Wednesday, August 14, 2019


Aikin and Talisse have an interesting discussion of politicization of tragedies at "3 Quarks Daily". Unfortunately, it has some of the serious flaws of Couto and Kahane's "Disaster and Debate": a strange flattening of all discussion into the same category, an odd failure to consider worries that are often explicitly raised in the same contexts as the one they are considering, that weird selectivity that sometimes suggests very strongly that they are in fact trying to gerrymander boundaries so that their preferred political responses get an advantage over others. A few points on their particular version of the argument.

(1) Aikin and Talisse suggest that the three reasons why you might think politicization of a tragedy is wrong are reasons concerned with etiquette, deliberation, and personality. I take it that this is a typology rather than an essential classification, which has an advantage of flexibility over Couto and Kahane, but which also makes it more difficult to see what they are talking about. For instance, their brief comment on etiquette-based reasons for thinking politicization of tragedy wrong is that they amount "to the claim that one has shown insufficient regard for others’ feelings." The idea is that you should avoid exacerbating grief and anger when people are vulnerable. Their example of this, however, which is the argument that after a tragedy is a time for unity rather than debate, has no obvious connection with feelings at all (it is a claim that could be made even setting aside all consideration of grief and anger), nor does the label 'etiquette' help much here, since most of etiquette in the proper sense has nothing directly to do with "regard for others' feelings". Some forms of etiquette are quite clearly a form of self-protection, for instance, others are designed to make social interactions easier for most people, others are designed to attenuate argument into potentially more constructive channels for social interactions, others are designed to make it clear that the people involved are involved in a shared project, and so forth. 'Etiquette' may just be a loose label, although it would fit their example; they seem to have the idea that the basic reason here is that making the tragedy political could take an already hot pot and make it boil over. But if that were the case, their response to it would be inadequate, because we do not in fact allow just any and every kind of expression of grief and anger, regardless of tragedy. It would generally be regarded as unacceptable for people to work out their grief and anger by shooting up a market, or by assaulting people physically in the streets, or by at least some verbal harassment behaviors. The only question is to what else this should extend. So it's not really a response to the hot-pot kind of worry "that it dictates how those criticized should grieve." Well, yes, that's one way you could put it; all that says is that the reason, whatever precisely it is, says that people should not act a certain way when grieving, which is just the topic of discussion itself.

(2) This objection to the etiquette group of reasons, whatever precisely they may be, does bear further examination. Aikin and Talisse say:

In point of fact, outrage and grief may be best expressed and worked through by having discussions about how future instances may be averted. If the tragedy in question has political causes, then politics is a perfectly appropriate component of grieving.

The key is that the charge of politicizing that tragedy, then, has its purchase only if one thinks that the political considerations brought out in the grief are misguided or irrelevant.

This is much, much too fast. Note how quickly things are collapsed into each other: outrage and grief may be "best expressed" (where did the 'best' come from -- it's obvious it's a way they may be expressed, because that's the general topic of discussion, but doesn't jsut throwing in the 'best' here look like Aikin and Talisse rigging the description to make their conclusion easier?) by "having discussions about how future instances may be averted". OK, so this takes the politicization charge to be equivalent to a denial that we should ever respond to tragedies by having discussions about how to avoid them. Is this really what people generally mean by 'politicization'? They give an example from Sanders, who perhaps is where they get the word 'discussions' from, but Sanders explicitly is talking about policy discussions that go after individuals and organizations. (Where Aikin and Talisse get the claim that she is saying that "the blame is only on the shooter in that instance", I don't know, since she explicitly leaves open the possibility of further discussions later; what she says is that only the shooter has "blood on their hands". It's particularly odd since the briefing they quote is literally the day after the Las Vegas shooting, a shooting about which we still know very little, and about which we knew nothing for sure at that time, and the part they quote is linked to a very specific kind of question about what policies should be taken in response, to which her primary response is that before you can talk about policies prevention you need to know the facts about what happened.) So the sense of 'discussions' here is hazy; their example is talking about a very specific kind of discussion, but the claim made by Aikin and Talisse is most plausible (and only non-question-begging) if we are talking about a very extensive variety of discussions. But consider two possible responses to a shooting tragedy:

"I wonder if this could have been prevented by making silencers illegal. What do you think? Do you think we should do that?"


"You see, this is why we need to make silencers illegal; people who sell silencers have blood on their hands."

Both of these are moves you could make in "discussions about how future instances may be averted". They both raise exactly the same question: Should silencers be illegal? But are they equally examples of politicizing a situation? If you asked most people, I am fairly sure that most people would not consider the first to be politicizing the situation at all. The second is very definitely an example of what most people mean by politicizing it.

There is a fundamental equivocation running throughout the discussion. The topic at hand is politicized discussion. But what Aikin and Talisse defend is discussion on topics that could be considered political. This makes their job easy since most public discussions on serious matters deal with matters that could be considered political in one way or another, so they can treat the 'politicization' claim as equivalent to trying to shut down all discussion. But this is not the way people generally talk about politicization, and it does not seem that their modification improves the argument, because it seems it prevents them from actually addressing the kinds of worries people might really have.

