Really bad political arguments

In his column of August 12, which is an important contribution to today’s debates, Frank Bruni introduces Professor Mark Lilla, of Columbia University. Lilla comments that “classroom conversations that once might have begun, I think A, and here is my argument, now take the form, Speaking as an X, I am offended that you claim B.

It was that phrasing, I think, that caught my imagination.  I felt like I had just seen a horror movie.

Lilla has liberals in mind, because liberals are the ones that have been boxing his ears lately and Bruni cites him because these same liberals have been boxing Bruni’s ears, too. Today, I would like to reflect on the reasons that arguments can be set aside because they aren’t being made by the right people.

Status distortion

Like so many other “truths” of our time, this one is true as far as it goes, but it has gone too far. Later in his column, Bruni says that “race, gender, sexual orientation [and] class” inform…how we see the world. That is true, of course. It is true of every person; it is true all the time. It is true of the person making the argument and the person refusing to hear it. It is true.

bruni 6Bruni also agrees that the “check your privilege” exhortation rightly asks us to recognize that. I know that when I make an argument, the argument is affected by who I am and the experiences I have had and the same is true for you. That is as far, I think, as that truth should go.

But it doesn’t stop there and in this column, Bruni looks at some of the places it should have stopped, but did not. [1] He tells about a scuffle just up the road from me at the Evergreen State College, where “a white biology professor, Bret Weinstein, disparaged the particular tack of a day of racial healing. He raised valid points, only to be branded a bigot and threatened with violence.”

Bruni wrote about that incident and then he, in turn, got this: “I don’t need one more white male criticizing young people of color.” But I think maybe she does. If Weinstein was treated unfairly, then this reader—I am imagining her as a young woman of color—urgently needs people like and unlike herself to call attention to the unfairness. The idea that Bruni has no right to his views because he is of the wrong sexbruni 7 and color don’t sound right to me. Didn’t we write some things in the Civil Rights Act of 1965 about disparaging people because of their sex or color? Is that why it sounds familiar?  Clearly the dueling tee shirts point the direction of our future.

And I think this small, but important truth, should also have stopped before it came to this event, too.

Mark Lilla…got a big, bitter taste of this last year, too. He was scheduled to give a talk at Wellesley College on “Identity Is Not Politics” and someone scrawled on a poster advertising the talk: “White men: stop telling me about my experiences!”

But what if Lilla did not want to talk about her experiences? What if he wanted to talk about whether the commitment to identity politics has been good of bad for the Democratic party? There would need to be at least two positions, with at least one proponent for each. And who should these proponents be? They should be people with no sexual orientation, no country of origin, no race, no partisan affiliation, etc. Does that leave anyone? Because using this identity politics filter, who you are—that’s the race and sex and all that—makes what you have to say worthless. “Oh, you’re just a..[fill in the blank].  Or for upperclassmen, “just another [fill in the blank.]  Upperclassmen have heard it all before, you see.

Later in the article, Bruni cites with approval the work of Phoebe Malz
Bovy, author of The Perils of Privilege. You need to be careful to “check your privilege at the door,” says Bovy and Bruni agrees. I agree too, but privilege is not uniquely distorting. It is just especially obnoxious. Ignorance and hatred and apathy are all distorting, too, and I would dearly love to see them checked at the door.

bruni 2I think these instances are ugly and that is why I have cited them. But even more ugly to me, and I say this as a former professor [2], are the “classroom conversations” Lilla points to that take the form of “Speaking as an X, I am offended that you claim B.” Lilla says that the form of assertion precludes much more useful forms, such as “I think A and here is my argument.”

That second form, which was once taken for granted in universities, leads to a comparison of assertions and the facts and logic that sustain them. There is, of course, room to do all that badly and I have seen it done badly, but even when I see it being done badly, I know that it could have been done well. Of the first form (Speaking as an X…), I have nothing good to say. Not only is “what I say” set aside without any consideration of its merits, but even “the way I know things”—therefore potentially anything I could know—is set aside as well.  Here again, it is the parallels in this set of pictures that attracted me.

You could argue that I could just do the same thing in return. I could just set asidebruni 3 whatever you say both on the grounds of “how you know things” and also “what you know.” Those are just aspects of “who you are.” And I could. Now the two of us, completely heedless of the worth of anything the other might say, stand there and waste each other’s time. [3]

And then there is the flaw—the really hideous flaw—contained in the first part of the formula: “Speaking as an X…” The racism or classism or sexism (take your pick) embedded in that formula is truly awful. It begins with “we are all alike.” All of us white Ivy League professors are alike and all of us Hispanic agricultural workers are alike and all of us stay-at-home Moms are alike. That’s just how it begins. Everyone in any of those categories would reject that, to be sure, but it is firmly implicit in “Speaking as an X…”

Of course, you are not just an X. You are also a Y and a Z. Will you claim the right to speak for all the members of all those categories, or just for the people who, like you, are X and Y and Z? And then, of course, you are not all the X’s, you are just one particular X and you are unique. So maybe speaking for yourself would be a good idea.

And as bad as it is to claim that your personal identity is dissolved without residue into the category X, it is even worse that you have invited me to claim that I am a Y, just a Y and nothing more. And that is a separate and additional offense.

So…clearly, I need to bail out of this argument before it achieves escape velocity.  The short and simple point is that identity politics presupposes identity rhetoric–not personal identity, which would be bad enough, but group identity–and destroys the basis for any dialogue we might have had.

[1] It is striking that in writing this article, Bruni feels compelled to stop and identify himself as gay. I understand why he would do that, as a rhetorical matter. He is going to be lecturing “victims” and he wants to establish his own credentials as a victim before he dos that. Still, his need to make that claim for himself seems odd in the setting of this particular column.
[2] So…you know…my experience is distorting my judgment.

[3] Unless, of course, I am the teacher in this setting. In that case, it would be my job to teach about the erosive character of that whole orientation toward dialogue.


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A staff you can lean on

Nobody ever accused President Jed Bartlet of being too candid as President over his seven years of presiding over The West Wing. On the contrary, the hits he took in public were about being too distant, too intellectual, too removed from ordinary life. That is not an entirely unfair characterization of him, but it passes over the other part—the passionate, angry, vengeful president.

But for that, he had a staff. [1] I am going to come, shortly, to President Trump’s dispro 1belligerency about North Korea, including both “fire and fury like the world has never seen” and “not tough enough.”  And now, since I wrote those, to “locked and loaded.”  But let’s start with President Bartlet and work back.

