Sunday, May 13, 2018

Adapting the Marquess of Queensberry Rules for Debate to Simulate Argument

The New York Times has recently had a series of pieces to wit that Liberals should be debating Conservatives vigorously in the "marketplace" of ideas.  This is supposed to normalize each group and get away from the extreme views that appear to emerge when every conversation is preaching to the choir.  I want to challenge some of the underlying assumptions with that, offer my preferred alternative, and then work through an example to illustrate.

I want to begin not with politics at all but with each of us, regardless of political affiliation, as potential consumers of product, though perhaps with no interest to buy a particular item.  Some salesperson tries to initiate contact - by ringing the doorbell, calling on the phone, or sending an email.  Do you feel an obligation to respond in this case?

I do not.  I view each of these as an intrusion.  The two live situations, doorbell and phone, seem to operate under the assumption that I might say yes out of politeness, even when I don't want the product.  Indeed, this also seems to be the case for some charitable solicitations.  (And when it's a neighborhood kid, perhaps chaperoned by a parent, e.g. selling Girl Scout cookies, I think that is okay as a way to support the community, but otherwise it is crossing a line.)  The phone one is particularly interesting because, with caller ID, if the number is not recognized I don't pick up.  Very often in this case there is no message left on the answering machine.  The situation itself reveals the caller wants a live person.  The email is slightly different since there is no pressure that way.  But I get many emails to an address which, while it still delivers the mail, went out of existence a decade ago. And I get a lot of messages thinking I'm still Assistant CIO for Educational Technology, which I quit back in 2006. The sender could verify that I'm retired, for example by checking LinkedIn or my Blog, but apparently doesn't do that.  If the sender hasn't done the requisite homework, why should I listen to the message?

Let me summarize this conclusion.  In matters of the market, the potential buyer should initiate the conversation, when the buyer is inclined to do so out of interest in making a purchase.  When the seller initiates, the buyer is in his rights to walk away.  There is no obligation to participate in a conversation.   Just about everyone I know (definitely not a random sample of the population and actually not a very large sample either) subscribes to this view.  Whether it is universally held, I can't say.  But I'm going to take it as a universal principle in what follows, because it helps to frame the argument better.

Indeed I have an aversion to getting a sales job even when there is no dollar purchase of a good or service.  Instead, what is being sold is some idea.  The person delivering the spiel wants me to embrace their idea. I want no part of it.  I first encountered this situation in college where some students from another university came to the Union to proselytize about religion.  I participated once or twice, uncomfortable in each situation.  I can't say that I learned anything from this, other than to avoid such conversations in the future.  I subsequently experienced this sort of thing as a young faculty member when thrown into departmental politics, where the infighting was quite fierce (because the stakes were small).  And later when I became involved with learning technology and where the overt goal was diffusion, some educational technologists embraced a whiz-bang approach.  This was the train, it was about to leave the station, and you better get on it before it does.  I confess that I fell for that one for a while, but I soon came to my senses and insisted that you had to connect how the technology was going to help teaching and learning in a plausible way to deliver a credible message.   When I was a more experienced administrator I tried to keep the bs to a minimum and give an accurate picture of what was going on.  That's been my style since and it is the style I prefer in others.

Now let me turn to politicians briefly.  They are speaking to a broad audience when we the public hear what they have to say.  Doing a sales spiel (stump speech) is an occupational hazard.  Nuance and troubling facts that offer a decent counterargument are ignored.  This is true on both the left and the right.  But otherwise, I don't think the situation is symmetric at all, as I wrote when I deconstructed a piece by Bret Stephens in this post, The Demagoguery of the Reasonable Conservative Commentator.  Nonetheless, if you were/are a fan of The West Wing then you know that in Season Six the consultant Amy Gardner was brought in to advise the candidate Matthew Santos on "The Presidential Voice" where the trusted candidate speaks with gravitas and talks in broad strokes.  (This is in an episode called Freedonia.)  I take from that show that this is the nature of political speech in public settings.  The voter then has to play a game of inference, inverting what the speech really implies.  Of course, we all play inference of this sort in every conversation where the details aren't fully spelled out.  But it is more so with political speech, ergo Lincoln's line about fooling some of the people some of the time.