(3) One of the weird features of the argument by Aikin and Talisse is the lack of recognition that one of the things people explicitly are worrying about in the context of raising worries about politicization is the use of an event to smear one's political opponents with a broad and very negative brush. This is a very weird gap, since it's not as if smearing people is an unheard-of practice in partisan politics, and it is not as if it cannot have very bad effects if it interacts with a lot of anger and grief. After the 2017 Congressional baseball shootings, a number of Democrats raised the worry about politicization, and for a very obvious reason: the shooter was attempting to assassinate Republican legislators, was a Bernie Sanders supporter, and was concluded after investigation to be engaged in a deliberate act of anti-Republican terrorism. What was being attempted by Democrats who insisted that we not politicize the situation was to head off any attempt to have all Democrats tarred with that brush. One of the "discussions about how future instances may be averted" that we could very well have had after that shooting was what to do about Democrats. (Because, of course, Aikin and Talisse would have to say, political causes require discussions about politics and "in point of fact" discussions about how to prevent the assassination of Republicans by Democrats may be the "best" way for Republicans to work through anger and grief.) Those kinds of discussions come up. They are not discussions any reasonable person with a concern for civil society ever wants to become widespread, because they always end very, very badly for everyone. People have good reasons not to want tragedies to be used as the foundations of smear campaigns, prior even to entering discussion. And it is generally considered reasonable to arrange one's etiquette of discussion so that this is not a danger.

(4) The second family of reasons that they consider is based on deliberation. "In these instances," they say, "the charge of politicizing a tragedy amounts to the claim that the politicizer is taking advantage of the outrage and other strong emotions prompted by a tragedy to subvert the slower but more reliable deliberative processes of critical discussion." Their discussion shares all the problems found in Couto and Kahane, and another one as well. They say, commenting on an example from McConnell:

And, as we saw with the etiquette version of the politicization charge, the deliberative version also has its critical edge only against the backdrop of some particular assessment of the facts and values about the event in question. That is, McConnell’s charge of politicizing the tragedy sticks only if one agrees that the existing policies are the products of reasonable deliberative processes, and that proposed deviations are likely to be ill-considered. But, of course, the reasonableness of existing policies is precisely what’s at issue.

But this quite clearly elides two different things. Suppose our current laws are very unreasonable and not at all the products of reasonable deliberative processes. What would this change about the argument being used? Nothing at all. If you are going to change them, the argument is still going to be that it needs to be done with respect for reasonable deliberative processes. After all, you wouldn't be making things more rational and deliberative if you didn't; you'd just be exchanging one unreasonably chosen policy for another. The reasonableness of existing policies is not precisely what's at issue; what's at issue is the reasonable way of changing them. These are two completely distinct evaluations. And while maybe, maybe, you could argue that unreasonable laws are more acceptable to change without regard for reasonable deliberative process, the very existence of deliberation-based politicization charges, and the common existence at that, indicates that this is not widely held and needs to be argued. Really, what seems to have happened is that Aikin and Talisse have gotten their wires crossed: they are supposed to be arguing (I imagine) that reasonable deliberative processes don't exclude strong emotions in cases where the existing policies are unreasonable, but instead they end up arguing that reasonable deliberative processes are not something to which one can appeal if existing policies are unreasonable.

(5) The third family discussed by Aikin and Talisse "focuses on the motive of the target of the charge". This corresponds more or less to the 'cynical reading' of Couto and Kahane. As with Couto and Kahane, they completely fail to do justice to worries about bad faith and manipulation, and, contrary to their clearly stated assumption, these worries don't magically vanish depending on your political views, although it is no doubt true that you are more likely to give the benefit of the doubt with regard to good faith to people whose political views you already consider reasonable.

(6) Their overall diagnosis is very, very odd, although it explains many of the more bizarre moves they make:

We have seen that the charge of politicization is a political version of the allegation that one is taking advantage of the emotions of a vulnerable audience to press for a favored conclusion whose support does not depend on emotions. It is hence the allegation that one is reasoning from irrelevant premises. The problem, as we’ve argued, is that despite our agreement that we should not argue from irrelevant considerations, in the cases where the charge of politicization are most prevalent, we disagree about what the relevant considerations are.

