See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

Tag Archives: Rhetoric

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.


What is Owed (CiS Part II)

I want to start by apologizing to everyone who checked in last week looking for new posts and was disappointed. I’m still recovering from my somewhat sudden vacation to Orlando, Florida and the attendant 36 hours of driving back and forth, but that isn’t much of an excuse. This doubly true since this, the next part of Communication is Service, focuses on the primary duties of a service oriented communicator: that of not wasting the audience’s time. So once again, I am sorry, specifically for wasting your time.

Let’s get back to basics for a moment, because there is a lot of room for confusion here. Communication is service, and the best way to measure whether or not words coming out of someone’s mouth is a service is to see if it is wasting the audience’s time.1 Take for example a teacher giving a lecture in English, but the entire class speaks only Spanish (further assume that this is not some sort of ESL immersion technique). However justified the teacher feels in yammering on, if the student’s can’t understand, they might as well be playing kickball. Their time is being wasted, the teacher is not serving the students, so the teacher is failing as a communicator. Saying that the communicator has an obligation not to waste the audience’s time is not the same thing as giving the audience what they want – the teacher doesn’t serve the audience by giving the student’s infinite recess and easy As – but its pretty close.

I begin with this obligation as a preliminary expectoration2 as you’ve already heard a lot of nonsense about what the primary obligations of various communicators are. It’s usually a variation on “our job is to speak the truth” (the capital T is occasionally implied as well) with some nuances, like “to lead” or “to educate” or “to call it like I see it” or some other seemingly noble calling. Well, that’s dead wrong. In the third season of the West Wing, Aaron Sorkin spoke through a fictional poet, saying

You think I think that an artist’s job is to speak the truth. An artist’s job is to captivate you for however long we’ve asked for your attention. If we stumble into truth, we got lucky, and I don’t get to decide what truth is.3

To put it another way Sorkin has no right to capture his audience and force them to serve as Sorkin’s dummies as he blathers on about truth. If he manages it great, but that’s just this side of a happy accident. This isn’t to say that truth-telling can’t be a valuable service – it is to say that the communicator must captivate first. In practical terms, I tell forensics students and competitors they have to first answer two questions for the audience, every time. “What are you talking about, and why should I care?” It is the obligation of the communicator to convince the audience care – not the other way around. And what does the communicator get in exchange for humbling themselves into servitude?

Nothing. The audience owes you nothing above and beyond what they owe any other person for your attempt – and I stress, attempt – at communication. You’re here to help the audience, not for them to help you. That means no whining about your audience looking at their phones,4 not being well-educated enough to understand you, or too selfish to care. Be captivating enough that they will pay attention, be clear enough that they don’t have to hack through a thicket of SAT prep books to understand you, do what it takes to make them care.

So, to review: Communication is a form of service. The first duty when serving your audience is not to waste their time. In exchange for you not wasting their time, they owe you nothing. Once you’ve got that mindset, we can start to talk about the mechanics of effective communication.


Communication is Service (part I of an ongoing series)

Last weekend I had the privilege of judging at the Michigan Interscholastic Forensic Association (MIFA) Individual Events State Finals in Kalamazoo. Judging forensics – the public speaking kind, not the dead bodies kind,1 is one of my very favorite things to do in the world, and its a great way to spend a Saturday.

On one level, forensics matters the same way that any extracurricular activity matters: it can build character, provide enrichment activities, and help kids get into college. More importantly, public speaking, whether formal persuasive address with your own words or artistic interpretation of someone else’s writing is a skill2. Public speaking also happens to be an important skill. I knew plenty of very bright people who have difficulty expressing opinion or thought because they’ve never had the training and confidence building from speech activities, debate, or something similar. So being part of that, even if involves getting up at the crack-o-dawn, writing critiques sheets until my hand hurts, and then agonizing over the fifth and sixth places in a six person round, its probably one of the most meaningful things I get to do in my life.

Forensics has also permanently damaged my standards. I came out of Forensics a half decent public speaker, but considerably below the curve of the top ranked kids, and I was not infrequently the strongest public speaker in any given room of college, sometimes professors and special speaking guests inclusive. I figured that’d settle by the time I reached law school, but again, the aggregate lawyer is a surprisingly mediocre public speaker (there are of course some talented litigators who can blow the doors off brick buildings) so with all sincerity, routinely seeing high school kids that are superior stronger public speakers than people who professionally speak in public is disorienting.

I’ve been wondering about why it is that these kids are so good, other than the absolute wringer of competition, coaching, adjudication and practice, practice, practice they’re sent through, and it was my weekly nag e-mail from WordPress that really clarified it for me. WordPress has a little feature where, upon request, a some e-mailing robot will remind you as frequently as every week to post something. The email goes something like this:

Express yourself. (And meet your goal!)

