Sunday, October 14, 2012

Rumble on Sesame Street

It was ugly. And it all started with Big Bird. As everybody knows by now, in the first debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, Romney declared that, if elected, he was going to stop the federal subsidy to PBS...even though he loves Big Bird. This was a tiny part of a long debate, but it got folks pretty heated up. A lot of people love PBS, and apparently a lot of people really hate it, or at least hate the fact that any of their taxes help support it. As I write, this debate is causing big arguments and bulging blood vessels. If you happen to read this years from now, that may seem strange, but it's true. I know, because Big Bird got me into the biggest, nastiest online fight I've ever been in. I don't mean a heated debate. I'm talking about a scathing, name-calling rumble. If it had happened face to face, I think punches might have been thrown.

This bothered me, because I don't normally get into arguments that nasty. Before it was all over, I had been called unpatriotic, a weakling, and a budding Nazi. But it what really got my dander up was being called irrational. I may not always be rational, but I try hard to be, and spend a downright unhealthy amount of time thinking about what rationality is...and what it isn't. That's what the argument made me think about, and what I want to think about in my next few posts. But first, a little more about the Rumble on Sesame Street. I won't get too detailed, because there's nothing more boring than hearing someone tell you, “So then I just said to him, I said....blah, blah, blah...” But I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about civility and rationality, and this argument was a spectacular breakdown of both, so it's worth looking at what went wrong. (Just to be clear, I'm not saying everyone who doesn't support government subsidies for PBS is like the guy I'm describing here.  Some of them are very smart and nice, and I can disagree with them without getting into a fight). 

Here's how it started. I'm one of the PBS lovers, so as soon as the debate was over, I started thinking up ways to show people that federal spending on PBS is actually quite minuscule compared to the entire federal budget. I had soon worked out that if you imagined federal spending this year in terms of height—the height of the Empire State Building, which is 1445 feet tall—then federal spending on PBS would amount to a little more than a tenth of an inch. I was rather proud of this image, so, when I saw a comment thread about PBS, I threw it in there.

Before long, my soon-to-be nemesis had taken umbrage, claiming that PBS is stealing people's tax money to do what private enterprise could do much better. I disagreed. I think for-profit “educational” networks tend to go down the tubes, because their need to maximize profits forces them to focus on what titillates people, not what actually educates them. So, you get shows about Nostradamus on the History Channel, and (Lord help us) Honey Boo Boo on The Learning Channel. I maintained that some things need tax support to maintain a degree of independence from the crassness of commercialism. I asked him how far he would want to go with privatization. Would he, for example, want to see the national parks sold off to Disney? Should there be billboards in Yosemite? Should El Capitan be copyrighted, if it would make the place pay for itself? Should Gettysburg or Arlington National Cemetery by privatized? These are extreme examples, of course, but the point is that not everything should be privatized and operated as a business. Not everything worth doing turns a profit, and not everything that turns a profit is good.

He didn't answer my question about how far he wanted to see privatization go. Instead, he said I was making appeals to emotion. And I said he was absolutely right. These are things that have emotional value, and I think that emotional value needs to be factored into any debate over the effects of privatization. It's not the only factor, of course, but unless you think the question of privatizing something like Gettysburg is a matter of nothing but the bottom line, then values have to be taken into account, and values have an inescapable emotional component. You may not agree about PBS, of course, but my point is that values are inextricably part of the calculation. It's true that values and emotions can skew people's logic, but they don't necessarily skew their logic. It's fine--and even necessary and unavoidable—to factor emotional considerations and values into your thinking as long as you think about whether they are justified, and as long as you still derive your conclusions in a logical way. You can't replace reason with emotion and still be reasonable, but you don't have to throw emotion out entirely. You couldn't if you tried.

I ended my spiel by saying I thought we were both smart people who value logic, but that the logic was being applied to a very different set of values. And that's when the conversation turned ugly. My opponent said I was being ridiculous, and that if I really valued logic, he couldn't see it. Instead, I had “ evolved into one of a legion of emotional actors who have happily forfeited logic and reason and self-determination in the name of nonsensical platitudes that you are spoon-fed.” And he said that stuff about how I was like a budding Nazi, and an unpatriotic weakling. Oh, and a churlish teenage girl (?). But it was that stuff about logic that hacked me off.

As I said, I devote a lot of time to learning about logic and thinking. In the last few months, I've read textbooks with titles like A Rulebook for Arguments, Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric, and Critical Thinking (I know, I know). So, I would bet that I know more about logic and critical thinking than he does. That's why I resented being called a soft-headed, emotional liberal. I may be fairly liberal, but I try really hard not to be soft-headed. I also value cool-headedness, because I know--rationally--that you're more likely to be reasonable and convincing if you stay calm. But I didn't. I got mad, and then I really was getting irrational. How's that for irony? However, I had been getting irritated with this guy for a long time; watching him insult good people for no reason, and being far more abrasive than necessary. He's very intelligent, but I've known him for years, and he's only gotten more foul-mouthed, angry, and insulting. Basically, I was done with him, and I told him so. It got ugly, and I said some things I probably shouldn't have. Well, I probably should have, because he needed to hear them, but I should have said them in a calmer way, and in a private message. If I had kept my cool and told him why he was out of line in a more measured way, he might have actually listened, and possibly considered changing the way he talks to people (OK, probably not, if he hasn't changed in the last twenty years, but it's conceivable, right?) If I ever does, I'll never know, because I don't talk to him now--not because I don't want to hear ideas that challenge mine (which is what he thinks), but because he just can't help being a jackass. I gave him second and third chances, and now I'm done. It's a shame, but there you go. Some people in this world are best avoided.

