Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Shouting Fields

An important lawyer and writer, Philip Howard has written well and eloquently about the excessive and negative influence of too much law, too many lawyers, and too much bureaucracy.

In a recent Daily Beast article Howard reviewed a new book by Mark Thompson, CEO of the New York Times Company. The title, Enough Said.

Howard opened with an important point. In today’s culture we are told to forget about facts and objective realities—because facts are really just a matter of opinion. What matters is what you believe, not what is true.

Howard might have noted that Thompson’s New York Times just spent all of its election coverage distorting facts in order to proselytize its own opinions. So much so that it had to apologize. Its leadership promised to change course, but, as of now, the evidence is scant.

Mark Thompson would make a major contribution to solving the problem if he cleaned up his own house first. Who is better placed to show scrupulous respect for facts than the CEO of the New York Times Company. You might respond that Thompson has no real say over the editorial policies of the Times, but surely he has some influence.

In the meantime, Howard (after Thompson) offers a useful thesis:

We are now at a point in politics, a new book warns, where reality has lost its authority: Facts are considered a matter of opinion.

Public discourse has degenerated into a shouting match. Everything is either black or white. Is our only choice inept big government or no government? How about government that aspires to be practical and responsive?

How did this come about? Does the media, as in the New York Times, foster this condition by appealing to its readers’ confirmation bias, thus selecting our facts that affirm readers deeply held beliefs and suppressing the facts—like negative stories about Hillary Clinton—that would tend to discomfit them.

Whatever the cause, it is true that in today’s America facts lack any authority. Reality does not seem to matter. We believe what we believe and do not like it when anyone suggests that a mere fact can discredit or disprove our belief.

To be more precise, we are all idealists now. Just as Plato taught that what we take to be facts are mere appearances Nietzsche believed that there were no facts, only interpretations.

All of which buttresses the point that Howard and Thompson are making. Our culture rejects facts in favor of beliefs. Or opinions.

As it happens, when no one believes in facts and when no one believes in authority conferred by experience, people assert dominance by trying to shout louder than each other. They want to show that their conviction is a higher truth, thus that it is impervious to facts.

The alternative is an empirical or pragmatic culture where experiments are allowed to prove or disprove our hypotheses or where practical results are permitted to affirm the wisdom or folly of policy decisions. And of course, where experience matters… and is respected.

In this article, Howard is too judicious to mention that idealists on the political left, often on the radical political left, are largely responsible for this state of affairs. After all, they control most of the media and the vast part of the university system. They insist that their ideas are the best, to the point where nothing, no fact, no objective reality can possibly refute them. Rather than admit that their policies do not work, they prefer to shift the blame to someone else.

In an empirical culture opinions are not absolute truths but are more like hypotheses, to be tested, in debate and discussion, and in terms of the practical consequences they produce.

Howard explains:

How can our political system possibly deal with modern challenges when we can’t even talk about them sensibly? That’s what Mark Thompson asks in his new book, Enough Said. Thompson, the CEO of The New York Times and former director-general of the BBC, dissects the degeneration of discourse over recent decades. We are now at a point in politics, he explains, where reality has lost its authority: Facts are considered a matter of opinion.

Words matter. A functioning democracy requires a public narrative that acknowledges different points of view, and encourages practical compromises. Words can inspire as well as destroy: “The right words at the right time,” political strategist Frank Luntz observed, “can literally change history.” Winston Churchill and FDR come to mind.

You have probably noticed by now that Howard and Thompson are using the term “authority” in a slightly peculiar sense. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Normally, when we talk about authority we are referring to individuals who exercise it, who can make things happen, whose word sets policy, who have superior wisdom. For my part, I have no problem with granting authority to objective facts—in truth, I find it refreshing—but making the argument that this authority is the same as the authority granted to individuals requires some serious thought.

And, if we ask what happened to the respect for authority, we know, as Howard does, that it gotten beaten down by the counterculture warriors of the 1960s. We must add the influence of psycho professionals who have told parents across the nation that rebellion is normal and that a compliant, respectful child is repressed.

