Tuesday, 16 February 2016

More Pseudolegal Nonsense that drives me insane

     I've received this image in my Facebook feed a few times now, so it's passed my unofficial threshhold for debunking it on my blog.

The text reads (for the benefit of the search engines):

"Well officer... a crime requires an injured party. Seeing as there isn't one, I can assume you're attempting to manufacture my consent to a contract with the state's corporate policy in order to generate revenue as part of a racketeering scam."

     There is just so, so much wrong in this to address, but the first thing I want to point out is the smug smarty-pants big words tactic, to make it sound like the author knows what she's talking about. Now, I have no problem with people using big words. But here's the key to effective, honest writing: only use words that help you to be understood by your reader. Big words can do that, if you're writing for an audience who actually understands those words and the big words are clearer or more precise than simple common words, but if they have to be used correctly. 
     Take, for example, the phrase "manufacture my consent". That will probably ring a few bells as people recognize the title of a book by Noam Chomsky. Oooh, how learned and erudite this person must be, citing Chomsky! Except that Chomsky's book was about the role of mass media as a propaganda institution; this is a traffic stop, a one-on-one interaction between a police officer and a driver that has nothing to do at all with mass media. Ironically, the meme itself is much closer to an instance of propaganda.
     This is a clear sign that the smartass driver in the meme really doesn't actually know what these words mean, and is using them more for their authoritative sound than for any actual attempt at explanation.

     So here's what some of the words actually do mean. 

     Crime: Actually, crime does not require "an injured party". You're thinking of a tort. Tort law is concerned with correcting private wrongs, where a defendant's misdeed causes some kind of harm to a plaintiff. Notably, the police will usually not pull you over for committing a tort; it's up to the injured party to sue you to recover damages. And in tort, it's all about compensation, not punishment; the plaintiff shouldn't be the one to pay the price for the defendant's actions. 
     Crime doesn't actually require an injured party, at least not in the way we usually think of a plaintiff. This is pretty obvious when you consider the crime of murder: a dead person cannot sue, because, well, dead. At law, a dead person is not a person at all, and has no interests. (Their family can sue in tort for loss of their loved one, but that's separate from the crime of murder.) When someone commits a crime, they offend against the Sovereign, the King's Peace, the law of the land. That's why criminal cases are prosecuted by the Crown in Canada and the U.K. as Regina vs. Allegedbadguy ("Regina" being Latin for "Queen"), or by The People in the U.S. And the purpose of prosecuting crime is not to compensate Her Majesty for the loss to her sovereign dignity, but to punish you, to deter you and others from disregarding your duty to obey the law. 
     Now, traffic regulations are what we call quasi-criminal law. That is, you don't usually get a criminal record for just going over the speed limit or failing to signal a lane change, and they tend to be punished with fines instead of jail terms, but they are based on the same legal principle: the state can pass laws regulating what you can and can't do, and can punish you if you break those rules. I've written before about traffic regulations and why they're justified, so I'll not rehash that here. But the point here is this: yes they absolutely can and indeed should enforce the law even if there is no "victim".

     Consent/Contract: To consent is to agree, which is vital for a contract to have any legal effect; that's why it's traditional to sign contracts, to signify that one agreed to be bound by the exchange of promises. In the present context it's not clear what consent has to do with anything, because traffic laws are not based on consent. (Well, they sort of are, insofar as democratic governments pass laws on the authority given them by the people in elections, which means that collectively we have consented to those laws, but unlike a contract, laws passed by the legislature do not require your individual consent for you to be legally bound by them. Another reason why you should vote; those laws are going to bind you whether you like it or not, so you might as well try to have some influence over how they're made.)
     In fact, the term "consent" is here being used as part of the pseudo-legal nonsense spouted by Sovereign Citizen types, in which all government power boils down to semi-magical contracts that can be dispelled with the right incantation of disbelief. They're just ridiculously wrong about that.
     And how the hell can you have "a contract with the state's corporate policy"? I mean, a contract is a legally binding agreement between two or more parties based on an exchange of promises; the state can be a party to a contract, but not the state's "corporate policy". Could you enter into a contract with my fear of mushrooms, or the Coca Cola Company's annual report? These things are the preferences or desires of persons, but not persons. Talk about "consenting to" such things is just incoherent nonsense.
     In any event, the issue of consent is irrelevant. Your duty to obey the speed limit, or any other law of general application, does not depend on your agreeing to do so.

     Racketeering Scam: This part, actually, is sometimes true, but in a way that undermines the whole argument. You see, a racket is when you use an otherwise legitimate transaction as a cover for extortion or embezzlement. For example, in a protection racket, you might record on your books expenses for "security" or "consulting" or "friendship association dues", but what you're really paying for is the privilege of not having your business burned down. What's key is that the cover transaction is prima facie legitimate.
     There is no question that traffic enforcement is sometimes the basis for a racket. Cities like Ferguson, Missouri, have infamously become dependent upon fines instead of taxes for revenue, which creates perverse incentives for law enforcement. (Hint: A perfectly successful enforcement program results in nobody being arrested at all, because nobody breaks the law. Every arrest is, at best, a partial failure. When you measure your success by the raw number of arrests, you're doing it wrong.) These situations are often the result of an attempt to lower taxes, which is popular among property owners and the wealthy because it shifts the burden onto other people, usually people with less green in their wallets and more brown in their complexions. 
     But as bogus as these schemes are, it's important to note that the cover transaction, a fine, is in principle a perfectly legitimate arrangement. Although the enforcement regime may be corrupt and fraudulent, they are still trying to pass it off under a legitimate cover, because while there may be a fairer and more effective way to calculate fines for traffic violations, traffic regulations are valid, and fines are a valid way to enforce them.

