Tendentious dichotomies redux

by Henry on July 24, 2003

“Randy Barnett”:http://volokh.com/2003_07_20_volokh_archive.html#105898768113978353 blogs to tell us about an “article”:http://www.msnbc.com/news/856672.asp#030723 he’s just written; it asks why the Left is living in its own “constructed reality,” where Bush didn’t lie, Al Gore is President, Bellesisles didn’t cook the books _und so weiter_. Fellow Volokh-blogger, Juan “chimes in”:http://volokh.com/2003_07_20_volokh_archive.html#105899198850087066 that he’s reminded of the Left’s contortions over fascism in the 1930’s. Readers (at least this one) wonder why they’re getting this sort of knockabout stuff from the Volokh Conspiracy, usually a reliable source for challenging and thought-provoking arguments.

Kieran has already written “here”:http://www.kieranhealy.org/blog/archives/000214.html, “here”:http://www.kieranhealy.org/blog/archives/000363.html and especially “here”:http://www.kieranhealy.org/blog/archives/000404.html about facile claims of this sort; he asks why the right is more given to tendentious generalizations than the left (hint for the slow: this is ‘satire’). He does a better job than I could in skewering these arguments, so I’ll confine myself to a couple of points. Big Dumb Generalizations like Barnett’s have two dead give-aways. First of all, they talk in grand terms about the Left (or the Right) as if it were some sort of groupthink monolith, where all speak for one, and one speaks for all. This rhetorical trick allows them to take some fringe notion advanced by an Indymedia crackpot as incontrovertible evidence that everyone to the left of Barry Goldwater is living on Pluto. Second, as Kieran makes clear, their tendentious generalizations are usually _reversible_ so that it’s trivially easy to swap around the “good” Right and the “bad” Left. For example, a leftie could just as easily write an agitprop article about how “the Right” was living in a dream world in which the administration hadn’t made false claims about Iraq’s nukes and al Qaeda links, Bush had won a majority of the popular vote, John Lott had real figures to prove that more guns equal less violence, &c &c.

The point isn’t that rightwingers do this more than leftwingers; the blame falls pretty evenly on both sides. Nor is it that myths shouldn’t be deflated. It’s that tendentious generalizations about either “the Left” or “the Right” as collectivities of the brainwashed, labouring under false consciousness, are themselves harmful mythologies. They’re precisely a means to avoid confronting the arguments of the other side, so that you don’t have to acknowledge that your intellectual antagonists may sometimes have good points.

In fairness, Barnett recognizes towards the end of his article that he himself may not be fully objective, although he still seems to think that the Left is somehow more extreme. He asks how it’s possible to have dialogue when people start from different and incompatible views of the world. My suggestion: a necessary first step is to recognize that your view of the other side may itself be a harmful and inaccurate “constructed reality” that you really ought to think about reconstructing.

A couple of weeks ago, “Daniel”:https://www.crookedtimber.org/archives/000212.html had a go at some dodgy generalizations and factoids (although unlike Barnett, he didn’t suggest that “the Right” signed up to these myths as if they were some Apostolic Creed). He stole the basic idea of his post unashamedly from “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” and other Borges short stories, to the bemusement of blogreaders who were unfamiliar with said literary works. The narrator of “Tlon …,” concludes by saying that he’s off to look up Sir Thomas Browne’s essay, _Hydriotaphia, or Urne-Buriall_. Me, I reckon that Browne’s the man, but under the circumstances, “Pseudodoxia Epidemica”:http://penelope.uchicago.edu/pseudodoxia/pseudo11.html is the more appropriate reading material.

{ 21 comments }

1

YT 07.24.03 at 6:05 pm

[Volokh conspirator Randy Barnett] asks how it’s possible to have dialogue when people start from different and incompatible views of the world.

I suppose one could start by having a dialogue in the first place. Somebody should double-dog-dare the Conspiracy to add commenting capability.

2

PG 07.24.03 at 6:05 pm

It is disappointing to see the Volokh Conspiracy falling to — well, not conspiracy theorists, but certainly some dubious generalizations with limited evidence and a failure to locate a norm from which to measure the supposed peculiar behavior.

I suppose Barnett and Juan are simply the right’s version of the Berkeley research that purported to show that conservatives tend to have such-and-such negative personality traits.
While conservative bloggers have been calling for the bombing of Berkeley, I’ll restrain myself to hoping that Barnett and Juan go back to their usual intelligent blogging.

