Engaging in the Public Sphere

A few months ago I met Rick Anderson at a conference. I introduced myself by saying, “I wanted to meet you in person since we argue so much online.” Someone with Rick asked, “so who wins the arguments?” I said that nobody ever wins arguments, and Rick followed with a pithy couplet saying the same thing. Pity I can’t remember it, because it was catchy and very appropriate. The question some people might have is, if no one ever wins arguments, why does anyone argue? And if we’re not arguing, what are we doing?

Answering the first question is easy. We argue because we want to win. People can rationalize it any way they want. They’re searching for the truth. They want to “set the record straight.” The want to put some schmucks in their place. But almost always, the underlying motive to arguing is to win, and following a fierce argument between worthy competitors will usually take you through a maze of arguments designed to shift the attention to something else whenever things go wrong. “Oh, you think you have me there? Well what about this tenuously related thing you probably don’t have a response to? Let’s talk about that!” Sometimes this is just tedious. Sometimes it can be fun, like a game. But it’s rarely persuasive.

Some people, maybe most people, don’t understand this. They write and speak as if they’re really going to win, as if their opponents will stop and say, “you know what? You’re right. I give up.” That never happens, but some people just don’t care. They’ll keep arguing vigorously long after anyone pays attention to them. They’re the sad trolls in the comments section of just about anything online. They’re the angry ranters. They seek victory at all costs, and the response they hate the most is laughter. If you want to drive angry ranters over the edge, just start laughing at them. As Brian Fantana says, 60% of the time, it works every time.

Then there’s another category of argument, if we can call it argument. I definitely present arguments in this blog, but they’re generally not the sort of arguments meant to persuade opponents directly. In my last post, I made an argument about a poorly written article, but I wasn’t arguing with the article, and I definitely wouldn’t bother to argue with its author. It’s not worth my time or effort. I’m doing something, just as Rick Anderson and numerous other library writers are doing something, but what?

Depending on the situation, we’re doing a number of things. Perhaps foremost, we’re telling stories or framing narratives, not in the hope of persuading the opposition, but with the goal of providing a compelling narrative that someone might accept, maybe especially someone who hasn’t made a decision on the matter under discussion. In rhetorical terms, we’re practicing the three rhetorical appeals: to logos, ethos, and pathos. We lay out reasons for our beliefs (logos). We present ourselves as certain kinds of people (ethos), hopefully the kind of people who are rational, intelligent, considerate, even-handed, the kind of people you want to agree with, that you might respect even if you don’t like them. And sometimes, if it’s appropriate, we bring in an emotional appeal (pathos).

I’ll provide an example from my own writing, the final paragraph of my book Libraries and the Enlightenment (which, hint hint, you can purchase here):

In the midst of this, libraries and the Enlightenment project both continue their struggle. With all of the ignorance, hatred, bigotry, violence, poverty, insecurity, and uncertainty in the country, both libraries and the Enlightenment can still provide hope for better days. Libraries are still places where people can find enlightenment, education, and enrichment. They are not warehouses for old books, as some people think, but active, thriving places where ideas clash and cultures engage, where values other than the strictly commercial survive and inspire, places people can go, physically or virtually, and emerge better people, their lives improved and through them perhaps our society improved. Extending or maintaining that possibility for all people equally, however achieved, remains a goal and a triumph for libraries and the Enlightenment.

This is the summation of the preceding arguments, and I provided reasons for linking the development of academic and public libraries to the Enlightenment goals of reason and freedom. I also present myself as a certain sort of person: calm, rational, maybe slightly detached and yet hopeful. Finally, there is an emotional appeal. Do you passionately dislike hatred and bigotry? Does personal and social improvement give you a good feeling? Then you should like libraries and the Enlightenment and you should agree with me. Within that, I’m using god and devil words. Education and enrichment, good; ignorance and hatred, bad! Unfortunately, appeals to ethos and pathos receive a lot of unjustified hostility as modes of argument, especially from philosophers. That’s probably why philosophers don’t do very well when trying to persuade the public, because most people are persuaded by ethos and pathos.

To use a non-library example, consider a person’s position on gay marriage. Whatever that position is, it’s almost certainly not motivated by rational thought alone. Most of the people I know are probably either in favor of, or indifferent to, gay marriage. The closest most of their positions, including mine, come to logic is probably something like this: People should be able to get married legally. Homosexuals are people. Therefore, homosexuals should be able to get married legally. Opponents of gay marriage might claim its about “natural law,” but it’s probably more motivated by the “yuck factor.” “Eww, gays are gross. They have sex with each other, even the men. Sex between men is gross. Why am I thinking about it all the time? Because it’s gross!” It’s the Santorum approach. Then every once in a while, something strange happens. Let’s say you’re a Republican senator and an opponent of gay marriage, because who cares what the gays want. But then your son comes out as gay, and you realize that the son you raised and love doesn’t fit as comfortably into the category of “those gays I don’t like” as complete strangers do. A transformation occurs. “The gays” as a category of the Other melts away. My son is a person. People are allowed to marry. So of course he should be allowed to marry.

People change their minds about contentious issues not because of logical arguments, but because of human sympathy and its capacity to erode familiar and comforting categories, categories that make us feel good by making us feel superior. “Wait, what? Homosexuals are just people? What about the blacks? Or the Muslims? Damn, even the Republicans? And the rednecks? And the homeless? Isn’t there anybody left I can hate indiscriminately just for fitting into a category of people I arbitrarily assigned them to? But I want to hate people. And then I want to rant angrily about why everyone else should hate them. Have I told you lately about vaginas and anuses?”

Angry ranters and belligerent interlocutors believe they’ll win by crushing, but that’s not what happens. They just put people off. Beliefs, rationales, ideologies, movements rarely succeed because they’ve crushed opponents with excellent arguments. They succeed because they compel enough people to accept them, usually people who weren’t directly engaged in the discussion or argument. If I’m writing about rhetoric or open access or information literacy, I’m not trying to browbeat people into submission. I’m trying to provide a compelling framework of beliefs and arguments that people can try out as they read through them. Part of that is logical, part ethical, and sometimes part emotional. If you agree with me, fine. If you don’t, fine. But on the stuff I write about, some day, somewhere, someone might want to find out more about the topic. They might Google it and they might run across some of my writing. And those people might say, “hey, that makes a lot of sense. Maybe I should think about this more.” Maybe other people are looking for ways to bolster their beliefs, or to strengthen their arguments against mine.

So that’s what I think a lot of us are doing when we engage with each other in the public sphere. We’re not necessarily arguing directly with each other. We’re creating rhetorical spaces for others to play around in for a while and telling stories others might find compelling enough to use as their own. And unlike the angry ranters, we don’t believe in victory. We just do what we do and hope for the best.