In Season 1, Episode 3, “A Proportional Response,” the Syrians shot down an American aircraft. Bartlet was furious about the attack and even more furious about the routines that his military had developed for dealing with such things. These routines did not express the depth of his anger, nor did they assuage his desire for revenge. Here is Round 1 with his military and diplomatic staff in the situation room. Admiral Fitzwallace is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

BARTLET: Then I ask again, what is the virtue of a proportional response?

FITZWALLACE: It isn’t virtuous Mr. President. It’s all there is sir.

BARTLET: It is not all there is.

FITZWALLACE : …pardon me Mr. President, just what else is there?

BARTLET; A dis-proportional response. Let the word ring forth from this time and this place, gentlemen; you kill an American, any American, we don’t come back with a proportional response, we come back [bangs fist on table] with total disaster!

GENERAL: Are you suggesting we carpet-bomb Damascus?

BARTLET; General, I am suggesting that you and Admiral Fitzwallace and Secretary Hutchinson and the rest of the national security team take the next sixty minutes and put together a U.S. response scenario that doesn’t make me think we are just docking somebody’s damn allowance!

You couldn’t ask for more fury than that. He is angry and he has the power to punish and he wants to use it. But then an amazing thing happens. In Scene 3, President Bartlet returns to the Situation Room to hear about the new plan. He gets the new plan—and also an assessment of what this plan will look like to others.

Bartlet: You called me?

FITZWALLACE: Yes, sir. Mr. President we put together a scenario by which we attack Hassan airport…. I think Mr. Cashman and Secretary Hutchinson would each tell you what I’m sure you already know sir. That this strike would be seen at home and abroad as a staggering overreaction by a first time Commander in Chief. That without the support of our allies, without a Western Coalition, without Great Britain and Japan and without Congress, you’ll have doled out a five thousand dollar punishment for a fifty buck crime, sir.

Bartlet’s Chairman of the Joint Chief’s of Staff just responded to the Commander in Chief’s anger as “a staggering overreaction by a first time Commander in Chief.” It is, concisely, “a rookie mistake.”

And there are reasons why it is a mistake. There would need to be a “Western Coalition” dispro 2to support the kind of response the President is talking about. Bartlet just wants to hit back. There has been no engagement with Congress, not even the famous “Gang of Eight.” [1]. Nothing with Great Britain or Japan. There has been no foreign policy preparation at all and only a rookie President would act militarily in such circumstances and this rookie President if very fortunate t have someone who will tell him that.  The caption is from a Fitzwallace fan.  He didn’t have a nameplate that said that.

Bartlet is stopped by his staff. He is still angry and more will have to be done before he addresses the American people that eventing. That additional work is done by Leo McGarry in the Oval Office and when he is done, Bartlet is able to give a public voice that sounds like this.

BARTLET: My fellow Americans, good evening. A short while ago I ordered our Armed Forces to attack and destroy four military targets in Northern Syria, this in response to the unwarranted, unprovoked, and cold-blooded downing three days ago of an unarmed Air Force jet carrying 58 passengers and the flag of the United States.

It took some doing, but he got there.

The Trump Presidency

It is widely thought that no one in the Trump administration would be able to stand up to President Trump the way Admiral Fitzwallace stood up to President Bartlet. This places the contrast between these two residents of the Oval Office in an odd relationship to each other.

dispro 3For example, it is not a difference of public and private person. Bartlet was as angry in this narrative as Trump is today about the threat of North Korea. It is not that Bartlet successfully muffles his anger, determined to act like a president, rather than like an avenger. Taking this scene as a fair instance of his early presidency, he “muffles his anger” no better than President Trump is reported to.

But President Trump has not yet appointed anyone to play either role. John Kelly’s role–that’s Kelly in the picture above– appears to be to keep everyone else in line. It appears to include General John Dunford, the current Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—the role Admiral Fitzwallace played in the TV narrative. And there is no setting where this could occur. President Bartlet convened the members of “national security team” to give him a report in the Situation Room. No one is convened at the site of President Trump’s 3:00 a.m. tweets.

So it appears that the setting is not there. It may be, as they say, that no one wrote the “fire and fury” line for him, but he has been rehearsing it for awhile now in angry outbursts with his associates. None of the associates seem to have found a way to say what these experts, see below, are saying, according to CNN.

Trump’s comment, which came shortly before North Korean officials threatened the United States territory of Guam with missiles, was criticized as too bellicose and direct by national security and defense experts who argued any conflict involving nuclear weapons called for calm and reserve.

So the setting is not there and as nearly as we can tell, the people who can utilize their expertise to move toward “calm and reserve” are not there either. Every president I have seen so far, and that list begins with FDR, has found a way to adapt himself to the Presidency. “It sobers you,” said recent President Barack Obama.

But it may have inebriated President Trump. If he has developed, as many think, a habit of saying what people tell him he shouldn’t say, that means one thing in a radio interview. It means not much more in a TV show that features him firing people. It means somewhat more when it comes to ethnic slurs and predatory comments about women.

But if it really is a habit—as it seems—and if he really is unwilling to set it aside for the dispro 4purpose of dealing with other heads of state, some friendly, some hostile, then he needs a strong staff in the very worst way. And he shows very little inclination—General Kelly is a possible exception—to appoint any. The recent televised cabinet meeting at which each secretary was given a chance to say what an honor it was to serve in the Trump administration, does not bode well for anyone giving the President good advice.

Let’s hope that Kim Jong Un is being better served by his staff.

[1] There is debate about the origin of the term “staff,” to refer to the people who serve you in some way. Everyone agrees the staff = “stick” in some sense, but one group believes it is a stick something like the baton that officers carry, while others think it is a stick more like a shepherd’s staff and that the joke is that the staff are the people you can lean on. I don’t know which is correct but, obviously, I prefer the one with the joke in it.

[2] Specifically, the Gang of Eight includes the leaders of each of the two parties from both the Senate and House of Representatives, and the chairs and ranking minority members of both the Senate Committee and House Committee for intelligence as set forth by 50 U.S.C. § 3093(c)(2).A

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Enjoy your meal

That seems straightforward enough. It’s the kind of thing many waiters and waitresses say as they leave your table, having just served your meal. And if the alternative is not enjoying your meal, I think it is the best of the options.

But enjoying and not enjoying your meal are not the only options. There is, for instance, paying no attention to your meal at all.

meal 2I ask you to imagine that sitting down at a table with friends to eat a meal is really just a palette; it is an occasion that you will use to paint a picture of yourself. In this scenario, the meal itself is just a color, just a tool. In such a setting, it makes no more sense to say “Enjoy your meal” than it would to say to an artist, “Enjoy your yellow.”

Thought of in that way, the meal is a just a way of presenting yourself and “enjoying it” is something you would do if it advances that program. So to properly appreciate “Enjoy your meal,” we need to start back a little farther with “Pay attention to your meal.”

