letting you go, and they’ll let you go. If you threaten to take your ball and go home and people think they can get another ball, they’ll let you go.

It isn’t always obvious prior to a bargaining situation (and even often while in it) what threats or promises are strategically winners. Were it obvious, there wouldn’t be bargaining—it would be like playing poker with all the cards dealt at once and face up. The only one that can be obvious ahead of time is the third—if the cost of the bargain you’re offering is the same as not bargaining at all, then there is no incentive for someone to bargain with you.

It took me a long time to see that, largely because I was confusing deliberative and bargaining situations. My entrance into politics was environmentalism, and I thought (and still think) that, as David Brower said, all the compromises have been made. We shouldn’t compromise anymore because what we were asking for was the right thing. And it seemed to me so obviously right that we need to protect the earth for future generations, that we have a sacred obligation to steward the earth’s resources in ways responsible to all the present and future inhabitants, that I thought simply insisting on our rightness was the only possible strategy.

What I was not seeing was that many members of my opposition sincerely believed not just that they could get what they wanted, but that what they were doing was right. They weren’t just motivated by greed or a desire to destroy—they believed their arguments were better than mine. This isn’t some kind of hippy-dippy woah man have you ever looked at your hand all sides are equally right argument. I still sincerely believe that the arguments for drill here, drill now are internally inconsistent and irrational, but I now know they aren’t obviously so, and showing what’s wrong with them involves long discussions about Scriptural exegesis, Millerism, the prosperity gospel, the just world hypothesis, and short- versus long-term economic gain/stability.

What I’m saying is that, in a deliberative situation, my simply insisting on how right I was wasn’t going to work—regardless of whether it was true. In a bargaining situation, it was a waste of time. And refusing to compromise would mean (as I came to see) that, unless my side had some kind of plausible threat—we’ll sue, boycott, protest, cost you an election—we would end up with nothing at all. Compromising felt physically painful to me, and it felt as though it cost me in dignity (I also bought into all sorts of slippery slope narratives, about how you compromise once and then pretty soon you’re hunting endangered species while drinking heavy-metal water).

More experienced lefty activists in favor of compromise tried to argue against my insisting on being right as the only possible right strategy was to say that I was being selfish. And that, to me, seemed another obviously wrong argument: my position came from a genuine concern for beings other than me, so it couldn’t be selfish. What they were saying, I late came to understand, was that, once I’d made the realization that my strategy wasn’t going to work, my refusal to compromise came from concerns about my dignity, my aversion to the mucky murky work of compromise, my desire for clean hands.

What I had to think about, though, was what my refusal to compromise was costing, and who was paying that cost. The cost to my dignity had to be weighed against the costs paid by people who lived in neighborhoods with poisoned water, or who had to breathe unsafe air.

Being right wasn’t enough to get the right outcomes. And I had to think strategically about those outcomes.

Once I got to that point, I discovered every experienced lefty activist responded to my insight with a “No fucking shit, Sherlock.” They had figured it out long ago.

Again, this isn’t to say that compromise is always necessary. There are times we all say, “There is some shit I will not eat.” But, when we decide this is where we go and we go no further, we have to think about who will pay the cost.





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Rhetoric and Demagoguery (Denver talk)

We are, again, at a point in time when the term “demagoguery” is getting thrown around, or, perhaps more accurately, the accusation. As has often happened, the prominence, and disturbing power of an individual, gets us to worry about that kind of rhetoric, but specifically as a question of identity. We are talking about whether this or that rhetor is a demagogue. The same thing happened with Joseph McCarthy, Adolf Hitler, Charles Coughlin, Huey Long, George Wallace—when those figures were in the news, demagoguery was a popular and popular scholarly topic.

But, as will be mentioned later, in rhetoric the term (and scholarly project) were abandoned in the 70s, largely because the project was subtly circular, insofar as definitions amounted to “an effective rhetor with whom I disagree.” I think scholars and teachers of rhetoric have a really important and useful place we can intervene here, but we need to work to define the term in ways that are more rigorous and self-reflective. For several years, I’ve been trying to revive scholarly interest in the project, and below I’ll explain what got me interested—but with a focus on demagoguery rather than demagogues—and now suddenly it’s hot again.

I’d like us not to make the same mistakes that were made in the past, as far as how we, as scholars, teachers, and critics, use the term and how we imagine demagoguery working. Demagoguery is not actually a timely issue; it’s a timeless one. Demagoguery isn’t about evil and magically powerful individuals who sucker the masses; it’s about what a culture considers normal methods of political participation.

My problem with many definitions of demagoguery is that they emphasize the identity and motives of the rhetor, and that emphasis comes from what I think is a methodological error. Scholars begin by compiling a list of prominent and powerful individuals they consider dangerous. They then look to that set of individuals to see what they have in common in order to define what is wrong with that rhetoric.

Nicolas Taleb describes what he sees as a methodological error in regard to popular and even scholarly claims about what makes a successful investor. He uses the analogy of a thousand people who play Russian roulette. A lot of people will survive that first shot; some number will make it to five shots. Imagine, he says, that pundits, journalists, and scholars then approached those survivors to ask about their strategies in order to recommend them to people who want to win at Russian roulette. You would get useless information.

But it would look useful. To know that information was useless, you would have to look at the people who lost, as well as the people who won, to see if there really are strategies—if there are differences among people who didn’t make it past the first round and those who made it to the end. I think we’re in the same situation with trying to think about demagoguery—it isn’t some unusual phenomenon that guarantees success. It works in some situations and not others, and we need to think about that.

There are six methodological problems to consider with the “infer from rhetors I hate” project:

  1. Looking for the commonalities among successful and hated rhetors assumes what is at stake—that it was something about their rhetoric or identity that enabled them to succeed, rather than there being a tremendous amount of luck. If we want to know what does enable that success, we need to look at unsuccessful demagoguery.
  2. That method doesn’t enable us to see demagoguery we like—by beginning with rhetors we hate, we exclude consideration of our attraction to potentially damaging rhetoric.
  3. It also prohibits empirical research on demagoguery. And here I’m advocating a kind of research I don’t do, but that I think is valuable. If we could come up with a fairly rigorous definition of demagoguery, then we could use strategies like corpus analysis in order to be more precise in our claims of causality and consequences.
  4. Oddly enough, the standard criteria—motive, emotionality, populism—don’t even capture the most famous demagogues, or they end up capturing all political figures, so those criteria are both over- and under-determining.
  5. These criteria are demophobic and elitist, as though rich and intellectual people never fall for demagoguery, and that just isn’t true.
  6. Finally, by focusing on identities as the problem—bad things happen because we have powerful individuals who are demagogues—we necessarily imply a policy solution of purification. If the presence of these bad people is the problem, then we should purify our community of them. Since I’ll argue that policies of purification are, in fact, one of the consistent characteristics of demagoguery, that would mean, in the scholarly project of criticizing demagogues, we’re engaged in demagoguery.

Here’s my argument: I think we can distinguish demagoguery from other forms of persuasive discourse on the basis of the presence of certain rhetorical moves, not the identity of the rhetors. I think, also, we should talk about the effectiveness of demagoguery in terms of how it plays into the informational worlds that people inhabit. Demagoguery isn’t an identity; it’s a relationship.

For the scholarly project of identifying demagoguery to be effective, we need to be working with a definition that enables us to see when we are drawn to it. In addition, we need a model of demagoguery that plausibly explains a few odd characteristics about it. I’ll mention a couple:

  1. It’s obvious to us that Hitler, for instance, was a demagogue. But, clearly, he couldn’t have appeared as such to his followers—they wouldn’t have listened. If you read people who defend Joseph McCarthy (and there are many), they will argue that he wasn’t a demagogue because there really were spies in government. They don’t care that he didn’t actually identify any of those spies, that he caused to be fired people who were not spies—their argument is that he had a claim that was true in the abstract, but it doesn’t matter to them that his specific claims were entirely wrong and very damaging, not just to individuals, but to American foreign policy, especially anticommunism. His standards of “communist” ensured we lost experts who might have actually helped us in Vietnam But his defenders assume that, because he was, in a fairly abstract way, “right,” he wasn’t a demagogue. Another defense of demagogues—or ways that people try to refute the accusation—is to say the person isn’t a demagogue because he or she is nice, or a good person. I’ll come back to both of those.
  2. We talk about demagogues as magicians with word wands, who command entire populations. And while it’s true that the famous ones are politically effective through their rhetoric——demagogues are never saying anything unique. Scholars and biographers note the extent to which they were saying things exactly like a lot of other media outlets and rhetors. They were effective because they were saying things that were familiar—so what impact did they have? There is a scholarly argument as to just how personally anti-Semitic Hitler really was (I’d say very, but not everyone agrees) but there is no doubt that his public rhetoric was in line with what various Catholic and Lutheran organizations and media were promoting, with dominant racialist theory (some of which was popular in the US), and with a variety of far-right volkisch groups.

As Ian Kershaw says,

“Time after time, Hitler set the barbaric tone, whether in hate-filled public speeches giving him a green light to discriminatory action against Jews and other ‘enemies of the state’, or in closed addresses to Nazi functionaries or military leaders where he laid down, for example, the brutal guidelines for the occupation of Poland and for ‘Operation Barbarossa’. But there was never any shortage of willing helpers, far from being confined to party activists, ready to ‘work towards the Fuhrer’ to put the mandate into operation” (Hitler, the Germans 43)

It’s also useful to remember that neither the Holocaust nor WWII could have happened had Hitler been the only rhetor promoting his anti-Semitism and visions of world conquest. He had a propaganda machine. And that propaganda machine existed before he came to power, before he even began making speeches in beerhalls—the Nazis didn’t write Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Hitler and the Nazis radicalized existing beliefs about German purity and honor, and how the nation was threatened by immigrants, ethnic minorities, non-Christians, intellectuals, unions, homosexuals, leftists, and feminists. But those beliefs were preexisting.The assumption of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy that started World War I, ended it when Germany was about to win, and/or was busy seducing non-Jewish woman shows up as plot point in popular movies—not just German ones—and even popular spy thrillers in English by authors like John Buchan or Leslie Charteris.

