January 25, 2010

Shades of Gray

I have never read Charles Johnson’s blog Little Green Footballs. I can recall visiting it perhaps two or three times over the past 8+ years I’ve been writing Rhetorica. I’ve merely been aware of it as a prominent blog. I have formed no opinion about Johnson or his blog because it would require my time and attention.

That remains true after having read Right-Wing Flame War! in The New York Times Sunday Magazine yesterday. Part of the reason that remains true is that I just don’t much care about the flame war the article chronicles, nor do I care much about the the early war-blog years. It’s all so 2003.

I’m introducing what I have to say with the above caveat because I think there’s something important in Jonathan Dee’s article that you should think about. That something I’m highlighting isn’t about Johnson or L.G.F. or the specifics mentioned in the paragraph I’m about the quote. I quote the entire paragraph merely to preserve a bit of context and not as a comment on anyone named. Here it is:

Regardless of whether Johnson’s view of Vlaams Belang is correct, it is notable that the party is defined for him entirely by the trail it has left on the Internet. This isn’t necessarily unfair — a speech, say, given by Dewinter isn’t any more or less valuable as evidence of his political positions depending on whether you read it (or watch it) on a screen or listen to it in a crowd — but it does have a certain flattening effect in terms of time: that hypothetical speech exists on the Internet in exactly the same way whether it was delivered in 2007 or 1997. The speaker will never put it behind him. (Just as Johnson, despite his very reasonable contention that he later changed his mind, will never be allowed to consign to the past a blog post he wrote in 2004 criticizing that judicial condemnation of Vlaams Belang as “a victory for European Islamic supremacist groups.”) It may be difficult to travel to Belgium and build the case that Filip Dewinter is not just a hateful character but an actual Nazi (and thus that those who can be linked to him are Nazi sympathizers), but sitting at your keyboard, there is no trick to it at all. Not only can the past never really be erased; it co-exists, in cyberspace, with the present, and an important type of context is destroyed. This is one reason that intellectual inflexibility has become such a hallmark of modern political discourse, and why, so often, no distinction is recognized between hypocrisy and changing your mind.

(One possible) Translation: The internet can make us stupid if we fail to think about context.

I never intended any symbolism by choosing gray as the dominant color for Rhetorica. But allow me to claim it retroactively. I’m liking the gray a lot more this morning. I’m thinking we need more shades of it out there in cyberspace. (I know: Good luck with that.)

The idea of ideas co-existing in time predates the internet. That’s the standard ontology of much of academia in which we discuss past thinkers as if they are still addressing us today in present tense, e.g. Protagoras claims X, but Corbett claims Y. The hope is, however, that academics discussing ideas this way think about thinkers in at least two contexts: 1) in relation to their times, and 2) in relation to their body of work. That second context allows that some thinkers may change their minds — something all good academics are quite comfortable with. Show me I’m right, and that’s cool. Show me I’m wrong and I learn something, which is better (or cooler).

In this sense, good academics make bad political partisans because it ain’t about winning; it’s about understanding. (Note: I use the qualifier “good” for a reason… oh, and “in the sense”).

I think Dee is correct that the hallmark of modern political discourse is “inflexibility.” I wouldn’t, however, call it “intellectual.” Perhaps “anti-intellectual inflexibility” is a better term. Then again, I also like “stupid.”

19 Responses

  1. I remember a video on You Tube in which (wait a minute, I can’t believe I’m quoting You Tube … is that legal?)a stand-up comedian, if I recall, says that “changing your mind is the best way to figure out whether or not you still have one.” This phrase sticked with me although I’m not entirely on its side.

    To my mind, there is an underlying decision-provider for splitting “flexibility” from “hypocrisy” and that is reasonableness. Of course, in discourse, reasonableness can be mimed, but, if invoked by the avowedly flexible speaker, it could provide some judgment on more stable grounds than wondering at first sight “did he mean it”/”did he not”, “did he planned it”/”did he not” and so on.

  2. The main thing you need to know about gray as a color for your page is that when it comes to type face the gray color makes it a pain to read long posts such as you write.

    There’s a reason text in books is black on white. Nothing symbolic about it.

    Borders may be gray. Headlines maybe a middle to a dark gray. But text needs to be black. Period.

  3. Sven 

    Watch for my new [pagan] political drama on ABC this fall: Differend Strokes.

  4. acline 

    Sven… 🙂

    Van… Checked my style sheet. You’re reading black text on white background.

    Argue… re: reasonableness Yes. Now how do we make that a greater value than winning?

  5. Tim 

    A difference between reasonableness and winning might be the patience to persuade over time vs. the expectation of persuading in a single transaction.

    Another difference, in approach, might be Socratic vs. expository.

    I would ask the academic how citations are checked so that the latest “change of mind” is referenced?

  6. acline 

    Tim… re: reasonableness Sounds good to me.

    re: citations If the process is working properly, the academic charts the change openly.

