The Limits of Shaming and Guilt-induction as Argumentation Tactics

Kevin Drum has written a doleful, observant pair of posts about certain argumentation tactics he observes among leftists. In the first he addresses guilt:

let’s be honest: We really do rely on guilt a lot. You should feel guilty about using plastic bags. About liking college football. About driving an SUV. About eating factory-farmed beef. About using the wrong word to refer to a transgender person. About sending your kids to a private school. And on and on and on.

We all contribute to this, even when we don’t mean to. And maybe guilt is inevitable when you’re trying to change people’s behavior. But it adds up, and over time lefties can get to seem a little unbearable. You have to be so damn careful around us!

In his second post, Kevin discusses the “brutal” intersection of shaming and social media. He quotes Freddie deBoer:

If you are a young person who is still malleable and subject to having your mind changed, and you decide to engage with socially liberal politics online, what are you going to learn immediately? Everything that you like is problematic. Every musician you like is misogynist. Every movie you like is secretly racist. Every cherished public figure has some deeply disqualifying characteristics. All of your victories are the product of privilege. Everyone you know and love who does not yet speak with the specialized vocabulary of today’s social justice movement is a bad, bad person.

I am grateful to Kevin for having the integrity to bring this problem up, not least because in doing so he risks being exposed to the shaming/guilt-induction tactics that he is describing. The norms under which we engage each other in debate matter enormously for the health of our democratic republic. If it’s okay for liberals to reflexively accuse everyone who disagrees with them of being insensitive/racist/sexist/a bad person etc. then it’s also okay for Sean Hannity to label everyone who disagrees with him an unpatriotic, freedom-hating terrorist stooge.

Across the political spectrum, we are capable of better than this. We can make arguments for why we believe what we believe without resorting to the non-argument that our personal opinions and moral worth are isomorphic. Accepting that truly good people can disagree with you is part of becoming a contributor to civil society. It’s also part of growing up.

Will Assad follow Maliki out the door?

As far as I can tell, ISIS rose by taking advantage of the fact that both Iraq and Syria had intolerably anti-Sunni governments. Kevin Drum argues that the Obama Administration played its hand well in Iraq, using the threat of ISIS and the promise of U.S. help against it to force Nuri al-Maliki out of power. Whether Maliki’s replacement turns out to be better, in terms of dealing decently with the Sunni minority, remains to be seen; but he could hardly be worse.

Of course, we don’t have that kind of leverage in Syria (where the Sunni are an oppressed majority rather than an oppressed minority). But it seems to me that the option of backing Bashar al-Assad as the “enemy of my enemy” doesn’t pass the giggle test. Assad is a mass murderer, by character and by heredity. Maybe if the rest of the Syrian security forces and political players were scared enough, they’d take a polite hint from the U.S. and kick Assad out in order to qualify for assistance; providing a little bit of intelligence in the meantime is one way of giving that hint. But I wouldn’t count on it.

No, if Assad is going to go, he probably has to be kicked out the same way Maliki was, by losing the support of his key foreign sponsor. That would be our old friend Volodya. Does Russia really want to see an actual Islamist state willing and able to help support the Chechen rebels? Maybe not.

Whether, suitably supported, the new Iraqi and Syrian governments could actually get their act together and squash ISIS remains to be seen. But getting rid of the Thief of Baghdad and and the Butcher of Damascus in one summer wouldn’t be a bad score all by itself.

Ending the Euro: An Impermissible Discussion?

The Eurozone remains an economic basket case, creating neither jobs nor economic growth. The Eurocracy is now abuzz with more policy proposals that will allegedly save the common currency. To this outside observer, the most remarkable aspect of each subsequent round of Europanic is how few policy insiders are willing to revisit the fundamental premise that Europe needs this floundering banknote at all.

Economists have noted that from its conception the Euro was deeply flawed. Giancarlo Corsetti argues that the Eurozone does not actually protect against the “original sin” of borrowing in a foreign currency while ability to pay is in a domestic currency. NYT columnist Paul Krugman puts it more sardonically:

the euro was best understood as a plot by Italian technocrats to get themselves German central bankers.

This was not, it turns out, a good idea.

