Friday, January 14, 2005

The Value of Mud

In comments on my recent post about the evolution-creationism debate, Brian Leiter and "Concerned US Citizen" raised some interesting objections to my claim that the mudslinging in that debate is counterproductive, and I think their objections deserve an entire post of their own. They have two primary objections, which are related but can be treated independently. The first is that some people don't deserve civility. Here is how Brian put it:
You should consider the possibility that civility itself can be a strategic error in some contexts, lending credence and dignity to positions that have--or deserve--none. Presumably we don't think it necessary (to take the most extreme, and uncontroversial, example) to be civil to Nazis, to weigh their arguments for genocide and refute them politely. The question then is whether there are other cases that should be treated similarly.
The second is that it may not be the case that mudslinging and other such ill-mannered rhetorical are ineffective. Again, here's Brian's wording:
The question, I suppose, is how do you know this is true: "in public debates with members of these groups, it does us no good to stoop to their level," i.e., to be insulting or dismissive. Do we know it does no good? How do we know? What is the evidence? Perhaps there are clear answers. Think how far the right has gone with exactly these tactics, whose rhetorical impact may be systematically underestimated.
Both are fair points, and I will try to address them in turn. Before I start, though, let me first say that in my previous post, I was speaking more to the people on the side of evolution than those on the side of creationism. I hope that creationists of all sorts will someday adopt a more civil, rational style of debate, but I don't see it happening. They really have no reason to, and their reliance on dissimulation would make that difficult. The scientists and philosophers who defend evolution, on the other hand, are on the side of fact and reason, and therefore don't have inherent reasons to be uncivil. Whether they have empirical reasons, as Brian suggests that they may, I will get to in a moment.

With Brian's first point, I agree entirely. There are groups who don't deserve to be treated with kid gloves. Nazis are a good example, as are contemporary America's racists, homophobes, xenophobes, and other such unsavory characters. These people deserve to be addressed with the amount of dignity that their views attain, which is very, very little. However, it's unfair to place creationists on the same level as those other groups. Sure, the tactics of some religious fanatics, who tend to be creationists, resemble those of fascists, a fact that Brian is fond of pointing out. But most creationists (which is to say, most people in this country) are not religious fanatics, and when you attack the position because it's held by people who don't deserve civility, you attack everyone who holds it. In doing so, you risk alienating the very group that you must convince to attain your objectives, which leads me to Brian's second point.

It is undeniable that the American political Right has, over the last decade or so, used inflammatory rhetoric very effectively. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and a host of other national and local conservative newspaper, radio, and tv pundits have lit countless fires under the prejudices and fears of America's conservatives. To say that their dishonest and discourteous styles have not been effective is to completely ignore reality. But before we adopt their strategies based on their effective use of them, we have to ask why their use has been effective. The answer is probably not as simple as, "People are more influenced by emotion-inducing hyperbole and disthonesty." To understand why people like Limbaugh are so effective, we have to understand the atmosphere in which they rose to prominence. Limbaugh came out of a time when "liberal" was already a 4-letter word for many in the "red states," when conservatives were were deeply distrustful of anything to which that label could be applied. Limbaugh capitalized on this distrust, and inflammed it. He was preaching to the choir, and made no real effort to convince anyone who wasn't already on his side. In short, his style worked then, and continues to work now, because it plays on existing beliefs.

Now consider the situation that the defenders of evolution find themselves in. Intellectuals, by and large, agree with them already, and they can probably be inspired by emotional rhetoric. Calling creationists "anti-evolution know-nothings," as Brian recently did, probably serves to fire these people up. However, most of the people in this country (somewhere between 50 and 75%) are creationists to some degree, and calling them know-nothings, or worse, isn't going to help the defenders of evolution's cause. If anything, it will only make them more hostile to evolution, because it reinforces a divide that goes so much further than evolution. Let's face it, the evolution debate isn't, for the people on the side of creationism, really about evolution. It's about values, and the difference they perceive between the values that come with their conservative ideals and Christian faith, and those that come with science, reason, and intellectualis. When someone on Panda's Thumb compared intelligent design creationists to Holocaust deniers, the Discovery Institute was quick to write about it, and make sure that all of their supporters, and their wallets, were aware of the new attack from the intellectual elite. This sort of thing trickles down from the DI's website, to group leaders and preachers, to church paritioners and politicians. How can an elected official in Buck Snort, Tennessee support a theory, the proponents of which spend their time insulting his or her constituents?

