Category Archives: Coffeehouse

Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2007.

Tavris and Aronson explore how and why we “justify ourselves and avoid taking responsibility for any actions that turn out to be harmful, immoral, or stupid.” [p. 2] They demonstrate the role confirmation bias plays in how we suss out what is and is not true. They point out that we each have “blind spots”–prejudices, for example–in the way we view the world. They examine the way that we construct our own memories, so that what we “remember” is not necessarily what happened, but what is consistent with certain narratives we adopt to explain ourselves. They look at the strategies we use to deny our own role in our mistakes. In the last chapter they look at ways to go beyond the self-serving self-justification.

When I Google this book, the reviews praise it to the nines. One partial exception, a review at Metapsychology Online, praises it only to the eights, listing a few of what the review’s author sees as its ultimately inconsequential weaknesses I agree that this book is overall good and should be read.

The book doesn’t deserve that much praise. I found its authors’ approach frustrating and at times misleading. Tavris and Aronson don’t acknowledge the paradoxes of their argument, and they oversimplify what strike me as complicated processes. None of that invalidates the points they make. But if they had shown a little more introspection and more willingness to acknowledge counterarguments, their book would have been richer.


Category: Coffeehouse

Some of you may have heard about Donald Trump talking about vagina-groping ladies. It’s been in the news.

One of the offshoots of this conversation has been whether it’s appropriate for men to relate their impression of it with the women in their lives. As some Republicans have backed away from Trump, they’ve cited that they were horrified because of their wives and daughters. This lead to a degree of backlash about how women are people apart from their relationship with men.

I can understand the frustration. Society has often juxtaposed women in relation to the nearest man. Formal letters are often addressed to Mr and Mrs John Smith, for example. Books about women are often titled about their relation to men (Preacher’s Wife, Coal-Miner’s Daughter). And beyond that, there is perhaps something infantizing about it and how it’s deployed.

That being said, the objections in cases like this tend to be misguided.

I don’t consider myself especially sexist of misogynistic. I’ve always believed that women should get equal pay for equal work. I entered into a marriage of non-traditional arrangement with a female breadwinner and a stay-at-home dad, and felt no special compunction about doing so. And of course, rape is bad and sexual harassment is bad and have always been bad.

Even so, it’s one thing to believe things abstractly and another to have a specific reference. While I did believe that sexism in the workplace existed, things changed entirely when my livelihood depended on my wife being treated fairly in the workplace. That was when I started seeing unfairness everywhere. Not just as it pertained to her, but I started seeing it more around me generally. Things I had before found other explanations for became “Well, Other Explanation maybe, but I suspect there is sexism involved as well.”

If we so choose, we can attribute this to Trumwill’s Failure of Creative Empathy. It is not to my credit that I was as dismissive as I was before my own welfare was on the line, for sure. But even if we grant this, my wife became a conduit through which I saw – and saw the importance of – sexism more than I had before. Likewise, having a daughter has made me more keenly aware of the importance of female strength and independence. Strength and independence from the need of a man. This may not be ideal, but it is what it is.

All of which is to say, encouraging men to look at issues of sexism with the women and girls in their lives as a conduit is a good thing. Because it’s likely to be effective. The tangible always trumps the abstract. And this does apply both ways.

Toe above tweet is supposed to illustrate the absurdity of this, but it really doesn’t. The key here is whether the bad thing that happens is male-centric or not. If it’s something that is as likely or not to happen to anyone regardless of gender, then it is silly. But that’s not really what we’re talking about when we’re talking about sexual harassment or assault. We’re talking about something I am very unlikely to ever have to deal with, or if I do it’s in a trivial or infrequent manner (like when I was a substitute teacher and rather uncomfortable with a bunch of women talking about the hotness of the CSI detectives). So it becomes easy for me to disagree with the likelihood or severity of the imposition.

Men may generally have less creative empathy than women, but it’s certainly something I’ve seen with issues that they are rarely likely to be on the wrong side of. False paternity is a historic example. Perhaps the most contemporary example of a male-centric problem is due process for college students accused of sexual assaults come to mind. I want women thinking about their brothers and sons when it comes to giving men adequate room to defend themselves against a change. When we talk about kids getting kicked out of college, I think they are less likely to think of it as “no big deal” if they’re thinking of their sons. And sure enough, women who talk about this (from a pro-process perspective) do talk about their sons.

Notably, they almost all have sons.

I am going to keep an eye on things, and if these arguments do really offend women (outside opinion-on-everything Twitter and the like) then I will stop using it. I may lack the creative empathy to see why exactly its effectiveness is insufficient to undermine its offensiveness. It would be a shame if that were the case.

