See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

Don’t Undercut Yourself with Extraneous Big Ideas (CiS III)

I spend a lot of time watching amateurs argue with each other, and I’m always amazed by the eagerness with which people will undercut themselves but throwing in huge, controversial claims. Here’s a small example:

Shinseki resigned, Obama lacked the testes to fire him. Then, Obama praised him — for failing!

Note to Obama: You regale someone who’s done a good job, not someone who has tried and failed miserably.

In Obama’s world, everyone gets an “A” — that’s what affirmative action does to you…

Let’s break this down, but construct the argument charitably. Charitable construction will be discussed in more detail later, but for now it will suffice to say that when someone says something, take the best version of it head on before arguing against it. So what this commentator is really trying to say is something like the following:

  1. Shinseki was a failure at his job/
  2. Shinseki resigned.
  3. Obama praised Shinseki and should not have/
  4. Obama should have fired him instead of waiting for Shinseki to resign/
  5. This is all the fault of Obama’s world vision of “everyone gets an A”.
  6. Which is all the fault of affirmative action.

Now, even with a charitable construction, this is a fairly loony argument, but it doesn’t have to be. Point 5 is unnecessary, but arguably adds context. Point 6 is completely tangential and upon reading it, I’ve reflexively written off the commentator as a racist. But if you lopped off points 5 and 6, you have a point of view that can be well defended. If on the other hand, you really want to talk about 5 and 6, points 1-4 aren’t really going to help you. Yet, people do this sort of thing all the time. In fact, while usually not this crudely, you actually get this problem at the highest levels of intellectual debate. If anything, it seems to be one of the bad side effects of high intelligence. There is a strong temptation among the intelligent and articulate to weld defensible small points, well grounded in observation and reasonable opinion, with wild larger ranging points, which are, well… less well grounded. I call these large points Theoretical Superstructures, ideas that purport to bind observations together into a sensible pattern. People, being fairly smart once they put their mind to it, are really good at observations and pretty terrible at theoretical superstructures. I count the work of Sigmund Freud as archetypal of this phenomena.

As a reader, I often find myself mentally lopping off the superstructures that writers tack onto their work, whether it’s a tweet from the recent #YesAllWomen trend, or the an extraneous ‘graf from a New York Times columnist. As a communicator, you should be spending your time lopping off those superstructures in your editing process. Don’t distract your audience, but serve them by staying focused. Restrain your urge to tell them How the World Makes Sense, and focus on describe what the world looks like. If you do want to communicate a theoretical superstructure, then make that your focus from top to bottom, and do it with purpose. At which point your restraint is well applied in making sure your examples fit.

Now, just because I’m advocating restraint doesn’t mean I want you to be cowards. Any sort of communication is an act of courage, and the more public and permanent the more courage it takes. That’s a good thing. Rather, I’m advocating you apply discipline, focusing your message on what will help the most: first facts, then context, and then and only when you know you have it nailed, the theory. If nothing else, you’ll sound smarter than most of the people arguing on the internet.

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