Thursday, March 30, 2017

Strongmen Rise on the Backs of an Army of Weak Men

If you’ve ever flipped on the television and heard the brazen chants of CNN and Fox News, you’ll know that in America, the cults of our two party system are alive and well. You’ll know that for every MAGA shouting Trump lover, there’s a self-righteous Bernie bro. America is not without two sides to everything.

But this is not what the Greeks meant by two-sided rhetorical discourse. Dissoi logoi is a process internal to an individual, from which it can be scaled up to groups and societies. It is the ability to simultaneously hold and consider contradicting views, and examine them honestly for the purpose of arriving closer to the truth. In America, we struggle to achieve this in our public lives. We live in a society where political debate is for social gain, for feeling good about how right we are, and for fighting against the tyrannies of clearly stupid arguments.

The latter of these is, I think, a central fallacy ruining the integrity of our democracy at this moment, and is better known as the weak man argument. Essentially, this is the practice of taking the most extreme, most deplorable, most clearly logically inconsistent view that you can scavenge from an opposing side, and making it the target of your rhetorical crucification. It’s really fun to hate on those darn Bernie bros, or those ignorant anti-vaxxers, or those clearly racist Trump supporters. But the reality is most individuals don’t believe those things; and they are arguments which, when dismantled, bring emotional satisfaction, but no real progress towards bridging the gap between two sides. America’s discourse has suffered in this way; and we now have a leader who is a strongman, because we lived an election chalk full of weak men.

So what does this have to do with dissoi logoi and polarization? If dissoi logoi is the ability to consider conflicting views, but all the views we consider are the rational ones with which we agree, and the clearly inane ones with which we don’t, then we really have quite a lopsided affair. Facebook, Twitter, and the culture of algorithms and fake news certainly help us make this dissoi logoi process quite easy. Your news feed is probably a lot like mine in that the most sensational claims make it to the top. So I frequently hear about the ridiculous arguments Trump and his supporters make. And I’m sure my conservative friends hear about the crazy left-wingers and their snowflake mentality. And this makes polarization the natural byproduct, because the other side is ludicrous.

As stated, from a rhetorical perspective, this is clearly a result of attention direction and the filtering of arguments, curated by our algorithmic culture. Just like trash TV and bad pop music are popular, so are the writings of Brietbart and Democracy Now. The difference is, bad taste in music robs Kendrick Lamar of a shiny piece of metal. Bad taste in argument severs the head of our democracy at the hands of autocratic figures.

Unrelated: I love Kendrick Lamar.

But surely we are justified in some of these actions? Doesn’t racism and anti-vaccination propaganda deserve our scorn? Certainly it does. But what does this behavior accomplish? It will never persuade a racist Trump supporter to reconsider their beliefs. In fact, it won’t do much other than releasing pent up anger, and act as a moral signal demonstrating that we’re not one of them. In this perspective, we get caught up in the emotion of the moment. This is a direct result of the rhetoric of our media. Headlines are sensational and short. Articles usually lack a nuanced understanding of the other side. Writing is frequently partisan and biased. And the whole goal of this rhetoric is specifically to arouse our anger. It brings clicks and ad revenue. So it’s no wonder we do get in such a fit.

But signaling that [insert ludicrous group here] are wrong does about as much good as reminding everyone of how much we hate people who leave the toilet seat up. Clearly, it’s wrong. Clearly, we don’t do it. But yelling about it does not actually help to change the minds of those who leave the seat up. It does not help one understand why people leave the seat up. And though it will serve as a check on others in our group, reminding them of the serious social consequences if they ever do leave the seat up, it will not at all affect those who habitually leave the seat up. They will only double down on their beliefs and continue the process of rationalization.

So how do we fight the polarization inherent in our digital lives? This post assumes the reader understands and believes American democracy is not in a healthy state. It’s argued that how Americans have been taught to engage in political discourse is wholly not what the Greeks had in mind, and has become another method by which we jockey for social status. It takes Facebook as a key example of this behavior, and explains how the rhetorical structure of Facebook itself induces this. Dissoi logoi is, of course, the answer to our problems. But dissoi logoi is predicated upon a host of assumptions which first need be met.

As always, there's a relevant XKCD for everything.

The first assumption prerequisite for dissoi logoi is humility. Humility is the belief that I could be, and very likely am, wrong about something. Humans are irrational and suffer from a host of glitches in our mental wiring, like confirmation bias and the hindsight effect. All it takes is for our judgment to be slightly skewed by any number of fallacies, biases, or stupidities, and we’re wrong. This is how we ought to see ourselves. Any beliefs we hold should be tentative at best. Absolute truths reside in the realm of propaganda and cults and mathematicians. If we must eventually commit fully to a stance, it should be with great caution. Just like mathematicians go through decades of rigorous proof before reaching a conclusion, so should we never be speedy to make absolute judgments, especially those which are value based.

The next assumption is charity. Charity relates to how we view the beliefs of others. Yes, others are subject to the same biases we are. But their biases don’t act in the same way. What we see through the muddied lens of confirmation bias, they might see clearly through the lens of objective skepticism. This is not to say another is automatically correct simply because they don’t hold the beliefs you do; but certainly they are likely to bring up arguments and ideas you never would have. Combined with humility, charity allows us to attempt to give fair weight to the equally plausible arguments of others, at least until fairly conclusively proven otherwise.

The final assumption is that argument ought to be seen as play, not war. This is where I question the usefulness of railing against Trump supporters and Bernie bros. If we know we are often wrong and that others have good points, and if we want everyone, including ourselves, to hold beliefs as close to the truth as possible, then the best process to arrive at that truth is through cooperative collaboration. Argument ought to be a process of reconciling conflicting values and beliefs and facts with another. If someone is, we believe, seriously misguided, then our best approach is to treat them with love and inclusion, to show them that we’re on the same side.

Our Facebook feeds, where people score “points” in online arguments whenever a friend likes their reply, serve only to reinforce the concept of argument as war. This is perhaps a benefit of having an in person debate amongst friends – no matter how much people agree with you or disagree with you, everyone is (ideally), quiet and respectful while the other talks. This means people are not forming cliques based upon who they signal they agree with; they’re not seduced into the atavistic tribalism of an “us vs. them” mentality; and they are able to form their own conclusions free of the influences of how others react. Facebook, as a medium, destroys this precious rhetorical affordance, and replaces it with a medium ripe for argument as war.

Anyone reading this may be left wondering how they are to respond to the real idiocy present on media like Facebook. And, I think, it is wholly justified to remove or unfollow friends who continuously post ill-thought out arguments. I have certainly done this myself. If a person is sharing or posting smart, well-written think pieces or videos, then that deserves an audience. We ought to respect those who at least put forth the prerequisite effort of research and careful thought. But, rather than going through and unfriending en masse, perhaps it is better to go to places other than Facebook for political thought. I personally enjoy reading a handful of really well-written blogs for views both affirming and dissenting. A general shift of removing politics from social media, given its rhetorical set up, would be a benefit to society.

Regardless, the polarization in America is thoroughly an effect of a filter bubble created by algorithms which promote one of two kinds of arguments: Those with which we passionately agree, and those which we love to hate. Anything which makes us question our beliefs, which poses difficult to answer questions, or which is longer than 1,200 words is immediately and intentionally filtered out by our digital algorithms. To solve the problem of our failing democracy, we need a formal process for transmitting the values of dissoi logoi, and for facilitating honest, collaborative political discussions. Until then, we shall see further strongmen rise on the backs of the multitude of weak men plaguing our democratic discourse.

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