    But one can fairly easily chart such things using one of the academic databases, e.g. EBSCO or ProQuest.

    (I may have misunderstood what you’re asking.)

  7. Tim 

    No, no misunderstanding.

    In scientific/engineering academia, a reference must not be too old and any discovered (relevant) reference must be followed by an author search for later (on topic) publications.

    How often have you found a scholarly reference where the author refuted his own findings?

    How often an expert that doesn’t rationalize a prediction?

    How often does a journalist encounter a source that refutes what the journalist transcribed? A changed mind? Misunderstanding? Missing nuance? CYA?

  8. acline 

    Tim… Actually, I have seen it — especially in rhetoric scholars with a large body of work over a long period of time. I’ll grant you that some scholars get stuck on their pet ideas, e.g. I’m stuck on the structural biases until someone comes along with something better. But I’m stuck on them because they still appear to me to explain much of what I see happening in journalism.

    I’m not trying to defend CYA and other such bullshit. Nor am I trying to make the case that all academia works as I have said it should (remember those qualifiers!). I think sometimes people do change their minds. And it doesn’t necessarily indicate hypocrisy. Sometimes people make rational choices when presented with better alternatives.

  9. Tim 

    Not really my point, please let me try again. Is modern political discourse in the pundustry (or punditsphere?) the “anti-intellectual inflexibility” of the hedgehog?

    Is is unique to political discourse re: good academics make bad political partisans?

  10. acline 

    Tim… re: hedgehogs Without minimizing its simplicity, the hedgehog dichotomy is useful to an extent. I would say yes. But then you know that I hold punditry in considerable contempt.I would add that much political discourse today also falls into “anti-intellectual inflexibility.” But I think in many cases the rhetoric fails to match real political intentions, i.e. I think a large number in Congress — Democrats and Republicans — really do want to do something positive about our health care system, but they are constrained by, among other things, partisan discourse.

    I do mean to restrict my comments to political discourse — understanding that I have left much unsaid and unconsidered. That’s partly your job as reader 😉

  11. Tim 

    re: in many cases the rhetoric fails to match real political intentions … [politicians] are constrained by, among other things, partisan discourse.

    That’s a different topic altogether, isn’t it? That’s not the calculating fox nor the obstinate hedgehog. That’s not a temporal change of position vs. hypocrisy.

    Why would a politician, for whom rhetoric is a calibrated tool, be partisan or use rhetoric that doesn’t match intent?

    Do you mean there are conflicting intentions and a politician must choose her rhetoric?

  12. acline 

    Tim… There are always conflicting intentions. But what I mean to indicate is that Politician A may hold a certain position on a certain topic and intends to legislate a certain way in regard to that topic. But how Politician A talks about that topic may be constrained by the culture of the party at that time and/or the way fellow politicians are talking about the topic. This, IMO, is one of the sources of silly slips of the tongue — caused in part by a strange cognitive juggling act between what a politician may truly want to achieve politically (i.e. actual policy as opposed to simply winning) and what he feels he is allowed to say ( I do not mean “allow” in any legal sense — I mean instead cultural or social constraint).

    And, yes, this has strayed from the topic a bit — but interesting nonetheless.

  13. Tim 

    re: constrained by the culture

    Is that kairos?

  14. Tim… What is and is not good kairos are cultural values, so yes. Other things, too. But kairos is a biggie.

  15. Sven 

    I’m not an existentialist, but this makes a lot of sense to me:

    “When people communicate, they do not simply pass information back and forth; they get things done. In their activity they depend on speech acts such as requesting and promising to make commitments. Moreover, not only do such speech acts as requests and promises enable them to operate successfully within a shared world; other speech acts such as offers and declarations open up new worlds –domains of discourse and action such as industries, governments, professions and so forth. So far as the Internet develops means of communication that enable people to keep track of their commitments and to see how their speech acts open new domains of action, the Internet supports the ethical sphere.

    But Kierkegaard would probably hold that, when the use of the Internet for the coordination of commitments is successfully instantiated in a communications system, the very ease of making [unconditional] commitments would further the inevitable breakdown of the ethical sphere.”

  16. LGF’s situation is rich in irony — time was when liberal bloggers were delinking him for “hate speech” — and time before that was when he was a vaguely liberal blogger just out having fun before 9/11. Partisan discourse has a lot to do with this situation, as does his repeated clashes with fundies, the more strident of whom are usually of a certain political orientation (this is where I deliberately and somewhat ironically reference Matthew 12:36, heh). Also, I think the phrase “the Internet makes you stupid” is already taken …

    The solution, of course, is for readers (and bloggers) to work harder. ;^)

  17. acline 

    Jay… Harder is better as we have long espoused 🙂

    Sven… Looks like an interesting read. I’ll dive into it asap and respond either here or in a new post.

  18. acline 

    Jay… When it comes to working harder, I really like these guys: http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/

  19. Sven