Great job meeting your posting goal last week. This is just a friendly reminder to write this week’s post. Keep up the great work!

Looking for inspiration? Here are some great posts by bloggers just like you:

This is an innocuous little e-mail that is totally wrong. I am not here to express myself, and no blog worth reading is about self-expression. If you want to express yourself, write in a diary or just wail into a pillow. No no, what we’re interested in doing here is communicating, and when you’re truly interested in communicating, the bottom line matters most. It isn’t about what you say, but about knowing what you want them to hear, and finding away to bridge the gap between your mouth and their comprehension. A friend in the Michigan forensics community is fond of saying that forensics is about teaching kids to “stand up and be heard” an expression I love, but if we’re being totally precise forensics is about teaching kids to “stand up and be listened to”.3 Good communication requires the communicator to have, however temporarily, a service orientation, because it isn’t about the speaker but about the audience. Everything we teach these kids is about helping them help the audience.

The high school kids may or may not understand the necessity of a service orientation on an abstract level,4 or be interested in the nuances of word definition, but they’ve had the lesson (proverbially!) beaten into them over and over again by coaches and judges that they have an ends-oriented task as represented by the laundry list of things to do better and score ranks on the little slips of paper they take home each Saturday. I don’t think most adults have access to that sort of thing, and when you’ve got enough talent, skill, and good luck… well, its pretty easy to have ego trample over any service orientation you can muster.

I’m going to be hitting on these theme quite a bit in the coming weeks and months in a series I’m entitling “Communication is Service.” We’ve long needed a(n inter)national conversation on discourse. I’m definitely not the most qualified person to lead it, but we all should be taking part in it, and this is how it has to happen, when each one of us understands that it is not only a right to stand up and be heard, but a service we have a duty to perform for others.


No Disclaimers

The internet is a wondrous non-place for folk like me. Take an insatiable sense of curiosity, add the attention span of that dog from Up 1 and unlimited fountain of free content, and you’ll find me bouncing from trying to write something more substantive on Don Sterling beyond the obvious,2 to doing my daily Serious Reading on The Dish to catching up on Facebook to watching some musicians absolutely kill the theme songs to Ducktales and Pokemon as 90’s R&B slow jams to thinking hard about some life choices I’ve made in regards to race and faith. We’re going to talk about the last one, but first, we gotta catch ’em all.

You’re welcome.

Anyway, whether because of her singing chops, looks, or the sheer ease of researching anybody on the internet, I went ahead and clicked my way around and discovered that Andromeda Turre has been having trouble with the New York singles scene:

I’m single. And I live in NYC. And I’m really busy just like everyone else here, so I decided to give Internet dating a try. In the midst of the flood of ever-creative messages simply reading “hi” or “let’s chat,” there were an overwhelming number of messages asking: “What are you?”

I’ve gotten that question a few times myself. My personal favorite variant is “where are you from?” which I face commonly enough that I’m no longer shocked, and rare enough that I don’t get upset about it, unless I get skeptical looks when I reply “Michigan.” 3 Before long I find myself saying “I’m Chinese. Well, an ABC – American Born Chinese.” Turre knows the score too:

I’m a woman. I’m a New Yorker (yes, I was born here). I’m American. I’m human.

If I was Borg, I’d be one of two. Because as far as I know, there are only two people in the world with my particular ethnic mix. Myself and my brother.

I’m a singer. I’m a songwriter. I’m a fashionista.

I’m a Christian, but I’m open-minded. I hate that I have to say that I’m a Christian that’s open-minded.

I’m the “other” check box.

Apparently, I’m exotic… good thing I like birds so I don’t mind this stupid saying so much.

I’m complicated.

Right there, there in the middle, in the midst of this good but harmless little piece on the complexities of race in America, Turre managed to offend and shame me simultaneously. Once more for those who missed it. – See infra>

A Brief Follow-up on the Tragedy of the Hitler Commons

I generally hate columns. The format and genre encourages short, definitive, statements; brusque, poorly-constructed, arguments; and overreaching conclusions; none of which is particularly useful for the typical audience member. I feel like yesterday’s post was very much within that mold, and for that I am sorry. The last thing I want to do as a writer is to waste your time, and I should have spent more time sanding down the sharp corners and rough edges of the essay.

That all having been said, I stand by the basic thrust of the argument. Classifying persons, ideas or groups into class nouns of “bad people” is a poor rhetorical technique and is very nearly always asking for trouble. Not always, but cautiously avoiding those words will generally get you farther  There is also an importance difference between talking about a class of problems as a force in the world and fingering someone or something as part of it. It is almost always more useful to talk about homophobia than homophobes, climate change instead of climate changers, greed instead of the greedy.