I think by now my point is clear. We who want to defend evolution against its attackers in the legislatures and school boards are not operating in the same context that allowed Limbaugh and those of his ilk to behave like whiney children and not only get away with it, but help to shape the political atmosphere in the process. Instead, the atmosphere for us is such that behaving like brutes will do nothing but hurt out cause. If we want to make politicians vote in a way that goes against the beliefs of many, if not most of their constituents, we have to do two things. First, we have to avoid, whenever possible, doing things that will further alienate that constituency. Second, we have to make it absolutely clear to the politicians and other policy-makers why they should vote to keep evolution in the classrom, and creationism out of it. We have to make sure they understand the facts, and recognize that the creationist rhetoric is designed to hide those facts, and we have to present them with reasoned arguments about the potential consequences of the significantly inferior science education that would come with the teaching of bad science. Sure, we can add some rhetorical flair to our arguments, but in the end, we have to rely on our arguments, because the emotions of the people we need to convince are already directed against us, and there's not much we can do, short of educating their children better, to change that.


Anonymous said...

I'd quibble only on one point. I actually think there is a kind of missionary zeal to Limbaugh and others. Further they make a big deal when they "convert" a liberal to a conservative. Both Hannity and Limbaugh seem to give privilege to liberal callers as well. (Of course they often aren't terribly fair to the callers) But I really do think that they aren't just trying to preach to the choir. Far from it. While I fear I may end up making use or Leiter's metaphor, I think there is a near religious zeal to their politics. It is a kind of evangelical sermonizing and attempt at conversion. (Meaning evangelical in the generic sense and not the religious movement) 

Posted by Clark

Anonymous said...

Great piece Chris. I agree with Clarke's statements that "there is a near religious zeal to (Limbaugh's and Hannity's) politics," which has the effect of "evangelical sermonizing."

And the reason I fear this is because most Americans have adopted an uncritical stance to information they acquire from the mainstream media and various political talk show hosts. I think they unconsciously reason something along these lines:
1) Limbaugh and Hannity are on broadcast TV and have their own political talk shows.
2) Broadcast TV presents legitimate news and information.
3) Limbaugh and Hannity are on broadcast TV.
4) Therefore, Limbaugh and Hannity must be legitmitate themselves and must present legitimate news and information.

Although 2),3),and 4) seem highly dubious to us, and although 2) appears to be the foundation for all this nonsense, I suspect it will be extremely difficult to persuade many Americans of 2)'s falsehood.

So, even though more politically and scientifically aware citizens are unlikely to change their minds due to Limbaugh's nonsense, I think plenty of Americans could flip the channel to Limbaugh's show, grow attracted to the hysterical, but emotionally appealing presentation of foundationless opinions, and walk away "converted." And, it all stems from the notion that "mainstream TV presents legitimate information."

Personally, I can't think of any practical ways to change that disturbing notion. But you smart guys can?

Posted by Concerned US Citizen

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I'd agree with that. Rather I think that the public by and large doesn't trust the media in general. It is far from being an uncritical acceptance. Rather it is a hypercritical view. One ends up accepting information, but can't really say why, since there is nothing to trust. Into such a situation both pundits on the left and right can have a field day. (I hardly think the Limbaugh effect is only found in the right - indeed Leiter and others seem to explicitly be embracing it as best they can)

The implication of this distrust is the strengthening of Chris' point. If you don't trust the media you trust what you already have reason to believe. This has the effect of merely strengthening your pre-conceptions. The lack of some "objective" way to discern truth then entails going to media that preaches to the choir.


Posted by Clark

Anonymous said...

IMO a large part of the problem is that so many people actively prefer a simple story to a complicated one. Creationism is definitely simpler than evolution; and, unfortunately, neo-conservatism is much simpler than liberalism. The greatest advantage Limbaugh and his ilk have is that they can all agree on a few simple talking points. As for the Democrats, you know what Will Rogers said. 

Posted by wmr

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure Creationism actually is simpler than evolution. But it rather depends upon what data you are trying to account for. 

Posted by Clark

Anonymous said...

I must protest. The majority of Nazis were just ordinary people, German patriots, and bureaucrats. Most Nazis are not goose-stepping, Jew-hating mass-murderers, and when you attack the position because it's held by people who don't deserve civility, you attack everyone who holds it. In doing so, you risk alienating an entire nation of people.

You also think it's OK to attack homophobes. But huge numbers of people detest homosexuals, and they aren't all named Rev. Phelps. By declaring open season on gay-haters, don't you risk firing up the opposition?

So here's the problem. I don't assume that most people are evil or intractably stupid. But I think you would agree that there are ideas that are evil or stupid. Do you agree that we should be vigorous and uncompromising in our criticisms of these ideas or not?

Is it good strategy to declare Naziism evil? Is it proper for scholars to dig up old Nazi documents and show that the leadership was corrupt and committed to atrocity? Is it right for the Discovery Channel to keep showing those old black-and-white movies of skeletal Jewish victims in concentration camps, and are we right to condemn the perpetrators in the harshest possible language? There are kindly old German grandfathers right now who were members of the Nazi party after all, who are made uncomfortable and embarrassed by that kind of thing.

And what about creationism? It ought to be fair to call it a stupid is a stupid idea. And those people who continue to cling to it? They are know-nothings. What do we gain by reining back and avoiding stating the truth? Nothing. It does make the know-nothings more comfortable in their ignorance, though.


Posted by PZ Myers