Anti-OA and the Rhetoric of Reaction

You know when someone at Scholarly Kitchen thinks your anti-open access rant is excessive you’ve crossed some sort of threshold. You also know that when a biologist and a co-founder of the Public Library of Science bothers to give your article a thorough fisking, you have people’s attention. Even Roy Tennant seems a little riled, and he’s usually pretty calm. Jeffrey Beall has managed to publish an anti-open access article in an open access journal that’s so  poorly argued that I wonder if he’ll later use the publication as an example of how bad OA publishing can be. The Beall Hoax.

I was going to write a detailed response pointing out, among other things, that Beall makes a number of outrageous claims about OA advocates without referring to or citing any of them. There’s absolutely no evidence presented that any OA advocates hold any of the “anti-corporatist” (sic) views that Beall attributes to them, which leaves the article as an eight-page rant against a straw man. Beall claims that “a close analysis of the discourse of the OA advocates reveals that the real goal of the open access movement is to kill off the for-profit publishers and make scholarly publishing a cooperative and socialistic enterprise.” Needless to say, the close analysis never comes. If it had come, this article would be a serious contribution to the OA discussion instead of an uninformative rant, especially if it had analyzed representative passages from numerous OA advocates instead of cherry-picking juicy but unrepresentative quotes from a handful of alleged zealots. It wouldn’t have proved anything against OA itself, but it might have made for a good read.

Because the argument is unsupported and so extreme, all I have to do to prove it wrong is to say I’m an open access advocate who doesn’t support the elimination of private corporations or commercial publishers or any of the other nonsense views he attributes to people like me. I’m not a socialist or a collectivist or any of the other mid-20th century adjectives Beall wants to label me with. And, unlike some people I might mention, I’m not a zealot. There, thesis disproved.

After reading Eisen’s fisking, I don’t see a need for a detailed critique of the arguments, such as they are. Instead, I want to look at the rhetoric. Some of you might be familiar with Albert O. Hirschman’s book The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy, in which he analyzes right-wing rhetoric from the French Revolution on down and finds three persistent types of argument.

I have come up with another triad: that is, with three principal reactive-reactionary theses, which I call the perversity thesis or thesis of the perverse effect, the futility thesis, and the jeopardy thesis. According to the perversity thesis, any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social, or economic order only serves to exacerbate the condition one wishes to remedy. The futility thesis holds that attempts at social transformation will be unavailing, that they will simply fail to “make a dent.” Finally, the jeopardy thesis argues that the code of the proposed chafe or reform is too high as it endangers some previous, precious accomplishment. (7)

Beall manages to deploy all these arguments in the course of his article. This shouldn’t be surprising.  For people who have read a lot of conservative literature, as I have, the clues to a reactionary worldview are evident throughout the article. For example, Beall claims that “The open access movement and scholarly open-access publishing itself are about increasing managerialism.” Eisen had to look that up, but if he were familiar with mid-twentieth century conservative political writer James Burnham, he would have known about Burnham’s 1941 book The Managerial Revolution. Burnham, a longtime contributor to the National Review, was once upon a time quite prominent in conservative circles. Along with the unfounded accusations about people being collectivists wanting to destroy private enterprise, Burnham’s work was hot among the right in the 1950s.

This bit should sound familiar to anyone familiar with the Manichaen apocalyptic novelist often taken for a political philosopher by teenage boys, Ayn Rand: “The open-access movement is really about anti-corporatism. OA advocates want to make collective everything and eliminate private business, except for small businesses owned by the disadvantaged.” How did we get from wanting open access for scholarly publishing to wanting to eliminate all private businesses? Or this: “The open-access movement isn’t really about open access. Instead, it is about collectivizing production and denying the freedom of the press from those who prefer the subscription model of scholarly publishing.” A movement devoted to open access literature is denying freedom of the press? That’s perversity in action.

This makes some sense if you share a Randian worldview. In this comforting worldview, the world is a simple place to understand. It’s filled not with flawed human beings acting upon a variety of motivations trying to make their way through a complex world. No, the world is made of heroes and villains. The heroes are the people who think as I do and are always right. The villains are any people who disagree with any part of my ideology. They do so not because the world is complicated and disagreement natural, but because they are evil and possibly stupid, and no matter what noble motives they might claim to have, they’re lying and trying to destroy some beloved institution. Also, there’s the faith that commercial enterprise is always good and free markets (if they ever really exist) always lead to the best outcome. Challenging this faith in any way leads to an extreme reaction. It’s a world of extremes. Criticizing any area in which private enterprise and free markets maybe don’t give us the outcomes we want is equated with being a “collectivist” who wants to bring the capitalist system down. That explains why in the article, criticism of Elsevier or of commercial science publishing means that one wants to destroy all corporations. It doesn’t make a lot of sense until you look at it through the Randian lens.

In this world, people don’t support open access because they think the creation and dissemination of new knowledge is a public good. They do it because they want to destroy all corporations and deny freedom to people. This must be their motive because they disagree with Beall about open access scholarship, and he thinks these things are bad, so they must be motivated by these evil ideas. Q.E.D. Since there have to be heroes and villains, Beall must be the hero and everyone who disagrees with him in the slightest a villain who is acting from evil motives to destroy everything he holds dear. Once you share this worldview, evidence doesn’t matter anymore.

The Hirschman theses show up as well. Let’s take a look at some passages trying to find the perversity, futility, and jeopardy theses.

It’s likely that hundreds or even thousands of honest researchers have fallen prey to the predatory publishers, those open-access publishers that exploit the gold open-access model just for their own profit, pretending to be legitimate publishing operations but actually accepting any and all submissions just for the money.

This is a good example of the perversity thesis in action. Predatory gold-OA publishers exist and they exploit people and harm scholarly publishing, and it’s all the fault of OA advocates. This isn’t what the OA advocates promised us! This is bad! We can all agree that it’s bad, but it takes a special kind of logic to say that because some bad people do bad things with OA that all OA is thus bad. In informal reasoning, it’s called the “guilt by association” fallacy.

One of the headings in the article claims that “Gold Open Access is Failing.” As Eisen notes, “This is the worst form of cherry-picking. Open access publishing is ‘failing’ because one open access publisher that published an insignificant number of papers went out of business?” Not really much evidence for it. But it might be an example of the futility thesis. Nothing good will come from OA scholarly publishing. It’s a futile effort that will merely result merely in more “predatory” publishers. Beware OA publishing!