Category: Coffeehouse

Imagine a presidential debate between a Senator Mike Davis and Governor Betty Neilson. Throughout the entire debate, the Neilson refers to the senator as “Senator” or “Senator Davis.” In turn, Davis consistently refers to Neilson as “Betty.”

This would largely be considered a textbook example of sexism. Absent some greater context, I’d probably cringe at it myself. Even if I supported Davis.

I’ve commented before that in Deseret, my wife and other non-LDS female physicians were constantly referred to by their first name while male doctors of any religion (and female LDS ones) got the Doctor honorific. They did this in front of patients, which is a no-no. That LDS women got the “Doctor” treatment suggests it wasn’t entirely a matter of sexism but also of respect. But male gentiles got the respect regardless.

There’s nothing wrong with going by one’s first name, as a physician or anything. Clancy had intended to do so until she kept running into the problem of patients not taking her seriously, or slipping into calling her a nurse. So she goes by Dr Himmelreich largely to avoid that.

I had for the longest time avoided calling Hillary Clinton “Hillary.” This was an inconvenience in many respects because “Clinton” was typically a reference to Bill Clinton. It’s for the same reason that George W Bush was Dubya, W, or sometimes Shrub instead of just “Bush.” And Jeb is Jeb, of course. But even taking these things into account, I was very conscientious about it all. Then Hillary Clinton decided Hillary was okay and I stopped worrying about it. Even despite that, people have “called me out” for using her first name. As she gets closer to becoming president, I do refer to her as Clinton more and more, just as “Bush” gradually came to refer to the younger rather than the older.

To get back to Davis-Neilson, it’s noteworthy that while Hillary Clinton’s supporters are claiming sexism in the moderation of the last debate (because Clinton was interrupted more than once), less attention has been paid to the fact that he called her by her honorific while she referred to him as Donald. Trump really prefers to be called Mr Trump. She didn’t extend him that courtesy and likely declined to do so precisely for that reason. She wanted to get under his skin and make him do something stupid.

Nobody, of course, is going to call this sexism. Nor should they, even though it’s something Trump would have been called out for under different circumstances (that she accepts “Hillary” complicates things).

My point isn’t poor-old-Donald or anti-PC. But rather as an illustration that it’s complicated. Because the sexism being complained about absolutely exists. But it doesn’t exist in every manifestation. It’s not unlike how half of the lines of attacks against Bill Clinton (womanizer! Slick!) and George W Bush (dumb, unsophisticated, lazy) would suddenly take on a huge racial component when lodged against Obama in a very similar manner.

Which leaves the discussion in an awkward place. It’s easier to say “This wouldn’t happen if it was a white male” but that’s rarely accurate. It’s easier to say “This has nothing to do with race or gender” even though that’s probably wrong because race and gender can amplify or color particular arguments. The truth, that maybe this attack would be used anyway against a white guy but more likely under circumstances in which it is warranted and probably to lesser effect, doesn’t fit into a headline.

Category: Coffeehouse

Over there, a conversation broke out in response to an article I linked to about on how to avoid being a creep on Twitter. This lead to well-tread conversation about the importance of physical appearance. Namely, whether an attractive guy can get away with something that an unattractive guy would get the creep tag for.

As it happens, my answer is an unequivocal yes. But also, that guys should get over it. My more general believe is that women are more interested in looks than stereotypes suggest, that, men are less, though that the relationship (men more interested than women) is still true. Given this, men collectively don’t have a whole lot of room to complain about woman superficiality.

This view gets a fair amount of pushback from both sides of the spectrum, and not because of the last part. A lot of women don’t like it because it suggests that women are more superficial than their stereotype, and that a lot of guys who complain about being treated poorly because they’re unattractive aren’t wrong. A lot of men like it because it allows them to believe they will be able to peg up when it comes to getting a woman because women place less of an emphasis on looks than men do. I further believe that this myth (that women don’t just care less about looks than men but don’t really care that much) is a pernicious one, because it places a burden on women to be more than they are, and more than we ask men to be.

So yeah, of course attractive and unattractive men are gauged differently. This is true in dating criteria generally. If a woman is interested in a man (or vice-versa) she is more likely to forgive awkward moments, interpret what he says charitably, and so on. This is true regardless of the source of the interest, which includes a lot of things other than looks. The year before she met me, my wife met a guy at the same venue who put a lot of the same moves as I did. She never described him as a creep, but she was made rather uncomfortable by it. Along comes me, who does the same things, and we’ve been married for over a decade. The criteria there wasn’t looks so much as age (he was ten years older than myself), biography (he was a former alcoholic), and other such things.

