Friday, July 9, 2010

All Attitude, No Substance

Today, I found something that's truly dissection-worthy. It's related to politics, contemporary communication, and the content of today's persuasive writing. I wonder, too, if current editorial methods--even as they are possibly unconscious actions to the writers themselves--don't reveal something deeper about our continued and ever more obvious inability to achieve understanding and make progress in larger issues.

First, a note on where I'm coming from. I generally try to keep most of my specific political views to myself. Sure, I write fiction about the government coercing the masses through either intimidation or the furtive administraton of placating drugs, but when I feel the urge to respond loudly about something, I usually save my loudest editorializing to comments made on our living room sofa in response to news stories or to evidence of commentators' overtly biased (translation: presenting only one side of an issue does not constitute objective or fair reporting) vantage points.

I teach a rhetoric class, and having had to actually express for others the impact of tone, voice, audience, and purpose (not to mention argument formats) for students, I find that the shape of contemporary editorials (which are, essentially, arguments--debates in written form) are becoming increasingly combative, snarky, even insulting. This approach has begun to show up in student essays, along with the general attitude that research and evidence is optional. The following is an example. Potential thesis: "We should legalize marijuana." Okay. Let's discuss the reasons why it would be beneficial to legalizing it. Answer: "Because you're really uptight if you don't think it should be legalized."

Wait. What? How is that going to persuade anyone besides a thirteen year old subject to peer pressure? They can't do anything about legalizing it. The government can, so should we be providing compelling evidence to them?

What are writers attempting to do when they write essays? Most often, persuade, sometimes educate. Tell someone they're uptight for not wanting to legalize something is not evidence. It's a gentler form of malignant manipulation. Certainly evidence can be used for malignant manipulation but here, we've received no evidence at all, only an unpleasant name tag: "Hello, my name is Up Tight." Meet my friends Anal Retentive and High Strung. We have been wallflowers most of our lives, but we try to take it in our stride. (I, by the way, don't give a rip whether marijuana is legalized or not, but I get a paper arguing for its legalization every semester.)

Anyway, back to purpose. What is every writer's purpose (even if they are educating, which, as a writer, you are always doing in one way or another)? Persuade. Persuade me to see your point of view. Make me understand where you're coming from. Don't cause me to turn my back with an inappropriate tone. You want me to understand you? Don't cast stones. Talk to me as an adult. Don't throw your sand toys or jeer and shout epithets at opponents. Instead, tell me your opinion with a neutral tone, verifiable facts, and other supporting evidence like testimonies. I want to understand where you're coming from. However, I'll tell you, you'll lose me if you don't provide substantial facts or if you take an inappropriately angry tack.

Moreover, don't categorize me if I disagree with you. Sure, categorizing is an easy way to understand information--it flattens complex details, allows for overall comprehension. But rigid categories are too limiting, too general, often too negative. While I am not a Democrat, I am also not a Republican. I lean neither left nor right. I do lean towards individual accountability, personal empowerment, and individual freedom (which is itself progressive and liberal, by their original definitions). I believe that both my government and my neighbor should not meddle in the minutiae of my life, since it is my life to live. However, I certainly qualify this statement with the understanding that some people must have guidance to follow, boundaries to respect, and reasonable penalties to fear because complete freedom allows them too much latitude for mistakes that harm others. This is why I am not an anarchist. I usually declare myself to be a Libertarian, but as soon as I say this, people calculate my stance on issues based on Libertarian ideals alone. I operate outside ideology. I openly declare these details here so that upon reading my estimation of the following, I am not automatically categorized as anti-progressive. I believe in critical thinking, in questioning, in sitting down and using intelligent, rational ideas to find some common ground.

Usually, I dig Truthdig. But in some of their current essays, I find they seem to be more an example of the larger impediments to genuine understanding, the kind of understanding that allows forward motion to be made. If you throw stones and offer snarky appraisals, of course, opponents might run away, but have you brought them any closer to understanding, so you can achieve some common ground that allows you to solve massive problems? It causes me to question whether we really need "alternate news" sources. They are not inspiring constructive debate or getting people to truly think about issue ramifications. Instead, they are stirring the frothy pot of anger, polarizing sides in their definition of news stories. Here, we are told who is good and who is bad (or who is perpetrator and who is victim), rather than giving us the information we need to make informed choices or simply understand a hotly debated issue.

For example, in Eugene Robinson's "Heat Wave Silences Climate Skeptics" , the Washington Post writer offers some thoughts on the heat wave and taunts global warming skeptics, whom he now believes are conspicuously silent in light of the 100+ degree temps. He closes his first paragraph with the line, "What's the matter? Heat stroke?"

The metaphorical curling of the lips that comes with Robinson's apparent joke sets the tone for the rest of the essay. He remains sarcastic, provocative, even condescending, and while he offers the idea that temperatures are warmer then they ever have been, we get no specifics so that we can see the details for ourselves.