The jeopardy thesis is pervasive. Scholarship is in jeopardy because of predatory publishers. Public access to good science is in jeopardy because of…predatory publishers. The tenure process for young scholars is in jeopardy because “Some tenured open-access advocates are pressuring young scholars away from submitting their work to traditional journals, sacrificing them to the open-access movement.” We don’t know who these tenured open-access advocates or pressured young scholars are because none of them are named, so we’ll just have to take Beall’s word for it. Oh, and the careers of scientists in developing countries are also in jeopardy: “OA advocates are also pressuring scientists in developing countries to publish in OA journals, and this could hurt their careers.” Again, we don’t know who these scientists are, but we’re assured their careers could be in jeopardy.

The free-market perfection of commercial science publishing is in jeopardy from gold-OA as well: “The act of instituting financial transactions between scholarly authors and scholarly publishers is corrupting scholarly communication. This was one of the great benefits of the traditional scholarly publishing system – it had no monetary component in the relationship between publishers and their authors.” That’s one of the benefits, and since there are absolutely no burdens in the traditional system, OA advocates are trying to jeopardize a perfect system. That’s bad! Beall grasps tightly to every scrap of evidence that might support his anti-OA crusade and ignores everything else that doesn’t support it. He argues like a trial lawyer when he should be arguing like a scholar. If he fairly considered the evidence for and against both traditional publishing and OA publishing, or even acknowledged the obvious fact that commercial scholarly publishing has some problems, it might be possible to engage in a discussion, but that’s impossible here.

I’ve analyzed some rhetoric because of the lack of arguments and evidence supporting the claims about OA advocates, but there seems to be a certain logic to Beall’s overall mission. Here’s the argument in syllogistic terms as I infer it:

Some OA publishing is predatory publishing.
All predatory publishing is bad.
Therefore, all OA publishing is bad.

The problem is, that’s an invalid argument. My study of formal logic was long enough ago that I can’t remember the exact name for the problem, but the error consists in moving from “some OA” to “all OA.” Thus, informally, his reasoning fails because he provides no analysis of any OA advocates while making sweeping and sometimes absurd claims about them. Formally, his reasoning fails because when put in the form of a syllogism it’s invalid. Thus, the overall argument, as put here, is neither sound nor valid. If we look at this as an argument against OA, as it seems to be intended, it fails, but as a rare example of right-wing political rhetoric from a librarian it’s kind of fascinating.

Finally, Beall approaches OA advocates the same way he claims they approach OA. Referring to the response to an article about predatory OA journals, Beall claims, “The attack on Bohannon was carried out with a near religious fervour. OA advocates will do anything to protect the image of open-access.” If anything has a religious fervor, it’s this self-righteous crusade against OA advocates that paints them all as villains. This, by the way, was my response to that article and the discourse surrounding it. Somehow I managed to say that predatory publishers are bad and OA good without religious fervor or zealotry. I pointed out that the fact that predatory OA publishers exist is no evidence whatsoever that OA publishing is inherently bad, so any fuss was for nought. Only people who can’t reason soundly would try to make that claim, which might be what some OA advocates feared. Perhaps there were OA advocates who attacked Bohannon with religious fervor, although no evidence is given for that. But if there were, that doesn’t make all OA advocates into zealots or OA publishing bad. It’s like saying that because some anti-OA crusaders produce unsubstantiated attacks on OA advocates or mistakenly argue that all OA publishing is bad because some OA publishing is bad somehow proves that OA is inherently good. Neither argument makes much sense.

An Essential Skill for All Librarians

If I can’t beat the gurus, sherpas, and assorted sages, I’m going to join them. Today I’m going to tell you, fellow librarians, the most basic, core skill that all of you need, more important than coding, cataloging, database searching, or anything else. It’s a subject barely taught in library schools, and yet mastery of it will do more for your career than just about anything actually taught there. What is librarianship really about? It’s about communication. And where there’s communication, you need rhetoric.

Rhetoric has a bad reputation among people who don’t know better and people who should know better. It’s probably because of that hypocrite Plato, who maligned rhetoric as supposedly less ethical or true than philosophy while using numerous rhetorical techniques to communicate his ideas. Consider the Allegory of the Cave: brilliant, effective, and a total rhetorical manipulation of the audience. It’s why Plato is so much more pleasurable to read than Aristotle, even though Aristotle was a lot more savvy about rhetoric.

What is rhetoric? Aristotle defined it as “the faculty of discovering in any particular case all of the available means of persuasion.” Thinking of it as a form of argument, we might add Chaim Perelman’s definition of argumentation from The Realm of Rhetoric: “The aim of argumentation is not to deduce consequences from given premises; it is rather to elicit or increase the adherence of the members of an audience to theses that are presented for their consent. Such adherence never comes out of thin air; it presupposes a meeting of minds between speaker and audience.” But rhetoric is much broader than just argumentation and persuasion. The rhetorician Andrea Lunsford defines it as “the art, practice, and study of human communication.” (See some more definitions here.) As the art and practice of human communication, what could be a more basic element of librarianship than its study.

Think about all the communication that goes on in libraries every day: phone calls, meetings, emails, IMs, negotiations, reference questions, performance reviews, grant proposals, instruction sessions, research guides, cover letters, job interviews; every one of these interactions is about communication with an audience for a purpose and could benefit from improved rhetorical skill and knowledge of rhetorical theory and techniques.

One of the simplest rhetorical skills is often the most forgotten: consider your audience. Good communication is all about connecting with a particular audience, but plenty of librarians when writing or speaking think it’s about conveying information. If they write it or say it, that’s enough. I’ve seen this numerous times in library instruction sessions over the years, where librarians think their duty is to present information, when really their job is to connect their audience to the information presented. There’s a difference.  How many librarians have you seen go into a room of 18-year-olds and deliver a canned talk in a monotone? Or bury a LibGuide in an avalanche of dense prose? Or write and publish a dreary article no one would every want to read? Or give tedious and irrelevant answers to questions during a job interview? Painful stuff from people who haven’t considered their audience.

Consider other rhetorical concepts, kairos for example. Kairos is, roughly, knowing when to speak. It’s knowing the proper time to intervene in a conversation or a crisis. People who just blurt out what they’re thinking whenever they think it aren’t as effective in persuading others as people who join the conversation at the proper time with a proper consideration of their audience and their purpose for speaking. How many librarians deliberately think about the proper time to speak and then do so? How many of you think about the distinction between the logical, emotional, and ethical appeals and when to use the appropriate ones when working with other people? Or think about the assumptions behind people’s writing or speaking, or the patterns of their arguments that are often more revealing of their motives and goals than what they seem to be saying? That might sound abstract, but thinking about that stuff and applying it can be very useful in understanding and operating in a workplace or organization.