But come on. Of course it applies to looks, too. And when we’re talking about initial encounters, it’s the cover of the book and people do judge by it. There are things guys can do to make a better impression, but there is only so much that a guy can do. If a guy at the lower-end of the attractiveness spectrum is approaching a woman at the higher end, he is far more likely to be considered creepy rather than charming. And that’s a reason why it’s important that we be honest about this. Because if a guy doesn’t want to be creepy, he ought not aim high unless he has very high confidence in his social skills (and depending on the context, even then).

Talk about how there aren’t universal standards and how one person’s eight is another person’s six is some combination of trying to muddy the waters and clinging to grade school fictions. Yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but there is a reason why Hollywood actors and actresses tend to look a lot more like one another than they do like you and me. There may be opportunities to swing for the fences, but it’s a bad idea to do so regularly.

At some point, I started using as a gauge “Would I be doing this if it were an unattractive woman or a guy?” when striking up conversations and the like. If I never would, then I wouldn’t with some attractive lady unless I was willing to admit that I was making a move (however minor). That admission would become important because it meant that if she blew me off I wouldn’t be able to say “How rude.” I swung, I missed, life goes on.

At some point later than that, I realized that was insufficient. That it’s often not appropriate to do towards a woman even if I wouldn’t have a problem doing so towards a guy. That’s where Twitter comes in. Liking every tweet someone tweets (or liking every picture on Facebook) is just not something that a normal person does without some… other motivation. But sometimes on Twitter I do find myself in someone’s timeline and running across several comment-reply-like-retweet worthy tweets. If it’s a guy, I might do three or four or five.

Yeah, but probably not if it’s a female. Not unless it’s one that I have conversed with pretty regularly and have some sort of indication of “Hey, we’re cool.” If they don’t follow me, or my contact with them has been relatively minimal, I will probably pass. This applies especially to young women I follow. Though comparative appearance isn’t an issue (my avatar is a cartoon character, after all), the dynamics between men approaching 40 and women a little past 20 is pretty straightforward. There are a lot more of my type hitting up their type, than vice-versa. And while I am not hitting them up, it’s best to just go ahead and avoid any discomfort they might feel if they even suspected this old geezer was demonstrating a prurient interest.

It’s entirely possible that I am being too deferential, and that I am doing them a disservice by not charming them with my banter or my retweets. But you hear enough stories and think “Yeah, I don’t want to be a part of that” and so you don’t. I don’t necessarily follow all of the rules of the original piece, but they’re worth at least considering. Whether you’re a 20-something stud or a 40 year old dad. But especially the latter.

Category: Coffeehouse

This post is conveniently timed precisely because – apart from recent events in Milwaukee – there hac not been a recent event to attach it to that I can be accused of trying to politically manipulate. It was written – but posted neither here nor on Ordinary Times – very shortly after the shooting in Orlando.

After just about any mass shooting, you start hearing dueling cries. The first says that we must put an end to this. The second says that we should not politicize tragedy.

Not politicizing tragedy is hard when the tragedy is tied very directly to government policy, which is a political question. Access to guns, such as which guns civilians should be able to possess and under what circumstances, is a question of government policy. This government should be influenced by the ramifications of the policy. Including tragedy. So it’s really not reasonable to suggest that such things cannot be politicized.

The question, though, is when it’s appropriate to do so. Proponents of gun control argue that mass shootings are so frequent that if we wait until a significant amount of time has passed, another one will have occurred. So “later” becomes “never.” This is true up to a point, but becomes troublesome when we’re talking about politicization in the immediate aftermath of what happened, before we even know what happened. Increasingly, this practice itself has been defended.

I do get the appeal. If you want to enact change, the best time to do so is in a (seemingly) favorable political environment. When it comes to mass shootings, that’s right after the shootings. That is when it becomes hardest for gun rights advocates to defend their position without seeming indifferent to the death and carnage that is consuming us all.

As someone that supports a robust right to gun ownership, I certainly feel that. In the aftermath of these shootings, I do start to waiver. I start to wonder what gun control measures we could enact that would prevent either this tragedy or ones like it. So it may seem weird, or disingenuous, for me to then object to you making a seemingly effective argument right at the point where it is having the most impact.

