Who’s laughing?

A little while ago I got into a silly fight with someone who I used to (before this fight) think was a pretty decent person. Ze had posted a comic that poked fun at people who misrepresent themselves on social media. Because it was the internet, a lot of the panels made fun of fat people. I pointed out that while the overall premise of the joke was funny, it could have made the same point equally as effectively without mocking people for their body size/shape. After all, surely they got enough of that just being out in public?

The discussion quickly devolved (with the help of one of her friends) into accusations of me grandstanding for attention because I was a blogger – a charge that even if it were true would be completely orthogonal to whether or not I was right. One of the recurring themes in the conversation – indeed, in any conversation in which a person is asked to consider the harm their comments make – is that I should somehow forgive the comic because it’s “just a joke”, as though the fact that someone finds it funny somehow makes it not harmful. As though nobody has ever been hurt by being the butt of a cruel joke before.

The very premise itself seems silly, but it’s a depressingly common refrain. And it seems there is no level of depravity in which it will not be pressed into service: [Read more...]

On the wrong side of justice

This post is going to be a bit of a pedantic rant about a figure of speech, but I hope you’ll bear with me because I don’t think it’s a trivial issue. Progressive liberals often describe conservatives as being “on the wrong side of history” when it comes to things like gay rights, gender or race equality, and generally most progressive causes. History indeed shows us that the people who make arguments standing in opposition to social changes often find themselves left in the dust – defenders of Jim Crow segregations laws lost, as did those who opposed women getting the vote, as did those who said that gay people shouldn’t be allowed to serve in the military.

There is something missing from that “left in the dust” statement though, and that’s the word “eventually”. The people who opposed Jim Crow were highly relevant right up until Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act. People who opposed gay equality in Canada (at least insofar as marriage was concerned) were highly relevant up until 2004, when the Supreme Court ruled that marriage discrimination violated the Charter rights of gay Canadians – people who oppose gay people serving openly in the U.S. armed forces only became ‘the wrong side of history’ last year.

Indeed, we can also see this starry-eyed phrase crop up in our ongoing social justice struggles: [Read more...]

Glass ceilings, cliffs, and the wrong side of history

Undoubtedly, the vast majority of you don’t pay attention to Canadian provincial politics. To be quite honest with you, I don’t either (outside of a bit of attention paid to my own province, mostly by accident). However, this past Saturday my non-provincial-politics-watching streak was broken by the occasion of the Ontario Liberal leadership convention coming to a close. Without wanting to go too far into the history, the former premier (a position equivalent to a governor in the United States) resigned quite suddenly in the midst of a number of political crises. The convention on Saturday was the result of a democratic process internal to the party to select his successor, and the presumptive premier of the largest province in the country.

In a move that may have surprised a number of people, the winner of the election, on the third ballot, was Kathleen Wynne, an experienced politician and member of the provincial cabinet. After a second round in which Ms. Wynne was the front-runner alongside Sandra Pupatello. Two other candidates trailed, but with enough delegates to sway the final voting in either direction. They both chose to endorse Wynne, and brought a large percentage of their delegates along with them, cementing Ms. Wynne’s appointment by a final vote split of 57% to 43%.

If you care to do so, you can read some of my initial reactions to the outcome as a Storify log. What I want to do in this piece (and likely in a subsequent one) is to explore a few of the statements I heard in the wake of the announcement. [Read more...]

The duelling myth postulate: summary and extension

So for the past couple of days you’ve all been very indulgent as I have worked by way through a rhetorical device that I have been pondering for a couple of weeks now. The idea can be summarized as follows:

Many disputes can be expressed as being grounded in two opposing myths: that the world (relative to the topic under discussion) is fundamentally fair, and that the world is fundamentally unfair. Based on those beliefs, moral arguments are developed that either require the preservation of the status quo (f-myth) or its abolition/modification (u-myth). From within each mythical perspective, the opposing argument becomes immoral as a necessary consequence.

What I think this framework (which is really more of a rhetorical device than anything else) allows us to do takes two principal forms. First, it may allow us to gain insight into the positions of people we find in opposition to whatever we are trying to do, connecting the dots between beginning and end rather than just focusing on the end’s immorality. Second, by making explicit all (or at least many) of the steps along the way to the conclusion, it provides us with opportunities to either re-evaluate our own position or attack those of others by injecting different types of evidence into their logical process. [Read more...]

The usefulness of the duelling myth postulate

Yesterday we ran through a few examples of arguments that can be framed using the duelling myth model. I want to stress how trivially easy it was to find those arguments, and the relative ease with which I was able to fit them into the framework. Indeed, anyone who has spent any amount of time involved in political debate can probably think of about a dozen other examples without even breaking a sweat. The framework seems to be applicable to any situation in where there is an argument over a proposal to take action to change something (which is, one would imagine, a lot of arguments).

So the question becomes why is this framework useful? What discriminant or rhetorical ability does it give us that simply having ready counterarguments to things wouldn’t accomplish? Well, if we can learn to recognize the common premise between bad arguments, label them, and walk them through accordingly, perhaps we can explore the similarities between arguments that we might not necessarily support.

Our first example, the hypothetical “welfare” one, could accurately be described as a ‘conservative’ versus ‘liberal’ one, at least in a political sense. The ‘conservative’ argument tends to fall on the side of doing as little as possible* and allowing the ‘free market’ or the ‘marketplace of ideas’ to fix problems – i.e., the world is a fair place if you just give it time. The ‘liberal’ position, by contrast, suggests that collective intervention is needed to fix problems – i.e., the world is an unfair place. [Read more...]

The duelling myth postulate examined: #IdleNoMore

Our next example comes courtesy of the comment threads from this story. I highly suggest that if you read Christie Blatchford’s execrable opinion piece, you take the time to read this patient takedown from Rabble. This comment is, admittedly, cherry-picked, but it is a relatively common argument that turns up pretty much every time racial justice and historical antecedents of racial inequalities are discussed. I don’t read the National Post, so I am not sure how typical the approval the comment is receiving is for that audience, or how representative it is of the general populace, but I’ve heard this line of argument many times before. I don’t find it a particularly egregious example (even though the racism is a bit more nakedly expressed than is usually considered polite): [Read more...]

Moral conflict in the dueling myth postulate

We can see from the previous discussion that it is trivially easy to imagine a situation in which two parties come into direct moral conflict over a single issue, owing almost entirely to their respective evaluations of the fairness of a system. Where one side sees a strong moral imperative to preserve a system, the other sees an equally-strong imperative to change the system completely. The conflict that arises therefore becomes about more than mere facts – it becomes a direct clash of two competing mythologies.

Let us consider for a moment a facile and hypothetical case example. A member of Parliament (MP Jones) proposes a bill that would raise the average amount of monthly income given to people receiving social assistance (welfare). A member from an opposing party (MP Nguyen) objects strongly to the idea: [Read more...]

Ethical dimensions of the dueling myth postulate

It is profoundly mundane to merely point out “hey, some people don’t agree about some things“, but it’s when we consider the moral consequences of these disagreements that the ‘rubber hits the road’, so to speak. Because we have general agreement between parties that fairness is both morally good and important, but disagreement over whether or not a system is in a state of fairness, conflict arises immediately. [Read more...]