I can say with some assurance that my study, teaching, and practice of rhetoric has helped me more in my career than anything else I’ve ever learned. My ability to communicate effectively in speech and writing has been essential and beneficial to my work. Whether it’s participating in meetings, working with students, or stymieing machinations, rhetorical techniques have always come into play. There is no escaping rhetoric. There’s only good and bad rhetoric. And yet probably 99 out of 100 librarians haven’t read Aristotle or Perelman or Lunsford or Corbett any other rhetorical theorist, much less deliberately practiced rhetorical techniques. Even some of you right now are probably thinking, oh, that might be important, but surely not all librarians need to study rhetoric. Yes, you do. Every one of you.

Think about some policy or service you want to implement. It doesn’t matter how good it is, someone in charge has to be persuaded to implement it. That’s your audience. Think about what it’s like to be that person. Put yourself in that person’s shoes and ask what would persuade you then. Everyone wants something, but they all want something different. Change too little or too slow angers one group in the library; change too much or too fast angers another. Who’s resistant to the change you want to make, but whose consent you need? Are they not persuaded by your passion for change? Is the problem their conservatism or your rhetorical failure? I know what you’re going to say, but can you be sure?

Before you learn whatever new thing you’re planning to learn, learn rhetoric first. Then practice it for a few years. You’ll thank me later.

Politics, Personal Views, and Librarian Rhetoric

A blog post by Rick Anderson on six mistakes the library staff are making [when negotiating with vendors] has shown up in a few places in my personal information universe. The first five activities, if or when they occur, definitely seem like mistakes, but the sixth activity is questionable, at least in the way it’s framed, and framing the issue in as neutral a way as possible would help the discussion.

One of the mistakes, we are told, is “Putting political library concerns above patron needs,” which he admits is a controversial claim and promises to expand further in a later post. The claim is that “too often, we in libraries put politics ahead of mission and service.” However, this isn’t a claim about politics in the general sense conflicting with the librarian’s mission. “By ‘politics,'” he says, “I mean our personal views about how the world ought to be, and more specifically our views about how the scholarly communication economy ought to be structured.”

Instead of arguing with the claim that librarians put political library concerns above patron needs, I’m more interested in showing the rhetorical moves here. First, let’s consider the word politics, which is a very loaded word, and which has negative connotations even within the world of real politics. How many times have you heard some politician criticize another for “playing politics” or for “politicizing” an issue that’s already inherently political? So to characterize the activities of some librarians as essentially “playing politics” with vendor relations is an example of poisoning the well and persuasive definition, both typically considered informal argumentative fallacies. Merely characterizing the activity as “political” biases us against it before we even consider the details. Elsevier funding members of Congress to vote for the Research Works Act is playing politics, for real.

The attempt to define “politics” makes a contradictory, but still questionable, rhetorical move. Politics is by definition public, shared, and social. Etymologically, it’s thinking and arguing about the polis or city-state. Defining “politics” as “personal views about how the world ought to be” is already altering the meaning. The activity of politics might involve the clash of people motivated by personal views, but it’s not about personal views as such. Instead, it’s about dispute over the views that a community must share.

Even if I’m wrong in this interpretation, defining the activity as the result of “personal views” further disparages the activity and defines it in a way that is already biased against it. The connotation is usually that a “personal view” is merely a personal view, and thus has no place in the professional world we inhabit. However, support for open access scholarship, which I assume is an example of “politics” at work here, isn’t a “personal view,” but a professional opinion backed up with various arguments. Thus, one’s professional commitment to open access scholarship as “how the scholarly communication economy ought to be structured” is never a “personal view,” and not necessarily even a political view in any ordinary sense. It’s a professional opinion about a relevant economic, educational, and social matter.

One might even question the use of the word ought here: “how the world ought to be, and more specifically our views about how the scholarly communication economy ought to be structured.” To criticize people for acting on beliefs about “how the world ought to be” implies that “the way things are” is somehow good or worthwhile or at least tolerable. However, all ethical action is motivated by a belief about how the world ought to be. I try to be courteous to people in public, or show up to meetings on time, because I think that’s the way the world ought to be, even though we know that’s not always how the world is. “How the world ought to be” isn’t necessarily the fanciful dream of the fanatic, but a typical motivating factor for action. Again, when Elsevier funds politicians to vote for the Research Works Act, they are acting on a view of how the world ought to be.

He says that “the question is: To what degree is it appropriate to sacrifice the short-term good of our patrons in the pursuit of long-term economic reform in scholarly publishing (or vice versa)?” This is an important question and one worth discussing. However, using the labels “politics” and “personal views,” and implying that acting on a belief of how the world “ought” to be is problematic rather than typical, privileges the corporate view as the only “professional” view and the status quo as a desirable norm before the discussion even begins.

Not Economics but Justice

LIS News led me to this blog post from Conservative Librarian, written by an academic librarian at Purdue. I’m all for librarians participating in popular political discourse, but I think this post trying to make "An Economic Case Against Homosexuality" has some rhetorical and logical problems.

The author opens by saying that "as a Christian," he agrees "with the biblical condemnation of the homosexual lifestyle." He realizes that making such a claim based on his interpretation of his holy book means nothing to any but the choir. It’s as if I said, "as a Christian, I agree with the biblical imperative to love your neighbor as yourself." Who cares? John Rawls argued that to make political arguments in a pluralist society, we need to use public reason, that is, common reason available to us all, not partial reasons available only to those who share a particular prejudice. It’s also the standard by which academic discourse is generally judged. The author apparently recognizes this problem, and thus tries to make the "economic case" against homosexuality.

Unfortunately, the claim of his provocative title falls apart almost immediately, as he’s forced to consider "other aberrant forms of sexual expression." Otherwise, the argument, such that it is, makes little sense. For example, one of the "economic cases" against homosexuality is the amount of money the U.S. has spent on AIDS treatment and research in the past few decades. There are no sources cited, and a couple of uses of "probably" rather than hard numbers, but if we consider what the U.S. has spent worldwide on AIDS it is probably a lot. I agree. However, the biggest AIDS epidemic for a long time has been in Africa, and has nothing to do with homosexuality. Hence, the resort to "other aberrant forms of sexual expression," which in the AIDS argument seems equal to "heterosexual promiscuity in Africa and elsewhere." All this money being spent on AIDS, even if it has nothing to do with homosexuality, could have been spent on other diseases. I suppose there’s a point there. It’s not a point against homosexuality, though. Note some of the money has been spent on needle exchanges. The needles have nothing to do with sex–homo, hetero, or otherwise.