The problem is that the impetus for action does not begin and end with gun control. This week, Senate Democrats staged a filibuster to demand action on a specific element of gun control: The terrorist watch list. The argument goes that people accused of being terrorists should not be allowed to buy guns. In general, I am skeptical of this policy on due process grounds. I the aftermath of tragedy, though, I tend to have a more open mind. This may have prevented Orlando! This one little thing!

It’s a little thing unless you happen to be a Muslim that attends the wrong mosque, or has a cousin with some radical ideas. Or, horror of horror, some of your own ideas do not meet with FBI approval. In the aftermath of Orlando, though, I have an open mind on such things. Actually, I have an open mind about a lot of things related to Muslims. Maybe we need to watch them more closely. Maybe we need to be more aggressive in taking action and when someone calls the FBI about suspicious activity exhaust every alternative before concluding that the Muslim poses no threat.

This may sound bigoted. It may sound Islamophobic. It is, to some degree, both. In the light of day, I don’t like admitting that I have any of these thoughts. I don’t like admitting them here, but feel I need to in order to convey that some of the thoughts that we must Do Something actually lead to some unfortunate places. In my better judgment, I try to balance the needs of freedom and security towards more freedom for everybody including Muslims. I try not to let my fear get the better of me. I try not to be a bigot. Now, maybe for you, you don’t even have to try. Good for you. Most of the time, it’s not something that explicitly guides my thought process. After Orlando, it takes more effort. I’m willing to bet there are a lot more people like me than there are like you.

These thoughts come and go, with regard to guns, freedom, and Muslims. Time passes, and I remember why it was I already didn’t take the position I have suddenly been considering. Sometimes change does take root. I’m not made of stone. But most of the more sweeping thoughts I have don’t, and whether you’re a liberal or a conservative that’s probably a good thing.

To be clear, being anti-gun is not the same thing as being anti-Muslim. This is true regardless of your threat assessments. The first is an object, the second is a person. The arguments, however, are connected in one important way: Consciously or unconsciously, arguments are being made right now that seek specifically to exploit impaired judgment.

I am myself increasingly bowing out of such discussions. To some, this suggests a degree of heartlessness and indifference, to the point where any expression of sympathy or sadness is ipso facto disingenuous or worse. Or at least cowardly. But really, it’s because I know enough about myself to know that anger and sadness is not fertile ground for good decision-making. It’s not a good emotional or intellectual place to separate good arguments from bad. It’s a good place for emphatic reaction.

Politicians are going to politic. Activists are going to agitate. Pundits are going to pontificate. People I value and love will suggest that I am indifferent to bloodshed, if not responsible for it. It’s hard not to get hurt, be upset and to lash out, but I try to remember one thing: Sadness and anger impair judgment.

Category: Coffeehouse

Carl V Phillips has a really good piece on the concept of “Harm Reduction” as it applies to ecigarettes and everything else. He argues that ecigarette advocates have lost their way:

And yet, many people who fancy themselves supporters of tobacco harm reduction actively support most of those caused harms. They actively support punitive taxes on cigarettes, social opprobrium heaped on smokers, prohibitions against publicans being able to offer smoking sections, etc. Indeed, those individuals often celebrate or advocate for the caused harms because they create further incentives for the only aspect of harm reduction they actually support, switching products. It reminds me of the Orwellian themes of about half the anti-smoking propaganda I see these days: “Quit because it is so expensive and forces you to take breaks from hanging with your friends!” Um, yeah, and whose fault is that? It is the same as those messages of “if you smoke weed, you might lose your student financial aid and future employment prospects, so don’t go saying it is not bad for you!” Needless to say, you will never hear a peep of condemnation of this hypocritical “concern” for users’ well-being from the faux supporters of harm reduction.

The bottom line is simple: Anyone who supports punishing smokers does not actually believe in tobacco harm reduction. None of those “but for the greater good we need to…” protests changes this. Causing harm is not harm reduction.

I agree with Phillips on some things within the larger debate, and disagree with him on others, but his criticism here does strike close to home. The pro-vaping community is an odd bunch that includes a lot of different perspectives. Phillips is something of a lefty, Clive Bates is a Tory, Robert West is Labour, and so on. Some are public health advocates that primarily see the value of ecigarettes in terms of being better than smoking, while others see it more through the lens of freedom or at least balancing that freedom with health concerns. That latter distinction is important because it informs how cigarettes are viewed, which is the subject of a lot of debate.