If you do pay attention to your meal, judging it for what it is, rather than for what is says about you, you might not enjoy it at all. I have had meals, and so have you, that are best endured, rather than enjoyed. The meat is overdone, the potatoes are lumpy, and the asparagus, having been served twice now, has developed a texture you really don’t want to encounter at the table.

If I were a positive person who was paying attention to all the possibilities for pleasure available to me at the time, I would concentrate on the people who were there, if there were a really good wine to go with this really awful meal, I would hope to enjoy it fully. There is no reason, in short, why I could not “enjoy the mealtime,” even if I couldn’t find a way to enjoy the meal. [1]

If I were a needy person, a person for whom a dinner with friends was really just an opportunity for self-enhancement, there are several paths I could take. I could say of the mediocre T-bone steak that it isn’t bad, but you should see the way they prepare steak like this in Texas. “I remember a time when Maudie and I were there in ’57 at the ranch of a friend of ours…” I could say of the broccoli that it wasn’t bad, but when we were in Berne, we were served broccoli that was fresher than this and with the most marvelous béarnaise sauce. And I could say of the mashed potatoes that they weren’t all that bad, but in Dublin, where I grew up [2], they used to whip sour cream and just a touch of horseradish into the potatoes. Now that’s the way to do potatoes.  The broccoli with béarnaise sauce looks pretty good, I’ll have to say.

It makes you glad there weren’t more courses, doesn’t it? This person is not attending tomeal 1 the meal at all, so very probably he is not enjoying it. Each kind of food is an occasion for recounting where else he has eaten this kind of food and how much better it was then than now. It is a self-aggrandizing performance and while it doesn’t, strictly speaking, preclude his enjoying the food, it is hard to think that he does.

Note to my blogging self: One of the perfectly valid versions of attending to and enjoying the meal is to savor what is best in each kind of food and to say nothing about it to anyone. That means that I, sitting at the same table, wouldn’t know anything about that experience at all, which is why I am skipping over it with just the briefest mention. That person’s experience, as good as it is, is not available to me so I don’t see why he bothers having it at all.

Another kind of neediness can be seen in “justifying the food.” It seems just a little odd to think that the food might need to be justified, but let me tell you what I mean. It might be that the broccoli is so good because they used to prepare it differently, back in the bad old days, and then I went in and had a conversation with the executive chef and since then, he has been preparing it the way I asked for it to be prepared and isn’t it wonderful? Or, more briefly, “Am I not wonderful?”

And then there is that way of receiving the meal that fits under the “justification” heading too, and is characterized by explaining why a particular course is not good. They have had such trouble with the firm that is currently providing our produce. The available space in the kitchen is so small that they can’t prepare everything at once. The influx of new help in the kitchen means that they aren’t going to get everything right immediately, but this—the food as it is tonight—is just a temporary inconvenience.

This last person may be a very nice person and she is extremely knowledgeable. But if each food item is a tool for amplifying her own role the successes or, in this case, for justifying the food by describing the kitchen or the cooks or the suppliers, then it is likely that her attention, also, is not on the food. [3]

It wouldn’t do, I suppose for the server to leave the table with “Enjoy whatever is best in this mealtime setting.” And I’m not recommending it. But I might just think it to myself as a reminder that there is going to be something that deserves my full attention and I want to be open to enjoying it. This opportunity is going to be at that table at that time and I hope I have the discipline to seek it and enjoy it fully. [4]

[1] A more challenging case would be if one item was really superb amid the basket of deplorable items. To be free to recognize that it was good and to really experience how good it was, would be an achievement to be proud of.

[2] It may have been Dublin, Ohio, but we won’t be seeing these particular people again.
[3] The food, in this scenario, is the victim. It has been badly supplied or badly prepared or badly served, but it is not to blame.

[4] I could do it without all that discipline, I suppose, but when I do it on purpose, I like it better.

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Political Lies and Political Liars

Lord Alexander Chung-sik Finkle-McGraw is instructing John Percival Hackworth, a relatively new member of the New Victorians, on “hypocrisy.” Is hypocrisy a big deal, Finkle-McGraw wants to know, or is it the way it was back at the end of the 20th Century, “the queen of the vices.”
I want to work, today, with the idea that what Finkle-McGraw tells Hackworth about hypocrisy is just what someone needs to tell American voters about lying. If I had the wisdom Finkle-McGraw has, I would do it myself, but…alas. [1]

The occasion for this reflection is the August 7 article by Sheryl Gay-Stolberg in the New York Times. She is anti-Trump, of course. That goes without saying. The New York Times, editorial staff, reporters, and columnists are all anti-Trump. But this article by Gay-Stolberg isn’t about that at all. She is wondering, and so am I, “ whether Mr. Trump, in elevating the art of political fabrication, has forever changed what Americans are willing to tolerate from their leaders.”

Have we changed?

That’s the way she puts the question in her last paragraph and I think it is a good question, but it is not my question. What I am wondering is what kinds of changes in the American public have made lying on the Trump scale, acceptable.

liar 4Let’s take it for granted that people like President Trump do whatever they feel is in their best interest. [2] And I take it for granted that people listen to what they think is in their best interest and believe what they think it is in their best interest to believe. And I think it has always been like that. I think that characterizes the presidencies of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and Bill Clinton. [3]

If that is true, it is just as potentially revealing to ask the question from the voter side as it is from the perpetrator side. So Gay-Stolberg’s summary might be rephrased this way. “Whether Americans, in what they are willing to tolerate from their leaders, have forever changed how Mr. Trump [politicians] are elevating the art of political fabrication.”

Have the structures of the political world changed?

This analysis points to some of the structural features of contemporary politics that would have to be taken into account in a more thorough assessment. I will just refer to them here because I am not going to deal with them myself. Here are three.

The media environment is now fragmented. There is no one to play the “respected elder” role that Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, and David Brinkley did. And in the multiplicity of sources, everyone seems to have a first glance claim to credibility.

The electoral environment has now changed so that in many districts the principal contest is the primary election, not the general election. That means that incumbents must guard against challenges from the extreme end of the partisan scale—conservative candidates from the extreme right, liberal candidates from the extreme left [4]. So the old days, when the general election forced candidates toward the center, are over. The rewards are mostly from the extremes and candidates use the extreme language that will attract supporters and contributors.

In such environments, it is harder to tell what a lie is. More and more political meetingsliar 6 remind me of the “pep rallies” of my high school days. Speaker after speaker praises the home team and vilifies the next team on the schedule. Coaches will say things like, “And we are going to win because we are winners” with complete impunity. It doesn’t imply anything about the actual prospects of the home team in the coming game. We may have lost every game so far and be confidently expected to lose this one as well. No one takes what appears to be a prediction as a statement with any factual content at all. It is just a way of praising ourselves and fortifying ourselves against whatever reality will bring.