Robert Gellately says,

“Nazi propaganda was not, and could not, be crudely forced on the German people. On the contrary, it was meant to appeal to them, and to match up with everyday German understandings [….] Thus, far from forcing unwanted or repellant messages down the throats of the population, Hitler and the Nazis carefully tailored what they said, wrote, and especially what they did, in order to win and hold the support of the people.” (Backing Hitler 259)

By the end of the war, which Germans supported, large numbers of Germans also supported the existence and use of the slave labor and death camps—things they would not have supported to the same extent before the war. The relationship between Hitler and the shift in German ideology isn’t simple to describe.

I’m not endorsing what is called the “functionalist” explanation of the Holocaust—the notion that Hitler as an individual didn’t matter, because the institutions were essentially driving themselves. I don’t think that’s the case—I think Kershaw has described it elegantly: it was the combination of Hitler’s personal fanaticism and charismatic leadership, a set of governmental arrangements and practices, conditions of the war, enthusiasm on the part of many people, and apathy on the part of others.

Just as scholars have struggled to define the exact relationship of Hitler’s personal beliefs and historical forces in the Holocaust, the field of rhetoric is struggling to find an accurate narrative for how rhetorical change happens. Narratives of persuasion toggle among fatalism, determinism, magical rhetoric, and the two modern dogma that Wayne Booth identified years ago, scientism and motivism.

I didn’t come to an interest in demagoguery via loathing individual rhetors. I came via Jurgen Habermas and Hannah Arendt through the American antebellum debate over slavery. Briefly, Habermas famously distinguished communicative versus strategic action, and most scholarship (and even pedagogy) following his line of thought was about additions to and critiques of his notion of communicative action—was it universalist, how does empirical research support it (or not). One criticism from feminist scholars such as Seyla Benhabib, I.M. Young, and Bonnie Honig, was that it was excessively averse to conflict, especially passionate conflict, and too restrictive in its formulation of reason.

Arendt’s argument for thinking (and especially her model of thinking as imagination) and her advocacy of agonism seemed a good corrective to what might be excessively rationalist about Habermas’ vision of deliberation, and also much more pragmatic. In terms of pedagogy, Tom Miller’s argument about the history of rhetorical pedagogy seemed to provide the keystone—we used to have a civic and agonistic model of teaching rhetoric, and then we shifted to an expressivist and hyper-individualized version of writing.

But here I ran up against a historical argument. If the best form of rhetorical pedagogy is civic-agonistic, and there are direct benefits to the quality of public deliberation from such a pedagogy—if the dream civic space is Habermasian/Arendtian— and such a pedagogy was dominant in the antebellum era, then why was the debate over slavery such a train wreck?

A graduate student asked me that in a seminar, and I didn’t have a good answer. So I ended up writing a book about the proslavery argument.

The argument for slavery was just a rhetorical trainwreck. Within the same document, sometimes on the same page, there would be an argument that appealed to premises that contradicted the premises of another argument—slaves are happy, slaves are always just seconds from race war, slavery will die out, slavery is eternal.

There were ways in which proslavery ideology was consistent—it was consistently authoritarian, for instance, and consistently resistant to policy deliberation or pragmatic argumentation. But, it was logically inconsistent, in terms of major premises contradicting one another, and even sometimes claims in perfect opposition. It also increasingly came to seem it wasn’t about the claims qua veridical or assertoric claims—they were phatic. What mattered about them was the extent to which they were performances of ingroup loyalty. Thus, consistently, what should have been policy deliberations—what are the long-term chances of maintaining slavery, what should happen with tariffs, what and whether railroads should be built, what should be done about the exhaustion of the soil, should we have Sunday mails, should we secede—were not times when people considered multiple alternatives, the feasibility and solvency of various plans, but were taken exclusively as opportunities for rhetors to engage in an ingroup loyalty oneupsmanship regarding their commitment to slavery.

In such a world, rational approaches to argumentation were framed as dithering cowardice, and the best way to show loyalty was to advocate a risky—even implausible—course of action. This is what I ended up calling “the rhetorical power of the irrational rhetor.” After all, supporting a reasonable plan doesn’t show ingroup loyalty as much as advocating an openly unreasonable one—that’s what shows you are a true believer, and that you believe you have God on your side. To advocate rational and inclusive deliberation was characterized as dangerously disloyal, perhaps even the consequence of such an advocate being the knowing or unknowing tool of evil forces. Dissent of any kind, even dissent about the feasibility of proposed courses of action—even if a rhetor explicitly agreed with the goals, agreed with the need, and was simply trying to debate strategy–was “refuted” with identity arguments—that you were a bad person for doubting the ability of the ingroup to succeed. And you were a bad person because you weren’t sufficiently concerned about the need.

In other words, rhetors responded to criticism of the plan with reassertion of the desperate need and performances of ingroup loyalties.

It’s important to remember that, despite the way we talk about the slavery debate, there were not two sides. Off the top of my head I generated fourteen. I’m not sure it’s useful to think of them as “sides,” as much as sets in a Venn diagram, and those positions morphed, split, and combined in the thirty years that slave states were threatening secession over the issue. A few of them include:

  • proslavery (slavery as an active good);
  • proslavery (necessary evil);
  • proslavery (slaveholders should be able to maintain slaveholding even if living in non-slave states);
  • proslavery (it will die out on its own so we don’t need to do anything);
  • proslavery pro-secession (knowing it would provoke a war);
  • proslavery anti-secession (Unionists, who believed the Union could be made even more favorable to the slaveholder political agenda, and secession was unnecessary);
  • proslavery promanumission (slaveholders should be able to free their slaves if they choose, generally associated with also believing that slaveholders should be allowed to teach their slaves to read);
  • proslavery antimanumission (the state should be able to micromanage slaveholders, such as prohibiting the teaching of reading, prohibiting manumission, and so on).
  • NIMBY antislavery (restrict it to the existing slave states);
  • anti-proslavery (the Slave Power is restricting the rights of all to protect slavery—right to petition, free speech, freedom of religion, states’ rights);
  • anti-antislavery (abolitionists are making things worse by provoking slaveholders and proslavery politicians);
  • pro-colonization anti-slavery (slaves should be freed without governmental coercion and sent “back” to Africa);
  • antislavery gradual abolition (slave states should follow the same procedures as had been used in New York and Pennsylvania, some of the people advocating this argued that slaveholders be recompensed for their losses);
  • immediate emancipation and full citizenship.

The list could go on, but I think the point is made. Proslavery rhetors didn’t want to acknowledge the broad range of possible stances, since it undermined their alarmist rhetoric—that if you weren’t in favor of the most extreme policies, then you were an abolitionist (or one of their stooges) advocating slave rebellion and race war.

At the time I was working on that book, the buildup to the Iraq invasion was happening, and I was watching the same thing happen—the demonization of deliberation (by which I mean that deliberation was actually characterized as serving the devil), dissent was treated as treason, and the complicated array of positions regarding the invasion were restricted in the most powerful media to two: for the Bush plan or against doing anything about terrorism. (In some corners, there was either oppose any military action or threat in regard to Iraq or support a war for oil.)

In fact, if you were paying attention, you could create a description of the various often overlapping positions as complicated as the one regarding slavery:

  • in favor of immediate invasion;
  • in favor of threatening immediate invasion until Saddam Hussein complied with the UN;
  • in favor of invasion after success in Afghanistan;
  • in favor of UN-supported invasion, or an invasion with a coalition of Middle Eastern countries (like the Persian Gulf War);
  • in favor of invasion with what the Pentagon considers adequate forces;
  • opposed to invasion unless Saddam stops cooperating with the UN inspectors (this position emerged after he started cooperating);
  • opposed to invading Iraq, but in favor of the Afghanistan efforts;
  • opposed to any troops on the ground, but in favor of bombing;
  • opposed to any invasion of any kind.

Again, we could come up with a longer list—that isn’t my point. The point is simply that it wasn’t a pro- or anti-invasion, but the public discourse kept reducing the complicated situation to “us” and “them.”

And various other historical train wrecks had a similar pattern—Japanese internment, the Holocaust, the Sicilian Debate, the Mytilinean Debate, segregation, American anti-immigration rhetoric, LBJ policy in regard to Vietnam…the complicated political situations were bifurcated into two groups, and, instead of arguing policy, people argued which of the two groups was better, as though that would settle what policy we should follow. And that’s when I got interested in demagoguery.

I’ve told this long story of my scholarly and teaching wanderings for two reasons. First, I didn’t come to demagoguery via demagogues, but via disastrous community decisions—slavery, segregation, Japanese internment, escalation in Vietnam, the Sicilian Expedition, the Holocaust. In fact, in most of these cases, there wasn’t a demagogue, but there was demagoguery. Second, because of that orientation, the question became what rhetorical practices were normalized in these discourse communities?

Once you stop looking for demagogues, and instead look at times that communities scapegoated some group to the point of state-legitimated violence, then you can see a similar set of characteristics:

  • Policy questions are reduced to questions of identity, which are bifurcated (with us or against us), and motive (good or bad);
  • Nuance, uncertainty, deliberation, and skepticism are rejected as unmanly and disloyal (except for skepticism about claims made against ingroup members);
  • The community is reduced to the ingroup (so that, even if “they” are legally or historically part of the community, they are never considered “real” members);
  • An outgroup is scapegoated for all the ingroup’s problems;
  • Public discourse is predominantly performance of ingroup loyalty;
  • The community is described as threatened by the mere presence, let alone political power, of that outgroup, and so the solution is some version of purifying us of them;
  • Ingroup loyalty is demonstrated by insisting that policy discussions are unnecessary because the correct course of action is obvious to all people of goodwill (disagreement is fake—either the person disagreeing doesn’t really disagree, or is fooled by the outgroup);
  • The discourse is heavily fallacious, but not necessarily emotional, and can involve appeals to authority and expertise, and can look as though there is a lot of “evidence;”
  • Public discourse focusses almost exclusively on the “ill” or need portion of an argument, with the major ill being an existential threat to the ingroup—because we are threatened with extinction, concerns like due process, human rights, and fairness are luxuries we can’t afford;
  • Finally, while there are overlaps with fascism (especially as Robert Paxton describes it), it isn’t necessarily fascist, or even political.

This is what I would suggest should serve as the criteria we look at, but I think this is a question open to empirical testing. Instead of looking at rhetors we hate, though, we would look at times of extermination, expulsion, or group oppression.

