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On Politicizing Tragedies

An ISIS-supporting immigrant runs down pedestrians in New York, killing eight. A white man in Texas opens fire in a church, killing 27. And partisans on both sides gleefully point out their opponents' hypocrisy -- they were quick to draw political conclusions from one of these incidents, while warning us not to politicize tragedies after the other. There is certainly hypocrisy enough to go around on both sides of the aisle, but people of good will seem to agree that it would be possible to have a consistent, content-neutral standard for what constitutes politicizing a tragedy. By that standard, you could recognize when your opponents were or were not drawing legitimate political conclusions from a tragedy even when you didn't agree with them. But I'm not so sure.

To see why, we need to have a clear idea of what it means to improperly politicize a tragedy. On the one hand, it seems obvious that it's possible to crassly wield a tragedy for political gain, so there are some political connections that should be ruled out. On the other hand, it also seems obvious that we should be able to examine tragedies in order to come up with strategies -- including ones involving policy changes -- to prevent them from happening again. It seems that improper politicizing of a tragedy then means linking it to political conclusions that are themselves inappropriate -- that is, conclusions that don't really follow from the tragedy. The wrongness of politicizing a tragedy consists in demonstrating that you care more about the political agenda you're attempting to advance than you do about the victims of the tragedy.

Now, here's the rub: you can't determine whether a political conclusion drawn from a tragedy is inappropriate without evaluating the substance of that conclusion. And that evaluation is going to be shaped by your political stance. Liberals see calls for gun control after the Texas shooting as legitimate, and thus not "politicizing," because within a liberal framework, gun control is an entirely sensible solution to what happened. But within a conservative framework, gun control is illegitimate -- both wrong on the face of it, and inappropriate as a solution to the specific incident in Texas. From this point of view, calls for gun control must inevitably seem like inappropriate politicization. There's no way to judge whether saying "the Texas shooting shows the need for gun control" is illegitimate politicization or not, aside from making a judgment as to whether the Texas shooting really does show the need for gun control. Therefore, one's ideological opponents are always going to look like they are illegitimately politicizing tragedies, because they will always be proposing political conclusions that you think are illegitimate. Only the rightness of their proposed solutions could justify linking them to the tragedy, but you already know their proposed solutions are wrong.

A further implication of this way of thinking is that drawing political conclusions from tragedies will have limited effectiveness. Everyone likes to believe that tragedies are clarifying moments, events whose implications are so clear that they break through the walls of ideology and make your conclusions obvious to anyone but the worst partisan hacks. (This is why we imagine we can have an ideology-neutral standard for politicization.) But ideologies are flexible and adaptable. They can easily interpret a wide variety of events in ways that don't disturb their basic premises and political commitments. This is especially true for types of tragedies that occur repeatedly -- such as Islamist vehicle attacks or mass shootings with high-powered weapons. There is no reason to think that this tragedy is going to be the one that somehow finally convinces your opponents to see the error of their ways.


99% of Nazi-punching discourse is posturing

There has been an outpouring of discussion on the left about the moral justifiability of punching (or otherwise physically assaulting, but punching seems to be the go-to) Nazis ever since Donald Trump won the presidency, and it's seen an unsurprising uptick after the events of Charlottesville. Lots of energy has been poured into the debate on various social media platforms, but the overwhelming majority of it is not serious discussion. It's just posturing to make the participant feel virtuous.

Consider first the anti-punchers. They give us high-minded dissertations on the virtues of non-violence, of not "stooping to their level," of maintaining the moral high ground. But how many of these people would have punched a Nazi if they did think it was justified? I suspect not many. These are not people holding themselves back from Nazi-punching temptation on the basis of moral principle. They're cowards afraid to get involved in a physical fight, who are cloaking it in fancy language to make themselves feel virtuous for not doing something they wouldn't have done anyway. And hey, I'm a coward about physical fights too. But I don't present it as a demonstration of my moral virtue.