3

Morat 07.24.03 at 6:06 pm

Oh good. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one to wonder what the hell was going on.

Of course, initially, I thought Volokh had written it and had gotten really annoyed….I like reading Volokh, even though most of the time I think he’s wrong…

4

PG 07.24.03 at 6:08 pm

The Conspirators are pretty good about replying to e-mail, considering the volume they receive and the demanding dayjobs several of them have. A comment function would be nice, though.

Are there any group blogs out there that seem to be having dialogues — i.e., ones with people whose views are very different and who engage each other publicly on the blog?
I was talking about blogging to someone the other day, and I advised against starting a group blog with people with whom he would argue a great deal, as this would become boring for readers. But maybe not.

5

ogged 07.24.03 at 6:45 pm

To be fair, Barnett’s post didn’t appear at the Conspiracy (although Juan’s follow-up did). I doubt Eugene exercises any pre-posting editorial control, but Clayton Cramer was dumped after a series of stupid posts.

And doesn’t everyone read the conspiracy because of Eugene anyway?

6

Henry 07.24.03 at 7:24 pm

I should hasten to point out that Barnett’s essay and Juan’s follow-up, while sub-par for the Volokhs, simply aren’t comparable with the boorish offensiveness that Cramer displayed during his (thankfully short) tenure with the Conspiracy. And while I like Eugene’s posts, I actually think that the rest of the Conspirators usually do a rather good job too. One of us (Chris??) said in a post a couple of weeks ago that the Volokhs provided a good model for Crooked Timber to aspire towards. Quibbles, grumps and disagreements with individual posts aside, I still think that’s true.

7

back40 07.24.03 at 7:29 pm

“The point isn’t that rightwingers do this more than leftwingers; the blame falls pretty evenly on both sides. Nor is it that myths shouldn’t be deflated. It’s that tendentious generalizations about either “the Left” or “the Right” as collectivities of the brainwashed, labouring under false consciousness, are themselves harmful mythologies.”

hmmm, actually those tendentious generalizations seem spot on. Doctrinaire leftists and their opposites are “collectivities of the brainwashed labouring under false consciousness”. When ideas ossify into ideology intellectual agility and honesty diminish in inverse proportion to the strength of belief. There are factions within fractions within sects that use manifestos and talking points as scripture with various degrees of fundamentalist rigidity and literalism.

This isn’t really a problem since these groups are followers of social change. They don’t create or contribute to social progress, they just add to the kerfuffle as more thoughtful folks get on with more useful research and analyses. Political activists do not cause change, they are a pathological symptom of change. They are the dullards and class clowns that either resist and drag their feet or impatiently shout and push as society sorts itself out into new arrangements appropriate to circumstances. They are sometimes irritating and sometimes entertaining.

8

PG 07.24.03 at 7:52 pm

They don’t create or contribute to social progress, they just add to the kerfuffle as more thoughtful folks get on with more useful research and analyses. Political activists do not cause change, they are a pathological symptom of change.

I always hated how MLK got all this credit when he really were just pathological symptoms of change. Meanwhile, thoughtful people were doing the useful research and analysis.

Of course, this makes sense only if you think social change is purely a product of intellect rather than heart. Personally, I have serious doubts that most people changed their minds about racism — or many other issues — due to such-and-such analysis or research into the differences between races.

9

Keith M Ellis 07.24.03 at 7:55 pm

I wrote him a long email. Not realizing that this was getting a lot of attention and he’s probably getting enormous amounts of email. Much of it saying what I–and the above bloggers–wrote: “physician, heal thyself”.

But I think one thing bears repeating here. Barnett wondered in his blog entry:

“Perhaps it is actually easier, rather than more difficult, to live in a world of facts that reinforce one’s predilections.”

To which I responded condescendingly (but with justification, I think):

“I find it rather astonishing that you haven’t already learned that this is, by and large, quite true. The overwhelming majority of the sorts of things that are contested in political discourse are things that are not normally directly experienced in ordinary people’s lives. They are usually ‘facts’ about a distant world and how it works that ‘explain’ in a usually very indirect manner the quality and processes of everyday live over which one generally has little control. Political beliefs are for the most part not practical beliefs that result from empirical analysis of one’s own experience; rather, they are myths that explain the mostly inexplicable. They are often similar to religious myths in function, perhaps though in a different sphere of influence. They answer difficult questions like: Why is my life so shitty?, Who are my enemies?, and Why isn’t the world structured more to my liking? One finds oneself with one’s predilections, one usually selects one’s social milieu on that basis, and within that milieu it is very easy to weave and sustain a mythology about the political workings of the world that validates those predilections. For most people, that is the very point of the exercise. Don’t take my word for it–merely examine the typical patterns of how people participate within and consume political discourse.”