This list isn’t entirely new, and it isn’t as though no one else has ever remarked on these characteristics—Walter Benjamin and Giorgio Agamben have both noted the state of exception, Arendt remarked on the lack of perspective-shifting in someone like Adolph Eichmann, and I’ve obviously been influenced by Kenneth Burke’s 1939 piece on Hitler’s rhetoric, George Lakoff’s work on Strict Father Morality, political scientists’ work on authoritarianism and “stealth democracy,” and Chip Berlet and Mathew Lyon’s work on Right Wing Authoritarianism. I’ve tried to focus, as I say, not just on famous rhetors like Hitler, nor only on right-wring demagoguery, in fact, not even strictly on political demagoguery. That accounts for some of the differences.

These practices don’t always lead to the expulsion or extermination of some group, for several reasons. First, demagoguery is powerful depending on the extent to which that kind of scapegoating and fear-mongering is perceived as normal. In my classes, I often use examples from PETA—I’m a vegetarian and animal lover opposed to most animal experimentation. I use PETA because I’m sympathetic to their ends, such as an article about trying to reduce interstate and international trade in various constricting snake species; the article ends up scapegoating snake owners generally, and owners of venomous snakes especially. It’s demagoguery, but probably with little impact—demagoguery about pitbulls, on the other hand, has had considerable impact.

In addition, Michael Mann’s work on ladders of extremism suggest why demagoguery can stop. His argument is that, at any given moment, the conflict between two groups could get resolved by the community as a whole choosing to revert to what he calls “normal politics.”

He mentions that heightened exterminationist rhetoric can be motivated by an ambitious rhetor who thinks it’s useful as a mobilizing passion. If the rhetor gets what he (usually) wants, then he might abandon the rhetoric (as Ward seems to suggest was the case with many southern politicians, who used race-baiting only when it would help them win an election). It can also get “resolved” by the ougroup voluntarily leaving or settling for oppression.

I’ll note that if, however, the demagoguery is motivated by a desire for political power, or increased viewers, or a plan to distract people from some other situation, then the outgroup that leaves will simply be rhetorically replaced by another outgroup to scapegoat. Now that it’s difficult to rouse much political power by appealing to fears about Irish and Italians, one sees exactly the same anti-immigration rhetoric applied to “Mexicans” and “Muslims.” Fox News had considerable coverage of Ebola prior to the 2014 election, connected to fears about immigrants—once the election was over, that coverage dropped.

At the beginning I said that I think we need to think about demagoguery as a relationship. Here I’m saying that part of the relationship is to other information available to the consumer. Demagoguery only works when we don’t think it is demagoguery, and we don’t think it is when we have a bad definition—one that relies on inference of motive, unhelpful assumptions about how easy it is to see if something is false, and equally unhelpful assumptions about what it means for an argument to be “rational.” I don’t have a lot of time to explain them, so I’m going to go through them quickly. Basically, my argument is that demagoguery works because our lay notions of what it means to participate effectively in public discourse encourage us to have unhelpful criteria for “bad” kinds of rhetors.

Here are some assumptions that people make about political decisions:

  • When it comes down to it, the solutions to our political problems are straightforward. Our political issues are the consequence of not having enough good people in office—instead, we have professional politicians who aren’t really trying to solve things. (Stealth Democracy)
  • Good people do good things, it’s easy to recognize when someone is a good person, or when a plan of action is good. So, we don’t need to argue about policy—we just need to vote for the good people who are above (our outside of) professional politics.
  • Good people speak the truth, and they don’t try to alter it through rhetoric—they are transparent. Thus, you should trust people who strike you as unfiltered, and who say things that resonate with you immediately.
  • A “rational” argument is a claim that is true (and that you can recognize easily to be true) supported by evidence, and presented in an unemotional way.

I’ve been very moved by Ariel Kruglanski’s work on what he calls “lay epistemologies,” perhaps because he confirms what Aristotle says. Kruglanski says that people reason syllogistically—this person is a Canadian; Canadians are polite; therefore, this person must be polite.

Our popular culture and, unhappily, our textbooks in rhetoric and composition, remain dominated by the rational/irrational split, despite that being a relatively recent development, and it not being what research in cognitive psychology shows. What the research shows is that there is not some distinction between emotions and logic, but a division between System 1 and 2 thinking: between cognitive shortcuts and metacognitive processes.

In System 1, you simply decide whether new information fits with what you already know. In System 2, you think about whether how you know is a good process. We spend most of our time in System 1, as we should, but we should make political decisions using System 2. Demagoguery says we don’t need to do that.

Demagoguery works with all of us when we believe that all we need is System 1—the demagoguery that “moves” us is the one that resolves our cognitive dissonances by persuading us that what we have always already known is absolutely true. We aren’t moved by new information, but by a new commitment to old beliefs.

Demagoguery depoliticizes politics, in that it says we don’t have to argue policies, and can just rouse ourselves to new levels of commitment to the “us” and purify our community or nation of them. It says that we are in such a desperate situation that we can no longer afford them the same treatment we want for us.

Metacognition is demagoguery’s worst enemy, and there is a simple way to move to metacognition—would I think this was a good argument if it were made in service of the outgroup political agenda. If people thought that way, then demagoguery would be restricted to moments of hilarity on youtube about music you hate.

In other words, I just spent 45 minutes telling y’all that what most prevents demagoguery is a culture in which we believe that you should “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And that’s what we should teach.



Some links that might help

Trump supporters who are defending his recent actions are, as per usual, wickedly and strategically misinformed.

They believe:

  • these deportations are only of illegal immigrants;
  • Trump is relying on a bill that Obama signed to identify the countries;
  • their objections to Obama’s executive orders and actions were principled–they objected to his actions on the basis of principles about constitutionality.

So, first, it can help to explain that he is detaining and deporting people with permanent residency status.

I’ve stayed away from NYTimes and other sources they’ve been trained to reject without reading:

From ABC



The proof that they included legal immigrants, initially, is that Trump backed off on that. So, either he was incompetent at issuing an order, or he intended to keep permanent residents out. (If they balk at clicking on the link, tell them to watch the video.)

These deportations include Christians:

Don’t mention this unless they bring it up, because a lot of the sort of people who support Trump just remember nouns and not claims. They’ll remember “Obama bill” and not “this has nothing to do with that.” Here’s the actual bill:

This is the additional change that was made. I still see no connection. (And people who are repeating this talking point won’t be able to come up with one–neither Trump nor the Right-Wing Noise Machine has tried to make clear what the connection is.)

Oops, now he’s claiming it’s another thing. Here’s the refutation of that point:

The DHS is violating the court order. Either they’re out of Trump’s control, or he told them to do that. If it’s the latter, would they be okay if Obama had done that? If not, then their objections to Obama’s actions weren’t based on principle, but on faction.

Here’s the court order: darweesh.v.trump_decision.and.order.document-3.pdf

After I wrote this, the defense of Trump’s actions changed again. First, they were claiming this came from a 2015 bill, then a 2011 action, now I think something else. There are two ways that all that shifting around is important: first, these actions were initially praised by Trump supporters and his media outlets on the grounds that he was finally doing something that Obama hadn’t done, and was finally securing our borders, unlike Obama–the whole theme was that this was a huge break with Obama. Now the talking point is that the outrage is the consequence of liberal media hype, and this is no different from Obama. They can’t play it both ways. Either this is good, and the same thing Obama did, so Obama’s policies were good; or, Obama’s policies were weak, and this really is a big change. It can’t be both.

Second, the EO was extremely unclear and created a lot of confusion–that isn’t decisiveness. It included people with permanent residency status, and the WH continued to insist that those people be included, then walked that back. Making a lot of different and unclear decisions about major issues in a 72 hours isn’t decisiveness–it’s being a loose cannon.

Why the emoluments issue matters

There is a tendency for pundits to say “Trump supporters were all motivated by this” or “Trump supporters are all like that,” but I don’t think those generalizations are very useful. I think about the only accurate generalizations would be “Trump voters were motivated by the sense that he was the better person for the job,” and “Trump supporters are all Trump supporters.”

I think a lot of Trump supporters believe that the government has been on the wrong track for years, with politicians doing nothing other than line their own pockets, pandering to special interests and lobbyists, and creating a government that does little other than waste money and get in the way. Politicians are cynical careerists who say whatever they need to say to get elected, and look down on the regular people who are actually paying their wages. Our lives are filled with unnecessary regulations enforced by petty bureaucrats who just want to protect their own cushy jobs. The supposed elite—professors, doctors, supposed experts—don’t actually know what they’re doing, have very little common sense, and no real experience with the things about which they’re pontificating. The problems that face us are crucial, but not complicated, and the solutions are straightforward but politicians (and experts generally) don’t want to go for the simple solution. If they did, they’d be out of a job.

Take, for instance, a doctor. You have a recurrent complaint, and the doctor keeps giving you different medications (or maybe does nothing at all), and they don’t actually work. And, perhaps, you changed a minor thing in your life (in my case, I changed toothpastes, which got rid of the metallic taste that had completely confused the doctor) and all is well. You might come to the conclusion that doctors act as though they’re all-knowing, but they’re just guessing. Or, you might decide that the doctor is not really fixing you because then he’d lose the money from your visits and tests. Certainly, there are cases of doctors who were ordering unnecessary surgeries in order to get the money—that’s just a fact.

It isn’t just doctors, of course. It’s anyone who claims to have special knowledge. I once had a guy at a gas station claim I needed a new alternator belt because the one I had was all cut up. (This was in the 70s, when alternator belts were notched.) There are “resume services” who will, for free, look at your resume. They’ll tell you it’s awful, and you need their services. Some people have paid for the resume revision, then resubmitted that revision for the “free” review of your resume—the service said that resume was awful, and they needed to revise it.

There are definitely politicians who just liked the prestige and power it provided, and who had no intention of doing any actual work. I’ve known people in minor positions of power who behaved that way, so I’m certain it’s true of people with as much power as even a state legislator has. And we have all been on committees or teams with people who enjoyed the process so much that they never actually wanted anything to get done. We all work in institutions that have rules and processes that have no obvious explanation other than a perverse desire to see that no really good work gets accomplished at all.