Then comes this claim: "Our ongoing U.S. political debate over health care reform also needs to factor in the economic costs of  homosexual and other sexually deviant behaviors on our health care system in terms of pharmaceutical drugs, tainted blood supplies, and requiring doctors and nurses to treat sexually transmitted diseases which would be less likely to occur if people practiced chastity outside of heterosexual marriage and monogamy within such marriage." We could wonder what those costs might be, but the motivation to consider them in the way phrased has stepped outside the boundary of public reason. Sex outside of marriage is much more likely a norm of sexual behavior, which would make abstinence the "deviation," unless one’s assumptions come from a religious base rather than the evidence of what people actually do. STDs are apparently widespread in the U.S. It might be the case they’re from deviant sexual practices, but there’s no reason to assume that doctors not treating them would have been busy treating other things. We could easily reverse this and argue that it’s a good thing we have all these STDs that need treatment; otherwise all those doctors and nurses wouldn’t have as much employment.

The next paragraph is the one that really threw me, though. Here it is in full:

Anyone who studies prison conditions knows that AIDS is a reality in many correctional facilities due to the occurrence of rape. I’m not sure how systematically the Justice Dept’s Bureau of Justice Statistics keeps track of prison rape statistics or other instances of same sex sexual assault, but that also has economic implications not to mention the psychological trauma experienced by all rape victims.  I have seen one Bureau of Justice Statistics study indicating that 90% of prison rapes are from male on male sexual activity.  This particular problem was serious enough to cause Congress to pass legislation in 2003 creating a Prison Rape Elimination Commission which issued its report earlier this year.  The presence of sex offender registries, which require significant law enforcement staff time and expense to update and maintain, is another demonstration of the high economic costs of sexually deviant behavior.

Now we’ve moved well beyond any economic argument against homosexuality. "Sexual deviance" as defined by the author now includes homosexual sex, extramarital sex, prison rape, and the broad range of behaviors known as sexual offenses. Collapsing all these into the same category is conceptually problematic unless one has left public reason behind once more. To say that a stable and long-cohabiting but unmarried heterosexual couple are the equivalent of prison rapists or child molesters doesn’t make much sense morally or philosophically. Regardless of the conceptual problems trying to relate all these disparate behaviors, what "economic implications" are there about prison rape? There’s a claim, but no evidence or argument whatsoever. And even if there was, why would we need to make an economic argument against prison rape or child molestation? Surely most of us could agree that prison rape or child molestation is bad regardless of our stances on economics. This guilt by association is a poor excuse for an argument.

The author then gets slightly back on track by discussing same-sex partner benefits. This at least has some relation to homosexuality and possibly to economics. He claims that providing same-sex partner benefits "drives up insurance costs for these companies" and "requires these companies to pass on the costs of their goods and services beyond normal inflationary trends." Maybe. I don’t know. There’s no evidence cited. "Additionally, it also probably makes it more difficult for them to expand their businesses and create additional jobs in an economy coping with near double digit unemployment rates." There’s that probably again. Maybe it would. Wouldn’t all benefits do this, though? Why not eliminate all health care benefits, if economic efficiency is all that matters?

The oddest thing for a blog post from an academic librarian is a questionable citation to an alleged study–"Corporate Resource Center’s study Do Domestic Partner Benefits Make Good Economic Sense? (available at their website)"–only there’s no link and I could find no evidence that such a center or study exists. Why not just link to it? The question is irrelevant, anyway, but having a citation one could actually track down is a minimal academic requirement.

The post ends talking about further problems with the "homosexual lifestyle," despite the fact that many of the claims about "economic consequences" haven’t been based on homosexuality at all. The only economic issue specifically regarding homosexuality in the entire post is the claim that businesses expanding coverage makes it difficult for them. That’s the case for any benefits at all, though. If companies dropped all their health benefits, they’d be more profitable. Tens of millions of people would suffer horribly, but economic arguments don’t address that.

Besides the red herrings, the real problem with the argument is that, while pretending to rely on public reasoning, it relies on the wrong type of public reasoning. It’s making an economic argument when a political or moral one is appropriate.

One could make an "economic case" against all sorts of rights. For example, one could have argued during the civil rights debates in the fifties and sixties tha
t ending Jim Crow would have economic costs. Ending Jim Crow and spending money to enforce equal rights cost money. So what?

Males under 25 are the most dangerous drivers on the road and cause the most accidents. Should we forbid them to drive? People who eat red meat have a higher chance of getting heart disease, which is a tax on our health system. Should we ban meat? The divorce rate for evangelical Christians is higher than for any other religious group and for agnostics and atheists? Think of the economic costs in terms of divorce lawyers, property loss, increased chances of impoverishment for single mothers with children, not to mention the costs of dealing with the psychological problems divorce can cause in children. Should we ban evangelical Christians from marrying and having children?

Despite the apparent attempt to use public arguments not based on the Bible, the exercise in this blog post is misguided. Using economic arguments in a political debate only makes sense if the persons in the debate share common values, because there’s no value in economics besides efficiency. There’s a persistent belief among many Americans that economic arguments trump political or moral arguments, but that logic isn’t carried through consistently. It’s only applied when the supposed economic argument benefits their political side.

This attempt at public reasoning ultimately fails. Economic arguments are about the most efficient means to an end, but they’re pointless unless we agree on the end. Besides, questions of rights aren’t about economics; they’re about justice, whichever side you’re on.


But What About? and “Mere Rhetoric”

I listened to some of President Obama’s Cairo speech this morning, and based on the snippets I heard and the summary and analysis I’ve read so far it maintains his reputation as the most rhetorically effective President since Reagan, and probably since Kennedy. In fact, it reminded me a lot of Kennedy’s Commencement Address at American University in June 1963. Kennedy’s speech wasn’t addressed to his university audience so much as to the Soviet Union, and Obama’s approach today was similar, to build bridges to the potentially hostile audience through emphasis on mutual values and goals while not denigrating American values. I recommend listening to or reading Kennedy’s address if you’re unfamiliar with it, but this is my favorite bit:

So, let us not be blind to our differences–but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.

I submit that it would be difficult to find a more rhetorically effective paragraph in the annals of Presidential speeches. It acknowledges differences without threat, urges common goals while recognizing that not all of them will be met, and summarizes in brief but compelling fashion the underlying joint humanity even of political enemies. President Obama’s speech today tried to make the same points.

One difference between the speeches is in the specificity of proposals. Kennedy, for example, announced that he and Krushchev would soon begin discussing a test ban treaty, and that the US wouldn’t conduct nuclear tests in the atmosphere if other states also refrained from such testing. Some commentators and pundits have already begun criticizing Obama’s speech for not articulating more concrete proposals. He didn’t do this, he didn’t do that. He said he was opposed to this, but didn’t say what he would really do. Depending on the perspective, the list of things left out is long: he didn’t denounce Muslim terrorists or dictators, he didn’t articulate a clear solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he didn’t talk about civilian casualties in Pakistan. (Of course, there’s a raft of more inarticulate criticism. If you want to descend into the morass of what passes for common opinion in America, you might sample the comments here.)