I had stopped reading Volokh for awhile, and only today had gone back to it. And only for Eugene.

10

Henry 07.24.03 at 8:22 pm

_hmmm, actually those tendentious generalizations seem spot on. Doctrinaire leftists and their opposites are “collectivities of the brainwashed labouring under false consciousness”_

tendentious generalizations about either “the Left” or “the Right” … are themselves harmful mythologies … precisely a means to avoid confronting the arguments of the other side, so that you don’t have to acknowledge that your intellectual antagonists may sometimes have good points.

11

back40 07.24.03 at 8:35 pm

no, it’s not a means to avoid engaging arguments, it’s a means of ignoring cartoon versions of arguments that do deserve engagement.

12

Micha Ghertner 07.24.03 at 9:54 pm

I would just like to add that, as someone who considers Barnett an intellectual hero, I too was disappointed with his false generalizations of the left. I expect these types of arguments from Rush Limbaugh, not Barnett.

At the same time, I’ve noticed some of these same sorts of hasty generalizations here on Crooked Timber with regard to libertarians, albeit mostly in the comments section, which I concede is not under the purview of the posters themselves. When people claim that libertarians, by definition, are “very foolish”, and then proceed to write long emails to Barnett chastizing him for committing the same error, it truly is time for one to say, “physician, heal thyself.”

13

jw mason 07.24.03 at 11:03 pm

It’s not clear to me why “the blame falls pretty evenly on both sides” is any elss a tendentious generalization than saying it falls more on one side or the other. You can say that generalizations about “the Left” and “the Right” are off-limits, in which case the both-sides statement falls under the ban; or you can treat it as a matter of fact, in which case you ought to present some evidence yourself — and in whcih case, frankly, it would be pretty surprising if things turned out so nicely balanced.

14

Henry 07.24.03 at 11:24 pm

JW Mason – you’re reading the claim that I’m making as being rather stronger than I intended to make it. I certainly don’t have any evidence that tendentious statements divide neatly on a 50-50 basis between left and right; I don’t even know how you’d go about amassing such evidence. What I’m saying is rather weaker (and indeed, slightly anodyne). I’m simply making the claim that some people on the left side of the spectrum indulge in the same kind of hyperbole with regard to the right, as Barnett does with respect to the left. In other words I’m simply trying to make it clear that I’m *not* making any general claims that rightwingers do this sort of thing, and leftwingers don’t. Interestingly enough, “Eugene Volokh”:http://volokh.com/2003_07_20_volokh_archive.html#105908198493037906 has just picked up on a left-wing “article”:http://slate.msn.com/id/2085977/ in Slate that, by his account, tries to brand all rightists as Ann Coulter-lites (i.e. generalizes inexcusably for partisan purposes).

15

Austin Cline 07.25.03 at 4:01 pm

“Perhaps it is actually easier, rather than more difficult, to live in a world of facts that reinforce one’s predilections.”

As Keith wrote, that is by and large true. And it isn’t limited to politics – it involves pretty common psychological phenomena. One is Confirmation Bias and the other is Subjective Validation.

Perhaps we should be disappointed when people aren’t perfectly rational and don’t perfectly process all available data, reaching perfectly objective conclusions irrespective of any prior prejudices and inclinations – but we certainly shouldn’t be surprised. Christians will favor evidence that supports Christianity. Atheists will favor evidence that supports atheism. Liberals will favor evidence that supports liberalism. Conservatives will favor evidence that supports conservatism.

I’m not trying to be pessimistic when I say that that is simply how the world works – we all do it, even when we think we don’t. We can’t avoid our prejudices, passions, and preferences. Nor should we want to, I think.

There is optimism, however, in trying to promote general skepticism and humility. When we take those principles to heart, there is a fair chance that we can overcome the various psychological barriers that can cause us to ignore unfavorable evidence and arguments.