Relying on class nouns comes from the same place in arguments that all ad hominem attacks do. It is a place of frustration. Whether the motivating desire to hurt, to manipulate, or simply to save face, it stems from failure of imagination on the part of the writer. Let me put it another way, can you really not describe the wrong of what a person does without using this class words like a bludgeon? Why not describe in detail what is wrong, and why it is wrong instead of tossing it in a bucket? It isn’t that these class words should never be used, it is that we should use them rarely cognizant of the gravity and power. In the words of my favorite fictional President of the United States “[e]very once in a while, every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts.” For the writer, proper nuance can be a trap yes, but it is also a sacred responsibility that came with the power of the pen.

Tragedy of the Hitler Commons (Or, Making the World a Better Place for Assholes)

A prefatory note: I’ve been reading that one of the problems with young, inexperienced writers in the post-blog world is that we have a tendency to publish reams of controversial material before forming a relationship with an editor. 1 So here is my entry into the genre.

Over at The Anchoress Elizabeth Scalia is taking issue with the use of “homophobia” explaining:

So, “homophobia” is inexact; it is divisive; it is over-used. Most troublingly for a thoughtful writer, it is a word whose use risks an idea going unread — often by an audience that most needs to ponder it — or getting so bogged-down in ideological cant that its point is lost.

Scalia is trying to protect the ability of writers to have good faith discussions and reasonable but unpopular differences. Great! She’s also underselling the problem. Homophobia is a real problem and an absolute murderous scourge on the world. Homophobia has torn apart families, created enormous amounts of psychic harm, and has actually motivated murder. So no, it isn’t a good idea to freely declare anything insufficiently progressive and enlightened vis-a-vis gay folk to homophobia, and it isn’t just because it is troublingly inexact to do so.

No, the problem is that when you indulge – and it is a slothful, wrathful, and prideful indulgence – in classification-as-argument you’re defrauding your audience and harming the people you claim to be protecting. If you, say, call President Obama (or former President Bush) a tyrant in general or Hitler-esque in particular, you’re invoking the whole class of murderous historical figures, stealing all of the revulsion your audience feels and hoping no one notices when you slip in another figure whose major offense is frustrating your moral imagination. Instead of convincing me on the merits, you’re trying to blackmail me into both agreeing with you, but also into pretending, as you do, that it is so Very Important. 2

Even if you’re not trying to manipulate your audience on purpose – you are, but we’ll pretend for the moment – every single time you try to amplify the awfulness of your pet peeve it comes at the price of making the class of horribles you invoked more likely to occur! You cannot expand a class to include a poor-fitting member without damaging the class. For example, when the list of things that make you a felon includes both writing a bad check and writing out an order to have someone killed, the class of “felon” is less horrifying than if it only included writing out orders to have someone killed. 3 This is one of those places where being a lazy writer makes the world a worse place – you weaken the word through over use, stretching it past its breaking point, and like over fishing a sea, you, along with everyone else destroy all the moral weight left in the word and the ideas behind them.

You already know this to be true, because I can give you a simple example nearly universal to the English-speaking audience: “sin”. 4 Sin doesn’t mean much anymore, and that is in no small part due to a centuries of hucksters, schoolmarms and the occasional well-meaning hand-wringer labeling anything remotely fun or discomforting with the word. “Sin” invokes two ideas simultaneously: trivial indulgences and long discredited kill joys. So much so that the very idea of sin as a harmful indulgence, a wrong done to the self and others has receded back into our cultural memory. 5

Please, by all means, talk about tyranny, and how terrible it is. Talk about homophobia, and racism, and antisemitism. Talk about the evil that exists in the world, and our little tiny contributions to making the world a terrible place. We do need reminders of the pervasive nature of evil. But we also need to remember that evil is also boring and banal. For all the high-profile causes of mass misery, you’ve done more evil in your day by being an asshole to some stranger that you don’t even remember. And every time you get high calling some stranger on the internet a nasty name for being nasty to weak people, every pat on the back you give yourself for “standing up” from the comfort of a comment box makes it that much less likely you are actually going to give a damn about the people you actually encounter every day.

That, I think, is the most infuriating aspect of the whole thing. There is the almost understandable tragedy of the commons – so many people demand you care about their cause and they are all competing to be sure, and that makes the verbal pollution spewed forth by sanctimonious partisans disgusting, but at least supposedly linked to some good. It is really the smug self-satisfaction that comes from people dressing up scarecrows like dragons just to slay them and the very real corrosion of their moral sense in the process.

So stop. Just stop it. That means stop calling people Hitler, stop calling people homophobes, stop calling people racists, stop calling people antisemites. Just stop doing it, because it makes you a bad writer and a bad person. Stop it because you are aiding and abetting the enemy. Stop relying on big nasty words to do your work for you. Stop it because it is unnecessary almost all the time, and you’re fishing the pond dry. When the next Hitler actually comes, we’re going to need all the help we can get.