For instance, a friend worked as a computer programmer at an institution that had this process for changing anything in a program:

  1. someone submits a change request;
  2. it is reviewed by a team;
  3. if approved, the change is assigned to a programmer;
  4. the programmer comes up with a plan for responding to the request;
  5. that plan is presented to the team;
  6. the team sends that plan up the ladder for approval;
  7. if approved, the change is made;
  8. the change is tested by a quality control group;
  9. the team meets again to determine the change was good;
  10. that information is sent up the ladder.

As you can imagine, that took a long time, and a lot of meetings, and could be irritating if there was some urgency. There was a different process, however, if it wasn’t a change request, but correcting an error. So, my friend’s team took to identifying all change requests as “correcting error” requests. The result was that users were much happier, and more empowered in their jobs. They felt ownership over the programs they were using, as they could have an impact on how those programs functioned. This process was more efficient, since there were fewer meetings, and requested changes happened faster.

They were all called on the carpet because their team was producing programs with too many errors, and had to go to the less effective and less efficient process.

Every interaction with the government is like that. What should be simple—getting a driver’s license—involves forms, lines, not having the right document and so having to come back another day and stand in more lines, filling out the forms again, and then dealing with some grumpy person who makes us jump through every hoop required by a fifty-page set of regulations we’re convinced was written by legislators with nothing better to do.

I think a lot of Trump supporters were motivated by the notion that all of this nonsense is unnecessary, and a really good leader would get rid of it.

But why Trump?

Here is the narrative in which Trump seems like a good choice:

  • politicians refuse to solve the problems, so get a non-politician;
  • politicians don’t solve things because they pander to lobbyists, so get someone who is already rich and powerful enough that he doesn’t need to pander to anyone;
  • he has shown himself in ­the apprentice shows to be decisive, and to be able to make good judgments about people quickly;
  • his success in business shows that he knows how to solve problems without a lot of drama.

Added to this was the sense that

  • Obama had violated the constitution, and Democrats didn’t seem to care, so Dems are generally suspect—Trump insisted he would the constitution.

I want to focus on just three points: 1, 2, and 5.

Are there politicians who don’t really want to solve problems, but stay in office? Yes. Just as there are doctors, auto mechanics, hairdressers, therapists, lawyers, investment advisors, pet sitters, and members of every single profession who are just trying to keep getting money out of you. But, to return to the medical example: if there were, for instance, a simple solution to back pain, and all the things your doctor is making you do are just to line his pocket, then there must be some doctor out there who actually cares about patients, right? It can’t be 100%? And, really, if there were a simple solution to back pain, a doctor who patented it, or wrote a book about it, would be a millionaire, so, it would be out there.

And, of course, those books and videos are out there. There are magazines, links, books, articles that all claim “this housewife discovered the cure your doctor doesn’t want you to know about” (by the way, that selling strategy is at least a hundred years old), but those don’t work either.

So, in fact, there isn’t a simple solution to back pain. It’s complicated. It really is. And when your doctor tells you it’s complicated, she’s telling you the truth. Maybe you have a good doctor who will ensure you get the best treatment possible, and maybe you have a bad doctor who is just stringing you along, but they aren’t distinguished by which one tells you it’s complicated versus which one tells you it’s simple.

Back pain is a good example because it connects to a vexed political problem—use/abuse of painkillers. It’s absolutely clear that some people claim to have chronic pain who don’t, but they use that claim to get doctors to prescribe pain medication which they then sell to people who are just using it to get high. But it’s also clear that the regulations we set to stop those people end up creating a huge number of hoops for people who legitimately need a lot of pain medication because they really are in a lot of pain.

For my job, I have to fill out a ridiculous amount of paperwork to do something because someone else really did recently use that process to rip my employer off for $50k.

If there were an obvious solution to the problem of making sure that people who really need pain medication got all the medication they legitimately need without abusers getting any, a politician who figured that out would be the hero of all the TV shows. Perhaps some politicians would decide to take payoffs from Big Pharma or the Mafia or whoever not to go with the obvious solution, but, if it’s really obvious, at some point someone too ethical (or too ambitious) to get bought would have figured out that being The Politician to solve this problem is a golden ticket to Bigger Things.

No one has stepped forward with the obvious solution because there isn’t one. Setting huge penalties for abuse of painkillers isn’t a solution because it isn’t objectively clear whether someone is really in pain or just pretending.

There are politicians who don’t want to solve problems but just keep getting reelected. There are mechanics who don’t want to fix your car but want to bring it back. But in neither case should we assume that getting an outside will solve the problem. Get a different mechanic, but get someone who knows something about cars.

People have a tendency to assume that judgment applies across fields, but that isn’t really how it works out. You can be brilliant at math, and unable to write a check, or great at fixing computers but terrible at fixing cars. The whole point about eggheads who might be brilliant at their field is that brilliance doesn’t apply to other things.

But even setting that aside—whether Trump was, actually, successful at business (something we can’t know because we don’t know his debt load), or if such success would translate—we can know something about the “above corruption” claim.

What everyone wants—Trump supporters and their opponents—are politicians who can’t be bought, who will make decisions on the basis of what’s best for the US, and not for what will line their own pockets. We disagree about how to do that, but we agree it’s an important value.

Trump supporters believe that Trump being so rich means he doesn’t need more money. I’m not sure I’ve ever known anyone who didn’t want more money. But, ignoring that, it’s easy to tell whether Trump is that sort of person: is he trying to use his position as President to make more money?

If he is, then everything about the “he’s above special interests” collapses. If he is going to use his position to profit himself, then he is a special interest, and he will corrupt policy to make more money.

This was a major issue for the Founders, and that’s why they put into the Constitution the “emoluments” clause. This is what the conservative site, The Heritage Foundation, has to say about that clause:

Similarly, the Framers intended the Emoluments Clause to protect the republican character of American political institutions. “One of the weak sides of republics, among their numerous advantages, is that they afford too easy an inlet to foreign corruption.” The Federalist No. 22 (Alexander Hamilton). The delegates at the Constitutional Convention specifically designed the clause as an antidote to potentially corrupting foreign practices of a kind that the Framers had observed during the period of the Confederation. Louis XVI had the custom of presenting expensive gifts to departing ministers who had signed treaties with France, including American diplomats. In 1780, the King gave Arthur Lee a portrait of the King set in diamonds above a gold snuff box; and in 1785, he gave Benjamin Franklin a similar miniature portrait, also set in diamonds. Likewise, the King of Spain presented John Jay (during negotiations with Spain) with the gift of a horse. All these gifts were reported to Congress, which in each case accorded permission to the recipients to accept them. Wary, however, of the possibility that such gestures might unduly influence American officials in their dealings with foreign states, the Framers institutionalized the practice of requiring the consent of Congress before one could accept “any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from…[a] foreign State.”

Like several other provisions of the Constitution, the Emoluments Clause also embodies the memory of the epochal constitutional struggles in seventeenth-century Britain between the forces of Parliament and the Stuart dynasty. St. George Tucker’s explanation of the clause noted that “in the reign of Charles the [S]econd of England, that prince, and almost all his officers of state were either actual pensioners of the court of France, or supposed to be under its influence, directly, or indirectly, from that cause. The reign of that monarch has been, accordingly, proverbially disgraceful to his memory.” As these remarks imply, the clause was directed not merely at American diplomats serving abroad, but more generally at officials throughout the federal government. (!/articles/1/essays/68/emoluments-clause)

The politically conservative Economist explains the application to Trump:

DIPLOMATS from various countries have spent the past few weeks booking suites at the Trump International Hotel in Washington in the hope of ingratiating themselves with president-elect Donald Trump. The Industrial and Commerical Bank of China, whose majority stakeholder is the Chinese government, rents office space in New York City’s Trump Tower. The 35-storey Trump Office Buenos Aires development is awaiting approval from that city’s government. These are just a few of the unprecedented conflicts of interest presented by Mr Trump’s decision to retain his business empire and hand its management over to his children.  No law obliges Mr Trump to sell his assets or place them in a blind trust, though nine of the 12 presidents since the second world war have done so. But when his businesses accept money (or anything of value) from foreign governments or state-owned entities, Mr Trump may nevertheless be breaking the law. In fact, he may be violating the Constitution of the United States—and specifically, a section known as the Emoluments Clause.

Thus, traditionally, Presidents have been required to take any assets they have and sell them (Carter and his farm) or put them into blind trusts. It’s useful to remember that one of the main points of the “Clinton is corrupt” argument was that she and her husband had violated this clause with their Foundation.Were Trump to do something like give favor to some countries because he has business interests with them, or require that countries trying to get political favors use his hotels, then he would have violated the emoluments clause.

More important, he would have violated one of the major arguments for voting for him—he would have shown that he can be bought, that he will use the position to line his pockets, and that he will make political decisions on the basis of what benefits him personally.

He would have shown himself to be the opposite of the person for whom Trump supporters voted. That matters.