For the most part, the vaping community has hung its hat on how the product is different from smoking, and therefore take an anti-smoking stance. The harms of cigarettes are important, therefore little effort is put into contextualizing that harm or questioning some of the more questionable claims of public health advocates as it pertains to the harms of smoking. It helps that a lot of vapers are former smokers and, such as myself, proud of being former smokers. And less benignly, we know that when it comes to political relationships smokers, tobacco companies, and smoking make for a pretty toxic alliance.

And yet the enemies of smoking have, at least in the US, become our enemies as well. The FDA only begrudgingly acknowledges any difference whatsoever between smoking and vaping and often actively seek to obfuscate any difference.

So whether we like it or not, and whether it’s convenient or not, there is some common cause there. And many of the underlying arguments are not entirely dissimilar. Ecigarettes are not harmless, so in the eyes of many it’s an open question of whether or not it should be allowed. Cigarettes are very harmful, but not to everybody and as Phillips points out the shaming itself, whether through government action or social mechanism, is itself a harm. I have a catalog of things the government does to smokers for little no other reason than that it causes harm, in hopes of getting them to quit. By causing harm I don’t just mean some of the harder-to-justify mechanisms of making smoking more difficult, but intentionally making cigarette packaging or cigarettes physically revolting. When public health advocates express a fear of ecigarettes “normalizing” smoking, they tend to support policies with the primary effect of abnormalizing it. Formalizing the disgust of the public.

Now, maybe that is good public policy in the end if the net gains from people not smoking outweigh the psychological and emotional harm done to smokers. Maybe penalizing smokers through taxes can be justified if it discourages smoking. But Phillips is right: It’s antithetical to the notion of harm reduction. And it becomes clearer that does more than just make an enemy of smoking. It makes an enemy of the smokers themselves.

Category: Coffeehouse

The Southern Tech Packers have two message boards. One is free (Techsters) and one that costs a nominal fee (Packlands). The latter is better, in part simply because it costs money. That repels trolls and attracts a higher sort of fan. Also, since people around are members, there is more motivation to treat one another with a degree of consideration.

It also leads towards an informal, but socially enforced, ban on discussing politics. Because if you want to get along, talking politics on a sports board is a bad way of going about it.

Sometimes, this is difficult to avoid. For instance, Sotech is a state school and state budgets matter to the university and its athletics program. So we have to discuss the governor and his proposals without discussing whether we like the governor’s position on abortion and taxes. You can sort of tell who leans in what direction, but it’s sort of up to people not to say “This is why nobody should have voted for our spithead governor to begin with!!!” when we hear of potential budget cuts, or “Our governor is so great, and such a great Christian!” when they do something good for the school.

For the record, most of the folks on both Techsters and Packlands lean to the right. The former more in a Donald Trump way, the latter in more of a Mitt Romney way, which is kind of what you would expect.

In any event, there has recently been a flap at the school involving its Student Union Treasurer. You can google it if you know what school I went to, or you may have heard of it, but I do ask for discretion about mentioning it here. The long and short of it is that the SUT made a comment somewhat derogatory towards #BlackLivesMatter in favor of #AllLivesMatter. This lead to sanctions from the Student Union, which of course opened up a Free Speech discussion.

There is a threat about it on Packlands, but everyone is contorting themselves not to talk about BLM, police shootings, racism, or… anything other than free speech. There is a consensus that there should be no sanctions for saying #AllLivesMatter. Though some people are itching to argue further about why this is, and whether it’s because #AllLivesMatter is correct or because it’s a free speech issue. Also, #BlueLivesMatter has also come up. All the while, everyone *trying* to observe the community norms.

It’s actually kind of interesting to watch.

Category: Coffeehouse

Last week, France lit up the Eiffel Tower in the colors of the German flag. A nice gesture, don’t you think. NOT SO FAST!!!!!

This tweet was retweeted a couple thousand times. There were actually several variations. You can also read a lot of self-congratulation in response to it.

Not only is this a load of crap, but it’s a load of crap based on a very fictitious pretension. We are one world. A life in Afghanistan ought to mean just as much as a life nearer by. Or, I guess, in this case, it’s a 10:1 ratio, but actually the point will still sort of stand. There is the implicit assumption that we should feel lives equally, whether near from afar or whether eastern or western.

That’s a lofty ideal, but has nothing to do with the real world. In practice, it’s more of a pretension than an ideal.

If a close friend dies, and I express grief that my friend died and you point out that a lot of other people also died with the suggestion that I should care equally, I would want to smack you. Nobody but the autistic reporter from The Onion does that. I feel it more directly because it’s somebody I know. Broaden the scope more widely, of course Americans are going to feel a greater sense of tragedy when other Americans die. This is true whether we’re talking about a 1:1 ratio or not. Americans are connected to Americans. We’re a part of the same social compact, whether we like one another or not. Trump’s “America First” may be a bad slogan due to its historical connotations, but if we’re saying that we think the idea is bad, we’re mostly fooling ourselves.

