Sunday, August 28, 2016

"dumbing down" versus "political correctness"

Dumbing down is not just a race to the bottom by reduction of the most complex situation to the 140-character sound byte.

Dumbing down is also method of conducting politics that risks undermining the essential processes of a free democracy.

When Hillary Clinton delivers an essay detailing the threads of a connection between the Trump campaign's links to the Alt-Right, a dangerous, if somewhat hidden, threat to racial and economic quality and opportunity, leading to the obvious and evidence-based conclusion that a Trump administration would deploy various faces of racism. Some of these faces include:

  • deportation, 
  • patronizing of blacks ("what have you got to lose, your situation is so horrendous?), 
  • promising the moon while delivering a burned-out 15-watt light bulb, 
  • shouting through acolytes over reasonable questions about the release of tax returns,
  • barring Muslims from entering the country
  • slandering Mexicans as rapists, drug dealers, and criminals
  • promising to expel "undersireables"
  • bragging he knows more about how to defeat ISIS than the Pentagon                                                                                                                                                      
  • Trump's response, without batting an eye, is to shout into the nearest microphone,  "Hillary is a bigot!"
An research-based, articulate essay-formatted "case" that propounds a legitimate point of view of a political opponent evokes another verbal bomb, "bigot" without a single piece of evidence as support.
Back in another life, as a high school English teacher, it was a major point of both instruction and evaluation of a student's grasp of the literature that s/he provide evidence in support of each opinion from the text under consideration.

It may sound like a simple, obvious and easily dismissed goal of a pedagogical path to critical thinking; however, evidence from the text, a quote from one of the characters, a piece of behavioural evidence, a summary of a author's perspective...some or all of these "proofs" compromised the "bar" expected of all reasoned arguments even for fourteen-year-olds. Of course, as these students moved through the next 'grades' enhanced sophistication in the selection and use of the evidence as a window into the level of intellectual comprehension, emotional intelligence and developing maturity of the student would generate a kind of admittedly subjective higher grades. Liking a character, or a portrayal of a scene, or the considering a conversation "believable" brought with it an almost obsessive requirement to point to the evidence that supported the contention.

Name-calling belonged, if at all, in the school-yard, where there were no monitors and no filters for how kids treated each other. Name-calling was a kind of habit that legitimate classrooms were determined to confront and reasoned arguments were the path to a mature conversation. Insight, imagination, creativity, and even maturity were believed to be implicit in the choice of and the refined use of evidence.

This feature of the adolescent education was not restricted to a provincial curriculum guideline, nor to a specific country or culture. It was the stuff of both legal and political theory and practice.It was and is the stuff of scientific research and the presentation of most sources of public discourse. And, regardless of the legal ideology, evidence for an argument was the sine qua non of an effective and professional presentation. Even today, the level of the 'writing' in any publication is measured by the writer's digging, finding, collating and distilling before actually writing the piece. 

This is not the stuff of "political correctness" nor of academic "snobbery". It is not the stuff of Harvard preppies, nor Yale Law School Mute Courts, nor Bio-ethics graduate school seminars. It is the stuff of how we have brought into focus the multiple factors and vectors in order to base both considered arguments among those seeking the truth in whatever professional project is on the table.
And one of the core ingredients to this approach to evidence is that it attempts to reduce or eliminate the use of the "ad hominum" attack.

The New York Times has editorialized that this campaign is witnessing the destruction and elimination of truth, facts and reasoned argument. Former Senator Patrick Moynahan used to point out that his opponents were entitled to their own opinions but that they had to agree to a set of facts, on which the argument could proceed. The complete abandonment of the real facts, whether it is about the level of crime, the nature of Muslim or Mexican immigrants, the bigotry of the Democratic candidate, the capacity to have Mexico build the wall, the feasibility of signing on to the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Japan, or the capacity to force China to adjust its currency....is no legitimate foundation for any candidate for the most powerful elected position in the world.

While it is true that a good argument, well articulated, reasoned and refined is no assurance of the making of an effective decision, nor does it assure an effective execution of that decision, it is a minimum standard to which we have held our leaders. Of course, all arguments, even replete with appropriate evidence, will be tilted, even sometimes tainted, with a substantial injection of the other techniques of propaganda which comprise the core skills of advertising, marketing and political charisma. Hence, the emergence of the old Latin aphorism: "Caveat emptor" (Buyer beware!)

Grabbing public attention, euphemistically dubbed "name recognition" is another sine qua non of any political campaign. And yet, such a goal need not mandate the candidate's gushing and rushing to the bottom of the language barrel, where 'ad hominum' attacks, radically inflated and unrealistic and simply unfeasible promises, linked to the most scurrilous and nefarious of sycophants and a history of mendacity define the strategy of getting that public attention.

We still expect those seeking the trust and the confidence of the public to have a level of trust and confidence in that public that is demonstrated in the level of respect the candidate shows for the public. Shouting, name-calling, bullying, and skipping from one subject, and one position on every issue, to another file and a completely antithetical position on each file, like a flat stone skipping across the waves as an entertaining pastime.....these are not the items on a menu of one who even has that kind of respect.

And to conflate a respectful presentation of an argument into "political correctness" is to demonstrate a level of intellectual and emotional vacuity that evokes images of straw scare-crows dotting a farmer's field to protect the harvest. When T.S. Eliot wrote The Hollow Men* and used the words, "headpiece filled with straw" he did not have the current Republican candidate for the White House in mind.

However, it is appropriate to mine from Eliot's words, an appropriate reflection on the man and the campaign the Republican candidate is waging. If ever there were a hollow man seeking to 'rule the world' it is the current Republican candidate. And the insult he is foisting on two hundred million voters is so monumental as to be unable to have ever been considered in any previous campaign for the White House. Not only is there literally no substance to every utterance belching from his larynx; there is also no thought behind any of his arguments, except the sheer shilling, like a barker in a carnival begging passersby to come and see the freak inside. And is there, or can there be a more insulting and patronizing pandering for votes?

*We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar                                         (The opening lines of the poem)

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