Now I want to switch gears and distinguish between argument, which I like, and which I participate in regularly, even as a reader or as a listener, and debate, which I'm far less fond of and which I frequently find less satisfying, though I did enjoy watching The Great Debaters.  More recently I watched a video of an old debate between James Baldwin and William Buckley, and while Baldwin was interesting to see here, I was offended by Buckley's demeanor, which seemed condescending to me.  I had seen Buckley debate before.  He has a tendency to make a flip remark when he doesn't actually have a refutation to what the other side says.  It's not a tactic that I appreciate.  With this as background here is the distinction I want to emphasize.

With argument the participants start from positions of perhaps opposing views, though there may be some overlap.  The goal is to produce a deeper understanding of the situation.  Neither side will likely prevail in full, especially if there is some merit in each side's original position.  Instead, what will emerge is something new that is produced from the prior views during the argument.  Mary Parker Follett called the process Interweaving.   For the process to work each participant must acknowledge the good points made by the other and when a convincing refutation of one's own maintained position is offered up that must be acknowledged - touché.  For an argument to take place, the participants are clearly necessary.  An audience is not.  Indeed, an audience might encourage a participant to grandstand and become less flexible as a consequence.  If there is only modest differences in opinion among the participants at the outset, perhaps the grandstanding can be contained and the audience might then learn how good argument works.  I fear that many students today don't have good models of what effective argument is about, so they never learn to want to participate in argument.

With debate the participants start from opposed positions and adhere to those positions throughout.  They don't modify their views at all during the debate.  The goal is to win, by convincing the judges or the audience that their side is making the case better than the opposing side.  Debate requires non-participants to watch and evaluate, then to declare a winner.

The Marquess of Queensberry Rules in my title emerge from the observation that a sales spiel can be an effective debate tactic, even as it masks the truth.  It could produce a win by propagating a myth if the judges were prone to embrace the spiel.  The deliberate promotion of myth should be deemed "hitting below the belt" and against the rules.  A debate needs to adhere to basic norms of fairness.  Promoting a myth that is known to be false ahead of time  is one example of unfair behavior.  A full adaptation of the Marquess of Queenberry Rules would delineate various possible departures from fairness and rule them all out of bounds.  But rather than articulate those norms here I want to do something else.

I'd like to get some insight into the debaters view of epistemology.  How did they come to their own held views that they will be promoting in the debate?   If the debaters are true believers, the debate will offer a clash of views and the sales spiel approach is quite likely to be deployed by each side.  In contrast, if the debaters claim to be swayed by evidence, so that when new information that is credible is presented they might change their views to accommodate the new information, then the form of debate itself might not be so different from argument and the audience in attendance might be able to synthesize the arguments in a way that produced something new.

With that in mind imagine a pre-debate survey administered to the participants, the results of which get released to the audience prior to the debate.  Here are some hypothetical questions that one might pose on such a survey. 

1.  Are you ever skeptical of your own held views?
1a.  If you answered yes, how is that skepticism expressed?
1b.  If you answered yes, have you ever publicly changed your view?
1c.  If you answered yes to 1b, can you give an example of that? 

2.  When you present information to support your position are you sometimes aware of other information that might repudiate your position?  If so, how do you treat this other information?

3.  In preparation for debate do you argue with people who hold dissimilar views to your own?  Have you had prior experience of argument where you've actually persuaded somebody to come over to your side?

4.  Likewise, have you had prior experience when arguing with people with dissimilar views of switching your own view to be more in accord with theirs?  If so, can you give an example of this? 

The list of items might be longer, but this should give the idea.

Now I want to switch gears again and challenge those who so believe that debate among opposing points of view is critical for a democratic society.  I believe that is not true in general and/or there is an implied assumption that the debaters are willing to argue to the truth.  If that assumption doesn't hold, it is my view that debate can produce very little other than the enmity of the participants and a lot of blather.  The old TV show Crossfire offers evidence of this.  Jon Stewart's take down of the show makes the argument far better than I ever could.  And, of course, the show went off the air soon thereafter.  Have we learned anything from that experience?

* * * * *

Here I want to give my example.  I am going to take on Arthur C. Brooks in his piece Why Do We Reward Bullies?  Brooks is President of the American Enterprise Institute, a well known Conservative think tank.  I'm going to go through this twice, first in debate mode, then in argument mode.  I hope this illustrates the difference between the two.