For his part, Howard emphasizes the fact that people who misbehave, especially college students who disrupt the campus are never held to account. College officials have abrogated their authority and have allowed their campuses to become shouting fields:

The decline in reasonable discourse, he [Thompson] observes, is associated with a general suspicion of all authority. Pause here. Extreme or counter-factual rhetoric is harmless noise if decision-makers have the authority to ignore it and act on their best judgment. But the breakdown of authority means there’s no cost to being unreasonable. College students who shout down speakers they disagree with are not suspended or sanctioned. Hey, let’s have some fun, and use macro-aggression to give vent to our theories of micro-aggression!

The problem then is: no one is ever held to account for trafficking in noise. That is, for contributing to social disharmony.

We emphasize the point, because classical ethical treatises, from Confucius, emphasize the goal of producing social harmony. If we should be seeking social harmony, we should oppose those who produce noise and should hold them accountable. Theirs is not a crime, but it is certainly an offense against public order.

If a student gets up in the middle of a lecture and starts playing his harmonica, he should be held responsible. At the least, he should be shown the door. Such is not what happens today. University administrators are more likely to believe that harmonica playing is a reasonable expression of opinion, even if it undermines the authority of the lecturer. Thus, we are all in trouble.

As I have often remarked, Confucius once said that if you do not allow everyone’s sense of shame to order society, you will need to use rules and regulations, coupled with threats of punishment. Howard has often made the point, in different terms, and he is an expert in the deleterious effects of bureaucratic overregulation.

He explains:

Public discourse is a cacophony because the words don’t matter. There’s no decision-maker to persuade or to hold you accountable. The disappearance of authority was no accident. After the 1960s, we reorganized government to avoid fallible human judgment by replacing human authority with thick rulebooks. That’s why government is a tangle of red tape where no one can do much of anything. Critical infrastructure projects languish on drawing boards because no official has authority to give a permit. Schools are chaotic because teachers must prove in a due process hearing that Johnny threw the punch. In government without human authority, irresponsible actions have few consequences, and irresponsible words have no consequences. Yell, hiss, lie… whatever.

He continues:

Thompson sees the link between discourse and bureaucracy: “The culture of compliance is a false god,” Thompson notes, “a failed rationalist attempt to turn…human qualities of honesty, integrity and trust into a regulatory algorithm. Abandon it. Start from scratch. Fit your rules around…the reality that trust is central to all our affairs.”

But, trust requires an ethic of good behavior. It requires that we know right from wrong and to act accordingly. It requires that you do so consistently. It requires that we hold everyone to the same standards, to the point where we do not excuse those who have appallingly bad manners. But, trust must be earned. Perhaps the New York Times will earn back the trust that it squandered in its crusade to elect Hillary Clinton. Time will tell.


Jim Sweeney said...

Too many lawyers is a good thing since that would reduce the cost of legal services and more people could afford the lawyer they need for whatever legal issues they had. That is classic supply and demand pricing is it not? Too many laws or bureaucrats is not the same analogy. Facts are stubborn things as Adams, I think, said.

Trigger Warning said...

Although Philip Howard and I disagree on some, if not many, matters, he is a man worth listening to. I read The Death of Common Sense some twenty years ago, and I was deeply impressed by it.

For example, one of his points about regulation was that government regulators, crippled by an excessive abundance of caution about at-the-scene human judgement, attempt to write regulations to be self-executing "bots", devoid of any human interpretational latitude based on local realities. Obviously, this incurs ridiculous results, like the Wyoming rancher fined $20m by the EPA over a stock pond he built, despite having cleared every extant regulatory hurdle.

When Howard is talking about "authority", I hear him talking about sources that are authoritative, as in deserving of respect. Not "authority" as in that old social psych questionnaire construct and bugbear, "authoritarian".

Reality, the most authoritative source, is authoritative because, as William James wryly noted, "Truth is what works". Or more amusingly, as Philip K Dick observed, "reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away".

One of the most famous 60s-era bits of bumpersticker wisdom was "question authority". That was taken so deeply to heart by the Left, in reaction to perceived authoritarianism, that the the notion of "culturally constructed reality" became intellectually stylish and fashionably ascendant.

Unfortunately for the cultural relativists, my personal quote is "reality is hard; not hard as in difficult, hard as in unyielding". As Schneiderman observes, the NYT lost a measure of trust because the view from their ivory tower was constructed to fit a cultural narrative they were pushing, and simply did not comport with reality. In short and in James' view, it didn't work.

