In Which Everybody Is Wrong
This post is about framework arguments, discourse, and ad hominem tu quoque.
There’s been a few posts over the history of the League/Ordinary Times where we’ve had discussions that have turned into discussions about how we discuss.
A conversation on Facebook was the seed for this post. You can skip this paragraph if you’re not a regular around here… but to provide context for the regulars, it was a conversation between former OT/Leaguer James Hanley and Sam Wilkinson. Neither Sam nor James was particularly nice to each other on that thread and they wound up arguing about each other rather than even arguing about the argument they thought they were having (which wasn’t the argument they thought they were having, I’ll get to that in a second). Anyway, this isn’t about either of them, really, but previous discussion between Sam and James/Jason are relevant to this post for illustration purposes.
So what’s this problem?
It’s a problem that we have as Americans in our social discourse, and one we don’t do a good job of discussing generally.
So I’m going to try and fix it, right now. (Which probably means everybody is going to disagree with this post, so feel free to let me have it in the comments.)
I’ll use this post in particular, as a case study, but there have been others (and I stress this isn’t because I think either anybody in particular is a poopyhead).
Essentially, we have a public policy conversation, and the rightness or the wrongness of a policy proposal boils down to us discussing something other than the policy proposal in question… instead we’re arguing about the folks who are making the policy proposals in the first place.
In one of (yet another ex-League/OTer) Jason’s comments on Sam’s post, Jason said:
Whenever anyone makes an argument, pretend simply that you’ve found the argument carved on stone tablets in the desert. You have no idea who made it, or why, or when, or how. It’s just a set of propositions. Discuss those, not the messenger.
Why? Because messengers have nothing to do with the truth or falsehood of the argument itself. They don’t change the relationship, if any, between the words on the tablet and the facts of reality. Those statements are either true or false.
From a classic logician standpoint, this is correct. It’s called the Ad Hominem Tu Quoque Fallacy (link also provided by Jason in that comment). Anybody who has studied formal logic knows about it.
Now, Sam’s position is that this is ridiculous when discussing public policy, that motivations matter. His argument for his position isn’t polished, because Sam argues with his gut, not like a classical logician, so if you were scoring points in a debate you would probably hand the victory to Jason.
Here’s the thing: Sam’s not wrong.
Or, precisely, he’s exactly as wrong as James and Jason are, because they’re talking about different things.
I want to stress this again: Jason and James are correct from a classic logician standpoint.
If an argument is axiomatically correct, the argument is axiomatically correct regardless of who is making it.
If Hitler says “2 + 2 = 4”, then Hitler is either correct or incorrect regardless of whether or not we like Hitler.
In fact, to argue that “2 + 2 = something other than 4” because we really don’t like Hitler makes us idiots.
But here’s the thing: policy arguments are virtually never arguments in an axiomatic system, and if we delude ourselves into thinking that they are, we have already lost the ability to communicate.
If you accept the axioms of basic algebraic mathematics to be true, then yes, “2 + 2 = 4”. Arguing with Hitler that he’s incorrect would indeed make you stupid.
But I can very easily show you that using a slightly different set of the basic axioms of algebraic mathematics, “2 + 2 = 1” (if I define addition using modular arithmetic). Which I can do. Because in mathematics, the axioms are what we say that they are. In that case, arguing with Hitler that he’s incorrect may actually be the right thing to do.
Because the question isn’t “does 2 + 2 = 4” any more.
The relevant question is now, “What does ‘+’ mean?”
This is what I mean when I talk about framework arguments. And it’s important because virtually every conversation is modern American political discourse isn’t about what is axiomatically true or false (and thus trying to dissect them that way is intellectually interesting but not terribly productive, I’ll freely admit this is a very bad addiction of mine, so I get the impulse).
The conversation is instead about which framework we’re going to accept to discuss the topic.
And one of the reasons why political partisans love this approach to discourse so much is because if I can get you to accept my framework, I win without having to do much in the way of real work (this is why all-liberal or all-conservative blogs usually turn into echo chambers, because everybody is running around patting each other on the back about how obviously correct every single argument is).
