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.

Syllogism:

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]

Enthymeme:

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]

Enthymeme:

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.

 

 

What do we do now?

Writing about the proslavery argument in the antebellum era was actually painful. The Slave Power, as many people called it, completely dominated American policy deliberation for far too long. The antebellum era was wickedly factional, and not just in binaries. People could read nothing but information from a Van Buren or Calhoun (both Democratic), or Whig, or Whig Anti-Catholic….

Thus, people could live in a constructed world in which abolitionists were deliberately fanning the flames of slave insurrection, slaves were happy, “free” states were filled with runaway slaves, abolitionists were a powerful conspiracy about to use the Federal government to invade the South and engaged in immediate and forced emancipation, emancipation necessarily meant race war. That none of these things happened (think “Obama will take your guns”) didn’t have any impact on the certainty people felt about this world.

So, that’s one thing to keep in mind: for some people, being proven completely, totally, and thoroughly wrong doesn’t cause them to reconsider their beliefs.

In Fanatical Schemes I argued:

proslavery rhetors posited a consistently inconsistent philosophy of government, human nature, history, human rights, truth, and public discourse: the purpose of government is to compel obedience to the existing hierarchy; the secular and the sacred are conflated, not only in the sense that God endorses one political party and condemns the other, but that one holds political beliefs with the same degree and kind of conviction as tenets of religious faith; people are motivated to obey laws only through fear or thoughtless obedience; there was once more rigid order and obedience, but a period of flaccid indulgence has led to a degree of immorality and disorder that leaves us on the brink of chaos; the political realm is made up of good people, who are trying to maintain the order (from which they happen to benefit), and the malevolent, who are secretly plotting to bring about chaos (from which they hope to benefit); although the hierarchy benefits the privileged, and they are, openly, more privileged, they are also embattled, besieged, and martyred, albeit in obscure ways, by the system; at the same time, however, they are the system, so that anything that injures them (economically, socially, or emotionally) is an attack on the entire culture; there are no universal human rights, but socially constructed privileges that are distributed unevenly along the social hierarchy; truth is what those highest in the hierarchy say it is; disagreement not only fosters disorder, insofar as it complicates the thoughtlessness presumed necessary for obedience, but disloyalty, if it contradicts what the privileged say, as criticism or dishonors the privileged and hurts their feelings; the function of public discourse is to announce truth, rouse the public to a sense of its danger, and exhort them to take action against the malevolent plotters; freedom of speech is the freedom to agree with the dominant way of thinking; because dissent is disloyalty and fosters disorder, it is appropriate for individuals or the government to respond to it with violence; discussion alternates among epideictic, threats, and bargaining. Finally, the ends justify the means.

Of course, I wasn’t really talking about the antebellum era exclusively. I was talking about the argument for invading Iraq.

In any case, what I came to believe was that the anti-slavery rhetoric wasn’t just an anti-slavery argument—it was a different way of thinking about epistemology, citizenship, identity, biblical hermeneutics, and political discourse. And it wasn’t that proslavery and anti-slavery were contrasted by the amount of feeling they had, their degree of certainty, or their conviction. Anti-slavery activists weren’t exactly skeptical, at least not about the immorality of slavery or the urgency of their cause, but they were skeptical about “literal” readings of Scripture, and they did continuously assume a connection among compassion for others, the facts of slavery, and the privileging of the spirit of Scripture over conservative interpretations (albeit they had literal readings on their side in regard to slavery and Scripture). They inhabited a more nuanced world.

There are three very important facts about proslavery arguments: 1) they were internally inconsistent (slaves are happy, slaves are about to revolt, slaves thrive in swamp areas, slaves die in swamp areas); 2) they never appealed to premises that operated across ingroup/outgroups; 3) there was no long game in regard to slavery—it was not an economic system that could be maintained (since it depended on exporting slaves somewhere—slavery was not a labor system, but a market economy, and the product was the body of slaves)—so policy arguments had to be evaded in favor arguments about the identity of people arguing “for” or “against” slavery. (In fact, there weren’t two sides.)

But, again, the argument about slavery wasn’t just about slavery—it was about argument. Abolitionists imagined and assumed a world in which compassion, reason, fairness, and long-term consequences are part of how we reason. To give one example: Garrison published articles that attacked him. Proslavery rhetors didn’t. Proslavery rhetoric wasn’t about reason and compassion—it was about ingroup loyalty.

Garrison published arguments that attacked him because he believed his claims could withstand attack; proslavery rhetors argued for hanging anyone who disagreed. I think this means that, at some level, they knew their arguments couldn’t be defended rhetorically, and had to be enforced through violence. But, when talking about what proslavery rhetors “knew” it gets very complicated because they said things that blazingly contradicted other things they said, and yet I believe they probably believed all of them. They didn’t value consistency across arguments. They also didn’t value consistency across groups–it was clear to them that they should hold themselves to lower standards than they held others, because they were always and inherently better than those people.

So, this was an argument about arguments on three grounds—should your premises apply across arguments, and should we argue policy, and should the ingroup and outgroups be treated the same.

And what struck me is that proslavery rhetors did manage to control discourse such that they created a world in which certain blazingly false claims were accepted as true, simply because they were repeated. But, also, they assumed and reinforced the notion that participation in public discourse wasn’t about finding the best solution to a community’s problems—it was about looking the most loyal to the ingroup.

And, paradoxically, looking loyal to the ingroup is best displayed by an irrational commitment to an impractical policy. So, and this is really important, public discourse as performance of ingroup loyalty and public discourse as policy deliberation (including what is best for the ingroup) are completely at odds.