In hindsight, what is really striking to me is that, even though he kept insisting that I wasn't being logical, I'm not exactly sure what he meant by that. I asked, but he didn't say. I know what I mean when I talk about logic (basically, it's a way of deciding what conclusions you can draw from a certain set of premises), but I think he had something different in mind. My best guess is that he meant thinking that doesn't involve emotion. He got stomping mad, so he certainly wasn't thinking without emotion, but he kept insisting that I being emotional instead of logical. It's also possible, based on his comments about self-determination and private enterprise, that he was equating logic with free markets and a certain kind of economic thinking. That's common. One of the major libertarian magazines, for example, is called Reason, and its subtitle is “Free Minds and Free Markets”.  It's also true that economists are always talking about rationality, but rationality in a different sense—the sense of doing whatever achieves optimal economic results (not what tells us what is true or right). They're always imagining ideal worlds where people are perfect rational actors (they must know different people than I know). Now, maybe belief in the power of free markets is rational. I actually think it is, to a limited extent, because markets can be incredibly efficient and productive (often brutally so, which is why I think markets sometimes need to be reined in). But the equation “has faith in free markets” = “rational” is nothing more than a hypothesis, and a debatable one. Reason magazine's title is smug to the point of ridiculousness. And maybe there is nothing more to rationality than the economic idea of “maximizing utility”, but I don't think so. I think what's true and right are pretty important questions. Call me crazy.

Anyway, I'm just speculating here, because I'll never know what he actually meant by “logical”. The conversation broke down before I could press him for an answer. Still, it felt a little surreal, after months of reading about logic, to hear someone telling me I was being illogical, and not really understanding what he meant by that. I felt like Inigo Montoya: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” It reminded me of a thought I've often had before: there are a great many things people equate with rationality which don't really have anything to do with it. In fact, some of them, like anger and intellectual smugness, are red flags for irrationality. How many times have you seen someone get all red-faced and blustery, saying something like, “THIS IS SO OBVIOUS, PEOPLE!! ANYONE THAT'S NOT A COMPLETE IDIOT CAN SEE THAT!!! Is this a person at their most rational?

I enjoy a good debate with smart, articulate people who disagree with me, but I hate getting into nasty arguments. And I almost never do. In fact, as I said above, I talk all the time about civility and rationality. Since this argument was such a breakdown of both, and since I hardly ever have arguments like that, it really bothered me. I had already thought a good bit about some of the issues it brought up, but it inspired me to think about them more. So, in the next posts, I'm going to investigate three issues: 1. What exactly is logic and rationality? That's an enormous question, of course, but does rationality have core characteristics that can be sketched out in a blog post? 2. What are some of the biggest imposters of rationality? Obviously, there are far more ways of being irrational than rational, but what are the things most commonly mistaken for reason? Anger, callousness, and smugness are some of the main culprits whose rap sheets we'll examine. 3. How do emotions and value judgments fit in with rationality and logic? If we abandoned emotion and values, we would turn into amoral, passionless robots. But if we abandoned logic, we would turn into...well, a lot of people wouldn't actually change much. Logic is far scarcer than emotion and values, but the question is, what is the appropriate balance between the three?

The night after the fight, I saw that my opponent was at it again on another comment thread, telling someone he had never met what an idiot he thought they were. I guess he gets in fights like that all the time, so he's probably forgotten all about the one he had with me. I, on the other hand, was bothered enough to start writing a whole set of blog posts.  He would probably see that as a victory, and further evidence for how weak and emotional I am. So be it. He's always been a guy with absolute, unshakable faith in his own intelligence; and he's always mistaken anger, rudeness, and intellectual smugness for rationality. I may not be the smartest or most logical person in the world, but I know better than to keep wasting time on anybody that unreasonable.


  1. Interesting. How about fear and low self-esteem as contributors to irrationality and impeded critical thinking? They have a tendency to disguise themselves as anger and arrogance.

  2. Good points. Although lately I've read that some people, very defensive or boastful types that I have always thought of as hiding poor self-esteem, may actually have great self-esteem. They're not just putting on a front to make up for insecurity; they really think they're that great. I need to find out more about that, actually.

  3. True. There are people out there with a mysterious source of self-confidence. I'm strangely fascinated by their total faith in themselves, even when it seems unfounded to the rest of the world. I read a report once about these people in the workplace: they're usually convinced of their own competence and can't recognize when they're failing on the job, while on the flip side the competent workers tend to question/doubt their own job performance on a regular basis.