On political opining

How much do you know about Ukraine? Or better, how much did you know before the recent political turmoil there? For my own part, I must confess I knew pitifully little. I have of course never been there. I knew bits of trivia, like the fact that its capital is Kiev. I knew about the Crimean War (vaguely) and that Florence Nightingale made her reputation there. I have read just two books that are located (at least partially) in Ukraine: one is Tolstoy’s Sevastopol Sketches, the other is Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder, which has a horrific description of the Stalinist manufactured famine of 1932-3. I remember somewhat Ukraine breaking away from the Soviet Union in the early 90’s. And I knew that it was a fertile agricultural land, the “bread-basket” of the USSR. That’s pretty much it.

Since the recent crisis, my treasury of facts has increased quite a bit. I have a nice little wikipedia education on aspects of Ukrainian history. I have read a couple of decent essays on Ukrainian/Russian relations. I went from knowing next-to-nothing to knowing next-to-next-to-nothing. Good for me.

Yet, I know more than enough to offer a strong opinion on the Ukraine. I can sound really learned in an argument with other poorly-informed opinionated persons. (I am pretty good at sounding smart about something I know little of.) We opiners can really go at it, getting angrier in turns, at each other if we disagree or someone else (Putin or Obama or the opposition party perhaps) if we agree. Of course, we will think the person who disagrees with us is ignorant or poorly informed without noticing that we are as well. And in a representative democracy, this rhetoric has an effect as our representatives fall all over themselves to ally themselves to the majority opinion, to voice strongly the pundit-manufactured opinions of the poorly informed, and they are armed with confident-sounding phrases decorated with a few decontextualized facts. The result can be utterly tragic. Let’s hope it is not in this case.

Do we understand what we are doing when we do this? One of the aims of the Platonic dialogues is to make the strong case about the dangers of assertive, immoderate doxa/opinion. When talk is cheap we forget that it is also consequential. Countering doxa with a louder, contradicting version of the same type of doxa leads to an ever increasing scandal. We must be critical of punditry as such, not just the pundits with whom we disagree. (Nate Silver recently tweeted: “Never would have guessed how many political pundits also happen to be experts on Crimea.”) Let’s remember that pundits get paid to be opiners, not knowers.  Making clear to ourselves and others the ignorance inherent in opinion is the only antidote that I know for the chief political disease.  But that requires a kind of self-critical thinking that is much less fun in a world that celebrates rhetorically effective opinion. In all the hubbub about this crisis or that, what has really escaped notice is that philosophy is always the proper response.

Here are a few of my former posts on the nature of opinion: here, here, and here.


4 thoughts on “On political opining

  1. Reading this I could not help but think of the way the term “crisis” is consistently used(abused?) by specific factions of the news media to increase ratings. We are told almost daily of “crises” in our schools, in congress, in Ukraine, in Syria, in Afghanistan, with gun violence, with internet use, and on and on. To call something a “crisis” requires a broad and deep understanding of the complex set of factors interacting to produce a particular situation. This is the kind of knowledge I don’t come across very often.

  2. Right. As far as I can tell, the term “crisis” is not employed in any epistemologically thick way. What I think it really signals is (1) the speaker doesn’t know how a situation will turn out; (2) some of the possible scenarios seem really bad; (3) some (unidentified) “we” must act is some (unidentified) way. Of course action requires situational understanding to be effective and beneficial, which is almost always what is exactly is missing in the “crisis” situation. A “crisis” can often be just an excuse to grandstand and to exert power. (My favorite is the “reductio ad Hitlerem” argument.) The blind action itself may create new dangers that we as yet know nothing of. Whatever understanding exists is probably subject to a *saliency bias* — what come most readily to mind when we grope for historical examples are the most extreme and sensational ones (e.g. Hitler) rather than all the false positives from previous diagnoses.

    Of course there are really crises in the world. My thumbnail definition of a crisis is a situation in which a refusal to decide is fraught with as much consequence as deciding. De-cidere means “to cut” in Latin. We cut off options when we decide. If not deciding “cuts off” what we could achieve by deciding, then that is a crisis situation. You are right that to accurately label a situation as a crisis requires more understanding often than the labeller possesses.

    Example, I have a bad knee with torn meniscus. I have lived with this condition for close to a decade. I could go to the doctor tomorrow and schedule corrective surgery, a decision I have put off for a long time already but which I could still make. This hesitancy doesn’t alter my ability to decide. A torn meniscus is not a crisis. The decision is not fraught with much consequence. On the other hand, if I tear an artery I had better respond quickly. Loss of blood will kill me if I don’t do anything. Failure to decide to act would have grave consequences. I cannot really defer the decision — failure to decide is a decision to die. But I understand the asymmetry of consequence in those two situations. Pundits, I suspect, rarely do.

  3. Rhetorical scholar Michael Calvin McGee’s concept of the “ideograph” may also be pertinent to this discussion. Here is how McGee defines an “ideograph”: “An ideograph is an ordinary-language term found in political discourse. It is a high-order abstraction representing collective commitment to a particular but equivocal and ill-defined normative goal. It warrants the use of power, excuses behavior and belief which might otherwise be perceived as eccentric or antisocial, and guides behavior and belief into channels easily recognized by a community as acceptable and laudable. Ideographs such as “slavery” and “tyranny”, however, may guide behavior and belief negatively by branding unacceptable behavior.”

  4. Tillman, I had never heard of that term before but it seems apt. Your description of it reminds me of Uwe Poerksen’s notion of “Plastic Words” — although the original term he tried to use was “Lego Words,” but he ran afoul of the trademark rights. Lego blocks can be used interchangeably and indiscriminately with other blocks. Poerksen studied words like “development,” “resources,” “education,” “productivity,” which sound rigorous and precise, but which lack any concrete content. Interchange them and you get sentences that have “truthiness” but really say nothing. Rearrange those words randomly and notice what you get:
    1. The development of resources will require an education in productivity.
    2. The productivity of resources will require the development of education.
    And so on.
    Examine any United Nations report, minutes of a World Bank meeting, a report to corporate shareholders, or announcement of any broad-brush political initiative and Plastic Words will figure prominently. As you say of an ideograph, “It warrants the use of power, excuses behavior and belief which might otherwise be perceived as eccentric or antisocial, and guides behavior and belief into channels easily recognized by a community as acceptable and laudable.” This is the highly-abstract language of (all too concrete) exercises of bureaucratic power. I pity the masses of poor Africans who have been at the receiving end of “productive resource development in education” !!

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