     Look. Nobody likes to get a speeding ticket. I get that. And it's entirely natural to be angry when you get one. But just because you find rules inconvenient doesn't mean they're unfair, and just because some pseudolegal babbling makes you feel vindicated doesn't mean you are.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Tactics and Tactfulness: Some Thoughts about Tone Policing

     Okay, I take it back.

     A couple of years ago, I wrote in this post that the argument-from-anger fallacy doesn’t seem to be used outside of the capital punishment debate. Yesterday, however, it was used on me in a discussion about effective rhetorical technique.

     A friend of mine had been involved in a nasty online squabble, and we were talking about how it came to this. When I identified what I thought were some rhetorical missteps, the topic turned to “tone policing”. Tone policing, if you've not heard of it, is an argumentative tactic in which you object to the tone of your opponent and refuse to listen until she calms down or speaks more politely or otherwise complies with your standards of civility.
     Actually, I'm probably being generous with the word "argument"; it's really more of a bickering move. Bickering differs from argument in that the objective is essentially personal: bickering is about being the "winner", while proper argument is more generally concerned with establishing which proposition is more likely to be true. I suppose you could say that bickering is a specialized form of argument for resolving propositions about who's the better bickerer, which is about the only situation in which ad hominem is the whole point and thus not a fallacy.
      One of the things that makes tone-policing such an attractive ploy is that it seems to turn your opponent's own passion against them: if they feel strongly about a matter, you can impeach their credibility by claiming they're "emotional", while simultaneously scoring points portraying yourself as the more calmly rational one. And, it has the added benefit that few things are more infuriating than being told to calm down; not only do you get to disparage their objectivity on the offensive, but they will often lend support to your claim by reacting more angrily. So it can be an effective trap, especially against someone who is prone to anger in the first place

     Of course, I fancy myself a bit of a rhetorician, and so I tend to look down my nose at the techniques of bickering. Outside of that specialized arena, they're really bad habits, and even in that arena, a skilled rhetorician can easily counter them ("Why yes, I am passionate about this issue, as a matter of fact. Aren't you? Why not?"). And so I'll confess to having been just a wee bit hurt when, in identifying the tactical error that led to the harassment, it was suggested that I was engaging in tone policing and victim-blaming.
     And yet, I can see where the confusion arises, because my critique had been, in part, about how anger was the cause of the tactical error. As my friend put it, it's easy to step back and be rational when you have no skin in the game.
     Yes, it is. Conversely, though, it can be hard to stay rational when you do have skin in the game. And that's why tone policing is such an effective bickering technique. But it's also why it's so important, in rhetoric as in martial arts, to learn how to channel your anger effectively, not to be channeled by it.
     My friend seemed to think I was criticizing the angry escalation as unjustified, as if I was urging politeness and patience, and condemning too forceful a counterattack. To quote the analogy offered: "He had his foot on my neck, your honour, so I stabbed his leg."
     But that wasn't my criticism at all, because it''s not what my friend actually did. Stabbing the leg of the person standing on your neck is a perfectly valid move, and not an overreaction at all, but it takes a certain presence of mind to reach down to your belt, draw your knife, and strike effectively. No, what my friend did was essentially to scream with rage and flail around with much sound and fury but doing virtually no real damage, while leaving the foot firmly in place.

     Or not, actually, because the opponent had not actually succeeded in placing foot to neck, either. Yes, it might have been an infuriatingly offensive racist or sexist claim that, because it is widely accepted, does great harm and should not go unchallenged, but it was a straw on the back, not a boot on the neck. And while a ton of straws can immobilize you just as brutally as a well-placed boot, in the context of an online argument, they might as well be on someone else's back; your freedom of movement to respond however you like is not compromised at all.
     This is the other way in which bickering and disciplined rhetoric differ.  In bickering, the victor is usually the one who goes away smugly triumphant, while the loser is left angry and humiliated. If I fling an insult at you, and it makes you angry, that's actually a way of scoring points in bickering, and the angrier I make you, the more it's worth. And so in a bickering contest, an additional straw on the back can be a tremendously efficient attack, because it can draw on the weight of all the other straws already there to make you so much angrier.
     But in disciplined rhetoric, you're trying to present ideas that your audience (ideally including your opponent) will feel obliged to accept. This requires tact. It's not about being polite as such, but about deftly maneuvering the point of your argument past your opponent's defences so that it can strike the conscience effectively. And chief among the defences you want to get past is anger: you must avoid using arguments that directly draw the anger of your opponent (except perhaps as a feint).
     That sounds paradoxical, so think about it from the other side. When your opponent says something that makes you angry, think about why that is. Almost always, it's because something about it is wrong in some way. Perhaps it makes you angry because what he says is unfair, or untrue, or unsound. (If it makes you angry because it is true, then you should probably concede defeat, or at least retreat to reconsider your position.) And when your opponent says something unfair, untrue, or unsound, that is where to strike. And you strike not by emphasizing how angry it makes you (remember, nobody cares what you think), but by laying bare exactly how it is wrong, so that your audience and even your opponent are forced by their own faculties to reject it. Angrily, even.