This diagnosis is, of course, what is tripping them up and why, for instance, they don't notice the illicit shift in their argument that's discussed under (4), which in light of this diagnosis can be seen as reinterpreting a point about process as if it were a point about premises. They think that claiming that someone is politicizing something is a charge that they are operating from irrelevant premises. And, having read their essay several times, I have no idea why they think this is true; it seems to me so very strange to regard 'politicization' as a label for a particular kind of fallacy of irrelevance. Claiming that someone is politicizing something is quite obviously an ethical criticism rather than a logical one. If you really insisted on considering it in terms of informal logic, it would be less like ignoratio elenchi and more like poisoning the well, which is an ethical criticism that your ends in arguing are malicious. The really weird thing is that they at one point come close to recognizing something like such a view: "although the concept of 'politicization' looks like a norm of discussion that we should abide for the sake of conducting proper argument about, say, gun regulation, the concept functions differently in the vernacular". Norms of discussion for the sake of conducting proper argument are why, for instance, poisoning the well is something to avoid. But they have never at any point shown that it functions differently in the vernacular; they don't consider worries about smearing at all, and they dismiss worries about bad faith without argument, although both of these are clearly connected to norms of discussion, and they both explicitly come up "in the vernacular" in these contexts. Literally all three of the kinds of examples that they give of the charge "in the vernacular", etiquette, deliberation, and personality, are most naturally treated as having a connection with norms of discussion, even on their own characterizations -- norms about regard for the feelings of others, norms about giving priority to reasonable deliberative processes, norms about not letting the loudest voices be determinative. The standard form of argument that they use -- arguing that where you draw the line depends on your politics, which is, if their argument works, going to be true for absolutely everyone -- doesn't in fact address the reason for drawing the line at all, which even "in the vernacular" seems to be associated in people's mind with the suggestion that other people are arguing unreasonably; thus it doesn't seem that it's even the right kind of argument for what they are trying to argue.

(7) The most obvious argument against Aikin and Talisse on this point is that their line of reasoning leads directly to absurd results. Consider this situation, a real-life situation, although I've stripped out specific details because I'm only interested in the general kind of case. A man murders a child; this man had entered the country illegally and was still undocumented. The case gets taken up by groups who want a large-scale crackdown on illegal immigration, expressed in very harsh terms due to the anger and grief over the murder of the innocent child, and proposing very strict policies in handling all such cases. According to Aikin and Talisse, they can't at all be accused of politicizing a tragedy because this would be "nothing more than a tactic for dismissing their position" on illegal immigration; outrage and grief over the death of a child can perfectly well be worked out by vehement argument for harsh policies and you can't argue that it fails to show appropriate respect for the death of the child without begging the question; there is no way actually to argue with them that we should wait to consider these policies more coolly because according to Aikin and Talisse any attempt to do so assumes beforehand that they are wrong; you can't raise the worry that the loudest voices are just using the case to stampede people in the way they want them to go; there is no concern in Aikin and Talisse for the possibility that the outrage could overflow so that legal immigrants could be smeared as well; Aikin and Talisse have in fact hermetically sealed them from all criticism, treating all criticism of their behavior as if it begs the question against them by assuming that not just their premises but their behavior is wrong. So much protection for people deliberately using emotional events to ramp up the rhetoric only gives political incentive to intensify the rhetoric whenever you think you can get something out of it.

Aikin and Talisse would disagree (I hope) with any policy to investigate the Democratic party as an organization potentially serving as a ground for terrorism; but if, after the Hodgkinson attempt to assassinate a significant number of Republican legislators, Republicans had started advocating policies to engage in a large-scale anti-terrorist investigation against Democrats, what would Aikin and Talisse be able to say? It's a case with political causes that are directly connected with Democratic views; investigating certain kinds of organizations as a potential breeding-ground for terrorism is something we already do in cases with political causes; terrorism is rare enough that, except for a few cases, these investigations are often done on the basis of a single instance. It's something people could demand. (And I know people personally who have tried to insist that the NRA should be treated in such a way after a mass shooting, without there being even the justification of any personal link between the shooter and the organization, so there are people who will certainly try to push this line as far as they can.) Any such proposal would obviously (and almost certainly rightly) be seen by Democrats as an attempt to use the tragedy to stampede people in a particular direction in order to break Democratic political power; Aikin and Talisse have ruled such worries just dependent on personal political views. Democrats would certainly disagree with such a policy, but Aikin and Talisse have shut down all attempt to protest it as maliciously motivated, as an attempt to short-circuit deliberative discussion, or as a violation of respect in the face of tragedy. In reality, Democrats are politically powerful enough to be able to block anything that the Republicans might do in this direction, thus giving the Republicans an incentive to accept that the situation should not be politicized in this way (Republicans would likely not gain anything from it, and could lose a great deal), but what could Aikin and Talisse protest if they decided to charge ahead anyway? They've turned it into a disagreement with no process of adjudication. And what of groups that don't have the clout of the Democratic party and thus can't force their opponents to recognize that their attempt to use a situation for partisan ends won't get anywhere? There seems no way to maintain the stability of civil discussion given the arguments Aikin and Talissue have proposed: it seems one should draw the conclusion from their arguments that you can argue against premises, but not against ways of arguing. But some ways of arguing are quite corrosive, and bad news for everybody. And to be sure, charges of politicization, whatever else they may be, are a tactic; there are at least some cases where they are very plausibly a self-protective tactic against precisely such corrosiveness. It seems ill-advised to remove such a protection without something to put in its place. And I see no indication of any such thing anywhere in the discussion.

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