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Six Impossible Things (now with Ghostbusters!)

2011.03.2

‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast!’

Ah, the wonders of speech!  The gifts of debate, dialectic!  Reasoned and rational discussion used to be highly prized, prevalent, laudable.  It was taught and studied in ancient Greece and Rome.  Oratory was among the most important skills one could acquire, and its mastery was exemplified by Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Quintilian, and other such toga-clad individuals.

What happened, guys?  Why do people now debate with all the artfulness of the parents and teachers in Peanuts cartoons?  Why are opinions more important than facts?  Why does it seem as though the ghosts of Antiochus and Porpyry have been collected by the Proton Packs of raging sophists and locked in the Ecto-Containment Units of pseudo-intellectual windbags?

(+2 internets to anyone who gets the reference)

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Lately, via email, I’ve been having incredibly exasperating political conversations with a certain member of my family.  I try to engage in rational dialectic, to supplement all my arguments with facts, to use logic to draw the most complete conclusions I can.

But it’s pointless.  We’re not even playing the same game.  I’m bringing a squash racquet to a cricket match.  My arguments, more often than not, are met with messages forwarded from partisan websites—forwards that resemble the carefully-considered expostulations of the TimeCube dude.  (Though, the more you read TimeCube… the more your mind just… gets… blown!)  What’s worse, I’ll send a response/argument I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time working out, to be met with a complete non sequitur—inquiries about my day, anecdotes from the latest installment of Glee, pictures of various fluffy mammals, and suchlike.

It seems that whenever I have drafted an argument which, to my mind, is logically sound, I am given in return a list of talking points or an inflammatory philippic, usually taken wholesale from another source.  No effort is made to formulate or describe an individual, personal viewpoint, which leads me to believe that such a viewpoint has never been attempted, or was rapidly aborted in its nascent stages.

For example, we’d been engaged in a thread about the current anti-union measures in Wisconsin and Ohio, and the issue of public debt in general.  I mentioned the usefulness of unions in protecting certain benefits such as overtime compensation.  Family Member’s reply:

I haven’t had any opportunity to earn overtime during your entire lifetime and I’m fine.  I go to work and DO my work within the regular work day.

Remember those [inefficient] people I was talking about yesterday?  Well, they come in, yak all day and then stay late to earn overtime.  Why the HELL their managers put up with that is beyond me…  But that’s only part of the story.

As your article states:  Benefits such as workers’ compensation, unemployment compensation, Social Security and pensions are all based on weekly or yearly earnings, not compensatory time.

So NOW we’re back to my tax dollars supporting their INEPTNESS!!!!!!

IT’S TIME FOR A REAL CHANGE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

My reply:

A real change like what?

I’m sorry, but you do seem to have been kind of sheltered. What job have you had in my lifetime that even WARRANTS overtime? As someone who has held service and managerial positions, I can tell you that the sort of work I’ve done cannot be neatly compartmentalized into a tidy little slice of the day. There is no “regular work day,” but I could see you thinking so, since most of your work does not involve the same kind of immediacy.  I cannot just pack up at the end of the day, nor can I do my work from home.

…This is dangerous.  Look, let’s take out my judgement of corporations and government for a second.  All you need to do is look at history. Despite what some revisionist Teabaggers have said, popular uprisings based upon economics do NOT occur when governments overspend and go into debt. They occur when masters of capital mistreat the proletariat to such a point that they snap.  This current sea change toward anti-worker, anti-union legislation are the seeds of such an uprising. Picture Tunisia, but replace a head of state and cabinet with a CEO and board of directors.

The Russian Revolution of 1917, the Spanish Revolution of 1936, the 1977 Egyptian Bread Riots, and numberless further examples show that the Teabaggers are on the wrong side of history. These uprisings show that when you dump on the working-class enough, they will eventually fight back, violently if necessary.

Actually, the Tea Party does exemplify something very American: they talk and talk about change, but when it’s time for them to sacrifice something, they become no different than the “leeches” they deride.

The response to that?  Something about my historical examples, or a critique of my citing the Egyptian Bread Riots, which only tangentially supported my point?  No.  I received a message about the dorkiness of George Clooney during his schooldays.  After a bit of prodding, Family Member did offer “Workers DO have rights, but the unions have become more corrupt than the corporations.  Sad, but true.”  Wondering about the “true” aspect of FM’s assertion, I inquired simply “What is that based upon?”

I’ve yet to receive an answer.

I feel like such an incredible, pompous prick when I make assertions to the effect of “not everyone is entitled to an opinion,” but how does an opinion have any standing, any use, any relevance, any worth whatsoever when it is based upon “information” which is incomplete, inaccurate, baseless, or fictitious?

More disturbing to me than underperforming laborers demanding benefits are grossly mis-/under-informed citizens with strong opinions.  Sure, in America we believe you have the innate right to say anything you please, but that doesn’t mean anything you say has innate value.  The right to opinions is equal, but the opinions themselves are not.