It’s implicit in almost everything we do. It’s why no country on the planet has completely open borders. Argentina comes to closest, but even they have screening mechanisms. But why, oh why, should someone born here have rights and privileges that someone born in Chile? Because that’s how nations work. We offer government benefits to people who are within our borders, and deny them to people outside of our borders, out of an at least theoretical sense that we are in it together. And that their loss is our loss. Restricted trade may be a good idea or a bad one, but the primary (albeit not sole) concern is going to involve the well-being of Americans.

This goes beyond our direct borders to other things. Due to history and geography, we’re going to feel Canada more than Guyana. Despite the lack of geography, we’re going to feel Britain more than we’re going to feel Belize. We might even feel Belize and Guyana more than Morocco. And on and on.

Now, in the case of Afghanistan, there is an argument to be made that France is connected Afghanistan by virtue of their participation in the Afghan War. As Americans, we ought to feel a connection on that basis that may justify more of a response than it got from us. But… I just don’t think that’s what’s going on, really. I think what’s going on is a sense that we care more about what happens to the French than what happens in the Middle East. Which, we do. France is a colleague. There is more common culture and so there is going to be more empathy. Consider that racist or occidentalist or whatever you like, but it’s a fundamental truth. Good for you if you transcend such trivial humanity, but most of us don’t and never will and it’s stupid to expect otherwise.

And beyond that, France might actually care more about Germany due to their both being members in the EU together. This is actually the sort of relationship that fans of the EU (which I would guess this guy is) should want to foster. If you’re going to demand that the French view German lives and Afghan lives with parity, not only are you fooling yourself, you’re actually destroying the European project, which depends on closer relationships between some nations (member states) and others (everybody else).

If the world is your home, you have no home. If the people of the world are your people, you have no people. And if you claim to view all citizens of the world in similar light, you’re either a phony or a robot.

Category: Coffeehouse


Let me tell you the story of Casey and a Skylar. Casey and Skylar met and were immediately smitten with one another. They wanted very badly to be together. The problem is that Casey and Skylar were already with someone else. So what could they do? Well, they did some wrong things. Or they didn’t but wanted to. They felt lust in their heart. Bad stuff. They talked of getting out of their relationships and riding off into the sunset together.

Then, one day Casey finally bit the bullet and told es significant other that e wanted out of their relationship. Casey wanted to move things forward because something needed to give. Skylar would do the same when the time was right. Except that Skylar didn’t and instead drug es feet. This make Casey very needy and insecure, and Skylar began to lose respect. When it was all said and done, Skylar and Casey did not end up together. Skylar stayed with es significant other. Or worse yet, when Skylar did leave es significant other, e left them for some person who wasn’t even in the picture.

Casey was left alone and humiliated. Skylar did fine.

I’ve known multiple Caseys and Skylars over the years. Sometimes Casey is the boy and Skylar is the girl, sometimes it’s the other way around. But the person who jumps first often finds themselves floating in a void of insecurity humiliation.

The moral of the story is that unless Donald Trump offers Pence a spot on the ticket for real before the deadline tomorrow, Pence should resolve to run for re-election as the Governor of Indiana and let Trump pick someone else.

Category: Coffeehouse

As some of you all may be aware, the protests of a Trump rally in San Jose turned violent:

Donald Trump supporters were mobbed and assaulted by protesters on Thursday night after the candidate’s campaign rally in California.

The violence broke out after the event in San Jose wrapped up just before 8 p.m. local time (11 p.m. ET). Some Trump supporters were punched. One woman wearing a “Trump” jersey was cornered, spit at, and pelted with eggs and water bottles.

Police held back at first but eventually moved in. San Jose Police Sgt. Enrique Garcia told NBC News that several protesters were arrested and one officer was assaulted in the melee.