16

drapetomaniac 07.25.03 at 7:32 pm

>The point isn’t that rightwingers do this more than leftwingers; the blame falls pretty evenly on both sides.

What is the basis for this assertion? Or is it just an attractive remark to demonstrate your even-handedness?

17

Henry 07.25.03 at 8:10 pm

Drapetomaniac – if you’re just posing this as a broad question, see my reply to JW Mason above. If you want to push harder, perhaps you can specify precisely what you find unclear and/or dissatisfying about it. The basis in terms of experience, if that’s what you’re asking, is my having read a lot of left-wing hyperbole about the right, as well as right wing hyperbole about the left. The fact that I may agree with somebody’s substantive position on, say, the war against Iraq, doesn’t mean that they mightn’t be talking prejudiced garbage about people who disagree with them. And they often do – I don’t see any reason why my political opinions should require me to be glide over the fact that people who are talking smack are talking smack. My basis in terms of intellectual position? I’m a leftie, but before I’m a leftie, I’m a democratic pluralist. In other words, I think that people on the left (a) don’t hold a monopoly on the truth (nobody does), and (b) often only figure out what is good and worthwhile about their own position, and what doesn’t make sense, through proper argument with people who vehemently disagree. I dunno – you mightn’t like this way of thinking (or you might), but it’s what I’m comfortable with.

18

Ratherworried 07.25.03 at 9:37 pm

It is hard to take the criticism of Barnett’s article very seriously when you mimic the behavior you criticize. At least have the courage to address his factual points! Disagree with his speculation if you wish but show some courage and actually debate him.

Barnett’s essay identified actual fabrications that are being used by the left. i.e.’Bush lied’, ‘Al Gore actually won the election, it was ‘stolen’ in Florida’ etc…

This is disturbing not because the right doesn’t have its share of lunatics but the rise of the ‘Lunatic Left’ is occurring because a generally better educated audience that the ‘Radical Right’ doesn’t reach or persuade is listening and apparently believing obvious lies.

This is huge self deception is going on and Barnett wants to know why. I think he missed one part of the equation.

It is certainly true that on the right you have many nutbags that spout crap that is often acknowledged as crap by non-nutbag conservatives. Where are the voices on the left telling the Lunatic Left that they are in fact Lunatics? They aren’t there. Why?

The absence of compelling left center discourse is giving the appearance that the left is lurching further and further left leaving the center but is it?

Reynolds posted a wonderful essay that described what positions the Democratic party could take to defeat the Republicans in 2004. The positions read like planks of a Republican platform. Really! Reduce deficits, sensible energy policy, advocate free trade, avoid costly international peace keeping debacles, etc…

How could the Democratic Party defeat Republicans by claiming these issues? Because the Bush administration is a more liberal administration than the Clinton administration. Under Bush the Republicans have been able to abandoned the right and have moved to what was once (pre 2000) left center.

Driven by intense personal dislike of Bush, liberals have been moving left to create distance.

This spells either a huge blowout for the Democrats or eventually the rise of a fringe party and candidates on the right.

Barnett is writing about this phenomenon and speculating on what psychological foundation this Lunatic Left is being built but he is missing the simultaneous conservative shift to the left.

So what is happening? Is the country gradually getting more liberal or have liberals lurched left abandoning the center at the same time the conservatives are making overatures to the center?

19

Keith M Ellis 07.26.03 at 10:11 am

Ratherworried, you’re a very confused person if you really think that the Bush administration is further to the left than the Clinton administration.

What’s truly astonishing to me about Barnett’s post is that a) in many cases the claims that he says the “Left” are making (or have made) are actually only being made by a tiny portion of the “Left”; and b) in several cases the leftist claims that he asserts are indisputably false are not, in fact, indisputably false. The combination of these two factors put Barnett squarely in a “socially constructed reality” that has everything to do with his subjectivity and little to do with objective reality. It’s grandly ironic, and would be funny if it weren’t so typical and sad.

The three supposed “fabrications” you list are not fabrications, they’re arguably true. They’re also arguably false. The one thing they’re not is indisputably true or false. In the first example–the yellowcake uranium example–very few people in the world know enough to be certain of the matter of whether the President lied or not. In that case, there are three things that are very unclear or unknown to all of us: the actual truth of the matter about the uranium itself and the intelligence about it (there’s still the unreleased British intelligence for example), who knew what about that intelligence (particularly Bush, of course), and what exactly is a “lie”. Some very reasonable conclusions about what we do about each of those things can result in a reasonable conclusion that Bush lied. Other very reasonable conclusions about what’s known of those things can result in a conclusion that Bush did not lie.

