Comments and observations on social and political trends and events.

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.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Narratives, the two stories of capitalism and the three languages of politics

My friend Robert Bidinotto has been writing about the importance of narratives in our lives and in politics. His general discussion is here: While his application to politics can be found here:

Recently I came across Jonathan Haidt's writing on the two stories of capitalism. (He is working on a book on the subject.) In one capitalism oppresses people; this story fuels the narrative of the left. You can hear it in the language of liberals like Elizabeth Warren. It might not be stated so boldly but if you listen closely the message is there: that capitalism thrives by exploiting people and that government liberates us from the handcuffs of inequality foisted upon us by the rich.

The other story, favored by the right, proclaims that capitalism liberates people and that government oppresses by burdening us with rules and regulations. This story resounds especially strong within the libertarian and Tea Party.

I believe there is a third story in line with Arnold Kling's three languages of politics in which some claim capitalism civilizes us and saves us from barbarism. For examples listen to more traditional conservatives such as Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh.

I figure that Haidt would argue that ultimately this story boils down to liberation: capitalism saves us from tribalism and primitivism. Nonetheless, here is Haidt’s explanation of the two stories. I’ve provided several links after these quotes that explain Haidt’s ideas in more detail.
There has long been a thoroughly negative story about commerce, going back to biblical times, in which businessmen, traders, and money lenders are bloodsuckers who extort wealth from workers and customers without contributing anything of value. When mercantile capitalism came along in the 16th century, and even more so when industrial capitalism conquered the globe in the 19th century, the negative story began to animate left-leaning parties and revolutionaries in many countries—with history-shaping consequences for the 20th century. This is story #1: Capitalism is exploitation. It is a curse, a virus, a disaster for the poor and the planet. This story is still told today, as we saw in the Occupy Wall Street movement.

But capitalism has also had its passionate defenders, most notably Adam Smith in the 18th century, who explained how capitalism achieves the magic of value creation (as in his famous example of a pin factory). The rising wealth, longevity, and living standards of the 19th and 20th centuries—even for the poor and working class—led to the formation of a thoroughly positive story about capitalism, told by economists such as Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman. This is story #2: Capitalism is liberation. Free market capitalism is Prometheus, giving fire and freedom to the human race. In this story, it is left-leaning ideologies (socialism, Marxism, and the affection for big government) that continually attack human progress, disconnecting whole nations from the market and dragging them down into poverty for decades—until they see the light, as China and India did a few decades ago.


I mentioned Arnold Kling earlier. There is a lot of overlap between Haidt’s work and Kling’s three languages of politics. Kling argues that the language of the left centers on the oppressed versus oppressors axis. Conservatives argue along the lines of civilization versus barbarism. Libertarians see things in terms of liberty versus coercion. All three groups then will craft different narratives, each with their own favored axis and language.

How does this apply to us? I believe knowing about narratives and the kinds of languages can ultimately help us better communicate our ideas with those who disagree with us.