Debate Mode

Brooks makes two main points.  First, we should fight bullies rather than cow to them. If we fought them consistently they'd lose their currency and disappear (or at least appear far less frequently).  Second, bullies need an audience to thrive.  They play to the audience.  So don't blame the bullies for the fact that there is a ready made audience for their bullying.  That includes President Trump.  He is simply satisfying what the market demands.

My counter will show the two points are mutually inconsistent.  Demonstrating that inconsistency, I will have won the debate and it will be over.  However, that will not elucidate the underlying situation at all.  So for the reader, the results will be unsatisfying.

I begin by considering the decision to capitulate to the bully or to fight the bully as akin to the fight or flight instinct in most animals.  Since I actually have a class session in my course on the Economics of Organizations on Conflict, where I like to briefly consider a Darwinian approach, it is worthwhile to reflect on the emotion associated with flight versus the emotion associated with fight.  Students readily agree that flight is associated with fear while fight is associated with anger.  If a normally dovish person is going to take on a bully, the person is going to be very angry.  The person will have gotten worked up into a lather.  Being angry at the bully, the person will blame the bully for the bullying behavior.  That's what will happen.

Brooks wants people to take on bullies but then not blame them.  Those are mutually inconsistent.

Debate over.

Argument Mode

Here I want to begin by noting that I actually have some sympathy for what Brooks seems to be driving at, but I think his framing of the issues is not good, so he ends up painting himself into a corner.  The first part of the argument is to search for a better framing.  Then we can ask whether we can define the problem in a way that still makes sense to Brooks,  in other words if he is somebody who might adjust his view after hearing the argument.  Then we can get at solutions.  We might still disagree vigorously on how to solve the problem, but we might get much closer on what the problem is.

The first part of the argument is about defining what bullying is, which Brooks never does. Can there be aggressive behavior without bullying?  For example, NBA players are known to talk trash during the game. (Larry Bird in an earlier era and Draymond Green nowadays come to mind.)  Is talking trash bullying or is it simply part of players competing against one another?  What about a prosecuting attorney taking on a hostile witness?  Is that bullying or a necessary way to get at what the witness really knows?  Frankly, I don't know where to draw the line between bullying and legitimate forms of aggressive behavior.  Might it be that all forms of aggressive behavior in political discourse should be questioned, regardless of whether the behavior is legitimate or bullying, simply because aggressive behavior is inappropriate in political discussion?   If so, then Brooks' piece, while not a complete red herring, misdiagnoses the problem from the outset.

The next part of the argument is to focus specifically on anchors for news/commentary shows.  With that I think it worth mentioning the Aaron Sorkin vehicle The Newsroom, which was far less satisfying to view than The West Wing.  The Jeff Daniels character in the show, Will McAvoy, was actually a prosecuting attorney before he switched to do the news and the premise of the show from the get go is that he would bring his prosecuting style to doing the news, no holds barred.  We might then ask, is this a good way to do the news or not?

My belief, and I used to be a regular watching the PBS News Hour, which favors a more inquiring style to do the news, but I have since gone pretty much cold turkey on watching any news, is that the inquiring style started to fail at around the time that the Tea Party experienced electoral success.  And maybe there was evidence of that failure much earlier, when New Gingrich was Speaker of the House.  In fairness as perceived by the viewers (and as perceived by the political parties) the inquiring style demanded representatives from the Democrats and the Republicans, either simultaneously or sequentially, so the audience could see different points of view represented.  But those representatives could stonewall by spewing a party line rather than give thoughtful and reflective responses.  This spewing of the party line was particularly dissatisfying to watch.  (It was very much like how above I characterized debate among true believers.)  The prosecuting style was meant to remedy those issues.  Alas, every cure has side effects, some unanticipated when the cure is first implemented.

