Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | June 3, 2013

Links on Thinking and Writing

1. Arnold Kling has a new e-book, The Three Languages of Politics, which the Wall Street Journal reviews here. (H/T: Burt Likko and Clark at Popehat.) An excerpt from the Journal review:

Mr. Kling’s three “languages” are ways of talking about politics and government, and they align roughly with the progressive, conservative and libertarian viewpoints. Progressives, Mr. Kling thinks, typically express opinions using an “oppressed-oppressor axis”: societal problems are envisioned mainly as forms of oppression of the weak by the strong. Conservatives favor a “civilization-barbarism axis” and worry about how to defend traditional values and institutions. Libertarians use a “freedom-coercion axis” in which the threat is governmental encroachment on individual choice.

One reason American political culture has become polarized and uncivil, Mr. Kling believes, is that each side puts its contentions almost exclusively in terms of its favored language, and fails to see that contrary opinions are manifestations of a different language rather than evidence of stupidity or duplicity.

Comments Burt at the League: “Sometimes you’ll come across a framing so neat and concise it’s hard to imagine how you made such a mental hash of the problem yourself before. As here, at least for me. Of course we’re all talking past each other, and of course everyone else’s axis of political conflict countenances evil, because their axes miss the point completely.” Makes sense to me.

One of the most valuable skills that anyone can develop is the ability to view arguments from vantage points other than one’s own. If you are a conservative, you should preferably be sufficiently familiar with liberal thinking to be able to anticipate or image how your arguments will be interpreted by a liberal audience or a liberal opponent. If you are a libertarian, you should be able to predict how a conservative opponent will respond to your argument — and then you should have a counter-response prepared.

This skill is hardly limited to national politics. It is especially important in the practice of law — and unfortunately, I have grave doubts that law schools currently do an adequate job of training future lawyers for this type of thinking. Last year, Jonathan Adler at the Volokh Conspiracy had a post (“Why Did Legal Elites Underestimate the Case Against the Mandate?”) that touched on the importance of truly understanding the arguments of one’s opponents:

In teaching our students to be effective lawyers it is important that we teach them how to understand opposing legal arguments on their own terms. Effective appellate attorneys are conscious of this problem and devote substantial energy trying to get inside the minds of their opponents. As I’ve heard Paul Clement (among others) explain, you can’t effectively advocate your own position until you truly understand the other side. This can be difficult to do, particularly when we have strong feelings about a subject. Someone who believes the PPACA is a long-overdue step toward remedying the profound injustices of the American health care system is not predisposed to embrace arguments that the PPACA is unconstitutional. And if those same academics both lack colleagues with opposing points of view and have no particular professional interest in making sure they fairly consider the other side, it is easy for them to overlook the strength of opposing arguments and reduce them to caricatures. Ridiculing the need for a limiting principle or other anti-mandate arguments may get approving nods in the faculty lounge, but, as we saw this week, it won’t receive an equally warm welcome in court.

And this leads me to…

2. Daniel Dennett’s Seven Tools for Thinking. Dennett makes a number of points, including one about not attacking straw men or going after the weakest representative of an opposing viewpoint or ideology (emphasis in original): “when you want to criticise a field, a genre, a discipline, an art form …don’t waste your time and ours hooting at the crap! Go after the good stuff or leave it alone. This advice is often ignored by ideologues intent on destroying the reputation of analytic philosophy, sociology, cultural anthropology, macroeconomics, plastic surgery, improvisational theatre, television sitcoms, philosophical theology, massage therapy, you name it.”

But Dennett’s best point involves the utility of respect for an opponent:

Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticising the views of an opponent? If there are obvious contradictions in the opponent’s case, then you should point them out, forcefully. If there are somewhat hidden contradictions, you should carefully expose them to view – and then dump on them. But the search for hidden contradictions often crosses the line into nitpicking, sea-lawyering and outright parody. The thrill of the chase and the conviction that your opponent has to be harbouring a confusion somewhere encourages uncharitable interpretation, which gives you an easy target to attack.

But such easy targets are typically irrelevant to the real issues at stake and simply waste everybody’s time and patience, even if they give amusement to your supporters. The best antidote I know for this tendency to caricature one’s opponent is a list of rules promulgated many years ago by social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport.

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

1. Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.

4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

One immediate effect of following these rules is that your targets will be a receptive audience for your criticism: you have already shown that you understand their positions as well as they do, and have demonstrated good judgment (you agree with them on some important matters and have even been persuaded by something they said). Following Rapoport’s rules is always, for me, something of a struggle…

(H/T: 3 Quarks Daily.)

3. Freddie deBoer has some, um, advice for young writers. Sobering advice. Please do read in full.

This is not Prof. deBoer’s main point, but it may be worthwhile to say that it is probably a good thing for a “writer” to have some other job. The “other job” will pay the bills and also, honestly, may serve to both (1) keep the writer “grounded” (in some sense), and (2) provide material (or inspiration) for writing.

There are any number of examples of this in the modern era. Anton Chekov was a physician — he once said, “Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress.” Isaac Asimov spent a decade after WWII as an associate professor of biochemistry before becoming a “full-time” writer (he had been writing and publishing short stories since grad school). Of course, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were both professors.

On that general topic, see also this 1944 column by George Orwell. (“If a writer is to have an alternative profession, it is much better that it should have nothing to do with writing. A particularly successful holder of two jobs was Trollope, who produced two thousand words between seven and nine o’clock every morning before leaving for his work at the Post Office. But Trollope was an exceptional man, and as he also hunted three days a week and was usually playing whist till midnight, I suspect that he did not overwork himself in his official duties.”)

I also know that most of the bloggers that I most enjoy reading are not professional bloggers — that is, they have other day jobs, and they blog on the side.

All that said, Prof. deBoer’s points have great truth behind them. Professional writing is a tournament, and the vast majority of tournament entrants do not win big. Even in the Kindle Age, or perhaps especially in the Kindle Age, power law effects apply in writing — a small number of self-published authors make it big, and after them come the multitudes of authors in the “long tail” who “are earning virtually nothing and account for the majority of books in the system.” Do not expect to make a living as a freelance writer. (I certainly don’t expect ever to make money from this blog.)


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