And then there's the pro-punchers. They too talk a good game -- about the necessity of responding to inherently violent ideologies, about the privilege inherent in non-violence, and so forth. They share comic book panels of Nazis getting punched, and that one video of someone clobbering Richard Spencer, and Twitter threads about how to punch effectively. But they too are not out there actually punching Nazis. While pro-punching memes rack up hundreds of thousands of shares and likes, I can count on one hand the number of Nazis who have actually gotten punched by a leftist since the election. Hundreds of Nazis came to Charlottesville last weekend. It was a target-rich environment for anyone wanting to punch a Nazi. But how many of them actually got punched? And OK, maybe taking on a heavily-armed mob is too dangerous. But they marched around un-hooded, so people have managed to determine the identity and personal information of many of them. And yet they still went largely un-punched. Nobody walked into Top Dog to clobber Cole White. The big anti-Nazi victory of the last few days was using social media to shame Top Dog into firing Mr. White. So I can only conclude that pro-punching people aren't actually planning to punch any Nazis. They just want to feel tough and fantasize about literally striking a blow for justice. Most pro-punching discourse is a combination of ally theater and social justice masturbation.

So I don't have time for the Nazi-punching arguments on either side. Come back when some non-negligible number of Nazis is actually getting punched, and then I'll care whether it's morally justified.


On Not Falling For The Big Reveal

Last night, the left got played -- hard. Rachel Maddow teased on Twitter that she had Trump's tax returns, and social media went into a frenzy. As it turns out, Maddow had two pages of Trump's 2005 filing, which showed nothing new or particularly scandalous. No funny business. No nefarious ties to Russia. Just a rich dude using the tax code as intended. (I suspect there is nothing terribly scandalous in any of Trump's tax returns. He's continuing to hide them because releasing them would mean his critics "won" and he "lost," which would be a big blow to his ego.)

The big lesson here is, as I've written before, that the more you -- justifiably! -- hate Trump, the more vulnerable you are going to be to clickbait. I could rehearse all of the usual lectures about fact-checking and paying attention to your sources here. But even that, I think, doesn't go far enough. Clickbait can come from any source. Folks on the left generally regard Maddow as a credible, quality source. But even she is, ultimately, in the business of selling your eyeballs to MSNBC's advertisers.

The real defense against anti-Trump clickbait is to give up on the myth of the Big Reveal. What made Maddow's promise so sensational was the hope that Trump's taxes would be the Big Reveal, the piece of information that finally confirmed what we all suspected, and made it incontrovertible to our opponents. Trump's perfidy would be laid out in black and white, and we could feel satisfied at being vindicated, while the floor fell out from under his supporters. It's the hope of the eucatastrophe -- just when things look darkest, to hear Maddow shout "the tax returns are coming!"

The Big Reveal makes a good dramatic climax to a movie. But real life doesn't work that way. Remember the Billy Bush tape? We all thought that was going to be the Big Reveal that took Trump down. In reality, it dinged him a few points in the polls for a couple weeks, then he bounced back. The Big Reveal only works if we're all living in the same world. But we're not. Liberals and conservatives are working from such different starting premises, such different sets of basic values and basic frameworks about how the world works, that no one piece of information can make everything change.

That doesn't mean that the situation is hopeless, or that getting more information (including the rest of Trump's tax returns) is useless. But it does mean we can't hope for one big piece of information to suddenly change everything. What will change things is the long, slow process of shifting people's basic value systems and worldviews. Once we set aside the false hope of the Big Reveal, we won't be as easily taken in by clickbaiters dangling it in front of us.


On Steaks and the Difference Between Trump and Bush

Donald Trump is in the news again for ordering an expensive steak well-done, a longstanding culinary preference of his. Some observers have been content to simply mock him, while others have written long pretentious not-sure-if-it's-satire-or-not personality analyses based on his eating habits. It's the kind of thing that would be shameful if applied to anyone we didn't already hate.

Some people have pointed out that it's not just urban liberal foodies who like their steaks raw -- bloody steak is also the official Real Red-Blooded American Man way of cooking. So how can it be that Trump, champion of the rural working class, can get away with well-done steaks?

I think the answer can be seen when we contrast Trump's style with George W. Bush's. Bush made a great effort to portray himself as one of the people, a regular Joe, the guy you want to have a beer with. He came from Texas (the most American of the states), spoke with a drawl, and spent his vacations clearing brush on his ranch. And he portrayed John Kerry as just the opposite cultural type -- a windsurfing, swiss-cheese-chessesteak eating coastal elite. And it seemed to work! Gallons of ink were spilled by left-leaning commentators analyzing Bush's affected populism.

Then along comes Trump. Trump set himself up as the champion of the white rural working class -- but he never made any pretense of being one of them. Where Bush presented himself as a brush-clearing, drawling, reg'lar guy Texan, Trump flaunted his wealth and spoke with a yuge Brooklyn accent while hanging out in his gold-encrusted New York penthouse. There's a certain weird authenticity to the way Trump doesn't seem to care if he looks like one of the people he represents.

