Gripes About Public Discourse

I’ve got a lot of gripes about the tone and structure of public discourse these days. How about you? There are the obvious things: the name-calling, the boosterism, reflexive opposition, and so on. But there are some things that bug me even more. Here are a few.


The general form that this take is “I am an authority on A; therefore, you should believe/accept/respect my opinion about B”. The most conspicuous offenders in this area are show business personalities. “I’m a movie actor; therefore, take my advice on China/global warming/Iraq, etc.!” There’s another form of this that I find even more infuriating: “I’ve been writing about A for a long time; A is a little like B; therefore, I’m an authority on B!”. Journalist Thomas Friedman is a conspicuous example of this.

Dont’ let the complaint about lack of editting in blogs compared to, say, newspapers fool you. I think the real gripe that newspaper columnists (or reporters or editors who want to be columnists i.e. practically all of them) have against blogging is that it makes bootstrapping much harder. There’s almost bound to be somebody out there blogging who actually knows something about the subject and is willing to call you on it.

Bait and switch

This one really bugs me. In this trope the advocate frequently makes a genuinely strong, convincing case for the problems with X. The advocate then proposes solution Y. The problem is that Y may have only a vague relationship to the problems the advocate made in making his or her case. That was my gripe with the Iraq Study Group report: they did a really excellent job in identifying the problems in Iraq. Their solutions addressed resolving those problems only indirectly.

You won’t have any difficulty in finding other examples of bait and switch. It’s used in practically every issue that we face. “Our army is broken! We’ve got to withdraw from Iraq.” If the problem is that our army is broken, the solution is fixing our army. “Global warming is causing climate change! The U. S. must reform its economy (but China doesn’t need to).” That’s a non sequitur unless America’s putting changes in place can prevent global warming’s causing climate change without China’s cooperation. That’s far from obvious. “Some African Americans are trapped in institutionalized poverty. Give subsidies to African Americans who aren’t trapped!” Another non sequitur. “We must end the war in Iraq. Withdraw American forces”. That’s true only if the war will end as a consequence of American forces withdrawing. The examples of bait and switch are legion.

Got any pet gripes about public discourse of your own?

7 comments… add one
  • “Our army is broken! We’ve got to withdraw from Iraq.” If the problem is that our army is broken, the solution is fixing our army.

    Unless no one intends on fixing the army. Or there isn’t time left to fix the army. In which cases yes, we do have to withdraw.

    Means are not disconnected from ends. If you lack the means there’s not much point demanding a certain end. And if you choose not to gain the means you must, for honesty’s sake, let go of the end.

    This is the point of friction between the supporters of the war today, and me. I feel they’re demanding we drive to the next town — and I would like that, too — but they refuse to account for the fact that we have no car, and I can’t help but take that fact into account.

    So, to your list of gripes about public discourse, I would add: disconnection. The persistant refusal to acknowledge that means must exist in order to bring about ends. In other words, wishing doesn’t make it so.

    I hear in this echoes of pre-WW1 naivete centering on abstract concepts like “will” and “elan” and “esprit,” or the Japanese faith in the spirit of bushido. Will, elan and esprit died. They were machine-gunned. Bushido was nuked. If you don’t have the means, you don’t acheive the ends.

    “We must end the war in Iraq. Withdraw American forces”. That’s true only if the war will end as a consequence of American forces withdrawing.

    It’s also true if by “end the war” you’re using shorthand for “end American participation in the war.” I think that’s what’s intended, since most of the people who make that statement would also endorse the statement that this is an Iraqi civil war.

  • Great post, Dave.

    I find that MD’s are among the worst offenders at bootstrapping, followed closely by lawyers in government employ. Too often they carry with them a presumption of omnicompetence that in reality they simply do not have.

  • Or bloggers, who generally know fuck all about what they blog about….

  • Two pet peeves:

    1. Presumption. As in, if you’re blogging you must be a high-school kid or college student. I can’t tell you the number of times somebody younger than I has presumed and actually called me a kid.

    2. Refusal to recognize reality, just because they don’t like where you come from. Such as: “You must be lying about A because we disagreed about B.” Sheesh!

  • Clearing the field: I don’t agree with what you say, and I cannot refute it, so I will call you names, accuse you of horrible acts, and denigrate your every statement and experience so that you will stop arguing and I will win by default. (Lounsbury, sadly, has been an example of this is in the past, towards me.) Not only is this a not-so-subtle kind of ad hominem, it also makes it very difficult for anyone who doesn’t agree with the attacker to take anything the attacker says seriously.

    Assuming the conclusion: Figuring out where you want the debate to end up, what resolution you want, and then making that your inarguable premise, even though it is (potentially) based on a long chain of argument and reasoning. This is the mistake made by the global warming activists, the 9/11 “truthers”, and the “social conservatives”. In each case, it negates the ability to argue against the chain of reasoning, by simply declaring the reasoning not to exist and refusing to discuss it. When challenged, this usually has the arguer reverting to the above tactic.

    Of course, we can simply go back to the Greek writings about rhetoric from around 500BC, and we could find a list of all of these and more. In this case, there is indeed nothing new under the sun.

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