Political contexts were once different. If there is a center to the media that is respected and if the crowds being addressed are moderate and mixed, then there is no “we” of the kind the coach presupposes in his pep talk. And that means that things that appear to be statements of fact need to be at least plausible. [5]

Finally, the customs governing political discourse have changed. It was once a moderately funny joke to cite Sir Henry Wotton, a 17th Century wit who said,”An Ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.” The Ambassador is “us” and he is sent off to lie to “them.” That standard has come home and it isn’t even moderately funny anymore.

Politicians lie more now because there is more reason for them to lie—see the point above about playing to the extremes of your party—and there is less reason to fear denunciation. According to the standard of small communities, if a person told lies, then he was a liar. He was condemned for it and his claims were ignored. [6]

liar 2There is no down side, in the current environment, to being shown to be a liar. In fact, now that I think of it, I don’t see that word used. We see stories that some percent of a politician’s statements (I saw a 70% ranking for Trump during the campaign) are lies, but not that the candidate was “a liar.” In the current environment, lies are honored equally with truths as “courageous,” or as “standing up for the downtrodden” (or the downtreaders) or “saying how he really feels.”

The “gotcha!” of being caught and shamed by lying in public—unless it is to a federal investigator—is gone. That’s the point Lord Finkle-McGraw wanted to make about hypocrisy. It is now part of the practice of doing the public’s business. We don’t punish the perpetrators anymore.

How we train our candidates

When I was young, I was part of a group of guys who used to play touch football in a vacant lot next to our church. My friend, Bruce Motter, lived only a block away and was within easy earshot of his home. His mother let him play right up until the time dinner was on the table, provided that he would come home when she called. That was the deal.  So we would hear her call, “Bruce.” We would look at him and he would shrug and we would keep on playing. The next one sounded like “Bruce!!” We all responded the same way. Finally there was “Bruce Allen Motter you come home this instant!” and Bruce would say, “Gotta go, guys” and take off.

I’ve been thinking about that story as I read Sheryl Gay-Stolberg’s article. We train our liar 3public officials by treating some things as acceptable and others as not acceptable. Politicians who thought their campaigns would be seriously damaged if they could be shown to be lying about public matters would stop lying about public matters. Mrs. Motter trained my friend Bruce to understand that he was not really being called for dinner when she called his name. Bruce responded exactly as you would expect, and as any politician would, who was doing something rewarding and illicit and was not punished for it.

Does it really work that way? It did in the experiment Brendan Nyhan and some colleagues put together. Here’s how that worked.

In a controlled experiment, researchers showed a group of voters a misleading claim by Mr. Trump, while another group saw that claim accompanied by “corrective information” that directly contradicted what Mr. Trump had said. The group that viewed the corrections believed the new information, but seeing it did not change how they viewed Mr. Trump.

So the viewers in the second group saw what Trump said, saw that it was not true, and continued to feel about him—however that was—the same way they had before. I am wondering what the effect would have been had Trump’s statement been called “a lie,” on the basis that the new information, which in this world is completely reliable, shows it to be untrue and the group is also shown that Trump knew it to be untrue when he said it.  Here are three plausible steps.

That would be step one; knowingly false = lie. Step two would be backing that reality up into the character of the speaker; frequently lies = liar. Then step three would be the campaign implication; do you want a liar representing you in Congress or in the White House or in the governor’s mansion?

We’ve lost that, I think. If you call the “pep rally” setting to mind, the coach is speaking for “us” and he is saying false bad things about “them” and that shows his loyalty. It show, as we say today, that his heart is in the right place.
“Lying to us” can hardly be imagined in such a setting, which might fairly be called “tribal.”


I don’t really have one. I called it that so you would read this last paragraph. It seems to me that if lying to your constituents has an upside (voters will know you are on their side) and no downside (no one expects you to tell the truth or has any incentive to punish you for lying) then candidates and incumbents will lie.

If we can get out of tribal mode (like the pep rally setting) and demand that speakers, even though they are truly “us,” tell us the truth, then there is a good reason for them to stop lying. We—not intending to overlook the crucial role of the media—are the ones who define what behavior is rewarded. Making statements you know to be untrue could be called lies. People who routinely tell lies could be called liars. A strong presumption against electing liars to represent us, could be articulated and supported. [7]

If lying “to us” is just something public figures are doing “to them,” then I think we are all lost.

[1] Although, it is true that Finkle-McGraw is “an equity lord,” which means, he says, that he is freed to—“entitled to” in a sense— consider the welfare of the phyle as a whole, not just his own place in it. Thanks to Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age for this wonderful character. That is very much what Erik Erikson says about the developmental stage he calls “generativity,” and I have actually made it that far.
[2] By “best interest,” I don’t mean to imply that there is anything like a careful cost/benefit analysis going on, or even whether he is comparing the immediate gratifications of blustering with the delayed consequences of losing large sections of his principal staff.
[3] There are both internal and external reasons for refusing to deceive the public, but the question is never one of “character” v. “expediency.” Sometimes good character requires you to discern and choose the lesser evil.
[4] Despite the wishes of many commentators, there is no “extreme center.”
[5] By “plausible,” I mean only that a case can be made for the assertion. Supporting facts can be adduced. A “reasonable case,” not an irrefutable case, can be made. It is a very low standard.
[6] Not trying to imply, of course, that the behavior of public officials in small towns was like that, only that the standards that were preached and were sometimes practiced, denied credibility to people who were known to be liars.
[7] Of course, “telling the truth” is not an ultimate value. Representing your constituents well is the ultimate value. But telling the truth will allow voters to make that decision on the merits. Telling tribal lies is not at all the same thing as telling the truth.

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Boys and girls and emotionality

“Why do we limit the emotional vocabulary of boys?”

In this piece from the New York Times, Andrew Reiner collects some recent research about how infant boys and girls are treated differently. He cites quite a range of research and not all of it seems to fit together. It may well be that this opinion piece is a chopped up version of a longer essay. I have had that happen to me and I am prepared to be sympathetic. Or it may be that he has a critique in mind—the one with which I have begun this reflection on his column—and that he is just grouping around it the research that comes to hand.

I am quite sure that “we” in the question includes teachers like himself. I am reasonably sure that by “limit,” he means that without the actions he and others take, the “emotional vocabulary” of boys would be richer. I suspect that if the “emotional vocabulary” of boys were “richer,” it would be very much more like that of girls.

So then I wonder why that would be a good idea.