The criticism that he didn’t address everything in one speech is a ridiculous one, and one that has been plaguing Obama since the beginning of his Presidential campaign. For one thing, it’s an example of what I recently saw referred to as the "but what about" fallacy. (I thought I’d read this in philosopher Jonathan Wolff’s Guardian blog, but I can’t find it there. If anyone knows the source, I’ll be happy to link to it.) The idea of the fallacy is that whatever claims, arguments, or assertions someone makes, instead of addressing them, it’s easier to evade them and just say, "but what about X topic you didn’t talk about?" That response appears to point out a flaw in the opponent’s position but is really just a variation of the red herring fallacy. "But we’re not talking about X; we’re talking about W," might be the best response.

The other major criticism that has dogged him from the beginning is that his speeches are "mere rhetoric," as if a speech is ever anything but rhetoric. Criticism of this sort is different from the "but what about" fallacy, but it’s still usually a nonsensical criticism mouthed by people who don’t understand how language works. Language is symbolic action. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, often through argumentation, and according to Chaim Perelman the “aim of argumentation is not to deduce consequences from given premises; it is rather to elicit or increase the adherence of the members of an audience to theses that are presented for their consent." The goal of "mere" rhetoric is to persuade, to win people to our positions, to eliminate barriers of distrust and dissent, to reduce threat because, as the psychologist Carl Rogers argued, threat hinders communication. 

Rhetoric is more than just argument, the logical appeal. There are also the emotional and ethical appeals, and Obama is a master of the ethical appeal, the appeal based on character. The character manifest in this speech, and in many of his other speeches, is of a person who understands the world is a complicated place, who recognizes difference and reaches out to the "other," who presents positive values while not dismissing those he doesn’t agree with as evil or stupid, who is so strong in his own convictions that he doesn’t need to demonize the opposition through divisive rhetoric and inane catch phrases, so balanced and calm that he doesn’t feel compelled to rise to the challenge of blowhards. It’s this rhetorical appeal in particular that so many politically motivated people in America neither have nor understand. The demonstration of hatred, the obvious unwillingness to consider the positions of others, the inability to even understand difference, the incapacity for empathy or sympathy, the unrelenting hermeneutic of suspicion, the utterly obvious willingness to say or do anything to win regardless of truth or principle – all of these traits undermine the ethical appeal and yet are rife in our political culture and manifest in many of the critics of this President and his speeches.

The problem for these critics is that they just don’t know what to do with such a politician. If you’re an overweight, multiply divorced, substance abuser, it’s hard to attack the character of a healthy man in a lengthy stable marriage with two loving children. If you’re a blowhard who knows only how to manipulate social divisions and is so rhetorically challenged that you’re considered merely an evil joke by your opponents, it’s hard to smear the character of a man who quite obviously shares none of your cynicism or passion for the complete destruction of people of good will with whom you happen to disagree. Regardless of any specific problems of Obama’s policies that could be articulated, so many of his critics just seem like spoiled, screaming youngsters compared to him. A glimmer of hope for America – seen fleetingly in some Republican reactions to the nomination of Sotomayor – is that the nuanced worldview and the balanced, measured rhetoric of President Obama may by some miracle elevate the level of political discourse in the country. It’s never been particularly elevated before, but there’s always that hope.

Updating My Status, or, A Blog Post is a 1,000 Word Tweet

I read John Dupuis’s response to my last blog post, as well as the comments generated by his post  Someone actually suggested regarding Twitter that I should try it before I say I won’t like it. Instead, I say, give it to Mikey. He’ll try anything.

The "don’t knock it ’til you try it response" is problematic for many reasons (not that I was knocking anything). To echo one person who commented on my blog, I haven’t tried cannibalism or genital piercing either, but I don’t want to. The response also smacks of an irritating paternalism, as if a grown man who’s reasonably bright and educated is like a child who needs to be told to eat his vegetables. "How do you know you don’t like cauliflower until you’ve tried it?" Not being a child, but instead a rather large man, there’s a temptation to suggest the inquisitor take the cauliflower and insert it somewhere very uncomfortable, like the back seat of a Volkswagen. Mostly, though, the response is flawed because it assumes that any given social software application is somehow sui generis, when in fact they are all just variations on a theme. Twitter, for example, is analogous to all sorts of other things, and even if it weren’t it’s not like it’s some difficult concept to understand.

There is in fact an analogous service I have tried: Facebook. I’ve been on for two or three years and find myself going to it less and less frequently. It’s been okay, but nothing especially life-changing. I’ve been in contact with people I haven’t seen since high school, which has been pleasant. I’ve played a few games of Scrabble. I know some people use Twitter and their Facebook status update the same way, and one thing I’ve never done is update my status. I’ve never told people what I was having for lunch, or posted a Youtube video of some funny antic, or tried to come up with a clever epigram or aphorism to show people how interesting I am.

Why? Mainly because I don’t think anyone would care, just as I’m interested in very few of other people’s postings. On a moment to moment basis, I, like most people, am just not very interesting. I’m not necessarily boring, and I do think I have my good qualities, but I really can’t figure out what I could say in a few characters that would be worth reading. Writing nothing worth reading may not bother most people, but I try to keep an audience in mind and not bore you too much.

However, I’m going to give this "status updating" thing a try. Would you really like to know what I’m thinking about right now? If not, stop reading! But if so, I’ll tell you.

I’m teaching another writing seminar in the fall, and I’m changing the topic to "justice" instead of "liberalism" and revamping the readings. For the past few weeks I’ve been trying to figure out how to present a coherent story about the extremely active philosophical discussion about justice since Rawls’ Theory of Justice in the equivalent of about 8-10 essays. Keep in mind, the goal of this course isn’t to teach philosophy, but academic research and writing. It’s just that to write anything worth reading, students need something to write about.

As a research project, it’s been an adventure. Building upon my previous knowledge, I’ve been using encyclopedias, anthologies, surveys, reviews, articles, bibliographies, footnotes, and even Google Scholar to develop the reading list. (I’ve been using the "cited by" feature in Google Scholar, not the discovery feature so much.) The goal is to give students a general overview of the subject using only primary texts while tracing a scholarly conversation over the course of four decades. I think I have a good list. The students will read excerpts or full essays by some heavy hitters, and in one unit every source we read will cite all of the previous sources we’ve read, in order to show how a scholarly conversation develops over time. A seminar should tell a story about the topic. This is naturally only one story among many possible ones, and I make that clear, but in the summation at the end of the semester it should be obvious that we’ve outlined an important and engaging dialog about the topic.