I don't think Trump's taste for well-done steak is an act. I assume that really is how he likes it. (And I can sympathize -- before I became a vegetarian, I preferred my meat well-done too.) But it shouldn't be a surprise that good old bloody-steak-eating heartlanders wouldn't be turned off by Trump's culinary tastes, since he's never claimed that his personal lifestyle is normal.


On Those Trump Voters Who Believe in the Bowling Green Massacre

I've seen a bunch of people breathlessly sharing the results of a recent survey, which showed that 51% of Trump voters say that the nonexistent Bowling Green Massacre justifies the president's travel ban. The implication is that these people are a bunch of idiots who base their political views on fake news, that they sincerely believe that a massacre happened recently in Bowling Green. But I don't think that this particular survey question means quite what everyone thinks it does.

I'm sure there is some set of individuals out there who hold an active belief that a massacre was conducted by Islamic extremists in Bowling Green. Presumably they heard it from Kellyanne Conway, and dismiss all of the media fact-checkers as promoting fake news due to their bias against Trump. But a more common thought process probably goes like this: "There have been a bunch of Islamic terrorist attacks over the last few years, which justify the president's policies. I don't happen to recall the specific details of the attack in Bowling Green, but I assume since they're asking me about it, it must be one of them. I don't want to sound stupid by saying I never heard of it. Nor do I want to have the poll come out showing weak support for the president just because I quibbled about the details of one specific attack. After all, there have been enough of these attacks to justify the policies overall, regardless of the details I've forgotten about Bowling Green. So I'll say yes."

Imagine a poll in which people were asked whether the recent police shooting of LaShawn Dyer justified efforts toward criminal justice reform. LaShawn Dyer was not in fact shot by the police -- I made him up just now. But most liberals who are sympathetic to the Black Lives Matter movement don't remember the full list of outrageous police shootings off the top of their head. So when put on the spot to answer a question about the nonexistent Mr. Dyer, they would go through a similar process to the Trump voter in the previous paragraph. They would answer yes about the specific case of LaShawn Dyer because they know there is a more general phenomenon of unjustified police shootings of black people, and they want to endorse the need for criminal justice reform.

Just because someone reports a false belief on a survey, doesn't mean that they hold that false belief. They may just be coming up with an answer to satisfy the inquiries of the pollster and keep from looking stupid, working on the assumption that the question contains meaningful and relevant information and is not a blatant attempt to trick them. This is a well-known phenomenon among psychologists, known as the issue of constructed preferences.

Consider this classic nonpartisan example. Some years ago, poll respondents were asked whether they supported Congress renewing the nonexistent 1975 Public Affairs Act. Here they don't even have the cues of being told there was a massacre or a police shooting to help them put it in context -- "Public Affairs Act" was deliberately chosen as the most banal bill name imaginable. And yet 43% of people claimed to support or oppose the PAA renewal. I think it's pretty tough to claim that those people hold clear, considered viewpoints on the PAA, that they go about their day actively believing in the existence of this made-up act. So likewise, I suspect most of the people who gave a positive response about the Bowling Green Massacre are not going around actively believing that there was such a massacre.


On the Uselessness of Hypocrisy Arguments

Hypocrisy arguments are pretty popular these days. Trump attacked Clinton for using a private email server, but now his people are using their own private server. Trump slammed Obama for issuing too many executive orders, but now he has issued even more executive orders. I get why these arguments are appealing. They may even be logically sound. But they are also completely ineffective at actually changing one's opponents' minds.

As I said, I get the appeal of hypocrisy arguments. Getting someone to change their mind about substantive issues is tough work. A dedicated pro-lifer is hardly going to be upset if you tell them that Trump is awful because he wants to overturn Roe v Wade. Hypocrisy arguments, on the other hand, seem to leverage the beliefs your opponents have already committed to, in order to hoist them by their own petard. Plus, it's satisfying to believe that your opponents are unprincipled dimwits, whose attacks on your side are just psychological projections of their own flaws.