Grieving Styles

I come to this question by a devious and personal route. My wife, Marilyn, died in gender 12003 and I had the kinds of grieving difficulties men have when their wives die. One of the difficulties was confusion. A lot of the things that were being recommended to me didn’t seem to help. Some of them made everything seem worse. That’s why I was confused.

I heard an interview on NPR with author Kenneth Doka, co-author with Terry Martin of a book now called Grieving Beyond Gender: Understanding the Ways that Men and Women Mourn. Doka was saying in this interview that the work he and his co-author had done showed that men and women very often grieved differently. That didn’t surprise me.

Then he said something that did surprise me. He said that the style more commonly used by women—they call it the intuitive style—is also the gold standard among mental health counselors. So if a man is grieving, he has a grief problem to deal with. If he sees a counselor who tells him how he should be grieving, laying out the common elements of the intuitive style, then, Doka said, he has two problems.

Not only is he grieving, but he is doing it wrong.

They call the style men more frequently use, the “instrumental style.” Just hearing Doka describe the kinds of things that many men do with their grief and how helpful they have found it made me relax. Some very large, very intimate tension inside me just gave way at that point. I was so grateful that I went out and bought the book and read it three or four times.

And that is why when I hear lines like “expanding the emotional vocabulary of boys”—which might very well be a good thing once the “How far?” question is answered—I think of my experience with the intuitive and instrumental styles of grieving. [2]

Expressing and suppressing

There are three ways to frame this problem.

  • You can say that there is “a right way to do it.”
  • You can say that gender styles are too tight (rigid) or too loose (unclear).
  • You can say that a particular person should think about gender and emotions differently, that he or she would be benefitted by emoting, lets use that as an example, differently that he or she does now.

Just to shape of the contours of those dilemmas a little, let’s try to imagine what questions they offer us.

  • The first setting can be illustrated by saying that suppressing emotions is a bad thing to do. Note that that instance bypasses both the gender-appropriate and the person-appropriate forms of the question. Here’s an example from Reiner’s article.

“…Harvard psychologist Susan David [says]: “Research shows that people who suppress emotions have lower-level resilience and emotional health.”

That may be true. “Suppress” is hard to be sure about. “Suppress” means that an emotion is experienced and prevented from expression. Nothing here says that boys, for instance, who are judged to be “over-expressive” have better emotional health. Nothing says that Charlie, the boy himself, would benefit from suppressing his emotions more or less. Both of those question are bypassed.

  • The second way of framing the question is saying that gender roles are too narrow—or alternatively, that the boundaries are too rigid. Clearly, “limit the emotional vocabulary of boys” falls into this pattern. The implication is that the emotional expressions of boys would naturally be broader—i.e. more like those of girls—except for the “limiting” that is done. Most of the studies cited in Reiner’s piece are about how such limiting is done. He does a good job, I think, of posing that question.

gender 4But there is the matter if whether that is the best question to pose. In posing this one, he bypassed the other two question we are keeping in mind. The first is whether “broad allowances for emotional expression” are good for people. In focusing on the possibility that these limits are bad for boys, Reiner bypassed the question of whether people in general are benefitted from rich and unconstrained emotional expression. If that were true, we would expect to find that cultures that presuppose free and unfettered emotional expression would be healthier than cultures that do not. I am not aware of any research that holds that to be true, but I will keep my eyes open.

Then there is the question, also bypassed by Reiner’s choice, of whether a particular boy would be benefitted. If Reiner were a counselor, rather than a professor, his job would be to look after the well-being of his client. Some clients will need to be taught better control, some greater spontaneity, and some finer discrimination between one social setting and another. Under no circumstances should Counselor Reiner allow Professor Reiner to dictate how he handles his clients because clients have such a distressing tendency to differ from each other.

  • Finally, there is the question of whether any particular boy would benefit from “a richer emotional vocabulary.” There is no way to deal with this question abstractly and I don’t criticize Reiner for failing to deal with it. I mention it here only because asking it bypasses the other two questions. We cannot begin with a particular boy in mind and ask whether people are healthier if they are more expressive; nor can we ask whether the gender-based expectations for emotionality are too broad or too narrow for boys.

Should boys (men) be different from girls (women)?

My own answer is that they certainly should, but the question isn’t very often asked that way and you will notice that Reiner does not ask it that way either. He asks whether boys would “benefit” from an array of emotional expression that is more like that of girls.

This is a question of the second kind as I explored the three above. It does not ask what is good for “people” or for a particular person, but for the members of one sex, males in this case. That raises the question of what problem of boys the proposal addresses. If it is “limited emotional vocabulary,” as in Reiner’s case, the question we want to ask is what benefit “unlimited”—I know he doesn’t mean that, but “limited” is such a weasel word—would bring to boys. How would they be better off if they expressed themselves more emotionally?

As you would guess by now, my answer is that some boys would benefit and some wouldn’t.gender 3 Furthermore, some girls would benefit from a more limited emotional vocabulary and others would not. This is the most important kind of question for parents, but I agree with Reiner that it isn’t very good for outsiders. The research Reiner reports has to do with mothers and fathers with young infants. No one is asking what kind of treatment is going to benefit this particular infant. That is not a question that can be asked yet.

A 2014 study in Pediatrics found that mothers interacted vocally more often with their infant daughters than they did their infant sons. In a different study, a team of British researchers found that Spanish mothers were more likely to use emotional words and emotional topics when speaking with their 4-year-old daughters than with their 4-year-old sons.

That’s interesting, but it isn’t important unless it contributes to the “problem” Reiner cares about in this column, which is the “limited emotional vocabulary.” And if I care about the growth and development of little boys and girls, I can’t tell how this finding should matter to me.

Reiner also reports research about the orientation of parents to young children, which is perfectly appropriate, but the research he reports is limited entirely to narrow interactions, rather than to the effects on the person.

What’s more, a 2017 study led by Emory University researchers discovered, among other things, that fathers also sing and smile more to their daughters, and they use language that is more “analytical” and that acknowledges their sadness far more than they do with their sons. The words they use with sons are more focused on achievement — such as “win” and “proud.” Researchers believe that these discrepancies in fathers’ language may contribute to “the consistent findings that girls outperform boys in school achievement outcomes.”

It is not hard to imagine, based on this study that fathers acknowledging the sadness of their daughters validates any inclination they might have had toward emotional expression. Similarly, the fathers’ focus on the achievement of their sons might very well be related to the sons’ focus on task-oriented behavior, rather than on emotional expression.

gender 6Looking at this from my standpoint, I see the precursors of the intuitive style of grieving and the instrumental style of grieving. The lesson I took from that setting is that there is a perfectly good style of grieving that doesn’t require an expanded emotional vocabulary (as well as one that does) and I am inclined to look at Reiner’s piece from that standpoint.