In addition, the readings have to lend themselves to the teaching of writing and research. I’ve also been thinking about that topic, and have formed some rough opinions. These classes are supposed to teach argumentative academic writing. Thus the best sources provoke argument. Often writing/ composition/ rhetoric is taught in English departments, and just as often the courses are focused on interpreting literature. In a course like that, the students get a novel/ poem/ play/ film to discuss and write about. There is a clear difference between primary and secondary texts, and the students are writing secondary works while studying primary works, for the most part.

It seems easier to me to teach primary sources that are themselves examples of argumentative writing, and political philosophy works very well in this regard. Philosophers are trained to argue, not interpret. And political topics tend to be engaging to a lot of people simply because they’re an inescapable part of life. So in my class the students are reading the sorts of essays they’re writing. There’s not much of a distinction between a primary and a secondary source. If everything works well, the whole course coheres. My goal is the perfect writing seminar, in the sense that A argues in Kierkegaard’s Either/Or that Don Giovanni is the perfect work of music because it best exemplifies what makes a classic work of art: an absolute correlation of form and content. Every text we read in class is both something to write about and an example of how one should write argumentative academic prose, and they’re all arguing with each other.

Is this interesting to you? It’s more about writing pedagogy than librarianship, but I can see where it might be. Teaching writing and research has certainly made me a better librarian. The skills I’ve gained carry over into research consultations and instruction sessions all the time. Thinking about the nature of scholarly exchange in an academic discipline is the sort of thing lots of academic librarians do.

This is just the merest summary of activity, though I’ve been considering further developing some of these rough thoughts into posts or articles. What’s here says little of substance, and yet I still can’t figure out how to condense it to 140 characters. To be clear yet again, I’m not knocking any of this, even if I haven’t tried it. I just know what I want to read and how I want to spend my time and interact with others.  Maybe instead of macro-tweeting, I should just write:

Wayne Bivens-Tatum just dropped in to see what condition his condition was in.


Rhetoric for Librarians

Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. According to Aristotle, it’s finding the best available means of persuasion for any given case. According to Chaim Perelman, the “aim of argumentation is not to deduce consequences from given premises; it is rather to elicit or increase the adherence of the members of an audience to theses that are presented for their consent” (The Realm of Rhetoric, 9). I note this so everyone knows that when I discuss rhetoric, I don’t mean it in the sloppy popular sense of “empty verbiage.”

Librarians have much to learn from the art of rhetoric. Essentially, rhetoric is about communication, and with any communication there are at least three elements: the speaker, the message, and the audience. Most people, including librarians, are aware of themselves as speakers and often aware of their message, but too many times do not consider the audience, and the effect on the audience is crucially important. From a rhetorical point of view, for example, it doesn’t matter how right or logical you are, if you alienate your audience and fail to persuade them of your points, then you have a failed argument. Fret and bemoan your fate all you like, but the problem is you.

Today I want to consider three rhetorical situations many librarians often find themselves in and show the importance of audience: staff meetings, presentations, and library instruction.

If you are in a staff meeting discussing some controversial topic and want to persuade your opponents, the last thing you want to do is alienate them. Unfortunately, that’s easy to do. You can call their ideas stupid, or better yet say something like, “only an idiot would believe that.” You can aggressively state your views as if they were the only ones that mattered. You can interrupt your opponents with frequent hostile criticism. You can state from the beginning that you have no intention of changing your mind. All these behaviors alienate others. Some, like aggression and interruption, alienate because they threaten. Others, such as saying there’s no way you’ll change your mind, inform your listeners that this is not in fact a discussion or debate, because where there is no willingness to consider the opponent’s point of view, there is no dialog, and thus no point of continuing a discussion. By acting like this, you’ve notified them that you don’t give a damn about them or their ideas. Don’t act surprised when they reciprocate.

Try to remember presentations you have seen, either at conferences, on campus, in your library, wherever. Were the speakers aware of their audience and their fellow speakers? Was it an hour long talk that took an hour and a half? Did the speaker seem aware of appropriate time limits or the effect on the audience? Remembering a few simple rules can make your own presentations better, but the most basic rule of all is, think about other people. Do as you would be done by. If you’re on a panel and someone else hogs all the speaking time leaving you with five minutes to get in fifteen minutes’ worth of information and thus forcing you to cut and adapt extemporaneously, how would you feel? I can tell you, you’d most likely be angry, and understandably so.

When you perform library instruction (and I use the word perform deliberately, for it is a performance), do you stand like a lump in front of the class for an hour or more monotonously giving special attention to every nuance of your OPAC or selected database but no attention to your audience? Do you even care if the students are listening to you? If students are checking their email or Facebook or are nodding off, do you blame these kids today and their short attention spans, or yourself for being so boring? You should blame yourself. You’re boring. It doesn’t matter if every single bit of information you convey could potentially be useful to your students. If you don’t communicate with the audience, then the message fails, and the problem is most likely you.

I could offer some practical tips. Listen to your colleagues and acknowledge that you understand their points, even if you don’t agree with them. Don’t alienate people with your arrogance. Pay attention to time limits. Don’t read from your PowerPoint slides with your back to the audience. Don’t speak monotonously or too quickly. During library instruction, consider having a student run that presentation computer while you walk around engaging students and speaking. (They’ll be less like to tune you out or Facebook that way.)

Practical tips are easy to find online, though, and there are plenty of them. However, the primary rule is always to consider your audience. Pay attention to what they’re doing. When you speak, do your colleagues roll their eyes or purse their lips while glaring at you? Then maybe you should tone down your aggression and be more sensitive to their views. During a presentation, do audience members check their watches frequently? Think about time, and how bored you’d be if someone prattled on too long. Do you notice jerky heads as people nod off to sleep but pop back awake as their chins hit their chest? Then speed it up, change the tone of your voice, change topic, do something to engage them. Do students come out of your instruction sessions thinking librarians are bores who want to teach everyone to be librarians? Can they still not research very well because they tuned you out as soon as it was obvious you had no intention of engaging them? Then change your approach, engage students more, don’t try to teach them everything.

Teaching and speaking are performances, and performances are designed for audiences. The best performances should teach and delight. This certainly doesn’t mean we all have to act like clowns or stand-up comics, though I’m never afraid to say something silly or make a joke if I think it will keep the audience paying attention. A bit of wit can carry an audience through a lot of dull business. But we have to keep in mind that public speaking is a performance, and the person up their speaking isn’t us. It’s a persona called Librarian, and part of that persona is an awareness of others.

Considering other people is always difficult. Having an awareness of how our speaking affects those around us, the audience at a big talk or the students at a small BI session, takes practice. Moreover, it takes deliberate consciousness of what we are saying and how we say it, which a lot of people can’t seem to master. Some people are nervous enough just standing up in front of audiences and speaking. I know how it can be. I’ve been teaching and speaking to groups for 15 years, and I’m pretty good at both, but every time I feel sick in the minutes before beginning. Some people mistakenly believe that it’s what they say that’s important, not how the audience hears what they say. Those people don’t usually feel the same way when they’re part of an audience, though.

