Tuesday, October 12, 2010

X-ism's Critical Illiteracy

This discussion at Non Sequitur strikes me as a basic summary of the pattern of current policy discussions in the US (to the extent there are any genuine policy discussions at all). At its most insidious, it's framed in the rhetoric of opinion, I think, as I was discussing in this post on "Untrying" a few weeks ago. In general, any time there's a discussion where X-isms like "conservative"or "liberal"or "Christian" are used freely it's probably a good idea to be wary of the ways in which they serve as heuristic black boxes. I don't think we can take for granted any more that this is just a matter of shorthand efficiency in policy discussions.
When addressed with the question whether X or Y is better, any reasonable person answering the question should be capable of two speech acts: (1) a determination of X or Y, and (2) producing a reason why that choice is a good one. Often we just allow folks to just to perform (1), and we let them keep their reasons for themselves. But its in the reasons that we find all sorts of interesting things, and we may, ourselves, learn something about X or Y. Importantly, those reasons should be about X or Y, what properties they have, maybe their history, what about X or Y appeals to you.

Here's a kind of reason that fails that requirement: I'm the kind of person who always chooses X. Or, I was brought up choosing X. Or, if X was good enough for my parents, X is good enough for me. Now, those reasons are pretty weak — they amount to the concession that X and Y aren't objectively any better than one another, but because of the contingencies of history, I've ended up an X-ist. Since it's just trouble to end up changing, I'll stay one. Again, that's a reason, but a very weak one. And one that, again, concedes that there's not much relevant difference between the two. Ad populum arguments and those from tradition need not be fallacious, but even in their non-fallacious forms, they still aren't very good. They, really, aren't answers to the question. The question was which was better, not which you choose.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting. It reminds me very much of this excellent essay on partisanship.

MT said...

"they amount to the concession that X and Y aren't objectively any better than one another"

i.e when preceded by (1). Referencing "speech acts" is to concede a response need not be an answer, in the sense of a direct answer. It seems every bit as common that people "talk past each other," as the saying goes.