Saturday, August 5, 2017

It's All Fun Until Someone Loses an Election

Happily, there's another newly-published book that does what Brooke Gladstone failed to do in The Trouble with Reality: Patricia Roberts-Miller's Demagoguery and Democracy (The Experiment, 2017). Roberts-Miller is Professor of Rhetoric and Writing at the University of Texas at Austin, and the author of a couple other books that I'd like to read.  Though she's an academic, you mostly wouldn't guess that from the way she writes; she uses little jargon and defines clearly what she does use.  And though she's surely a liberal, probably a liberal Democrat, she's not interested in pandering to her side.  Though she recognizes and deplores the current state of political discourse in the US, she also recognizes that instead of providing an alternative to it, most media and public figures have gone along with what the cool kids are doing:
It’s a commonplace that we live in an era of demagogues, and it’s a commonplace that demagogues are successful because they mislead dupes and “sheeple”with what is obviously pandering, dishonesty, and irrational rhetoric. Demagogues sucker them. We’re all agreed on that point. We just disagree with them, since those benighted fools think we’re suckered by demagogues! Of course we aren’t. That accusation just shows what mindless Flavor Aid drinkers they are. Our leaders are honest (even if sometimes mistaken), well intentioned, and authentic. Theirs are lying, malevolent, and manipulative. And we are in a terrible situation now because our political scene is dominated by their demagogues. 

The underlying narrative is that our political culture has been damaged because a demagogue has arisen and is leading people astray. If we accept this narrative (one that doesn’t actually hold up to scrutiny), then we try to solve the problem of demagoguery in ways that worsen it: We call for purifying our public sphere of their demagogues, often in very demagogic ways. That narrative misleads us because it reverses cause and effect. We don’t have demagoguery in our culture because a demagogue came to power; when demagoguery becomes the normal way of participating in public discourse, then it’s just a question of time until a demagogue arises. So, this book is not about a demagogue but demagoguery—how it works, how to describe and identify it, how good people can find themselves relying on demagoguery, and what we can do about it [1].
For Roberts-Miller, "Demagoguery is about identity.  It says that complicated policy issues can be reduced to a binary of us (good) versus them (bad).  It says that good people recognize there is a bad situation, and bad people don't; therefore, to determine what policy agenda is the best, it says we should think entirely in terms of who is like us and who isn't" (7-8).  One can dispute Roberts-Miller's definition of demagoguery, which she admits is "not the conventional view" (7); but as she shows, the conventional view is part of the problem.  She mentions the first-century essayist Plutarch, who "insisted on an absolute distinction between demagogues and statesmen": demagogues are greedy hustlers just trying to make money off the gullibility of the masses by appealing to their emotions.  Since it focuses on the (alleged) character of the demagogue, rather than the truth or rationality (or lack thereof) of his claims, this approach is itself demagogic.

That Donald Trump's style is demagogic is obvious to his Democratic enemies; that their response ("orange," "tiny hands," "narcissist," "hateful," "in the pay of Putin") is also demagogic is, unsurprisingly, not.  The tricky part is that by adopting a demagogic stance, Brooke Gladstone's The Trouble with Reality will appeal to a good many more people than Roberts-Miller's book will.

Of course, there's nothing new here.  It fits with Noam Chomsky's discussion of the importance of concision in corporate-media news coverage, for instance, and with any number of accounts to critical thinking.  It's easy to see too that many invocations of freedom, rationality, critical thinking, and the like are framed demagogically: We are rational, reality-based; They are credulous, superstitious; We support science and evidence; They are Flat-earther Creationists, "climate deniers."  Why even bother to try to have a serious, rational discussion with such idiots?  And very quickly, since anyone who disagrees with one's construction of truth and reason is obviously an idiot, no serious, rational discussion is necessary at all.

Here's part of Roberts-Miller's suggestions for what to do against demagoguery:
There are, loosely, four kinds of things we can do, and no one needs to do all of them, and none of us needs to do any of them all the time. First, we can try to reduce the profitability of demagoguery by consuming less of it ourselves, and shaming media outlets that rely heavily on it. Second, we can choose not to argue with family or friends who are repeating demagogic talking points, and simply give witness to the benefits of pluralism and diversity. Or, third, if it seems interesting and worthwhile, we can argue with family or friends who are repeating demagogic talking points. Fourth, we can also support and argue for democratic deliberation. 

Historically, cultures insist on non-demagogic political processes after a devastating war (consider the rise of arguments for religious tolerance after the English Civil Wars or the marginalization of racialist “science” after World War II). It would be nice if we could find a different solution [94].
Unfortunately, the rise of Trump to the Presidency apparently wasn't devastating enough; many Democrats, including most of the party leadership, have chosen instead to embrace and escalate demagoguery to a deranged level.

Roberts-Miller then proceeds to give a brief course in critical thinking, and concludes:
Notice that I’m not saying you will thereby persuade them they are wrong. After all, they might not be. You might be wrong. You might both be wrong. You might both be somewhat right. You’re trying to persuade them to engage in deliberation, and that means you have to be willing to engage in it, too [123].
But I've already quoted too much from this short book, which has only about 130 pages of text.  It's full of good analysis and information, though, and if what I quote here looks good to you, you should read it.