The next part of the argument is to look historically and ask whether these issues have always been with us.  On this score I look back fondly to when Walter Cronkite was the most famous newscaster in the country and the political parties were far less polarized.  Might it be that more restrictive supply of who provides the news coupled with tighter regulation of how the news is delivered would return us to that idyllic time, when the news providers were trusted?  If wishing would make it so.  I will provide two points to counter this view.  First, the film Network dates back to 1976, when Cronkite was still the main man for CBS News.  Network is a remarkably prescient film.  Paddy Chayevsky, who wrote the screenplay, was able to discern all the ills of the current news shows 40 plus years ago.  Given that's true, we should question whether the time of Cronkite was really all that idyllic.  Second, while then the TV channels were over the air, so restricting supply was possible by the restriction that TV networks operate at different frequencies in the radio spectrum, now TV provided by cable or satellite faces no such restriction.  Further, regulate TV and all that might happen is for the programming to move to the Internet.  Netflix, for example, might begin to offer the news.  When only some of the providers can be regulated, that would seem not a very effective solution.

The next part of the argument is to look at current day approaches to stop bullying outside the sphere of political discourse (though they overlap with that sphere).  Two of these worth mentioning are #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo.  Brooks doesn't mention either of these.  I can only guess as to why the omission.  (That would be a general aversion to collective behavior of any kind.)  What these approaches show is that collective responses to bullying can raise attention to the problem and perhaps empower individuals to come forward to point out specific acts of bullying.  Individual action alone doesn't seem to work well, because the individual acting alone in intimidated by the bully.  Let's say that is true.  Might collective responses also work in the arena of political discourse?

My sense is that it won't work.  Both #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo are fundamentally about fear.  The victims are fearful of the bully.  These fearful people have banded together because there is strength in numbers.  In contrast, viewers of either Fox News or MSNBC are addicted to watching because the shows on each network are sure to provoke anger in the viewers.  The viewers have become addicted and want to be so provoked.   Karl Marx argued that religion is the opiate of the masses.  In this sense Fox New and MSNBC are the prophets of the new religions.  Thomas Edsall's most recent column, Which Side Are You On?, provides good support for this view.

In turn, all private news organizations are in a competition to attract eyeballs.  The more eyeballs the more revenue.  Capitalism is fundamentally what drives this behavior.  If the viewing audience could be guaranteed in some other way, perhaps the programming then would be less trying to stoke the audience into a rage.  But there is no way to guarantee an audience.  So rather than do the right thing, they do the profitable thing.

I want to note that this is not new.  Back in the Walter Cronkite days The New York Daily News had a greater circulation than the New York Times, and the New York Post, which had been a respected afternoon paper, switched over to mostly tabloid news.  Social networks aren't causing this, though they may be exacerbating the problem. The problem has always been with us.

* * * * *

Argument tends to be slower and far more nuanced than debate.  People expect there to be simple answers to social issues and debate encourages that expectation.  Argument supports that there are myriad issues at work  and no one simple solution to get rid of the aggressive behavior in our political discourse.

How would Mr. Brooks respond to my piece were he to read it?  Dismiss it with an ad hominem on me? Or embrace some of what I said while trying to refute some of the specifics?  I don't know.  I do know that Libertarian types in general are loathe to acknowledge market failure and the issue Mr. Brooks has identified surely is a kind of market failure.  If he did acknowledge that much, what then?

In my view, the right thing to do would be to argue further.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Getting Connected to Oneself

I spend a lot of my time in introspection and have done so for much of my life.  Having that inner conversation may be one way to consider being connected to oneself.  Yet while I do it a lot some of these conversations don't really draw me in.  They are more chatter than anything else, time fillers, nothing more. There are other conversations that are more gripping, some of which result in writing a blog post like this one.  But still, they seemingly are products of the conscious mind only.  Some years back I read On Not Being Able To Paint and it was an eye opener for me.  Milner explains that often the conscious self blocks the subconscious, and in so doing we become dull and our creativity is hampered. In fact, this is the core problem she identifies to explain why she has trouble painting.

We tend to think of our own subconscious mainly at work in dreams, and of course it is there, though interpreting our dreams and what the subconscious is driving at is an art, one that most of us probably find elusive.  We may be less aware of the need for daydreaming, as a way to release the subconscious where it can better interact with the conscious self.  Trying to follow Milner, I'm hoping that writing for me is a way to do that, where during the process of composition I fall into a reverie, lose track of everything else, but zone back in after a time.  So my indirect goal with the writing, quite apart from producing the essay for others to read, is to experience a sequence of finding reverie, then returning to more conscious awareness, and then repeating the process.