When Italians and Jews were terrorists

Many people sincerely believe that post-9/11 is the first time that Americans felt threatened by terrorism on its soil, but that fear has waxed and waned for most (if not all) of our history. Slaveholders were in perpetual fear of slave uprisings (especially after 1841), as well as of murder, poisoning, and arson on the part of angry slaves; Abraham Lincoln was killed by a terrorist; and the post-bellum era suffered from what amounted to state-sponsored terrorism, as white Southerners reasserted the subjugation of African Americans. The middle nineteenth century had spates of fear-mongering about Catholics (whom, many believed to be in league with the Hapsburg Emperor and the Pope to reinstate monarchy in the US), resulting in serious arguments as to whether they should be allowed to vote, considerable prejudice against their holding office, and some talk of restricting their immigration.The late nineteenth and early twentieth century media, law, and policy show two different sources of existential threat: Asians (especially the Japanese); and a vague and muddled fear of Eastern Europeans, which was often synonymous with Jews, anarchists, and, after 1917, Bolsheviks.
In case it isn’t clear from my tone, I share the scholarly consensus that most of these were not, in fact, existential threats to American democracy (the tolerated terrorism of white supremacy is the one exception, which was intended to prevent democracy, and succeeded in seriously impairing it). But, there were incidents to which people could point that they thought, incorrectly, supported the claim that these are dangerous times, and this enemy merits our suspending normal practices of inclusion and pluralism. These incidents supposedly showed that group was plotting a violent overthrow of the US, perhaps even control of the world. Many of the incidents or supposedly supporting texts were fabrications (wild rumors of slave rebellion plots, Protocols of the Elders of Zion, recasting of incidents of Native American self-defense as massacres, coerced confessions that show more about slaveholder paranoia than slave actions).
But there were real incidents. The slave revolt of Saint-Domingue was real, as was the bomb thrown at Haymarket, the assassination of McKinley, the guard and paymaster at the Slater and Morrill Shoe Company were murdered, there really was a series of bombs mailed to various politicians in the spring and early summer of 1919, and various immigrants in the United States were advocating a Bolshevik-style revolution. And, as is often the case, criminals, especially famous ones, often were recent immigrants, or of the same ethnicity—there was a Jewish Mafia, an Italian one, an Irish one. Nineteenth-century Irish voting practices could be pretty dodgy, and cities run by the Irish (New York) or the Italians (San Francisco) were corrupt. Of course, most Jews, Irish, and Italians weren’t involved in crime, cities not run by the Irish or Italians could be just as corrupt (Kansas City), and, given the criminalization of poverty (meaning that there are things, such as getting drunk, that are only criminal if you’re too poor to have a home), the percentage of criminals who were any particular ethnicity was not proof of any kind of inherent criminality.
I’m making two points. First, people afraid of certain groups would not have experienced their fear as irrational—it would have seemed to them to be grounded in “facts.” They could, after all, list a lot of examples of plots, confessions, and authorities who supported their beliefs that this group was too dangerous for the US to admit. They could point to a city run by that group and show it was badly run.
Second, every ethnic group that came over (at least since the First Peoples) had in it criminals, people who were hostile to the “American” system in some way, people advocating violent change, and/or actual terrorists. Every one of us comes from a group with a poison skittle. That’s an analogy that only works with people who have mythologized the history of their own ethnicity and immigration in the US.
If we allow mass immigration of Syrians will some of those people be criminals or terrorists? Yes. Were some of the Germans, English, Irish, Italians, Jews, Swedes, Muldavians whom we allowed to immigrate criminals or terrorists? Yes.
A few years ago, when Berlusconi had recently come to power, largely on the basis of xenophobia and anti-immigration rhetoric, I had lunch with an Italian professor, who told me that people had tried to refute his rhetoric by showing that same rhetoric had been used by the US about Italians. But, she said, it didn’t work. Why not, I asked. Because, she said, Berlusconi’s allies showed that Rumanians and other eastern European immigrants really were committing crimes in Italy. I said, “Are you under the impression that Italian immigrants did not commit crimes in the US?” “Oh,” she said, “Did they?”
It’s a mistake for defenders of standard immigration policies to say that none of the people we allow in will do anything that might enable Fox to fear-monger about them. Someone will. It’s a worse mistake for people afraid of this set of immigrants to think they’re any different from the people who turned away Jewish escapees–to believe that turning Jews back to death was bad, but turning away Syrians is justified.
Before and during World War II, the US refused to admit Jewish refugees. One of the reasons that Jews stayed in Nazi Germany was that so few other countries would admit them—there was nowhere they could go. There’s a lot of argument about whether the Allies could have reduced the effectiveness of the Holocaust by bombing concentration camps; there is none that we could have reduced the number of people killed had we been willing to accept more people fleeing Nazism—Jews, Romas, intellectuals, communists, union members.
Would we thereby have admitted some spies? Probably. Would we have admitted people who would have gone on to commit crimes? Yes. Would it have been the right thing to do? Yes.
So, people supporting what Trump is doing—if you’re arguing that we should refuse to admit legitimate refugees on the grounds that some of them might be terrorists, spies, or criminals, congratulations—you just sent Jews back to their deaths. You can’t defend one and not the other.

A conversation about conspiracy theory web design

[context: I posted a link that had embedded a link to a conspiracy theory site]

Original post : Do NOT click on the link toward the top of the page. It will send you to the kind of site that has epilepsy-inducing web design. Someday (and I’m perfectly serious) I want someone to do a study as to why conspiracy sites all have the same kind of awful web design. The correlation is too strong for it to be a coincidence.


[Cody] I remember you mentioning that correlation when I was in your class. I wish I had the kind of time and insight to do it myself.

[Fred] Hmm. Interesting question. I’m sure all of those sites are made from templates (e.g. WordPress or some canned Drupal crap), so if you are used to a certain kind of “design” (using the term very loosely) it’s a simple thing to reproduce it.

More complexly, I think there is a class or segment of American society that is suspicious and even actively hostile towards beauty and design. So much of our landscape has been made so blighted and ugly by what we build. Examples are endless: Billboards in Death Valley, an outlet mall at the gateway to the Columbia Gorge, etc, ad nauseum. But so many people seem not to see it, much less care about it. It’s almost a badge of honor. (The visual equivalent of “smells like money to me”.) I imagine it must be related to the grand old tradition of American anti-intellectualism. An appreciation for beauty and design is effete, Continental, liberal, a weakness compared to the muscular disdain for anything that is not competitive capitalism.

That’s where I’d start my inquiry if I were still researching stuff like this.=

[me] That’s an interesting point. Also, they’re VERY busy, and their basic strategy of argumentation is accumulatio. So, they don’t argue by one thing leading to another, or being logically connected to another, but by the sheer accumulation of data (that are, usually, disconnected).

It’s funny–isn’t that what a mall is? Maybe it’s some version of consumerism? You just want a lot of shit, and it doesn’t really matter what any individual piece of shit means–it’s that you’ve got a lot of it. So that’s what you do with the site? It’s a lot of shit?

[Fred] I bet a big part of the Right’s hatred of Apple is related to this. How else would you explain so-called free-market Conservatives despising one of the most successful private companies in history?

[me] Huh. That would be REALLY interesting. So it would mean something like simplicity is threatening to reactionary politics?

[Cody] I would jump off of Fred’s statement and say it also represents “plainness”. The evidence speaks for itself, so why do I need to pretty it up? Also, the idea that they have better things to do, like doing REAL American work or researching these coverups than to worry about how pretty their website is.

I’d also tie it into the idea that they’re not spending money on their website’s design. Because they’re “simple folk”. That’s why a lot of them are using free sites like Bloggerand WordPress and tumblr.

[me] Wellllll… they aren’t plain sites, though. They’re very busy. But not complicated, and certainly not pretty. So it’s a weird aesthetic.

[Cody] Right, but it’s surprisingly easy to make a busy website. It’s a lot more work to try and make it all flow correctly. And, like Fred said, it’s effete.

I’d also think it’s an anti-intellectual statement. They’re not well-versed in internet design because they aren’t “those people”. To me, the interest here would be using a platform you’re not wholly familiar with to try and deliver your message. I imagine there might be a correlation with early film? Now I’m sort of just throwing darts.

[Fred] But yes, beauty and design are seen as forms of obfuscation, things that impede and obscure common sense and exchange. Beauty and design are indulgences that get in the way of the business of consumption.

[Cody] By plain, I didn’t mean to imply “simple”. My old Angelfire website back in the 90s was just pictures of Austin Powers and dancing hamsters. It was the easiest thing in the world to make, but would blind a person.

Right, it’s like fast food is American because we don’t have time to research our food. We’re too busy working and being American. Only the intellectuals and the artists have time to sit around and think.

[me] Ooooooooohhhhh….interesting. So a certain kind of simplicity is deliberate and thoughtful, as opposed to a kind of expressive get to the point that means you’re flinging data out there.

Yeah, I think you’re both right. It has something to do with being thoughtful and deliberate (bad) rather than authentic and … what? messy?

[Fred] I also think Trish is onto something with the idea of accumulation. I think there’s a common trope that associates expertise with possession. Owning all the tools for X makes you an expert (as an amateur woodworker, I can tell you plain, this is not the case), and something like that is at work in these websites that are like Hoarders but with “facts” instead of cats.


On Trump voters

There have been a lot of things posted explaining “Trump voters” that assume one cause. They’re stupid; they’re racist; they’re authoritarians; they’re opposing identity politics; they’re rejecting neoliberalism. That’s absurd. It’s classic ingroup/outgroup thinking, in which the outgroup (“Trump voters”) are all the same. I can’t imagine those same pundits and columnists writing articles in which they similarly homogenize “Clinton voters”—they’d recognize the error in regard to their own group.

Having wandered around pro-Trump sites before the election, it seems to me that Trump voters were, on the whole, just as diverse as Clinton voters. Given his approval ratings even at the time of the election, it’s clear that a fairly large number of people who voted for him didn’t support him. I don’t think we should be wondering about Trump voters as much as Trump supporters, and I’d suggest we not try to treat them as though they’re all the same. It looked to me as though it would be more useful to think in terms of four mobilizing passions that helped Trump: opposition to abortion, opposition to Clinton, authoritarianism, relying on charismatic leadership.

Those aren’t discrete categories—a person might have one or all or some combination of those attachments, and different people might have any of them to different degrees.

Shared among all Trump supporters (but not unique to them), it seemed to me, were two characteristics. First, they were wickedly (and deliberately) misinformed, and so narrowly overinformed that it amounted to misinformed. I don’t think the question of whether they were stupid or uninformed (which is how much criticism of them is oriented) is sensible—it’s rarely grounded in any kind of consistent definition of “stupid” or “ignorant.” I would say, on the contrary, that many of them made decisions that appeared rational within the context of the information they had. (And Trump supporters aren’t the only group making decisions that appear rational within a certain set of information.)

Second, consistent among most Trump supporters (and, btw, many supporters of candidates other than Trump) is the premise that you should vote for someone who is like you, and who will sincerely promote policies to support people like you. That’s ingroup/outgroup thinking.

Some people first and only think in terms of ingroup/outgroup. They walk through their worlds flinging every person into two thoroughly opposite categories—Us and Them. There are people whom we can trust, and two kinds of Them—those who are explicitly and eternally out to exterminate us, and those whom they have fooled, or are trying to fool.

Because we believe that we have good motives, and are basically good people, anyone who persuades us that s/he and we are the same has just gotten us to engage in all the ego-protection systems we use for ourselves. As long as we perceive them as in our ingroup, we will attribute good motives to them, even if they do something we normally condemn.

Thus, if a member of an ingroup and a member of an outgroup do exactly the same thing, most of us will explain them differently. An ingroup member who works hard has a good work ethic, and outgroup member is greedy. An ingroup member who promotes zir own family is loyal, an outgroup member is clannish. An ingroup member who uses zir position in government for personal profit is smart; an outgroup member is corrupt.