I am not an economist, but my own discipline of psychology would support another fundamental critique of the Eurozone: it falsely assumes that re-arranging the consequences of and responsibilities for financial decisions would not affect subsequent financial decisions by participants (be they individuals, businesses, elected officials or bankers).

Not incidentally, European economies can prosper without the Euro. Eurozone non-members Sweden, The Czech Republic and The United Kingdom currently have employment and growth levels that put the Eurozone to shame.

But if you talk to many Europeans policy elites and chattering class members, to even broach the possibility of ending the Euro is apostasy. Part of this reaction stems from the usual culprits when a big government program is not working: Sunk costs, inertia and insiders not wanting to lose power and face. But if you dig not far below that, you often find intense emotion that comes from the memory of Europe’s traumatic 20th century.

If I put my Euro-devoted friends’ concerns into a few sentences it would go something like this: “Never again must Europe be divided. History teaches us that ever-greater European unity is all that stands between us and the rise of right-wing populist movements and war.” The more candid ones would add “Restraining Germany’s desire to control Europe is critical for peace”.

We should learn from history, including its horrors, but this argument doesn’t hold together. First, far-right populist political parties are doing well across the Eurozone, and the Euro’s economic squeeze is part of the fuel that feeds them. Second, abandoning the Euro would still leave intact the European Union, which ties together its member states in many profound ways that increase interchange, understanding and the prospects of enduring piece. Third, Europe attained over a half century of peace before the Euro was created. Last, in terms of fear of German domination, could anyone in Italy or Spain or Greece give a speech with a straight face arguing that the Euro is lessening German influence in those countries?

I have neither sufficient knowledge nor expertise to be certain that the Euro should be abandoned. But I am quite sure that reflexive, strident refusal to even allow that option to be seriously discussed is a disservice to the continent’s interests.

This Saturday in DC: Roundtable on Hume’s Politics

I’m writing this lest some political scientists attending the American  Political Science Association’s Annual Meeting—and other random readers living near DC—miss an opportunity to see my work simultaneously celebrated and torn to shreds: an “Author Meets Critics” panel on Hume’s Politics, this coming Saturday, August 30, at 9:30 in the Marriot Wardman Park’s Maryland B room. (I suspect you’re technically supposed to register for the conference in order to attend. I also suspect that no Homeland Security agents will be enforcing that in the case of this panel.)

For the occasion, Tom Merrill of American University assembled a bunch of people who like the book but who also disagree with it sharply and won’t be afraid to say so: Russell Hardin of NYU, Emily Nacol of Vanderbilt, Michael Frazer of Harvard, and himself. So those who enjoy a good argument as much as I do won’t be disappointed.



Since no one else noticed the Ferguson thing…

Glenn Loury and I talked about it on Bloggingheads.

We discussed the political economy of suburban poverty, rioting and the social contract, the necessity and the difficulty of achieving police legitimacy, the incredible social harm done through the looting of small businesses that accompany urban unrest, and order maintenance as a cooperative achievement of both the citizenry and the police.

Pub Quiz: U.S. Presidents, in Brief

Using these brief descriptions, Google not and name the U.S. President to whom each refers. Please post scores and any comments/critiques at the end. Good luck!

1. Bachelor

2. Served discontinuous terms

3. Shortest stature

4. Shortest time in office

5. First former veep to become POTUS

6. GI Bill signer

7. Made first Presidential address on radio.

8. Held first televised press conference

9. Distant cousin of First Lady Barbara Bush

10. Nicknamed “Elegant”, accused of being Canadian

Continue Reading…

Ice Bucket Challenge, California-Style


Harold Pollack has made the ice bucket challenge to me here at RBC. Another friend, Lois Benishek, did the same on Facebook. Given California’s drought, I am taking the financial way out. In any event, I would rather donate than be doused, because Lois and I were both mentored by a wonderful Michigan State University professor named Bertram Stöffelmayr who lost his life to ALS.

If your memories of Al Sharpton were formed twenty years ago, watch this….

Like many people who witnessed Rev. Sharpton’s disgraceful behavior in the Tawana Brawley case and some other scandals, I was never a huge fan. But this very nice sermon in Ferguson shows another side of things. It also underscores why so many people have been drawn to him for a long time. We all contain multitudes…. (h/t Steve Chapman for the video.)