Peer and mate selection

One question an adolescent boy might ask if he were to read Reiner’s piece (OK, what are the chances?) is “How is the emotional style I choose going to affect my life?” Reiner offers two little clips that bear, ominously, on that question. One comes from his own classroom, presumably at Towson University in New Jersey.

Nowhere is this truer than in English classes where, as I’ve witnessed after more than 20 years of teaching, boys and young men police each other when other guys display overt interest in literature or creative writing assignments.

His point in citing this is that the guys in these classes seem to “fear” [3] emotion-rich engagement with poetry, for instance. For whatever reason, saying these kinds of things is likely to get you in trouble with your buddies and everyone in the class knows that. Your options at that point are to endure the trouble, to fight back, or to choose different buddies. [4] None of those is easy, which is why the “policing function” exercised by same sex peers is so effective.

The other question one might ask is how a style of emotional expression might affect your marriage chances. Here’s Reiner on that question.

Indeed, a Canadian study found that college-aged female respondents considered men more attractive if they used shorter words and sentences and spoke less. This finding seems to jibe with Dr. Brown’s research, suggesting that the less men risk emoting verbally, the more appealing they appear.

Or as Brené Brown summarizes it: “Women often say they want men to be emotionally transparent with them [bur]…many grow uneasy or even recoil if men take them up on their offer.”

So as a young man of the college and marriage age—I remember a time when those were very nearly the same—I look at myself and my emotional style and seek the approval of my male friends and the prospective appreciation of my female friends and I say that succinct and task-oriented are the way to go.


That’s not entirely fair to Reiner. He is offering a gender-based critique and he had taken the risk of showing that the research cuts both ways. I am calling into question the research that doesn’t go the way I would like it and using nearly all of the research he reports that does go the way I like it. But those small points aside, in putting the crucial question in the mind of a young man, a particular young may, I am undoing his whole strategy that “boys”—the whole genderful of people—be considered as the subject.

When a particular young man asks this question, he may well come out further down the line than Reiner would like him and closer to what I would like.

There is a problem here that needs to be solved. Surely there is. I am not sure, based on my reading of Andrew Reiner’s piece in the New York Times just what it is.

[1]  Nobody wants to deal with the “how far” question.  “More” which is just a direction seems safe.  I think boys should have more.  But “how much more” is a destination, not just a direction, and it asks the question, how much is enough and how much is too much?  The critique is often as broad as the gender.  The the answer is going to have to come one boy at a time.

[2] I think that in practice, “narrow” and “rigid” are just two visualizations of the same problem. “Narrow” refers to the space of behavior that is allowed. Broad, many kinds of behavior are permitted (not stigmatized) and “narrow,” only a few kinds are permitted. I think that “rigid” refers to the lability of the boundaries. If the boundaries are flexible, the whole question of whether they are broad or narrow is bypassed.
[3] The choice of “fear” is advocacy language. What would be obvious to any observer, the professor included, is that the other guys are disapproving “sensitive” or “emotionally nuanced” interactions with literature. The idea that this disapproval is the product of the “fear” of the other guys is an explanation that advanced Reiner’s view of the problem, but isn’t an “experience” he has had. It is a theory he is pitching.
[4] Of course, it isn’t always gender. Michelle Obama, when she was a little girl, was reproved by one of her classmates for not sounding black enough. “Ooooh,” the friend said, “You sound like a white girl.” The First Lady-in-training responded that she liked the answer she had given and was not going to change it to make it sound blacker.





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The (pause) Lord’s (pause) Prayer (stop)

So many kinds of things go on in a Protestant worship service. [1] Calling it “a worship service” is almost a courtesy, but I like the term because it expresses our highest hopes about what we are doing there. Or maybe only the best hopes we remember having.

So “worship service” might almost be called a term of aspiration, rather than of description. It is not so much what we do as what we aspire to. What we actually do might be better described as a variety show. There are “acts” of all kinds to suit all sorts of tastes. There are the high holy moments and the low holy moments. The attention of the congregation comes together in a sharp focus, then drifts away. [2]

The Lord's Prayer 5

I’d like to explore this notion by considering three moments in the recent worship services in my church, the First Presbyterian Church of Portland, Oregon. I don’t mean by choosing these three to imply that other important things were not happening. There may have been a challenging sermon on that morning, or the reading of a thought-provoking scripture, or a children’s sermon that engaged the children and that had an additional track of meaning laid down for the listening adults.

I am choosing these three things because they are like the beds in Goldilocks and the Three Bears. One is too hard and one is too soft and one is just right. [3] I want to look at the Prayer of Confession, at the Affirmation of Faith, and at our common recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. And so you won’t need to maintain the suspense, the affirmation of faith is too hard, the prayer of confession is too soft, and the Lord’s Prayer is just right.

The Affirmation of Faith

We use quite a few different texts in our service, but recently, we have been using the Confession of 1967. The Confession of ’67 was not intended to be read in unison. It is not well-adapted to that use and we do it very badly. In addition to that, it is used as an auxiliary sermon—not to give us a chance to say what we believe, but to tell us what we ought to believe.

Here’s part of the section we read last Sunday.

The institutions of the people of God
change and vary as their mission requires in different times and different places
The unity of the church is compatible with a wide variety of forms,
but it is hidden and distorted when variant forms are allowed
to harden into sectarians divisions,
exclusive denominations, and rival factions.

Compare that, just to get the flavor of the two, with the first and last lines of the Nicene creed:

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible….and I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church.. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

Although the Confession of ’67 is set into verse form, presumably to make it easier to read, it is not easier to read. Nothing you can do with the last three lines of the Confession of ’67, beginning with “but it is hidden…” will align the sense and the sound of the lines. By contrast, everything in the Nicene creed falls naturally into spoken patterns.

The Confession of Sin

On the other hand, the our church—that includes the people who write the prayers byThe Lord's Prayer 4 which we confess our sins together—have not been able to find a form for that confession. The old style (a very attractive example follows)  was bold and without any amelioration at all. “We have sinned in thought, word and deed.” Not much wiggle room there. “We have done that which we ought not to have done and we have left undone those things that we ought to have done.” So again, nowhere to hide.

Here is one from a recent week. It seems so beautiful to me that it is hard for me to say it aloud.

Gracious God, our sins are too heavy to carry, too deep to undo.
Forgive what our hearts can no longer bear.
Set us free from a past that we cannot change;
open us to a future in which we can be changed;
and grant us grace to grow more and more into your likeness;
through Jesus Christ, the light of the world.

It is meant to be read together and you see how congregations are invited to do that by parallels like “too heavy to carry” and “too deep to undo.” The admissions are bold, but then, so are the remedies. “Set us free…” and “open us to a future” and “grant us grace” are sweeping. The theology is orthodox. The appeal of the words themselves is enticing.