This piece, in particular, is motivated about wanting to touch the subconscious regarding some serious health issues that I am now facing.  Of course, I've consciously thought about that quite a bit.  But, so far, it doesn't seem as if the subconscious has weighed in on the matter.  (Last night I had a dream about a rather horrible gigantic monster that was just waking up, getting ready to wreak havoc.  Perhaps the subconscious is beginning to to express itself on the matter, though maybe not.  Many other of my fears could explain that dream.) Are the health issues really of no consequence in the grand scheme, because life goes on?  Or have I simply not given the subconscious enough of an opportunity to express itself?  Indeed, I've written very few blog posts as of late.  I have this feeling that I should get back to that and maybe I will, though I seem to have such a small audience.  Really  that shouldn't matter.  I procrastinate now in composing these slow blog posts because I don't want to fully repeat things I've already written, and I want to say something of consequence as well, mainly to prove to myself that I still can.  Then I find myself getting stuck on the themes I come up with.  The previous post alludes to that in the ultimate section of the piece.  Lacking a way to get unstuck, I then look for other reasons not to write.  That's where the small audience comes in.

I do something else much more regularly.  Every day I will read the Quotes of the Day where four quotes are presented.  I select one based on criteria that I would find hard to articulate.  Let's just say I look for the one I find most pleasing, for whatever reason.  Then I add my personal quip to the quote and post to Facebook.  This routine has become an ingrained habit, one I partake in over my first cup of coffee in the morning.  (Looking back through my Facebook wall, it is appears I started to do this in 2014.)  I mention it here because the quip is evidently a reaction to the selected quote.  It may be of interest in asking where the quip comes from and if others were to do likewise in reading the Quotes of the Day whether they'd come up with similar stuff.  I don't know, but let's say they would.

I want to contrast this with my other short writing that I do on a daily basis, which started at roughly the same time.   I write a rhyme that I post to Twitter (which then is posted to my Facebook wall).  Some of the rhymes have links associated with them, something I read, in which case the rhyme is a reaction to the piece and in that sense the rhyme is like the quip I write for the Quote of the Day.   The more interesting case here is when there is no link.  Where does the rhyme come from then?  Does the subconscious emerge here in "choosing" the rhyme? 

I think that is a possibility, especially when its a subject theme that comes first to mind although some of these rhymes are riffs on ordinary experience, typically something recent that has come to my attention.  There is no subconscious needed for that, just a nose for small things that might be the subject to write about.  But even then I might connect the subject to something entirely unrelated.  This one, for example, connects the first cup of coffee in the morning with Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven.  Why make such a connection?  The best answer I have to that question is that my subconscious needs to assert itself and such odds connections offer a way to do that.

Sometimes it might just be word play.  I come up with a couple of words that rhyme.  That's the starting point.  Then I might try a line where the first word concludes the line and another line that ends with the second word.  I ask myself, is there a potential for a (very short) story here by juxtaposing the lines?  Suppose there is.  Then a decision needs to be made about format.  Many of my rhymes are limericks, but I've experimented with other formats as well. A different one I kind of like has two verses, each verse with three lines.  The word at the end of the first line rhymes with the word at the end of the second line in each verse.  Then, the word at the end of the third line in the first verse rhymes with the parallel word in the second verse.  This one is my favorite with that structure.  Is this particular rhyme veiled social commentary or is it just nonsense?  I'm not sure.  I'm also not sure where the conscious self takes over and where the subconscious holds sway. But I feel their interaction more with the rhymes than with the quips.

Some of this may be the time allotted to the task.  I almost always post the quote with the quip first.  And I come up with the quip almost immediately, perhaps a minutes or two, not much longer than that.  I do have an internal censor (more about quality than about whether stuff is too risque).  I think of the activity as trying to find something when I have a pretty good idea already where to look.

Though I post the rhyme second, I've actually written it earlier, quite often the day before, sometimes, unfortunately, when I wake up in the middle of the night and can't go back to sleep.  There is more exploration with the rhyme on the topic, on how particular lines might go, on what is needed to fit it all together.  The sense of exploration is pretty close to the feeling of reverie I mentioned earlier.  When it's happening I am most engaged.

And now I want to talk about my fear about writing.  It's that these shorter forms are kind of like eating dessert first.  They spoil the dinner.  It this is true, I'm having trouble with composing the longer pieces because I spend too much time on the shorter ones.

Or it could be that I'm just out of practice.