     The point, then, is not that you shouldn't be angry in argument; on the contrary, anger is a vital part of the rhetorician's instincts and skills. Moreover, if it's not something that gets you angry on some level, it's not worth arguing about. Rather, the point is to learn to cultivate and refine your sense of anger, so that you may use it effectively. To the extent that rudeness offers an excuse not to listen, yes, tact is necessary, but do not mistake this for meek politeness; it is not about asking them nicely to agree with you because you said please, but about maneuvering past their defences with ruthless precision so that the full force of your logical argument will strike home.
     This is not tone policing. In fact, it's the key to defeat someone who attempts to tone-police you. Why does it make us angry when someone tells us to calm down and be polite? Because it's all kinds of hypocritical. Focus in on that hypocrisy, and bring it out for all to see just how ridiculous or infuriating or contemptible it really is. ("Really? You're so upset by my being upset that you can't listen to what I'm upset about?") By all means, let your anger show enough to give context and to make your argument relatable, but do not let your anger be the argument.
     When you do that, you're likely to fall into the trap of thinking greater anger makes for greater argument, but the very angriest people are often the most wrong.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Seeing Ought from Is

     The other day I found myself in an argument with a religious person who claimed that atheists cannot support any concept of morality, because you can't derive an ought from an is. I was familiar, of course, with the history of this idea, first articulated by the famous Scottish philosopher David Hume, and sometimes smooshed together with G.E. Moore's naturalistic fallacy. But I'd not encountered it quite so plainly adopted as an argument against atheism, and it rather surprised me, because I should have thought that anyone familiar with the ought-is problem should also have known that philosophers have developed quite a few different ethical theories that do not depend on the God postulate.
     Now, the is-ought problem does seem to me to be insurmountable, at least formally, but that doesn't particularly bother me. We know, since Gödel, that in any sufficiently robust logical system there will exist unprovable truths. (If you cannot prove "This statement cannot be proved", then it's true. But if you can prove it, then your system allows you to prove a falsehood, and you have bigger problems.)  So it may well be that values can be true but unprovable.
     Besides, there are lots of reasonable things we can infer about morality, even if we cannot prove that it objectively exists. By definition, morality is concerned with choice, more specifically the business of approving one choice as preferable to another. The very idea that we might prefer one alternative over another implies a host of pragmatic considerations. For example, if we posit that there exists a moral distinction between two alternatives, that it matters which one we choose, and we do not know which one we should choose, then it seems extremely likely that finding out what we ought to do is at the very least an instrumental good. (It is conceivable, of course, that some mysterious absolute morality places the highest value on ignorance of morality, in which case we ought not make such inquiries, but morality's just not playing fair with us in that case.)
     Similarly, a pragmatic approach to uncertain morality leads to several other prudent rules of thumb. Generally speaking, a good functional strategy in almost any game is to make the move that leaves you the greatest range of options for the next turn. In day-to-day life, this means you'll want to avoid choices that can't be undone later, unless you're pretty sure you won't want to undo them.
     As well, recognizing that other minds exist and are themselves engaged in the business of trying to figure out what to do, we might do well to take their perspectives into account, and there is some empirical evidence to suggest that that cooperation gives us a wider range of options than conflict does. So even if it turns out that this mysterious absolute morality really just wants us to hate and kill each other, we're likelier to figure that out by putting our heads together than by going at it alone.

     So, without knowing for certain any particular value is absolute, we can derive some pretty useful moral principles just from the presupposition that some sort of moral value exists. But we cannot establish with any certainty that there is any such thing, and that was the core of this person's argument.

     However, as it turns out, there is an argument frequently used in apologetics for why one ought to believe, even in the absence of evidence, and surprisingly, while it's invalid for the purpose Pascal intended (showing that it's prudent to believe in the Biblical God just in case), it turns out to be quite valid for acting as if there is such a thing as morality in the absence of evidence that there is.

     Consider the two possibilities: Either there exists some kind of moral value, or there does not. To put it another way, either there is a objective standard in the universe by which choices may be said to matter, or nothing matters at all. You can choose to behave in accordance with either belief. If you behave as if something matters, and you're wrong, well, it doesn't matter. It only matters if something matters, so prudence would dictate that we should act as if something matters, even if we aren't sure it does matter.

     That does not actually tell us what matters with any certainty, and I guess that makes some people pretty uncomfortable. But morality isn't supposed to be comfortable.