And speaking of reality, I've noted a popular sign, "not my president", held aloft by many post-election protesters. And, in many cases, it's very likely true. Their president is probably Señor Nieto, Señor Morales, or Señor Hernández. That's a reality that may turn out to be hard for the complainants

Trigger Warning said...

Your supply-and-demand analysis would be correct in virtually all endeavors, but, sadly, not in law.

Law schools have pumped out so many lawyers that we have a wildly litigious society, with every dime-store contingency-fee lawyer languishing behind dusty strip mall miniblinds, cruising to get that one client, case, judge, and jury combination yielding a jackpot million-dollar judgement to cover next year's rent.

Sam L. said...

TW, for me, the measure of trust the NYT has lost is five full measures. It's GONE. NOT comin' back.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

I have read all Phillip Howard's books over these many years, and have met with him personally. He is brilliant, and his ideas are profound. It would be great if the Trump Administration could find a place for him.

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: But, trust requires an ethic of good behavior. It requires that we know right from wrong and to act accordingly. It requires that you do so consistently. It requires that we hold everyone to the same standards, to the point where we do not excuse those who have appallingly bad manners. But, trust must be earned. Perhaps the New York Times will earn back the trust that it squandered in its crusade to elect Hillary Clinton. Time will tell.

Or perhaps as the disaster of Trump's presidency becomes apparent in the next 2-3 years, the NYTimes' crusade will be redeemed? Of course a corrupt Trump presidency doesn't imply a Clinton presidency wouldn't have been even more corrupt. We were in a pickle to be sure.

My immediate crusade is to persuade 37 or 38 Republican Electors to defect from Trump to Pence. Apparently we have two so far, with barely than a month to the December 19 Electoral college vote.

Of course when we are deciding whether we prefer a President Trump or a President Pence, we're still in a pickle, and we can't be sure which will be worse. And seeing how upset Hillary supporters are over her loss to Trump, we can imagine some Trump supporters would be upset if 38 electors override Trump in the electoral college, even if over half of Republicans would have preferred someone else for president. So we may have pro-Trump riots between December 19 and whenever the House votes for a winner in January, just in case the fear of riots can kowtow the House Republicans to pick Trump over Pence or a more stable character for president.

Its hard to tell what is "Good ethical behavior" and some people think ethical behavior means doing what you think they should do, rather than letting them follow their own conscience. But there must be some agreement between right and wrong.

We agree it is wrong to believe that Trump could shoot someone one 5th Avenue and not lose any support. Of course that's more a hint by President-elect Trump that his supporters' loyalty is a bit too strong, and they shouldn't be so passionate.

And we agree it is wrong to joke on Facebook after the election that you're going to shoot the president dead, and its right that a person who makes such dangerous boasts is not someone to be trusted, and he's right to apologize and resign from his position.

So when a person shows a lapse in judgment, he needs to atone for his sins, and show he understands the nature of his transgression, and promise to do better in the future, and someday people may again trust his judgment in the future.

And we can feel confident that president Trump will not shoot someone on 5th avenue, but we might be less sure if he starts calling for the arrest of his political rivals, whether his supporters will cheer, or question their conviction that only Trump can fix everything.

We live in strange times, and clearly a large majority of people on all sides are getting lost in their own projective psychodramas.

Sam L. said...

Ares, that's IF, not AS. Assuming disaster is unwarranted at this time. We do know the media will scream bloody murder if they have an opportunity. Wouldn't do that to Hillary.

Anonymous said...

Nicholas Kristof of NYT asked his liberal friends to "Consider" ideas on the other side.

They all said NO. Funny old world. -- Rich Lara

David Foster said...

Trigger Warning--"For example, one of his points about regulation was that government regulators, crippled by an excessive abundance of caution about at-the-scene human judgement, attempt to write regulations to be self-executing "bots", devoid of any human interpretational latitude based on local realities."

See my post about the fate of Washington Metrorail train T-111


Ares Olympus said...

I see a new article with Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist who has studied the different value systems of Conservatives and Liberals, and recognized that Conservatives are actually more balanced in their values, while Liberals go overboard in the "Fairness" value, and see oppression where there is merely ordinary competition.