Despite my radically individualistic upbringing, I find I like that uncompromising tone. It bookends nicely, for one thing, with the Affirmation of Faith, in which we “confess” those things we aspire to believe whether we actually do at the moment or not. In the Confession of Sin, we “confess” to sins as we imagine a just and holy God sees them. We ourselves, might have seen them as “failures to communicate” [4] but in the phrasing of the confession, we are prepared to see that God sees them as more fundamental and more destructive.

But that use of the confession makes the little qualifications we often put in seem unworthy. We say, “We have sometimes failed….” and “We have not always trusted…” and some Sunday soon I expect that we will be asked to pray “We have not lived up fully to Your expectations.”

People have apparently felt that the traditional form of the confession is not empirically valid. Either it is not true that that we have sinned in thought, word, and deed, or that description does not recognize that there were instances when we did not fail in thought, word, and deed. And that would have us confess an “untruth,” which surely God does not demand of us. [5] Right.  But it seems to me that confessions of principle, of sin as such, are only made to look ridiculous by being qualified with date stamps.

The Lord’s Prayer

But we do say the Lord’s Prayer. We don’t understand it, but we do say it and the experience of being a part of a congregation united in the saying—that means a great deal to me. For me, that is the third Goldilocks bed: it is not too hard or too soft. In fact, the hardness or softness of it doesn’t really bear on my appreciation of it at all. It isn’t always the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer that moves me in the Sunday service; it is the experience of all of us saying the same thing in the same way at the same time.

It isn’t a visual experience. If it were visual, I would have to choose between seeing the Lord's Prayer 1unity—as if I were watching the Rockettes in New York and marveling that they kick exactly the same kick at the same time—and being a part of the unity. If it’s visual, you have to do one or the other. The saying/hearing the Lord’s Prayer is aural. Not only can you say it and hear it—hear yourself as one of many—at the same time, but you can try to approximate the way you say it to match the way you are hearing it. [6]

Our congregation stumbles a little at the beginning because our various leaders in worship lead into the Lord’s Prayer differently. Some say, “the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray”—pause (maybe a fifth of a second)—“Our Father….” Some use different introductions. Some don’t pause at all. As a result, we, the congregation, don’t normally catch the common rhythm at the beginning but by the end of the second phrase “who art in heaven,” we are together.

And we continue together. We break between phrases whose meaning requires a break. We break between phrases whose meaning requires continuing the thought. But we break at the end of each phrase and we break for the same length of time and we sound (to me) like one voice. [7] It’s hard to say just how long the breaks are. I would guess they are between one tenth and one fifth of a second, but whatever they are, they are the same each time.

And we sound like one voice.

We are an extraordinarily diverse church. This is really the only thing we do in unison. It feels healing to me in part because I know that an hour ago people differed sharply from each other on what the words “my brethren” means in the phrase, “the least of these my brethren.” They still disagree about that and will for years to come, but here they are in the worship service, pausing between “Thy Kingdom come” and “Thy will be done” in perfect unity.

[1] I am limiting the topic drastically, but I haven’t experienced very much outside Protestantism.
[2] That’s not a complaint. Allowing your attention to drift, while you are in a competently run worship service in a beautiful building with familiar and well-performed music is not at all a bad thing. It isn’t everything.
[3] I’ve never been happy with the way Goldilocks’ own preference for mattress firmness was ignored. The story is told as if it were all about the beds, when in fact, Goldilocks’ experience is the product of her preferences and the condition of the beds. Or, as my grad school mentor, Jim Davies, used to put it: B = f[P,E].
[4] Thanks to Cool Hand Luke for that enduring and widely shared expression.
[5] It has been some time, I imagine, since the people making this objection have looked over James, Chapter 2, which contains this gem: “10You see, anyone who keeps the whole of the Law but trips up on a single point, is still guilty of breaking it all. 11 He who said, ‘You must not commit adultery’ said also, ‘You must not kill.’ “
[6] That’s what I try to do. I have passed through two other phases. In the one, I tried to say it as a personally meaningful phrasing, saying it so that it sounded like me. In the other, I tried to say it in a way that “brought out the meaning,” whether anyone else was saying it that way or not. I now reject both of those, except when something in the service has seriously pissed me off.
[7] Every now and then, we get a worship leader who conceives of his or her job as teaching the congregation how it ought to be said. The most common crisis is between the phrase “And forgive us our sins” and “as we forgive our debtors.” Some worship leaders think that the contingent relationship, as they imagine it, between the two phrases ought to be stressed, so instead of breaking between the phrases, the just retard a little and continue the thought. The cost to the unity of the congregation’s voice is high, of course, and the value in significance gained in minuscule—particularly since, as Matthew has it, the “forgiveness” is a one time action.

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Speaking facts to power

That’s not a typo. If you were expecting “Speaking truth to power,” read on.

In December, 2015, a blogger named Jade Greear, began a piece with the well-known expression “Speaking Truth to Power.” [1] Greear continued:

Those four little words comprise a powerful expression, one you’ve probably heard a lot this past year….Coined by the Quakers in the 1950’s, “speaking truth to power” is certainly not a new way of taking a stand and mobilizing society around change.

There is not one truth. That is sad, in a way, but a truth is a narrative and the narrative you build is based on where it starts. There are many perfectly valid starting places so there are many valid narratives. A contest among these “truths” is the common condition of large complex societies.

The people who rule a nation are the beneficiaries—often they are also the instigators—of the ruling narrative. The narrative “uses” facts. It “deploys” them as so many pawns; valuable but disposable. Speaking facts that are contrary to the narrative is usually—not always—a futile business and very often a dangerous business as well.

Greear cites Judith Sherwin, an attorney and Adjunct Professor at the Loyala School of Law:

“Sir Thomas More did it at the cost of his life when he spoke truth to power against King Henry VIII; Martin Luther King Jr. did it at the cost of his freedom when he ended up in the Birmingham jail and eventually at the cost of his life.”

More and King

Let’s take those two as test cases. Thomas More was convicted of treason and beheaded for refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy to Henry VIII. Is it meaningful to say that Henry was or was not “Supreme Head of the Church of England.” I say it is not meaningful.

facts 1About his execution, More is reported to have said, “I die the King’s good servant, and God’s first.” It is More’s claim to the ultimate sovereignty of God and the valid, but subordinate, claim King Henry has on his loyalty. More took his stand and paid the price as many honorable men and women have done through the ages. But what he said to the king, cannot be said to a “a truth.” Nor can it be said to be a fact. It is a witness. [2]

I would say the same of Martin Luther King Jr. The authorities in Birmingham forbade public protests. Dr. King participated in such a protest—thereby breaking the law—and they put him in jail. It is true that the powerful in Birmingham discriminated against black people. It is true that Dr. King broke the law.