By and large, the response was largely condemnatory, crossing the ideological spectrum. It turns out, violence against attendees of a rally doesn’t go over especially well. For the most part, the main conflict occurred not in whether it was wrong, but why it was wrong. Liberal Chris Hayes and conservative Becket Adams objected to a large number of people framing it as a matter of counterproductivity, saying that it’s not wrong because it’s likely to backfire but it’s wrong because it’s wrong to be violent. Others stuck mostly to tactics. Some, however, objected to the objections:

This was itself a common refrain, from several quarters. Epoch Times’s Jonathan Zhou (a Trump sympathizer) used it to blame the media for the violence in a Sarah-Palin-crosshairs-manner. Vice’s Michael Tracey (who seems to support Bernie but also hate people who hate Trump) argued that people need to decide whether Trump is a threat to liberal democracy or whether violence is unjustified because you can’t hold both positions together. This is a refrain I’ve heard quite a bit of in other contexts, mostly from liberals who seem to doubt people like me really oppose Trump: If Trump is so bad, why don’t you take even more extreme measures in your opposition to him? If Trump is a threat to this country, then isn’t anyone who supports him also such a threat?

There is some logic to this. Can we really say that political violence is never morally justified? That’s not a very tenable position in a world where others are quite willing to be violent. War is itself a form of political violence, and most would agree that war is not always wrong. Perhaps it could even be a sort of self-defense. If not personal, then societal. Our ideals aren’t a suicide pact, are they? We can make a somewhat obvious exception in the case of “they started it” or “they were threatening to.” For the most part we grant a pass to the former, though the latter gets trickier. It’s true that most of the circumstances in which violence can be justified will start from one of those two places, but the latter is always tricky and the former tricky once we get past self-defense.

I cite Emmett Rensin above in defending the violence, but just last week he wrote a good argument for why punching fascists is morally problematic from a left-wing perspective:

But Marxism and its intellectual heirs reject this notion: People are not autonomous. They do not behave rationally, or freely. There are no wholly culpable autonomous actors, only the expressions of culpable systems. The violence of capitalism, for example, is not the violence of particularly corrupt individuals but the inevitable product of a material structure. Some individuals may resist or relish their role, may err on the side of restraint or of excess, but their choices are not truly their own. One can imagine a Bastille Governor who did not order his troops to slaughter peasants, but this only reflects the routine imperfection of all systems. Such a choice would be an aberration: the historical force of the Ancien Regime was designed to open fire.

It has always seemed to me that collective theories of politics would therefore resist political violence. It is easy enough to justify the occasional murder of an actor if you believe his crimes begin and end with his own choices. But if entire classes are the engine of any political crime, then a politics that justifies the killing of those responsible does not end with an execution. It ends with a holocaust. I have always hoped that this inevitability would make collectivists wary of political violence, the ends of its logic too horrifying and too clear. But history contradicts my hope. When the left has seized power, it has always found kulaks to liquidate, great leaps to take forward. It has taken precisely the nightmare that arises from Robespierre’s excuse and applied it on a grand scale. Of course no individual is wholly responsible for its crimes, it says. That’s why we have to liquidate all the kulaks.

From a personal standpoint, and quite selfishly, I cringe at the violence in part because I don’t know the extent to which the actors recognize the difference between a real fascist and someone who supports policies that some people would argue are “fascist.” The Trumpers have argued that these protests aren’t about Trump but are about disagreement, and implicit in that is “If they weren’t aiming at us, they’d be aiming at you.” If political violence becomes normalized when disagreement becomes facism, communism, or whatever, then really nobody is safe. A willingness to allow people to air their views is one part idealism, and one part non-aggression pact.

So we’re left balancing both the acknowledgement that sometimes violence is necessary, but also that it’s really hard to justify. So the question becomes, “When is political violence justified?” I would argue that there are three main criteria: Whether the threat is sufficiently certain and dire, whether violence helps lower the odds or mitigate the damage, and whether there are alternative means to that same end. Before I go through them one by one, it’s important that we establish the moral case against punching people with bad politics. It might be easy for someone to convince themselves, for instance, that if they support violent policies then we too should be able to be violent!

How big of a threat is this, really?

One of the perennial philosophical debates is whether or not one would kill (or kidnap) Baby Hitler to prevent the Holocaust and World War II. Different people come to different conclusions, but all of them rely on foreknowledge of just how dangerous Hitler became. We have no such knowledge of any current figures. We’re all guessing. They’re not guesses in the dark, to be sure, but they nonetheless require a lot of caution. This is especially true when it comes to Trump, whose political philosophy is inconsistent and ill-determined. I look at him and I see someone who sees nothing beyond himself, and his conception of self is with indifference to – or more accurately hostility towards the rules and constraints that keep our demons at bay.

Others, however, don’t see that at all. They see someone who talks spit and likes to stir things up. Or they see him as a weapon against something more nefarious. Or they view the rules and constraints as not keeping our demons at bay, but leaving us vulnerable to bigger and badder demons that would do us harm. I believe all of this is wrong, but I do not know it to be the case. He has, after all, been a functioning member of the business community for decades and has sufficiently conformed to their norms to still be a figure. As such, I have to at least leave room for people who see him differently and also believe that they do not deserve to have their faces punched in.