So now Haidt sees Social media as not something that has brought us all together but instead pulled us apart, each into our own tribal niche of positive feedback for what we want to believe, and rejection of what we can't allow ourselves to consider.

The tribes are solidifying, and now is the time all of us have to find our home team, and build walls that block out any cognitive dissonances that threaten to challenge our convictions. And the more the opposition unifies, the more its clear you must also, for your own survival. That's the world we've created - infinitely connected, and divided.

Sean Illing: What you’re describing sounds like an expansion of the culture war. Is it your view that culture wars have subsumed all of our politics and that policies are just props in this broader battle?

Jonathan Haidt: Yes, that’s right. There are existential questions at stake, and this election has felt really apocalyptic for both sides. The right thinks the country is crashing into a void and that Trump, while crazy, is our only hope. The left thinks Trump will bring about a fascist coup, a war with China, or a betrayal of our alliances.

So there is an apocalyptic feeling here. Sacred values are at stake. There really can be no compromise between these two visions.

Sean Illing: It’s common to hear people bemoan “identity politics,” and for good reasons. Tribalism and politics don’t mix well. But I wonder if you think all politics is, on some level, identity politics. If politics is about the assertion of values in the public space, and if values are bound up with personal identity in all sorts of ways, is there any way around this trap?

Jonathan Haidt: I don’t know. A multiethnic society is a very hard machine to assemble and get aloft into the air, and if you get it just right, you can get a multiethnic society to fly, but it easily breaks down. And identity politics is like throwing sand in the gears.

Politics is always about factions, always about competing groups. At the time of the founders, those groups involved economic interests — the Northern industrialists versus the Southern agrarians and so on.

But in a world in which factions are based on race or ethnicity, rather than economic interests, that’s the worst possible world. It’s the most intractable world we can inhabit, and it’s the one that will lead to the ugliest outcome.

Sean Illing: And yet this is precisely the world in which we find ourselves.

So what next? How can we improve our democracy moving forward and cut across these racial and cultural cleavages?

Jonathan Haidt: We haven’t talked about social media, but I really believe it’s one of our biggest problems. So long as we are all immersed in a constant stream of unbelievable outrages perpetrated by the other side, I don’t see how we can ever trust each other and work together again.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Ares Olympus @November 15, 2016 at 11:51 PM:

"... while Liberals go overboard in the "Fairness" value, and see oppression where there is merely ordinary competition."

Liberals see discomfort as a disease, something unnatural and amoral. And they cannot be with another's discomfort, and seek to prevent it in all forms. This is why you have young adults on campus freaking out about the results of an election. They are not able to cope with disappointment because their disappointment had been assuaged and remedied at every turn.

This is why Lefties act like children. They've come to relate to discomfort as a bad thing, so they don't grow. Suffering is a part of life, yet we in the West have come to view it as the exception, rather than the normal state of things. This extends to work and the nonsense about "follow your bliss."

Life is unfair. We're not victims.

There's some soul searching going on in the Democrat Party right now, but I sense they're not willing to let things lie for awhile and sort it out. They're in shock. They could take their time, yet they're reacting. Choosing Keith Ellison to head up the DNC shows they haven't learned a thing, and they're doubling down on their coalition of victims. Oh well.

Trigger Warning said...

If I could vote for the leadership of the DNC, I would vote for a diverse triumpersonate: Keith Ellison, Luis Gutiérrez, and John Lewis. That team would do the Democrat Party a world of good.

I also note that the new symbol of the Disaffected Snowflake contingent is a diaper pin. Locally, charitable organizations are being urged to provide Huggies Pull-Ups, but complaints are being lodged because of landfill issues and the inability of many protesters to cope with complex elastic bands.

Dennis said...


Thanks. As I was reading Stuart's comments I was trying to think of a book I had read some time ago and as it turns out it is "The Death of Common Sense"


What would our lives be if we did not have the exigencies of life to challenge us and make us better?

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

TW: If you think a victim parade in the DNC leadership is a step forward after November 8's very clear message, I'd say you're nuts. But I'll take it, because I think it'll yield more Republican wins... and we'll break down this victimocracy piece by piece.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...


Teapartydoc said...

The cacophones have the backing of the administrations.