Comments and observations on social and political trends and events.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Kling’s Three Axes: How Do Conservatives Explain Communists?

A reader on Arnold Kling’s blog asks this interesting question about his three axes model of political language as it applies to communism versus conservatism.

“how does conservative opposition to Communism (in the second half of the 20th century) fit on the civilization-barbarianism axis? I’m not sure that the Soviet Union or communist China are really thought of as “barbarians”. It seems weird that the main competitor in a space race can be a “barbarian”.”

I’ve been thinking whether there are key concepts that lie at the root of the axes Arnold has identified. I’ve been considering whether the desire for order explains the civilization/barbarism axis, autonomy for the libertarian freedom/coercion axis and equality for the liberal oppressor/oppressed axis. When the question came up about how Communism falls into this I thought at first that this might refute my attempt to identify the underlying premises. I say this because a totalitarian regime seeks order too although it is not based on the religion or tradition foundation that conservatives favor. However, I’d say the ultimate purpose of the order communism imposes is to achieve equality. “From each according to his ability to each according to his needs” is the statement that captures the intent behind communism. Anyway, food for thought.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

How to Win Friends and Influence Refugee Policy by Megan McArdle [and influence others]

I like the approach Megan McArdle takes in dealing with the thunderclouds of heated debate that have mushroomed over the Syrian refugee crisis. She lays out the various arguments for and against having the U.S. take in some of these refugees. She says the following about the posts bloggers on both sides have written.

The posts are not intended to convince anyone. They are to signal tribal loyalties to people who already agree with you, while you marinate in your own sense of moral superiority.

Then further on says:

If these factions want to convince other people, they’re going about it all wrong.

It took me years of writing on the Internet to learn what is nearly an iron law of commentary: The better your message makes you feel about yourself, the less likely it is that you are convincing anyone else. The messages that make you feel great about yourself (and of course, your like-minded friends) are the ones that suggest you’re a moral giant striding boldly across the landscape, wielding your inescapable ethical logic. The messages that work are the ones that try to understand what the other side is thinking, on the assumption that they are no better or worse than you. So if you are actually trying to help the Syrian refugees, rather than marinate in your own sensation of overwhelming virtue, you should avoid these tactics.

I agree! Unfortunately it is all too easy to cast those who disagree with you as having questionable (at best) morals and intentions. It’s also too easy to talk in prepackaged catch phrases that are readily accepted by those who agree with you but fall on deaf ears of those who don’t. The end result isn’t a true debate or civil conversation but pontificating and posturing. I’ve said a number of times here that it takes a lot of work being objective when thinking things through. It takes even more effort trying to fathom how someone else reached their conclusions then trying to explain your position in terms that the other person is more likely to understand or accept. I’m not saying they will agree with you but they could come away with a better understanding of your position. I can speak from experience that the method McArdle recommends makes more of an impact than just lobbing verbal hand grenades at each other.

Read her entire article. McArdle doesn’t go into specifics on how you can fashion your position in a way that someone who disagrees will understand. For a start in the right direction I continue to highly recommend Arnold Kling’s The Three Languages of Politics. For a more theoretical approach check out Jonathan Haidt’s Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Politics and Narratives

I've written before about the work of Jonathan Haidt who has influenced my thinking on morality and politics. This essay by The Independent Whig does a nice job summarizing Haidt's work while also touching on the role of stories. In fact here is a quote from early in the article.

The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor, and every ideology has its own story in the form of “grand narrative” that describes the social world from the perspective of that ideology.

He then outlines the Grand Liberal and Grand Conservative narratives.

Anyway, I recommend reading this essay.

Friday, October 16, 2015

What I Learned about Climate Change: The Science is not Settled by David Siegel

This is a long essay (49 pages!) by a writer who once bought into the story Al Gore and others have pushed about global warming being caused by humans. After conducting his own investigation Siegel came up with different conclusions. He also challenges the "science is settled" mantra we hear when you dare to question whether we're causing global warming. Siegel still follows a vegan diet and calls himself a Democrat so it's not as though he abandoned all of his beliefs in one fell swoop. He just changed his mind on climate change.

I highly recommend this essay both for its message and as an example of someone who thought things through and came up with different conclusion after thinking objectively about the subject.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Demonizing the Opposition – An Example

Kevin Vallier at Bleeding Heart Libertarians comments on a post by Robert Krugman in which he dehumanizes conservatives in order to justify his approach for ignoring anything they say. The context of Krugman’s post is to explain why Republican evangelicals can support Trump who doesn’t align with their conservative principles. According to Krugman,

What happened to conservative principles?