There is, ultimately, a difference between the fear that Trump is a demagogue who will destroy everything and the knowledge that he is. Likewise, there is a fear of something as a remote possibility and a fear of something as a likelihood. Trump represents something of a low-probability, catastrophic-consequence scenario. The worst scenario makes a lot of very vocal opposition and heated rhetoric justifiable. However, it also falls short of violence to his supporters in good part due to probabilities. There needs to be more certainty.

Is political violence here productive or counterproductive?

Political violence can be effective in a real-life revolution. It can be effective if you have sufficient strength to instill fear one way or another. This will often require you having the implicit or explicit support of the authorities though, or that you are one of the authorities. You need to be able to credibly present a threat going forward, and one that can’t or won’t be responded to with sufficient force to prevent it. It can also be effective if you can provoke the other side into becoming even more violent, though that might be bad for your health.

To the consternation of Hayes and Adams, a lot of people have skipped straight past the morality of the question straight to this one. But it’s an important question and one that, if successfully argued, makes the moral question moot. Because even if we agree that violence can be justified, and even if we believe that Trump’s supporters warrant it, if it’s not productive then sure we can condemn it, right? And while the zeroth question, the morality of violence, requires a moral consensus, and the first question is a matter of speculation, certainly people can see how this is going to go over, right?

In my view, they should be able to see it. The horror people feel may be pearl-clutching to some, but it’s pretty real. Overwhelmingly, people don’t want to see it. It’s bad optics. It feeds into Trump’s and Trumpers’ perceptions of Who The Enemy Is. It takes the worst things Trump has said about violence at his rallies and puts them in a grayer context.

But more than that, though, this is breaking a lot of eggs without so much as an omelette recipe. If violence can be justified along tactical lines, what is the plan really? Do Trumpers stop showing up to rallies, or do they start showing up armed? The best tactical argument I can think of is that eventually a Trumper will literally shoot somebody and it will make Trump look bad. I would be surprised if that’s what they want though. I believe they have convinced themselves that these conflicts hurt Trump, and I believe that’s wrong. If you’re going to try to bait them, try to bait them into hitting you. Don’t hit them to try to bait them into shooting you.

Though I suppose if you’re willing to do that, you pass the threshold of the first question.

Is this necessary? Is there a better way?

During the primary, I advocated quite forcefully for denying Trump the nomination if he got a plurality, and even blowing everything up if he got a majority. My support for the latter ebbed once it started to look like he was doomed in the general because there was no need to wreck the process if the process would itself remove the threat. Playing convention games, though, isn’t advocating violence. The thresholds for the latter are significantly greater.

In our system, there are all sorts of intermediate measures to do our part to combat Trump, if you are inclined to want to. The lowest-threshold item is to simply vote against him, or you can vote for Hillary Clinton. You can also donate your time or money to seeing him defeated. You can register your opposition by holding out a protest sign outside of one of his rallies. You can write a blog. If it’s really dire, you can stop traffic or even damage property. There’s a spectrum with varying degrees of severity.

One seduction of violence is that it is a high-impact maneuver. Our vote is one upon a hundred millions or so and we have neither the time nor energy to have a substantial impact on a national level. Punch a guy, though, and your statement is heard across the world. People will know not only that Trump is opposed, but that you oppose him. I get the allure. But with the alternatives available, it raises questions about whether it’s about Trump or about you. That’s something to mull over, anyway.

Democracy, as they say, is the worst system except all others. One of the things that makes it less bad, though, is that it allows us a means to resolve issues without resorting to violence. There are scenarios where violence is the only way, but rarely is that true in a democracy. If it is true in a democracy, it involves drawing attention to a threat that people are unaware of. Whatever else we might say about Trump, people are aware of him.

This ties into the second factor: effectiveness If Trump is going to win the presidency, then you are likely emboldening the majority. If his is a minority, then democracy is there to handle that. And if it’s counterproductive, then literally doing nothing is more effective.


Recent Comments


Greetings from Stonebridge a fictitious city in a fictitious state located in a tri-state area in the interior Mid-Atlantic region. We're in western Queenland, which is really a state unto itself, and not to be confused with Queensland in Australia.

Nothing written on this site should be taken as strictly true, though if the author were making it all up rest assured the main character and his life would be a lot less unremarkable.

Hit Categories

History Coffee