Ingroup/outgroup thinking isn’t limited to any political agenda, and the most fanatical members of any group, political or not, are highly prone to it (they may, in fact, approach every decision in ingroup/outgroup terms), but research by Jonathan Haidt strongly suggests that people who self-identify as conservative do value loyalty to group, on the whole, more than do people who self-identify as liberal. Thus, while everyone probably engages in ingroup/outgroup thinking sometimes, not everyone does to the same degree, and “both sides” aren’t “just as bad.”

Connected to reliance on ingroup/outgroup thinking is what might be called “social knowing”—that is, relying heavily on group membership for one’s beliefs. It’s been clearly demonstrated that people will engage in considerable cognitive work in order to reconcile their beliefs with what they believe they should believe. (Yes, it’s that circular.) If, for instance, I’m a Chesterian, and I mistrust little dogs—in fact, I think that mistrusting little dogs is one of the essential traits of Chesterians–and I see Chester being nice to a little dog, I have considerable cognitive dissonance about Chester. I might decide that he wasn’t really being nice, it wasn’t really Chester, he was pretending, or that little dog isn’t really little. The more prone I am to ingroup/outgroup thinking, the more I will protect my ingroup from criticism—even my own criticism—and that protection can take some cognitive heavy lifting.

In addition to becoming a foundation I protect, my loyalty to my ingroup may become the basis for any assessment I make of possibly new beliefs. People who rely heavily on ingroup/outgroup thinking assess the “credibility” of a source on the basis of group membership—disconfirming information coming from an outgroup is, a priori, unreliable. Further, any information that disconfirms important ingroup claims or that is critical of the ingroup can be dismissed on the grounds that it is from an outgroup source.

This hermetically sealed belief system is crucial for understanding why enclaves are so problematic as the basis for public deliberation. And, as I mentioned above, one thing that strikes me about Trump supporters (not just people who voted for him, but who support him) is that they are not ignorant—they are highly and deliberately misinformed, and so narrowly overinformed with context- and comparison-free information that it amounts to misinformation.

One final point about the importance of ingroup/outgroup thinking and public deliberation. For people prone to ingroup/outgroup thinking, every interaction is a competition among the groups, and every discussion is really about which group is better. Thus, if you say that Hubert’s plan regarding squirrels costs less than Chester’s, and is probably more effective, if I’m invested in ingroup/outgroup thinking, then my reaction is not, “Huh, I wonder if that’s true—I should look into that, because it would be great for our community to have an effective and inexpensive method of keeping squirrels from the red ball!” Instead, my reaction would be that you just scored a point for Hubert, and I need to score a point against you. I might do that by pointing out that Chester’s plan for keeping possums away is better than Hubert’s, or become more invested in proving you wrong than in finding the best solution for our community, or even work to make sure Hubert’s policy fails just because that would be a loss for the prestige of my group.

Being in an ideological/informational enclave is, unhappily, not unique to any group, nor is relying on social groups as bases and standards of knowledge. And the four passions are also shared with other groups—this is an argument about tendencies and frequencies, not about identities. Not all Trump Supporters, and Not Only Trump Supporters. One other point I’ll make before talking about the four passions.

To call them passions isn’t to say that Trump supporters are inherently irrational or impaired in their ability to participate in public discourse. I don’t think passions are inherently irrational, let alone bad. We participate in public discourse because we have passions. Particular passions will tend to lead us in various directions, and so it’s useful to think about which ones and what directions they tend to take us.

1) Opposition to abortion

It seemed to me that large number of people advocating for Trump did so on the grounds that he would appoint Supreme Court justices who would overrule Roe v. Wade, and thereby enable a national ban on abortions and abortificants.

Abortion is being used as a classic wedge issue, and it’s working, especially with groups one would have expected to vote against Trump (such as Latina/os). For many people, the notion that we should and could end abortion by banning it is absurd, especially if the ban is connected to reducing access to and accurate information about effective birth control—they’d argue that a more effective way to reduce abortion is to do what has worked in other countries and increase access to and accurate information about birth control. Abortion must remain a viable option for situations that are, one hopes, unusual—thus, Clinton’s stance that abortion should be legal, safe, and rare.

But what I found about these supporters is that they believe that abstinence only is an effective form of birth control—they haven’t seen the studies that show its actual consequences, and/or they argue that it must work because not having sex necessarily results in not getting pregnant. That is, they argue deductively from premises, rather than inductively about the feasibility (in fact, it seemed to me that Trump supporters rarely considered the feasibility of policies, partially because they really didn’t like arguing policies). Similarly, they don’t believe that abortions are ever medically or psychologically necessary, because that’s the information they’re getting.

And they believe a lot of things about abortion and Planned Parenthood especially. Trump supporters on the abortion issue repeatedly asserted as a fact that Planned Parenthood was making money by selling fetus body parts, actively promoted abortion (so that they could get more body parts to sell), and they seemed to have a perception of it as a for-profit business.

For many, their views on abortion are reinforced by their perception that their particular kind of opposition to abortion is in a binary relationship to being “for” abortion. In other words, if you don’t believe what they do about abortion, then you’re promoting abortion. They don’t understand the “abortion should be safe, legal, and rare” stance because they’ve often never heard it—they sincerely believe that people who want abortions to be legal as a choice want all women to get abortions all the time. (That’s why some people accuse women who support the right to an abortion and who have had babies of being “hypocrites.”)

They don’t know the statistics about abortion rates in other countries, and sincerely believe that telling people (women, really) that birth control is a viable option guarantees that young women will end up getting abortions, STIs, breast cancer, and lead tragic, self-hating lives.

I think they’re wrong, and I think there is good data showing them they’re wrong, but they’ve never seen it. They live in worlds where the breast cancer/abortion correlation—although completely disproven—is a fact, and it is a fact because it is repeated so often, and because the people who repeat it are ingroup members; the people who dispute it are (by definition) outgroup members.

What struck me about many of the people making these arguments is that they are perfectly sincere, and that their stances on abortion make sense given the informational world they inhabit. Since they also believe that good people are giving them this information, and they shouldn’t trust anyone who gives them other information, I think it’s hard to imagine what would change that world.


2) Opposition to Clinton

There’s a similar problem of inhabiting a world of misinformation in regard to Clinton. People who insisted that Trump was better than Clinton because she is so evil had a long list of horrifying things Clinton was supposed to have done, and it struck me that the most compelling of them tended to fall into two categories.

Some of it was simply misinformation, and had been debunked multiple times. Clinton hadn’t laughed about a girl getting raped, she didn’t have a warehouse full of ballots in Ohio, she wasn’t directly responsible for what happened in Benghazi, she didn’t approve a uranium deal, she never murdered anyone, and so on. One of my favorites (because so absurd) was probably the most common–that she’s a socialist, who wants to nationalize all industries. (This was one of two on which I made any headway with Trump supporters–I pointed out that she was a third-way neoliberal. It didn’t help in the long run, I think, because they saw the word “liberal” and thought that meant soft socialist–they didn’t know what neoliberal meant.) But these people had never heard the debunkings—they’d just heard the claims, over and over.

The other category was a set of claims that were technically true, but without context or comparison. So, they knew all the problems with the Clinton Foundation, but appeared completely unfamiliar with any of the criticisms of the Trump Foundation; they could list Clinton’s “lies,” but not Trump’s (I really think they’d never read or heard anything that pointed out his problem with accuracy); they called Clinton a Wall Street stooge because of her ties to Goldman Sachs, but were apparently unaware of Trump’s problematic financial dealings. To condemn Clinton for being too friendly to business is a legitimate criticism, but to condemn her for that and advocate voting for Trump instead means not understanding how her stances compare to his–it’s the same thing with their charitable foundations, dishonesty, corruption, and so on.

They were sincere, and, within that world, it made sense to be deeply opposed to Clinton because they didn’t have the information to make any comparison—that they might be wrong, that they might have been lied to, that they might not have been given all the information about Trump, was not part of that world.


3) Faith in charismatic leadership

Weber identified three sources of power for leaders: legal, traditional, and charismatic. His insights about charismatic leadership, and the later research on that, were tremendously important for explaining the volatile power of some leaders. Unhappily, beginning in the 1970s people in management and business coopted the term and significantly changed the concept, so that, for them, “charismatic leadership” is a good thing, and all leaders should have it.

In sociology, however, it means a leader to whom people give power because they believe him (or her) to be extraordinary, divinely chosen, heroic, almost supernatural in his/her ability to succeed regardless of the obstacles. The charismatic leader violates rationality—one follows him/her not because of the policies s/he proposes, but because one believes s/he has the kind of nearly magical perfect judgment that will inevitably succeed. Charismatic leadership is a relationship between the person who is supposed to have those qualities and the followers who attribute those characteristics to the leader.

People drawn into that relationship tend to believe that there are certain characteristics that signify a charismatic leader (boundless energy and excellent health are two that come up often, even if those aren’t qualities that necessarily correlate to good judgment). They also generally believe that we don’t need policy arguments—either the correct course of action is clear to everyone (and politicians aren’t following it just because they’re jerks, they benefit from the dithering, or they’re outgroup members), or, not matter how complicated it looks, their Charismatic Leader can see what to do. They want a leader who will cut the Gordian knot of policy.

In this world, there is no real value to area-specific content expertise—a person who has been successful as a celebrity, for instance, can succeed as a politician or diplomat if s/he has the kind of judgment attributed to a charismatic leader. There is also no such thing as legitimate difference of opinion, or complicated situations, or a reason to argue policy.

Many of Trump’s supporters described him in these sorts of terms, and, as with the other passions, this sense of him was reinforced by the list of accomplishments they believed he had—they hadn’t heard the debunking of many of those claims, they hadn’t noticed that even he was inconsistent in his claims about himself, they hadn’t heard criticism. They liked that he hadn’t stated his policies.


4) Authoritarianism

Erich Fromm argued that Nazism had two important characteristics. First, it offered people an escape from freedom. Genuine freedom, for Fromm, doesn’t mean there are no restraints on you, but that you take full responsibility for whatever choices you have made within your constraints. That’s a huge responsibility, and many people want to edge out of it. So, many people are happy to turn over the responsibility for their choices to someone else. They were just following orders (although they chose to join the organization that gave those orders, or voted for the people who gave those orders, or keep choosing not to leave the institution that requires they follow those orders). Second, it offered what later scholars would call “proxy by agency” which is that you can feel powerful even if you didn’t do the thing. Paradoxically, you feel powerful by giving up your agency.