Outside the blogosphere, generally, we (the Americans) are sitting there shouting about fiscal responsibility or personal responsibility or justice or rights or whatever, but basically all we’re trying to do is convince folks out there that our way of thinking about problems is the right one… or, to continue the math analogy, we are the ones who get to decide what “+” means … which means, usually, “we win”, because OBVIOUSLY THE ANSwER IS 4.
… And of course the inevitable consequence of that is it gets very easy to stop talking about our way of thinking and start talking about why their way of thinking about problems is horrible, because… well… then we don’t even have to make a positive affirmative case for our own framework.
We just point out how shitty the other one is. Who wants to think like those bozos?
Furthermore, there is a wrinkle!
Most folks do not actually have the strong set of principles that they claim to have. They adopt a framework, they identify it as theirs, they often claim that they really feel that way, but when push comes to shove, they are remarkably fluid about suddenly deciding that no, this new thing that you say they have been arguing against for years has actually been part and parcel of what they’ve thought of this whole time. Chris can talk about the brain science behind this, or I can get around to following up on this thread with a boatload of links when I have the time…
But the basic reason is that people aren’t rational animals, they are rationalizing ones.
Or, to be pithy: because folks be tribal, yo.
And this is why Sam is right (or, again, just as wrong as James and Jason are), because Sam’s not arguing about whether or not it is axiomatically correct that gay marriage is a good thing or a bad thing (although it is evident he thinks it is a good thing).
What Sam is arguing (in posts like the linked one) is that the folks who claim to hold a framework don’t actually believe that their framework is true, so any truth claim that depends upon their framework being correct can be discarded as irrelevant. It may be true, it may not be true, to be sure! But if it is true, it is not true for the reasons they are claiming it is true, so their *argument* can be discarded.
And this is pretty accurate, because in order for their claim to be true, their framework has to be true *first*. Or, Sam’s gone all meta on Jason/James and they’re still arguing at a different layer of abstraction.
We’ve had other conversations that have alluded to this phenomenon recently, mostly driven by Tod, because Tod is actively trying to understand tribalism from a non-cog-sci standpoint. For example, Tod’s post here.
So, what’s my takeaway on all this?
Well, if you have no principles at all, you’re useless to me and I really don’t have the time to try and argue with you. Say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.
If you have some principles but you haven’t really spent a lot of time thinking about how they conflict with each other and what that means in a practical sense and how you are going to deal with the conflicts between your principals when it comes to trying to enact public policy then… well… you’re probably almost everybody. I think it would probably be better for our public discourse if you actually spent some time trying to figure out how you deal with your own conflicts before you start joining in the shouting match about how right (or wrong) your side or the other side actually is. Figure out if you **really** believe “+” always means what you claim say it means (I suspect you’ll wind up like me, and you’ll spend all of your time distrusting your own principles, but that might be a good thing in the long run for our political discourse.)
If you have some principles and you think they provide you some perspective that is outside the mainstream… but you constantly find a reason to choose a fairly mainstream result, then probably you’re faking yourself out. I see this a lot in the folks who claim to be “more liberal” or “more conservative” or “more libertarian” than the party they claim not to really support, but when push comes to shove they pretty much always pull the same lever (because folks be tribal, yo). I’m seeing them all right now on Facebook. Folks – on both sides – are talking about how Hilary is progressive… because they’d rather bullshit themselves about what Hilary *is* than accept the fact that their decision to support someone doesn’t automatically make that person what they want deep down for them to be… or their decision to hate them is based entirely upon a fiction of them in their head rather than the person that they are (see also: Obama, Romney).
And finally, if you’re going to tell me what your principles are, that’s fine. But if you’re not going to inform me ahead of time how you deal with your principles when they conflict with other principles, I’m going to agree with Tod, here.
You almost certainly don’t actually believe what you claim to believe, you’re almost certainly just rationalizing (the brain science backs me up, here).
So the argument you made about some public policy decision that depended upon me accepting your framework in order for it to be true? That argument was bunk.
You want to convince me you’re right anyway? Don’t ask me to adopt your framework.
Work backwards to convince me that your proposal might be true in mine.
(image credit; Creative Commons w/attribution)