In an article for Harper’s in 2009, Mark Slouka wrote:

I don’t believe I have the right to an opinion about something I know nothing about — constitutional law, for example, or sailing — a notion that puts me sadly out of step with a growing majority of my countrymen, many of whom may be unable to tell you anything at all about Islam, say, or socialism, or climate change, except that they hate it, are against it, don’t believe in it. Worse still (or more amusing, depending on the day) are those who can tell you, and then offer up a stew of New Age blather, right-wing rant, and bloggers’ speculation that’s so divorced from actual, demonstrable fact, that’s so not true, as the kids would say, that the mind goes numb with wonder. “Way I see it is,” a man in the Tulsa Motel 6 swimming pool told me last summer, “if English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for us.”

In much of today’s political discourse, the motive behind what one says is more important than what one actually says.  The best example of this is the environmentalism of Al Gore.  Oh, Family Member does not like Al Gore.  “He is NOT a scientist!” FM shouts.  “I don’t know why he thinks he can talk about it.”  Of course, Al Gore is not a scientist, never claimed to be, but he is an intelligent and discerning man.  As those who have heard him speak or—God forbid—have actually seen An Inconvenient Truth know, Gore has collected raw data from scientists all over the world, and has orchestrated it into an essay easy enough for a layman to understand without warping or distorting any information.  This does not matter of course.  Gore is an elitist with an opinion people are told not to like by outlets such as Fox News, The New York Post, The Daily, and suchlike.  People who already Believe can’t be swayed by facts.  Slouka continues:

Not only do we believe that opinion (our own) trumps expertise; we then go further and demand that expertise assume the position — demand, that is, that those with actual knowledge supplicate themselves to the Believers, who don’t need to know. The logic here, if that’s the term, seems to rest on the a priori conviction that belief and knowledge are separate and unequal. Belief is higher, nobler; it comes from the heart; it feels like truth. There’s a kind of Biblical grandeur to hit, and as God’s chosen, we have an inherent right to it. Knowledge, on the other hand, is impersonal, easily manipulated, inherently suspect. Like the facts it’s based on, it’s slippery, insubstantial — not solid like the things you believe.

The corollary to the axiom that belief beats knowledge, of course, is that ordinary folks shouldn’t value the latter too highly, and should be suspicious of those who do. Which may explain our inherent discomfort with argument. We may not know much, but at least we know what we believe. Tricky elitists, on the other hand, are always going on. Confusing things. We don’t trust them….

Look, I get it.  Formulating true opinions is time-consuming and tiring.  It involves a measure of research and study.  It takes effort, and people are busy.  There are kids to pick up from daycare, house chores to be completed, episodes of Dancing with the Stars and American Idol to catch up on.  It is much, much easier to get your beliefs from Sean Hannity, Rachel Maddow, Rush Limbaugh, and adopt them as your own.  Boom, in a few minutes, you get a fully-formed opinion ready for your consumption—no waiting, no exhaustion.

The problem is without the proper knowledge, your opinions end up ludicrously lacking in sanity.  A great example of this is Bill O’Reilly, opining that the tides rise and fall because God Spake It Thus, and there is no other explanation.  Of course, as I learned in fifth grade science class, tides are “the alternating rise and fall in sea level with respect to the land, produced by the gravitational attraction of the moon and the sun.” [source]  But that’s not good enough!  “Then how’d the moon get there?” the bullheadedly uncurious O’Reilly demands.  Of course, we do have a scientific consensus on the formation of the Moon as well, but O’Reilly is a Believer, you see, and facts and knowledge are in general disfavor.

If there is nothing in your day-to-day experience that challenges the Beliefs you already have, then there is no reason for most people to examine them.  Family Member has had a cushy, nine to five, secure job for so long that other Americans in different circumstances cease to be inside their sphere of thought and feeling.  Unions and collective bargaining are foreign concepts, and as such, deserve summary dismissal, not close scrutiny or consideration.

And as anyone who has tried to make a rational argument recently knows, it is impossible to have a dialogue if the person you are engaged with cannot agree with you on what facts are.  Sadly, facts themselves have become so politicized as of late that the very word “fact” is in danger of losing its meaning.

But there are facts.  Barack Obama was born in America.  If you do not believe this, you are wrong.  You do not simply have another opinion, you are incorrect, counter-factual, misguided, erroneous, mistaken, invalid, fallacious, senseless, unsound, WRONG.  You are similarly wrong if you believe in Intelligent Design, think the core of the Sun is 4,000,000°C, believe Jesus of Nazareth spoke English, or assert that there is no scientific consensus determining humans’ role in global climate change.

To bring this post back around, it is very difficult to have a rational conversation with someone about a controversial topic if they do not actually know anything about the topic.  This is why I have never actually finished a political conversation with Family Member.  When confronted with a solid and considered argument, FM diverts, disengages, dodges.  Not necessarily because my argument is rock-solid, but because there is no ready-made talking point to retort, no prepackaged missive to forward.  And responding with an articulate, example-backed argument has never seemed to be an option for this person.  If I get anything at all, it is some hasty solecism or riposte.  And the complete lack of self-awareness necessary for this behavior to continue is a source of high consternation for me.  Grrr.  Frustrating, indeed.

So if you want to express your opinion about something, fine.  But I have the right to try to belittle and degrade said opinion if it is not based upon facts or raw data.  Or is just plain stupid.

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