That’s the situation we’ve been in for some time—for many people, and entire chunks of the media (including internet)—those proslavery assumptions about public discourse are the basis of their decisions. That is, all arguments can be reduced to ones of identity, not policy, logic, or fairness.

Trump never articulated a coherent policy agenda. He has an identity. He made assertions about policy that even his followers didn’t believe were literally true (Mexico would pay for the wall) and he regularly said things that were either obviously false or that contradicted something he had said or would say (his net worth, his claims he hadn’t said things he had). But he seems authentic to many people in that he seems unfiltered, and he seems to perform ingroup identity consistently.

For many people, our problem is that we have bad people in office. They are bad because they are cunning and intellectual. For many people, the claim that something is complicated is simply an attempt to obfuscate an obvious situation. Good people aren’t cunning, and they just act on gut instinct. Someone who says it’s complicated is, duh, bad.

Someone who continually says the wrong thing (especially if it’s the kind of “wrong” thing their audience would like to say) and who claims desires they have and can’t reach (“We’ll make Mexico build the wall”) is authentic. Since our problems come from cunning politicians, an authentic one will solve our problems.

I’ve spent a long time crawling around dark parts of the interwebz, and it’s true that Trump supporters have an awful lot of fake news sites on their pages (they aren’t alone in getting suckered—Berniebros shared a lot of those same links). Figuring out those are fake news sites isn’t rocket science; you just have to read the article and scroll to the bottom of the page. But they didn’t. For many people, participating in public discourse isn’t about investigating your position; it’s about supporting it. If you find a link that has a headline that supports your point, you share it. You don’t read it, let alone look into it enough to find out it’s false.

So, what do we do? Trump wasn’t elected because he had good policies; he was elected because people liked what they thought was his identity, and they didn’t like what they thought was Clinton’s. This situation isn’t a simple question of trying and failing to get our policy agenda passed. What we have here is a failure to agree about what public deliberation should be.

And that is what makes this so hard. Abolitionists didn’t just argue for a new policy regarding slavery; they argued for a new conception of American-ness. They won the argument about slavery, but they lost the argument about American-ness. And they responded to that loss in various ways. Some of them threw themselves into one fight heart and soul and then retired to something less exhausting (teaching, as it turns out, which shows how hard that fight was). Some of them just stayed in the game (Douglass, for instance). Some of them sort of turned it over to younger crowds. But that was after a semi-triumph (some of the Amistad case folks stepped back after they won that case, and others moved on to other things after slavery was abolished).

A few instances keep coming to mind. During the era that the Slave Power would have looked unbeatable—the 30s and 40s—people just kept sending petitions to end slavery in DC. Many of those people were women, who didn’t even have the vote. And they just didn’t stop. And they made proslavery politicians crazy, who then made the missteps that would undermine their own power (such as the gag rule)—thus, oddly enough, one of the worst losses for reasonable people turned out to be worse for proslavery folks than anyone else.

Another instance that comes to mind is Kristallnacht, when the Nazis overplayed their hand and called for open violence against Jews. Germans objected, and Nazis decided not to do that again. What they did was keep it less open, so I think we need to object when rights are violated, and just keep objecting.

I’ve mentioned before that I think our problem is the problem identified by Stealth Democracy—for many people, policy arguments are silly. Hibbing and Theiss-Morse argue that most people believe that “any specific plan for achieving a desire goal is about as good as any other plan” (224). So, most people think that politicians could solve all of our problems if they had the will, but they don’t because politicians (mysteriously) benefit from keeping the problems—loosely, they’re owned by “special interests.” People who believe this don’t believe that their interests are special interests—if they’re gun owners, they don’t see the NRA as “special interests” (but American interests); if they’re dairy farmers then special subsidies for dairy farmers isn’t special interests (and the dairy lobby isn’t really a lobby). Anti-gun lobbyists, or pig farmers, now those folks are special interests.

This is what Hibbing and Theiss-Morse say we should do: “Teaching people to appreciate democratic processes designed to deal with diverse interests is an important step toward improving their view of government” (226). That means we need to teach people that people genuinely disagree, that we are all wrong, and that what matters is now what we argue, but how we argue.

I think what we should do is :

  1. Call out authoritarians on their rejection of fairness. Point out, relentlessly, that they don’t have a consistent argument about anything—their politics are “if my group does it, it’s okay.” Just keep hammering on that.
  2. Insist that folks with whom we argue cite sources. Don’t let them off on this, and then go back to #1,
  3. Stop teaching bullshit about bias. Comp is still prone to a binary of biased or objective, so we end up teaching a really shitty version of relativism.
  4. Similarly, we need to teach a sensible version of logic and fallacies—everything I can find in rhet/comp is pre-1970s in terms of notions of about logic. So, we’re endorsing the rational/irrational split when argumentation hasn’t done that since about 1970. It’s embarrassing.
  5. I think we should probably just keep signing petitions and sending email and complaining. I used to think that was a waste of time, because Ted Cruz doesn’t care what I think. And he doesn’t. He isn’t going to change his position on anything because of anything I say. But, if the GOP understands that there are a lot of people who are willing to take the time to sign a petition or send an email or make a call who object to this law or that appointment, they might understand the cost.
  6. I think we should worry less about niceness, and also call out incipient racism, homophobia, sexism, ableism, and so on. We need to shut people the fuck up if they condemn something as political correctness. We don’t have to argue, but just indicate we’re not okay with it.
  7. And I guess we just have to keep hoping, and realize that we are where we are because people put one foot in front of the other in much worse situations.