Fromm described it as a kind of kiss-up/kick-down dynamic. You could be sadistic toward people below you on the hierarchy as long as you were masochistic toward those above you.

I think all of what Fromm said is useful, especially if put it in the context of the research mentioned above about social groups. Here’s the short version: we experience our “self” as constituted by membership in a group, and that group is defined partially (largely?) by what it is not. You are a dog person, and that is only a meaningful sense of identity if there is another possibility—being a squirrel person, or a bunny person, or an anti-dog person. But that description isn’t quite right, because there might be a continuum among people who are for us, through people who don’t care, to those who want to exterminate us. Authoritarianism rejects the continuum, and presumes that ingroups and outgroups are Real and mutually exclusive—you are with us or against us. If social groups are Real, then you are always a member of a group, and if you submit thoroughly to that group, you are guaranteed a kind of protection. And you get to kick the outgroup.

Authoritarianism relies on binaries (this is not a world with grey), and on naïve realism—the assumption that the correct course of action is always obvious to anyone reasonably intelligent. There are two ways of being against us—you might be explicitly and essentially out to kill us, or you might be a dupe of that group.

That authoritarians don’t do grey means they have trouble understanding nuanced arguments, or arguments about tendencies—it’s striking to me how often they read an “often” as an “always” or perceive opposition arguments as making universal claims—a claim that “many members of x group do y” will often be restated as “You’re saying all that all members of x group do y” and then refuted with a single counter-example. I don’t think this is deliberate straw man; I think it’s really what they are hearing in that moment.

George Lakoff uses the term “Strict Father Model” for what is extremely similar to other scholars’ discussions of authoritarianism. People who believe in the Strict Father Model believe in punishment as the solution to most (for some it’s all) social problems, and tend to see relationships in submission/domination dichotomies. This means that they are particularly prone to handle disagreement in the way described above—a disagreement is not an opportunity to correct one’s course of action, or to find a better course of action, or even to learn. For many people, a disagreement in which you find out you were wrong is a good thing—you’ve won because you are now able to do something better. For an authoritarian, a disagreement is a challenge you lose by admitting error, changing your mind, or being persuaded. You are right because you are saying what the ingroup knows to be right, and that’s all you need to know. This seems to me a tragic world in which to live–one in which you can never admit error, and therefore can never learn from your own mistakes.


The point I’m making about these four passions is that they are enhanced by living in a world of confirmation. And, as I said, it struck me that the most committed Trump supporters with whom I argued were very likely to live in such a world—they hadn’t invented, or misunderstood, the things they believed. They had been told these things, over and over, by sources they trusted (and which told them not to trust anyone who told them anything else). I’m not saying they were gullible—they were just singly informed. And they refused to look at information that even might be disconfirming, on the grounds that it was a from a biased source–which they concluded on the basis that it was disconfirming.

There’s one other point I want to make about these observations. I think they’re empirically falsifiable. I think it would be possible to test them by finding people who supported Trump, opposed him, and the range in between, ask them how much they supported/opposed him, and then tried to place them in a continuum of commitment on each of these passions. If my impressions are right, then people most committed to most of these passions would be most vehement in their support of Trump. Being less committed to the passions would correlate to being less supportive of Trump.

And, if I’m right, then we’re wrong to focus so much on Trump. We need to focus on the problems of enclaves of information.








Authenticity and Accuracy (selection)

At the beginning of the book, I mentioned demagoguery’s tendency toward strategic misnaming and cunning projection, both of which might be characterized as deliberately misleading—for instance, policies intended to prevent members of minority religions from being able to practice their religion (e.g., religions that want to solemnize same sex marriage) or intended to force dominant religious practices onto others (e.g., prayer in school) are instances of religious repression. They are intended to restrict freedom of religion. But they’re called protection of religious freedom—strategic misnaming. And trying to characterize resisting such repression as itself repressing religion (or a war on Christianity) is projection. As discussed earlier, demagoguery often relies on claims that are clearly hyperbolic, if not actively dishonest, yet demagogues are generally described as “authentic” and the outgroup is always condemned for dishonesty. Thus, given the centrality to demagoguery of claims that simply and obviously aren’t true, why do people perceive rhetors engaged in demagoguery as honest and authentic?

That question has puzzled me since I began working on proslavery rhetoric, which often relied on obviously false claims (such as that slaveholders were outraged at mixed race relationships, or that slaves thrived in swampy areas) coupled with representations of themselves as passionate about the truth and condemnations of abolitionists as liars. At the time, I thought that it was a phenomenon that George Orwell noted—you demonstrate ingroup loyalty more powerfully by insisting on the truth of things you do and don’t know to be untrue (“blackwhite”). But, the more that I read about demagogues, the more I came to believe that many people sincerely believe them to be honest. To give simply one example: Antony Beevor describes soldiers encircled by Soviet troops, clearly abandoned by Hitler, insisting that Hitler would save them, “‘I believe in Hitler. What he said he’ll do, he’ll stick to'” (277). More recently, Donald Trump, having led audiences in cheers about jailing Hillary Clinton, and insisting she has to be locked up, announced he wouldn’t try to prosecute her after all, and his fans continued to describe him as honest, straight-shooting, and trustworthy. No matter how often he changed positions, or said things that were clearly untrue, many perceived as authentic and honest. This point seems important to me, because it has implications for what we try to do about demagoguery, and how we talk about accuracy and public deliberation.

What people perceive as authentic is the lack of filter, an apparent absence of forethought—the apparent lack of calculation is, for many people, reassuring. They believe that they are seeing the real person, and believe that authenticity matters more than accuracy. If a rhetor says what s/he really thinks, regardless of consequences, then s/he is being truthful to her own views, and people believe that is true. That expression of inner truth is, for many people, a more valuable quality than someone being truthful about our shared world. I think it has to do with the sense that the audience can then believe that a person is truly a member of the ingroup, so the authenticity comes from believing the person is incapable of being dishonest, and really is one of us. Paradoxically, this privileging of a supposed true identity over an external world means that people who claim to be realists, and who claim to reject relativism, are ultimately endorsing a highly relativist notion of truth.

This true self is performed by saying outrageous things, and, in a culture in which demagoguery is rewarded (by winning elections, getting more viewers, being able to charge more for speeches) there is necessarily a demagogic oneupsmanship that happens. The previously outrageous becomes normal, and so a person has to make an even more demagogic claim, or advocate an even more extreme policy against the outgroup.

Rationality, demagoguery, and rhetoric

One of my criticisms of conventional definitions of demagoguery is that they enable us to identify when they are getting suckered by demagoguery, but not when we are. They aren’t helpful for helping us see our own demagoguery because they emphasize the “irrationality” and bad motives of the demagogues. And both strategies are deeply flawed, and generally circular. Here I’ll discuss a few problems with conventional notions of rationality/irrationality, and later I’ll talk about the problems of motivism.

Definitions of “irrationality” imply a strategy for assessing the rationality of an argument, and many common definitions of “rational” and “irrational” imply methods that are muddled, even actively harmful. Most of our assumptions about what makes an argument “rational” or “irrational” imply strategies that contradict one another. For instance, “rationality” is sometimes used interchangeably with reasonable and logical, sometimes used as a larger term that incorporates logical (an stance is rational if the arguments made for it are logical, or a person is rational if s/he uses logical processes to make decisions). In common usage, many people assume that an argument is rational if you can support it with reasons, whether or not the reasons are logically connected to the claims; thus, to determine if an argument is rational, you look to see if there are reasons. Many people assume that “rational” and “true” are the same, and/or that “rational” arguments are immediately seen as compellingly true, so to judge if an argument is rational, you just have to ask yourself if it seems compellingly true. Of course, that conflation of rational and true means that “rational” is another way of saying “I agree.” Since many people equate “irrational” with “emotional” it can seem that the way to determine whether an argument is rational is to try to infer whether the person making the argument is emotional, and that’s usually inferred by the number of emotional markers—how many linguistic “boosters” the rhetor uses (words such as “never” or “absolutely”), or verbs of affect (“love,” “hate,” “feel”). Sometimes it’s determined through sheer projection, or through deduction from stereotypes (that sort of person is always emotional, and therefore their arguments are always emotional).

Unhappily, in many argumentation textbooks, it’s not uncommon for a “logical” argument to be characterized as one that appeals to “facts, statistics, and reason”—surface features of a text. Sometimes, though, we use the term “logical” to mean, not an attempt at logic, or a presentation of self as engaged in a logical argument, but a successful attempt—an argument is logical if the claims follow from premises, the statistics are valid, and the facts are relevant. That usage—how it’s used in argumentation theory—is in direct conflict with the vaguer uses that rely on surface features (“facts, statistics, and reason” or the linguistic features we associate with emotionality). Much of the demagoguery discussed in this book makes appeals to statistics, facts, and data, and much of it is presented without linguistics markers of emotionality, but generally in service of claims that don’t follow, or that appeal to inconsistent premises, or that contradict one another. Thus, for the concept of rationality to be useful for identifying demagoguery, it has to be something other than any of the contradictory ones above—surface features; inferred, projected, or deduced emotionality of the rhetor; presence of reasons; audience agreement with claims.

Following scholars of argumentation, I want to argue for using “rationality” in a relatively straightforward way. Frans van Eemeren and Rob Grootendorst identify ten rules for what they call a rational-critical argument. While useful, for purposes of assessing informal and lay arguments, they can be reduced to four:

1) Whatever are the rules for the argument, they apply equally across interlocutors; so, if a kind of argument is deemed “rational” for the ingroup, then it’s just as “rational” for the outgroup (e.g., if a single personal experience counts as proof for a claim, then a single appeal to personal experience suffices to disprove that claim);

2) The argument appeals to premises and/or definitions consistently, or, to put it in the negative, the claims of an argument don’t contradict each other or appeal to contradictory premises;

3) The responsibilities of argumentation appeal equally across interlocutors, so that all parties are responsible for representing one another’s arguments fairly, and striving to provide internally consistent evidence to support their claims;

4) The issue is up for argument—that is, the people involved are making claims that can be proven wrong, and that they can imagine changing.

