A place for new ideas to settle.

04 June 2014

"All I know is that first, you've got to get MAD!"

This post is in response to Danny Canham's post, "The Naked Truth: Continuing a Discussion on Anger." Go read that first, and then come back here.


Anger is a powerful emotion, but the use of anger in discussion, especially ones as fraught as the discussions around social-justice issues like race and gender and sexuality, can be seen as a sign of rhetorical weakness. At least, when it's the Wrong People who are getting angry. Consider the enthusiasm heaped upon Nevada rancher and sovereign citizen Cliven Bundy (pre-"one more thing I know about the Negro") by the right-wing news media, pundits, and blogosphere. Consider the Tea Party and all its derivatives.

It's okay if it's an old white guy getting angry.

Somehow anger at a Lost Cause is slightly more normalized than, say, the anger at a Utopia Denied from something like the Occupy movement. That is, the narrative that "we lost something, and we're trying to get it back" often seems more coherent than "we've never had this thing, but we deserve it, so we're trying to take it from those who keep it from us." There's probably a cognitive bias in there somewhere.


So to that end, you often hear people being told to keep their emotions in check during these sorts of discussions. As Danny explained:
Denial of anger is often a tool to pacify and appease the ruling classes into accepting the marginalized (see specifically, black voices), but doing so at the expense of those further in the margins and the reality of the inequalities that exist to keep them marginalized (and justifiably angry). 
It's definitely out of bounds, I think, to demand that a person banish emotion entirely—especially if that comes as an ad hominem attack on the person rather than the argument ("Why are you so angry?" rather than criticism based on the merits). David Hume put it thusly in his treatise On Reason:
Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.
Danny's point that "you can be angry out of love (be it love for yourself or your community) and through those two feelings demand that oppression stop" is spot on. But the statement (as is) is a bit incomplete, and I think this is where a lot of people flounder in discussions such as this.

The phrase "intent means nothing in the face of impact" is often as a barb against other arguments, but this is true for their own as well! So while anger is a totally valid impetus for putting one's views out there, that anger has to be directed and modulated.

But of course it's really hard (especially in textual form) when you've got people who seem mostly just angry without direction, and other people who use "you're just angry" as cause for dismissal, or worse, to paint someone as a stereotype. They make up two poles of a false binary—they're both wrong. The passions need reason as a channel for their energy, otherwise it just comes out all diffuse and ineffectual. The process might go something like this.
1. I notice that I'm angry. (Or confused, or frightened, or...) 
2. Take stock of what's making me angry.

3. Reason about what might be really going on.

4. (Optional) Focus my anger into an argument.
Why optional? Well, sometimes we realize that we're being silly, to put it lightly. We get scared at a shadow. Or we briefly forget how to add two numbers. Or we misunderstand someone's behavior. After a brief shock of emotional reaction, we realize that it's not anything to stay worked up about, drop it, and move on.

Other times, though, there are larger, more continuous forces at work. Structures in play, that will keep provoking our anger, or confusion, or fear, or whatever, until something is done to change them. Eventually I will discuss Ta-Nehisi Coates' tremendous "Case for Reparations" article in The Atlantic in full. But until then, I'll just say that he lays out a very good case for black anger with respect to a long war of disenfranchisement waged against them. (As one example, I've noted before how even something as boring as land-use regulations and building codes can have racist outcomes, and often carry racist intent with them.)


The thing that gets me about "lived experiences," though, is that anecdotes, even en masse, rarely create an accurate map of reality. But again, it's super hard to hear "subjective experience isn't great evidence for a model or theory" and not "your experience is subjective, therefore it's invalid." That's where we need some agreed-upon rules of the game, otherwise it's going to be a long, headache inducing slog. Oh wait, it's already just that.

Things get dangerous when a theory decides that lived experiences are unassailable. Well, certain ones; if all lived experiences were admissible in an argument, the whole theory would lose its power. You'd have to accept every claim. So what happens next, if you're already committed to "sometimes lived experiences are exempt from criticism" and "this theory has explanatory power," is that you start tacking on epicycles—extra criteria by which certain other lived experiences just don't count, all to save your theory.

This is why you get leftish activists discounting the lived-experience claims of someone like Cliven Bundy (as they should, but not for this reason), as well as people from "marginalized groups" who don't agree with the narrative—then it's "internalized oppression," and the theory is saved.

This is why you get rightish pundits laughing off the lived-experience claims of the poor, or the non-Christian, while blathering on about how maybe the poor have it too good, or how America really is a Christian nation so everyone else better shut up because they're guests in the house.

Going back to emotion, you see leftish activists discounting emotional arguments too, under the bingo-square phrase "white tears"/"male tears"/"cis tears." At this point the theory is well on its way to becoming a conceptual superweapon, obliterating all other arguments, reality itself be damned.

It's not an honest discussion when one side (or both sides!) has a conceptual superweapon.


The problem with an all-encompassing theory is that you start to catch a bunch of false positives.

The problem with false positives is that they might seem obviously false to someone who isn't equipped with your theory. So obviously false, in fact, that now they're scribbling down their own bingo sheet. "Ha! There they go again, making it all about race! I knew liberals were that stupid!"

Or, "Jeez, that guy thinks everything is the government's fault. Libertarians really are that stupid!"

Or, "Seriously? That's an attack on 'religious freedom'? Can Christians really be this dumb?"

With any theory, we must ask if it's possible, even in principle, for the theory to fail. Can I be wrong? If so, then we're starting to come to terms with reality: A theory must have some things it can't explain. You must be willing to miss a few times, if you want to screen for false positives. And you must care about false positives if you want to get serious about working together against a problem.

If not, well, we're back to priming that superweapon.


How do we reconcile competing theories? We hit them with evidence. (This is why a theory must be able to be wrong—if met with evidence, it needs to be updated accordingly.) How do we find evidence? Well, we can let our emotions point the way. In cases like this they stop being mere emotions and turn into what Adam Smith (and others) called moral sentiments. It's not a coincidence that we feel something when we talk about injustice. That's why it's important not to banish emotion.

But we can't just throw evidence around willy-nilly. We have to take baby steps, leading ourselves a little bit at a time towards a common frame of reference. This is sometimes called minimizing inferential distance:
In many cases, people don’t share the same understanding of concepts or agree in previous lines of argument, and these previous steps need to be addressed before we can get to debate the current step. Often, there are many such steps, and we end up with the extended debate between the creationist and the biologist. (Peter Hurford, "Why It's Hard to Explain Things: Inferential Distance")
In other words, one can't simply "shut up and listen" (yet another bingo square conversation-stopper). They need work.

And somehow this stuff may take even more work than something like creationism versus evolution. I've seen the vast inferential gulf separating hardcore opponents of homosexuality from everyone else, for example. Regular folks might be convinced that The Gays aren't so bad if they turn out to be friends, neighbors, and relatives, but this doesn't do anything to fear of a hermaphroditic universe.

My biggest fear in this whole thing is that the people with righteous causes may decide that it's not their business to do that work, and end up spinning their wheels (or driving off a cliff). I try! I think I've succeeded, at least in some measure. But I know it's not enough—one perspective isn't enough. Especially not when it's just a perspective that hasn't "been in the shit," so to speak.

Before I go—have I surpassed Danny's original post at this point?—I submit a final conclusion: anger is fine. Anger can be useful. Hate, on the other hand, leads to superweapons. And superweapons lead to suffering.