Better truths

The relationship of one truth to another will always be uneasy. It would be easier to say that one narrative was more moral than another. Justice for all Americans, regardless of race, is “moral” and the suppression of some Americans because of their race is “immoral.” That makes perfect sense to me, provided that one is not said to be more nearly true than another. My view is that one is more nearly right than another.

It is one of the great weaknesses of liberalism in America that we continue to believe that the views of our opponents are “mistaken” rather than “wrong.” A narrative doesn’t have to be factually supportable in order to be an effective “truth.” If the truth is in the narrative, then facts—some facts— can be marshaled to support it. You don’t undercut the “truth” of the narrative or diminish its power by pointing out that it has the facts wrong.

Take global warming, for instance. Here are two relevant truths. The average global facts 3temperatures have been increasing at rates unprecedented in the modern era. The elites have nothing but contempt for “people like us” and will say whatever they want with no concern at all for our welfare. One of those is not “truer,” as we like to say, than another. Each “truth” determines the subsequent actions of one community or another—the scientists by the first truth, the “climate deniers” by the second.

Ask yourself whether one of these is “really true” and the other not. Both are true. They are not competing for verification. They are competing for air space. This is a perspective on truth and factuality that is denied by liberals by and large, both in principle and in practice. We still think that the truth can be established by the facts. We would choose the facts, of course.

There are some settings in which that is true. The examples of Thomas More and Martin Luther King Jr. don’t lead in that direction, but it is a direction worth pursuing anyway. I have an example that helps to illustrate this difference even though it shows scientific agreement in too favorable a light.

“Executive Monkeys”

In 1958, Joseph Brady published an article in Science called “Ulcers in ‘Executive’ Monkeys: It used monkeys who were yoked together so that a bad choice produced a shock both for the monkey that had made the choice—hence “executive monkey”—and for the passive partner who had not. Brady found that stomach ulcers, a measure of stress, were much more prominent in the executive monkeys than in the yoked partners.

In 1972, Jay Weiss published an article in the Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology showing that, in fact, the opposite was true. It is the yoked animals not the decision-making animals, that experienced the stress and showed the ulceration.

What’s going on here? Weiss was able to show that the results of Brady’s experiment were an artifact of which monkeys were chosen to play which roles. Brady reviewed the research design and agreed. The conclusions he had drawn were produced by a bad research design and were appropriately corrected by Weiss. End of story. (Well…it isn’t ever really the end.)

facts 2What we have here is a clash of narratives each supported by experimental data. The narrative supported by Brady’s findings is about the stress of decision making. The monkeys bore the burden of choosing and paid the price. The narrative supported by Weiss’s findings is about the stress brought on by powerlessness. The animals (rats in Weiss’s case) received shocks with no opportunity at all to avoid them and that is what produced the stress and the ulcers.

These are both worthwhile narratives and it may well be that they are both true in some setting or another. They are “truths.” But using the same narrative, a change in methodology produced different sets of facts and only one truth was supported by those facts. So the unsupported “truth” was withdrawn and research continued in the direction of the narrative that these facts support.

Speaking facts to power

I bring this idealistic instance of scientific controversy up in order to show how different it was from the Martin Luther King Jr. and the Thomas More examples. It is different from most scientific controversies too, but I have a further point to make too.

I want to talk to the liberals who think that establishing the facts is going to make a difference to the truths that the reigning powers preach. These liberals—I am a liberal but I am not one of those liberals—think that the entrenched elites will respond to Dr. King the way Brady responded to Weiss. They think that Henry VIII will respond to the “truth” told by More or than the Birmingham police will respond to the “truth” told by King in the way Brady responded to Weiss. I tell you them will not.

Here is a “truth,” a narrative that is continually affirmed despite the clear factual evidence against it. The U. S. is among the most taxed nations of the West and out business success suffers because of it. That is a truth claim and it supports some proposals for taxation and undercuts others. So you an economist and you do a study of the comparative tax burden of western nations and you find what everyone finds: the U. S. in one of the least taxed nations in the world.

Now is your chance. You are going to tell these facts to the people who have been denying them. You are going to “speak facts to power.” People hold the “truth” they are holding for reasons that have almost nothing to do with factuality. Speaking facts to power is a waste of your time.

What is not a waste of your time?

Telling another truth is not a waste of your time. Producing a counter-narrative is not a waste of your time. These narratives will be impervious to the facts, of course. You don’t built truths out of facts the way you build walls out of bricks.

Let’s take this as a sample truth. The more nearly equal the incomes of a country are, the better will be the health of the population. A lot of facts can be adduced to support that. I recommend The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. The book version is more complete; the TED talk by Wilkinson, which you can see here, is shorter and easier to grasp. He shows in painstaking detail that for a whole range of desirable social outcomes—good health among them—the more nearly equal the incomes in the country are, the better the results.

That is a truth worth telling to power.

It can be attacked, of course. Counter-examples can be found. Someone can point out that the burden of the case Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett make is based on correlations. This level of inequality “correlates with” those health outcomes. It is tempting to try to say that the conditions the inequality supports “cause” the health outcomes, but that is a much harder case to make.

If you don’t think it is harder, look at how long we waited between the time when the correlation of lung cancer and cigarette smoking was established beyond debate and the much later time when some mechanism was found that could plausibly account for the correlation. For decades, the power of the correction was suppressed with anecdotes like “my grandfather smoked all his life and he lived to be 104 years old.”

What I am saying is that this truth—we could dramatically increase our health by narrowing the distribution of incomes—is a truth worth telling. It can be factually attacked and factually supported. But it is a truth worth putting into the arena with the current one, which is that the current provision of health and of medical care in the U. S. is the best we can do.

Liberals want to attack that “truth.” They want to show that it is factually incorrect. They are offended by unsupported assertions.  They want to speak facts to power. But the power is built on the “truth” that we have the best system we can afford and that in this system everyone gets what he or she deserves. The narrative and the power structure go together and neither of them cares about facts that do not support it.

What I would like liberals to do it to oppose that “truth” with another “truth,” which is that by reducing income equality, we can achieve much better health and much better healthcare. Both of those narratives—both “truths”—can be attacked and defended with facts. Neither can be defeated by facts. It takes a more comprehensive, a more important truth, the defeat a narrower truth.

So I say that telling facts to power will not do what we want to get done. To do what we want to get done, we will have to oppose one “truth” with another.

[1] huffingtonpost.com12/22/2015 10:40 am ET | Updated Dec 22, 2016
[2] It is interesting that the Greek work for witness is martyrion, from which English derives martyr.

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