Nevertheless, hypocrisy arguments don't work. They don't work, first, because it's always possible to find some reason that the two situations being compared are different. Consider the private email servers. If you are bringing to the table a background assumption that Hillary clinton is a fundamentally untrustworthy person, someone who is scheming and unprincipled who doesn't actually care about America and its safety, then hearing that she used a private email server is going to sound pretty bad. How can we trust her not to be doing nefarious, or at least negligent, things with it? Lock her up! Meanwhile, if you bring to the table a general attitude of trust toward Donald Trump, his use of a private server seems like no big deal. He's a businessman, not a bureaucrat, and his main virtue is that he's not flexible and not bound by the way things have always been done. At worst, you might feel like it's a bit careless (if only because it gives liberals a chance to wail about hypocrisy), but he'll probably get his internet security all settled soon enough.

Hypocrisy arguments also come across as insincere. Consider the email issue again. Left-leaning people just spent a whole campaign insisting that Clinton's private server was not a big deal. So when a liberal turns around and tries to use conservative outrage over Clinton's emails as the basis for a hypocrisy charge, a conservative hearer will (reasonably) think "hey, you never cared about emails before. You're only bringing up Trump's emails because you think it's some sort of gotcha." Yes, the crux of a hypocrisy argument is the inconsistency. But it's hard to get an argument off the ground when you're demonstrating that inconsistency by getting worked up about something you don't care about substantively.

Or, think of it this way: when was the last time you were convinced by a hypocrisy argument coming from the other side of the political aisle? For most of us, it's probably been a while. And I can hear you saying: "I would totally accept a valid hypocrisy argument if one were presented to me! It's just that my opponents, in addition to being hypocrites themselves, also seem to only make terrible hypocrisy arguments that are based on spurious claims and unfair comparisons. What a bunch of nincompoops!" Fair enough. But that's exactly what they say about your hypocrisy arguments. And that's why hypocrisy arguments are not the silver bullet everyone seems to think they are.

Hypocrisy arguments rarely sway the other side. They mostly serve as a way for people on the same side to commiserate about what a bunch of nitwits the other side is. If that's your goal in making a hypocrisy argument, then carry on. But don't assume it's going to do more than that.


On Anti-Trump Motivated Reasoning

OK. We've all had a good laugh/cry over Conway and Spicer's recent performances. But here's the thing. You detest Trump, right? Me too -- it seems like a perfectly reasonable reaction to the volcano of awfulness that has been spewing from our new president and those he surrounds himself with. But you have to remember that this makes you -- and me -- very vulnerable to what psychologists call motivated reasoning. Motivated reasoning is when you believe what you want to be true, and what conforms to your preexisting worldview, instead of what the evidence shows. The more you dislike Trump, the more easily you will believe any bad thing about him that comes along. And you will be especially inclined to believe it if it nicely fits one of the specific storylines you have about why Trump is terrible (he's a racist, he's incompetent, he's a Russian puppet, etc).

Motivated reasoning isn't a conservative thing or a liberal thing, it's a human thing. It's just the way our brains work. And patting yourself on the back about how you're rational and concerned about the truth, unlike all those other people who use motivated reasoning, will only make you *more* vulnerable to motivated reasoning. Recognizing that you're vulnerable to motivated reasoning does not mean that Trump isn't actually terrible. But remember that there are lots of people out there who stand to make a buck off of your motivated reasoning. The get clicks, and line their pockets with ad dollars, if they can feed you things that you want to believe.

What you -- and I -- need to do is to remind ourselves to be careful and humble about our psychological biases. If something seems outrageous, carefully check that it's true. If something perfectly illustrates exactly what's wrong with Trump, carefully check that it's true. Do this even if you don't intend to spread the information around -- headlines you've skimmed have a way of worming their way into your memory. Then, if it all checks out, go ahead and share it. I promise you, Trump will do enough actual awful things that you won't need the fake garbage.

Four years is a long time, and you're going to mess up. I guarantee I'll end up sharing something outrageous and fake over the course of the Trump presidency. Hopefully someone else will quickly point out your (and my) mistake. And when that happens, here's what to do: thank the person for the correction. Then breathe a sigh of relief that the item was false. (After all, you don't want Trump to do terrible stuff, right? You're not so hungry for ammuntion to use against him and to justify your worldview that you are hoping he does awful stuff, are you?) Then do what you can to undo the spread of bad information.

What you shouldn't do is say something like "well, the fact that it was so believable really shows how bad Trump is!" It doesn't show that at all. The fact that it was believable shows how bad *you think* Trump is. And maybe he is that bad. (I mean, he is. He's awful.) I get the desire to save face, and to look at the big picture. But your propensity to fall for motivated reasoning doesn't prove his actual badness. Your gullibility is not evidence of anything. Apologize, correct, and put your focus on the actual bad stuff.