The most important thing is to communicate our point, to persuade our colleagues, to win the adherence of the audience to our ideas, to get our students to understand a bit about library research and about what librarians can do for them. By alienating or boring your audience, your message is lost, and you have only yourself to blame.

Threat and Communication

Rhetoricians sometimes talk about the psychologist Carl Rogers, specifically his notion that threat hinders communication and persuasion. The basic idea should be obvious to everyone. If I feel threatened by you, I might listen to you, but I won’t be persuaded. I might be ordered, forced, coerced, or manipulated, and I may have to capitulate to your demands, but I won’t be persuaded and won’t willingly do what you want me to do. In an organization, this means I might very well resist you in cunning ways, especially if I feel I have little power in a direct confrontation.

I say the basic idea should be obvious, but often isn’t, because persuasion isn’t necessarily what some people set out to achieve. Chaim Perelman writes in The Realm of Rhetoric that the aim of argumentation is “to elicit or increase the adherence of the members of an audience to theses that are presented for their consent.”

Communication may be hindered even by relatively mild threats. I don’t need a gun put to my head to feel threatened. I can feel threatened professionally or personally, and this can mean standard arguments might not work. As Maxine Hairston writes:

“Ironically, those situations in which the classical methods of using proof, evidence, and logical deductions are most apt to fail are just the ones we care about most. Such arguments often concern issues that affect us deeply-racial and sexual matters, moral questions, personal and professional standards and behavior. Where there is dispute about this kind of issue, communication often breaks down because both parties are so emotionally involved, so deeply committed to certain values, that they can scarcely listen to each other, much less have a rational exchange of views. ” (Carl Rogers’s Alternative to Traditional Rhetoric, College Composition and Communication 27:4. Link is to JSTOR)

I bring this up because I think it has some relevance to discussions of change, technology, politics and other contentious issues within librarianship. How much do proponents of certain changes or political positions try to persuade reluctant librarians? And how might reluctant librarians feel threatened? And if they feel threatened, how might that perception of threat be reduced? Saying “you just don’t get it” isn’t persuasion.

Rogers contribution adds more understanding of the person to traditional rhetoric. Rhetoric isn’t just about argument, it’s about persuasion. Arguments sometimes don’t work. An argument may be sound, but if people aren’t persuaded, it still fails. To persuade, those arguing need to treat their opponents with respect and understanding, to try to see the world as the other sees it. Hairston outlines 5 rhetorical actions based on Rogerian theory:

1. Give a brief, objective statement of the issue under discussion.

2. Summarize in impartial language what you perceive the case for the opposition to be; the summary should demonstrate that you understand their interests and concerns and should avoid any hint of hostility.

3. Make an objective statement of your own side of the issue, listing your concerns and interests, but avoiding loaded language or any hint of moral superiority.

4. Outline what common ground or mutual concerns you and the other person or group seem to share; if you see irreconcilable interests, specify what they are.

5. Outline the solution you propose, pointing out what both sides may gain from it.

If we all followed these guidelines, there might be fewer librarians who feel threatened by change. Frustration and hostility never persuade anyone.

The Case for Careless Writing

Is there a case to be made for careless writing? In academia, we usually don’t think so. As a librarian, I try to help students get the sources they need to carefully research an argument, and as a writing teacher I try to help students learn to write careful and nuanced essays. As a writer, I’m not sure sure. I try to be careful and nuanced, but I also tend to focus on small topics, or small parts of large topics. Maybe I’d get more comments if I were more provocative and less careful, if I created some turbulence.

During lunch today, I read the introduction to an issue of Turbulence (which I’d never heard of; I found the link through Bookforum). The issue is a collection of articles on the topic of “Are We Winning?” The “We” is progressive social movements around the world. The introduction notes the differences in focus and mood between the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999 and now, and wonders if the left is still winning, or what it would mean to “win.” I didn’t read any of the articles, and probably won’t, mainly because I was struck by this paragraph:

“We’re not offering a packaged and polished set of answers to these or any other questions. The 14 articles in Turbulence come from different contexts, different parts of the world; they have different tones, different paces and they certainly don’t all agree with each other; and some are harder than others to read outside their context. But we think this unevenness, what some might call roughness, is useful. It’s sometimes hard to engage with a collection of texts which is too polished. You’ve no sooner exclaimed, ‘that’s wrong, I don’t agree with that at all!’ or ‘but what about X?’, than the author’s anticipated your objection in a footnote, or else the editors have directed you to another article which plugs the gap. On the other hand, rough edges provide handholds, something to grab onto. They provide a way into arguments. Maybe you’ll pull at a loose end and everything will unravel. But perhaps you’ll be able to weave something else with those threads. What we want to do is put out articles that help us to think new thoughts. To think and act differently.”

It could be that roughness is useful, but it still seemed to me a way to excuse bad writing and careless arguments. Eliminating unevenness, considering and responding to counter-arguments, backing up your argument with footnotes and proof — these are some of the hallmarks not only of academic writing but good argumentative prose in general. What the editors, who call themselves the “Turbulence Collective,” seem to be saying is that thoughtful, careful, substantiated writing is bad, that considering and responding to counterarguments is a problem because it supposedly doesn’t allow people to think and act. Can this really be the case? Are we really to approve and justify political writing that avoids all usual standards of argument and thought, regardless of the side that puts it forward? And what of research? Is research thus bad, because it might make you less willing to put forward arguments that you know are faulty because you’re read their refutation?

The home page says that “Turbulence is a journal-cum-newspaper that we hope will become an ongoing space in which to think through, debate and articulate the political, social, economic and cultural theories of our movements, as well as the networks of diverse practices and alternatives that surround them.” Is this, I wonder, how the thinking through is to be done? Is it better to put out unsubstantiated or ill considered, though passionate, opinions, because careful thought and argument don’t leave enough spaces for disagreement and discussion? Or is instead the case, as much academic writing assumes, that careful argument doesn’t eliminate the handholds, it just eliminates the useless or sloppy handholds? People disagree passionately with careful arguments as well, but they have to be more thoughtful in their disagreement.

On the other hand, isn’t that what usually occurs on blogs, especially the popular and provocative ones? I read one library blog that regularly gets dozens of comments on many posts, and passionate arguments break out in the comments section. But it’s a blog that seems designed to provoke, to leave what the editors of Turbulence call a handhold, to irritate some readers so much they can’t help but respond. I think this is a useful function of blogs, and I suppose of Turbulence as well, to bring a lot of voices together on a topic. But as a general editorial rule, it seems a way to justify lowering the tone of argumentative writing, especially in politics, and the tone is low enough already.