Not every discussion has to fit those rules—there are some topics not open to disproof, and therefore can’t be discussed this way. And those sorts of discussions can be beneficial, productive, enlightening. But they’re not rational; they’re doing other kinds of work.

In the teaching of writing, it’s not uncommon for “rationality” and “logical” to be compressed into Aristotle’s category of “logos” (with “irrational” and “emotional” getting shoved into his category of “pathos”)—and then very recent notions about logic and emotion are projected onto Aristotle. As is clear even in popular culture, recent ideas assume a binary between logical and emotional, so saying something is an emotional argument is, for us, saying it is not logical. That isn’t what Aristotle meant—he didn’t even mean that appeals to emotion and appeals to reason can coexist; he didn’t see them as opposed. Nor did he mean “facts” as we understand them, and he had no interest in statistics. For Aristotle, ethos, pathos, and logos are always operating together—logos is the content, the argument (the enthymemes); pathos incorporates the ways we try to get people to be convinced; ethos is the person speaking. So, were we to use an Aristotelian approach to an argument, we would look at a set of statistics about child poverty, and the logos would be that poverty has gotten worse (or is worse in certain areas, or for some people—whatever the claims are), the pathos would be how it’s presented (what’s in bold, how it’s laid out, and also that it’s about children), and the ethos is whatever is situated (what we know about the rhetor prior to the discourse) but also a consequence of the person using statistics (she’s well-informed, she’s done research on this) and that it’s about children (she is compassionate). For Aristotle, unlike post-logical positivists, the pathos and logos and ethos can’t operate alone.

I think it’s better just to avoid Aristotle’s terms, since they slide into a binary so quickly. More important, they enable people to conflate “a logical argument” (that is, the evaluative claim, that the argument is logical) with “an appeal to logic” (the descriptive claim, that the argument is purporting to be logical).

What this means for teaching

People generally reason syllogistically (that’s Ariel Kruglanski’s finding), and so it’s useful for people to learn to identify major premises. I think either Toulmin’s model or Aristotle’s enthymeme works for that strategy, but it is important that people are able to identify unexpressed premises.


All men are mortal. [universally valid Major Premise]

Socrates is a man. [application of a universally valid premise to specific case: minor premise]

Therefore, Socrates is mortal. [conclusion]


Socrates is mortal [conclusion]

because he is a man. [minor premise]

The Major Premise is implied (all men are mortal).

Or, syllogism:

A = B [Major Premise]

A = C [minor premise]

Therefore, B = C. [conclusion]


B = C because A = B. This version of the argument implies that A = C.

Chester hates squirrels because Chester is a dog.  

Major Premise (for the argument to be true): All dogs hate squirrels.

Major Premise (for the argument to be probable): Most dogs hate squirrels.


Batman is a good movie because it has a lot of action.

Major Premise: Action movies are good.


Preserving wilderness in urban areas benefits communities

            because it gives people access to non-urban wildlife.

Major Premise: Access to non-urban wildlife benefits communities.

Many fallacies come from some glitch in the enthymeme—for instance, non sequitur happens when the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises.

  • Chester hates squirrels because bunnies are fluffy. (Notice that there are four terms—Chester, hating squirrels, bunnies, and fluffy things.)
  • Squirrels are evil because they aren’t bunnies.


Before going on to describe other fallacies, I should emphasize that identifying a fallacy isn’t the end of a conversation, or it doesn’t have to be. It isn’t like a ref making a call—it’s something that can be argued—this is especially true with the fallacies of relevance. If I make an emotional argument, and you say that’s argumentum ad misercordiam, then a good discussion will probably have us arguing about whether my emotional appeal was relevant.

Appealing to inconsistent premises comes about when you have at least two enthymemes, and their major premises contradict.

For instance, someone might argue: “Dogs are good because they spend all their time trying to gather food” and “Squirrels are evil because they spend all their time trying to gather food.” You’ll rarely see it that explicit—usually the slippage is unnoticed because you use dyslogistic terms for the outgroup and eulogistic terms for the ingroup: “”Dogs are good because they work hard trying to gather food to feed their puppies” and “Squirrels are evil because they spend all their time greedily trying to get to food.”

Another one that comes about because of glitches in the enthyme is circular reasoning (aka “begging the question). This is a very common fallacy, but surprisingly difficult for people to recognize. It looks like an argument, but it is really just an assertion of the conclusion over and over in different language. The “evidence” for the conclusion is actually the conclusion in synonyms–“The market is rational because it lets the market determine the value of goods rationally.” “This product is superior because it is the best on the market.”

Genus-species errors (aka over-generalizing, ignoring exceptions, stereotyping) happens when hidden in the argument (often in the major premise is a slip from “one” (or “some”) to “all.” It results from assuming that what is true of a specific thing is true of every member of that genus, or what is true of the genus is true of every individual member of that genus. “Chester would never do that because he and I are both dogs, and I would never do that.” “Chester hates cats because my dog hates cats.”

Fallacies of relevance

Really, all of the following could be grouped under red herring, which consists of dragging something so stinky across the trail of an argument that people take the wrong track. Also called “shifting the stasis,” it’s trying to distract from what is really at stake between two people to something else—usually inflammatory, but sometimes simply easier ground for the person engaged in red herring. Sometimes it arises because one of the interlocutors sees everything in one set of terms—if you disagree with them, and they take the disagreement personally, they might drag in the red herring of whether they are a good person, simply because that’s what they think all arguments are about.

Ad personum (sometimes distinguished from ad hominem) is an irrelevant attack on the identity of an interlocutor. Not all “attacks” on a person or their character are ad hominem. Accusing someone of being dishonest, or making a bad argument, or engaging in fallacies, is not ad hominem because it’s attacking their argument. Even attacking the person (“you are a liar”) is not fallacious if it’s relevant. It generally involves some kind of name-calling (usually of such an inflammatory nature that the person must respond, such as calling a person an abolitionist in the 1830s, a communist in the 1950s and 60s, or a liberal now). It’s really a kind of red herring, as it’s generally irrelevant to the question at hand, and is an attempt to distract the attention of the audience.

Ad verecundiam is the term for a fallacious appeal to authority. In general, it’s a fallacy because their authority isn’t relevant—there’s nothing inherently fallacious about appeal to authority, but having a good conversation might mean that the relevance of the authority/expertise now has to become the stasis. Bandwagon appeal is a kind of fallacious appeal to authority—it isn’t fallacious to appeal to popularity if it is a question in which popular appeal is a relevant kind of authority.

Ad misericordiam is the term for an irrelevant appeal to emotion, such as saying you should vote for me because I have the most adorable dogs (even though I really do). Emotions are always part of reasoning, so merely appealing to emotions is not

Scare tactics (aka apocalyptic language) is a fallacy if the scary outcome is irrelevant, unlikely, or inevitable regardless of the actions. For instance, if I say you should vote for me and then give you a terrifying description of how our sun will someday go supernova, that’s scare tactics (unless I’m claiming I’m going to prevent that outcome somehow).

Straw man is dumbing down the opposition argument; because the rhetor is now responding to arguments their opponent never made, most of what they have to say is irrelevant. People engage in this one unintentionally by not listening, projection, and a fairly interesting process. We have a tendency to homogenize the outgroup and assume that they are all the same. So, if you say “Little dogs aren’t so bad,” and I once heard a squirrel lover praise little dogs, I might decide you’re a squirrel lover. Or, more seriously, if I believe that anyone who disagrees with me about gun ownership and sales wants to ban all guns, then I might respond to your argument about requiring gun safes with something about the government kicking through our doors and taking all of our guns (an example of slippery slope).

Tu quoque is usually (but not always) a kind of red herring, sometimes it’s the fallacy of false equivalency (what George Orwell called the notion that half a loaf is no better than none). One argues that “you did it too!” While it’s occasionally relevant, as it can point to a hypocrisy or inconsistency in one’s opposition, and might be the beginning of a conversation about inconsistent appeals to premises, it’s fallacious when it’s irrelevant. For instance, if you ask me not to leave dirty socks on the coffee table, and I say, “But you like squirrels!” I’ve tried to shift the stasis. It can also involve my responding with something that isn’t equivalent, as when I try to defend myself against a charge of embezzling a million dollars by pointing out that my opponent didn’t try to give back extra change from a vending machine.


False dilemma (aka poisoning the wells, false binary, either/or) occurs when a rhetor sets out a limited number of options, generally forcing one’s hand by forcing one to choose the option s/he wants. Were all the options laid out, then the situation would be more complicated, and his/her proposal might not look so good. It’s often an instance of scare tactics because the other option is typically a disaster (we either fight in Vietnam, or we’ll be fighting the communists on the beaches of California). It is “straw man” when it’s achieving by dumbing down the opponent’s proposal.

Misuse of statistics is self-explanatory. Statistical analysis is far more complicated than one might guess, given common uses of statistics, and there are certain traps into which people often fall. One common one is the deceptively large number. The number of people killed every year by sharks looks huge, until you consider the number of people who swim in shark-infested waters every year, or compare it to the number of people killed yearly by bee stings. Another common one is to shift the basis of comparison, such as comparing the number of people killed by sharks for the last ten years with the number killed by car crashes in the last five minutes. (With some fallacies, it’s possible to think that there was a mistake involved rather than deliberate misdirection; with this one, that’s a pretty hard claim to make.) People often get brain-freeze when they try to deal with percentages, and make all sorts of mistakes—if the GNP goes from one million to five hundred thousand one year, that’s a fifty per cent drop; if it goes back up to one million the next year, that is not, however, a fifty per cent increase.

The post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy (aka confusing causation and correlation) is especially common in the use of social science research in policy arguments. If two things are correlated (that is, exist together) that does not necessarily mean that one can be certain which one caused the other, or whether they were both caused by something else. It generally arises in situations when people have failed to have a “control” group in a study. So, for instance, people used to spend huge amounts of money on orthopedic shoes for kids because the shoes correlated with various foot problems’ improving. When a study was finally done that involved a control group, it turned out that it was simply time that was causing the improvement; the shoes were useless.


Some lists of fallacies have hundreds of lists, and subtle distinctions can matter in particular circumstances (for instance, the prosecutor’s fallacy is really useful in classes about statistics), but the above are the ones that seem to be the most useful.