Actually, nothing — because those alleged principles were never real. Conservative religiosity, conservative faith in markets, were never about living a godly life or letting the invisible hand promote entrepreneurship. Instead, it was all as Corey Robin describes it: Conservatism is

a reactionary movement, a defense of power and privilege against democratic challenges from below, particularly in the private spheres of the family and the workplace.

It’s really about who’s boss, and making sure that the man in charge stays boss. Trump is admired for putting women and workers in their place, and it doesn’t matter if he covets his neighbor’s wife or demands trade wars.

As Vallier says, “Krugman’s opponents aren’t just wrong: they oppose fundamental moral and political values (equality) that any reasonable, decent person should accept. How are Very Serious Progressives like Krugman to share a country such individuals? Krugman’s answer is clear: support state power to crush conservative policies and criticize their intelligence and character.”

I’ve been harping recently on Arnold Kling’s e-book Three Languages of Politics but to me Krugman provides a clear example of the preference that Kling has identified for liberals to explain things in terms of the oppressed versus the oppressors. Trump and conservatives don’t believe what they do (and who knows what Trump really believes?) because they’re mistaken. Oh, no. It’s because they want to maintain their oppressor status. So that absolves progressives of the need to fairly answer positions taken by Republicans or conservatives. After all, these right wingers are the enemy and sub-human and therefore don’t deserve to be treated fairly.

There are several problems with this. First, this will continue the polarization that almost everyone decries. Second, Krugman implicitly alleges to be able to read the minds of everyone who claims to be a conservative. In other words, anyone who espouses conservative principles by definition doesn’t really believe what they’re saying. He can somehow divine that their real intent is to oppress people. Not just some conservatives. All of them. Nice, huh? This in turn leads to the third problem: intellectual laziness. Your principles are protected behind the insular force field of demonizing the opposition. Essentially this mind set boils down to: “Move on. Move on. There is nothing to hear folks. This is just a crazy right (or left) winger ranting. Our ideas are so indisputably and blindingly correct that anyone who challenges them just proves how subhuman and despicable they are.”

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Another Example of Narratives: Unwinnable Arguments and Normative Sociology by Arnold Kling

This post by Arnold Kling on the different explanations of crime.

Progressives: racism in the criminal justice system
Conservatives: high propensity of young African-American males to commit crimes
Libertarians; the war on drugs
Progressives prefer the oppressor-oppressed axis, which makes racism the desired cause. Conservatives are most comfortable with the civilization-barbarism axis, which makes criminal behavior the preferred cause. Libertarians prefer the freedom-coercion axis, which makes the war on drugs the preferred cause.

He then makes this point: "Each of these causal forces has an element of truth, or at least plausibility. The chances are slim of coming up with an empirical analysis that decisively rules in favor of one cause and rules out all other causes." I come to a similar conclusion in an earlier post: that each language has some element of truth. This is one reason why it's hard to win an argument (if that ever actually happens).

Friday, June 12, 2015

Narratives in action: An Example

I’ve written about Arnold Kling’s three languages of politics in which he claims liberal use language about the oppressed and the oppressors, conservatives talk about civilization versus barbarism and libertarians explain things in terms of freedom versus coercion. At dinner with friends who are very liberal we talked about the Mideast and Africa. He claimed that there never will be peace in the Middle East because of the perpetual fight over oil and that the people in Africa haven’t prospered because outsiders take Africa’s natural resources. (He was referring to businesses but conveniently ignored the role of Russia and China.) Both of his “explanations” echo the oppressor-oppressed theme.

A conservative probably would counter with saying that these cases show the lack of civilized values while the libertarian might point to the lack of understanding of individual rights. Someone who is influenced by Ayn Rand’s Objectivism might also go a bit deeper and say these are examples of wrong philosophical premises.

The problem, as I see it, is that all of these answers have some merit to them. Naturally I lean toward the Objectivist explanation. Nonetheless I think being able to understand the framework of these other views can help in trying to communicate and influencing the other person. I’d say you can acknowledge their concerns then gently steer the other person into considering that their conclusion doesn’t dig deeply enough, that the actions and their consequences are rooted in more fundamental ideas about the nature of rights and civilization which can determine whether there is oppression.