By comparison, my local weather man often makes comparisons during his forecasts, saying that the last time it was this hot on a particular date in the Ohio Valley, it was 1988. Now, that says something valuable to me. So then, what if we were to track this trend on a broader scale, widening the parameters beyond day and region? By year, what was the temperature range along the East Coast compared to that same region's temperatures in 1910? After that, let's compare how hot things were before the Industrial Revolution, which marks the alleged genesis of extensive carbon emissions. Is there some chart that can support the tacit (and sometimes not so unspoken) statement that skeptics are ignoring the clear evidence? Often, it seems that in the media as a whole, we are not given a clear picture of the data, only the subtext that those who do not automatically agree with the idea that the earth is warming (and perhaps it is, I certainly do not discount this belief) are backward-looking idiots. But someone, anyone give me the data to look at. Show me hard evidence--data--from a reliable source or authority with a field specialist's credentials. Moreover, do not lob insults at me. They hurt. They will cause me to stop listening to you. Most likely, if you insist on implicitly telling me I am stupid, I will ignore you because what reader wants to be abused?

In the act of persuasion, tone, remember, is only slightly less important than evidence, although evidence is the most compelling and valuable component of any argument. Still, all the evidence in the world can't get over a wall of defense that has been put up because the argument's tone is insulting.

In the comments that followed Robinson's article, there was a post by "tropicgirl," whose icon was Obama dressed as Mussolini. I saw that her response post was studded with quotations and never seemed to devolve into the type of angry rant that other contributions in post-story comment boards tend towards. Instead, she provides a fascinating, authority-studded history lesson, supporting the argument that global warming is merely a method of persuasive control...a kinder, gentler form of terrorism, better known as coercion. I can get behind this because she finesses us logically through the idea by using authority testimony. I am more inclined to believe her side of the argument than I am to believe veteran journalist Eugene Robinson. Why? Because she does not insult; she presents and supports.

And here is the comment, so you can see it, too:

“In a 1962 speech at UC Berkeley, Aldous Huxley spoke about the real world
becoming the ‘Brave New World’ nightmare he envisaged. Huxley spoke
primarily of the ‘Ultimate Revolution’ that focuses on ‘behavioural controls’ of
people. Huxley said of the ‘Ultimate Revolution’:

'Today, we are faced, I think, with the approach of what may be called the
‘Ultimate Revolution’ – the ‘Final Revolution’ – where man can act directly on
the mind-body of his fellows. The techniques of terrorism have been known
from time immemorial, and people have employed them with more-or-less
ingenuity, sometimes with utmost crudity, sometimes with a good deal of skill
acquired with a process of trial and error – finding out what the best ways of
using torture, imprisonments, constraints of various kinds . . .

(But) If you are going to control any population for any length of time, you must
have some measure of consent. It’s exceedingly difficult to see how pure
terrorism can function indefinitely, it can function for a fairly long time; but
sooner or later you have to bring in an element of persuasion, an element of
getting people to consent to what is happening to them.

This is the ultimate in malevolent revolution…

I am inclined to think that the scientific dictatorships of the future – and I think
there are going to be scientific dictatorships in many parts of the world – will
be probably a good deal nearer to the Brave New World pattern than to the
1984 pattern.

They will be a good deal nearer, not because of any humanitarian qualms in
the scientific dictators, but simply because the ‘brave new world’ pattern is
probably a good deal more efficient than the other. (Fascism is quite efficient).

In 1961, President Eisenhower delivered his farewell address to the nation in
which he warned of the dangers to democracy posed by the military-industrial
complex: the interconnected web of industry, the military, and politics creating
the conditions for constant war. In that same speech, Eisenhower warned
America and the world of another important change in society:

“Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by
task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion,
the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific
discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly
because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a
substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now
hundreds of new electronic computers.

The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment,
project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to
be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we
must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could
itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”

In 1970, Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote about “the gradual appearance of a more
controlled and directed society,” in the “technetronic revolution”; explaining:
Such a society would be dominated by an elite whose claim to political power
would rest on allegedly superior scientific know-how. Unhindered by the
restraints of traditional liberal values, this elite would not hesitate to achieve its
political ends by using the latest modern techniques for influencing public
behavior and keeping society under close surveillance and control. Under such
circumstances, the scientific and technological momentum of the country
would not be reversed but would actually feed on the situation it exploits.”“”

To me this explains a lot.

And yet, it inspired this response from someone named "robertaustin":

"In response to tropic girl:
By invoking Aldous Huxley, your statement is stoked by a lot of intellectual fire power, however I’m not sure I get your point. You seem to be suggesting that a scientific elite is using fear of climate catastrophe to control the masses. However, that does not explain what is actually happening - that a lot of loudmouthed, right wing, dumb shits are successfully manipulating the public to help them raise their ratings and maintain the existing power structure."

Having read this, I wonder if RobertAustin has possibly missed the point. Is it truly "a lot of loudmouthed, right wing, dumb shits [who] are successfully manipulating the public to help them raise their ratings and maintain the existing power structure"? It seems that a great deal of loudmouthed, insulting behavior is coming from robertaustin. Let's engage some critical thinking skills and look for evidence. First, what constitutes the right? It's an easy term to use, but too broad to communicate any real meaning--who specifically? Rush? Beck? And if they want to maintain the existing power structure will this benefit them? They're no longer in power, if by "right wing" he means "Republican." There are too many undefined variables here, so that what robertaustin says makes little sense when closely analyzed. I'm not attacking the poster, but his method of reasoning. It seems to prove "tropicgirl"'s point: he's been conditioned to use these divisive terms, to repeat a kind of blind situation assessment. His post proves it.

At the heart of everything lately, there's only attitude, not substance. And this is scary.

It makes me wonder, what will happen to our society if its citizens can only throw stones and cease to understand how to think critically and to effectively reason?

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