The contention that the truth or falsehood is beyond question and that anyone asserting the other contrary to one’s preference is “delusional” strikes me as farther from the real world than closer. Yet Barnett, and yourself, are very confident on this matter.

Spooky.

Determining the truth of falsehood of the second two examples (and in almost all examples, really) is highly dependent upon how one comprehend’s the intended meaning of someone who asserts those things. As I wrote to Barnett, part of why people like himself tend to be so confident that other people are just plain crazy is that Barnett and his ilk consistently interpret the words of their ideological enemies in the worst faith possible. Thus, they interpret the words “won” and “stolen” in such a manner that the assertions are “clearly” false. But a good faith interpretation of those two claims would be that Gore’s “win” was of the popular election and that as such it was a moral win, at least; that it was unclear what the most accurate results of a recount would have been in Florida; and that the SCOTUS by preventing such a recount ensured that Gore lost the election, even if in fact he hadn’t. Most of those people really believe that an accurate recount would have given the Florida vote to Gore, and, assuming that, claiming that Gore “won” and SCOTUS “stole” the election is perfectly reasonable.

The problem here is that there’s every indication that Gore wouldn’t have won if the recount had gone ahead–that, in fact, Gore didn’t win the Florida vote. And this is the other problem with the way in which Barnett sees things and is being critical. I think he assumes that the “Left” that is making these claims also “knows” that the best evidence is that Gore didn’t win the Florida vote and wouldn’t have won a statewide recount.

But here’s a tip: never ascribe something to delusion or to bad intent that can be ascribed to simple ignorance. In my experience, most people don’t know enough about the world to be making almost any assertions of truth about political reality.

And echoing Henry above, my own experience and observation is that neither the right nor the left are any worse about this. The only thing that’s consistent–and of course this is almost by definition–is that the more ideologically fervent someone is, the more they exhibit the signs of the delusion that Barnett describes.

20

Classic Liberal 07.28.03 at 1:28 am

“living in a dream world in which the administration hadn’t made false claims about Iraq’s nukes and al Qaeda links, Bush had won a majority of the popular vote, John Lott had real figures to prove that more guns equal less violence, &c &c.”

I haven’t followed the “Bush lied” business closely, but the other two example are pretty piss poor. Can you produce even one right-winger who believes that Bush got a MAJORITY of the popular vote? As far as I know, nobody disputes that NO ONE got a majority of the popular vote. Al Gore clearly received a PLURALITY and no one disputes that. It’s just a quesiton of whether Florida’s electoral votes were properly assigned or not. As for John Lott’s research, it’s not a delusion, it’s simply something that’s being debated in numerous studies, some pro and some con, in various scholarly academic journals.

If those are the best examples you can give of right-wing delusions, I guess there aren’t that many after all.

21

Ratherworried 07.29.03 at 9:17 pm

Keith M Ellis- The difficulty with the ‘Bush lied’ is not that an ignorant person with know understanding of the facts could believe the statement not to be a fabrication, but that people who know better seem to be trying so desperately to believe it.

The number of educated editorial writers to have been blindly parroting false statements like these is growing. Not merely the ‘Bush lied’ rhetoric but most of the Iraq reporting and editorials suffer today and have sufferred right along from a HUGE and increasingly obvious bias. It is indefensible, for the New York Times to permit editorial writers to produce opinion pieces that contain false and doctored statements and yet that appears to be happening constantly. The lesson from Jayson Blair’s treatment by the NYT is that it appears that several other prominent reporters for the NYT didn’t learn the lesson! Your extremely poor attempt at explaining the frequent falsehoods and carefully manipulation of headlines as well as your inability to grasp the difference between a conservative position and a liberal position on issues indicates that you are a member of the I hate Bush fan club.

I have seen behavior identical to this. It was the I hate Clinton fan club. It should comfort you that you display an identical behavior pattern to the bigots and ignorant loud mouths that occupy right wing radio.

Today, 7/29, several bloggers are writing about how Bush is clearly governing from the left. He is probably left of where Clinton governed on most issues. Failure to see and understand this has outed you as delusional or uninformed at best.

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