Sunday, November 18, 2007

In defense of cherry-picking, clichés, weaselly language, and pigeonholing

http://tothevillagesquare.org/images/cherry-picking-numbers.jpg
Today’s post will attempt some articulated defense of certain practices that have become normatively condemned as rhetorical sins. Our defense, needless to say, is not meant to exonerate these practices utterly; only to relieve them of their rather blanket condemnation and to readmit them, under pain of significant restrictions, into the society of decent and respectable discourse.

Cherry-picking
 

A common complaint from opponents in debates (whether on the Internet or in the real world” of the Supranet) is that their interlocutor is cherry-picking”. This charge alone is usually supposed to suffice, since all parties tend to agree that cherry-picking is a bad thing. Thus, most of the time, the interlocutor accused of this sin will not defend his particular instance of doing it, but will rather feel obliged to try to argue that he is innocent of the charge. Sometimes, of course, the accused is innocent of the charge; or, conversely, sometimes he is guilty of abusing the cherry-picking methodology. We are not here concerned with those possibilities: our only concern is the occasion when the cherry-picking methodology is proper.

Cherry-picking is a proper debate technique in the following circumstances:

1) Insofar as a certain amount of content of your debate opponent to whom you are responding is peripheral, irrelevant or obfuscatory to the points of the debate—in which case, it is eminently reasonable to skip those contents and pick out the relevant matter: thus, cherry-picking. The opponent, however, is in the right to oblige you to defend your judgement with regard to said peripherality, irrelevancy or obfuscation. In that case, the debate will perforce take a detour into a meta-debate” which, nevertheless, can be terminated when the defender comes to realize his opponent is merely stalling or is indulging some eccentric crotchet; this, in turn, likely leading to the termination of the main debate as well.

2) Insofar as you wish to redirect the debate (hopefully with gentle nudges rather than sudden derailments off the track) by picking out parts in your opponents preceding response to you that you deem to be salient to the new direction you wish to chart. Again, your opponent has every right to challenge this redirection; and you, in turn, have every right to decline his challenge. This particular turn of events, however, will often get dicey, insofar as another meta-debate may appropriately be generated, to the effect of clarifying to what extent the cherry-picking redirection is itself attempting to evade crucial points in the overall debate. It is also important to note that sometimes you will feel the need to redirect the debate away from your opponents own prior attempt at evasive misdirection; and thus your redirection will not be a departure so much as an attempt at returning to the original framework and orientation of the debate. This can happen often with debates with Muslim apologists, who have a wide palette of maneuvers by which to avoid the nodus of the debate point at hand—whether by using Tu Quoque; micro-irrelevancies that appear to be relevant on the macro level (or vice-versa); or multiple furcations to complicate and obscure the point, etc.

Clichés

The basis for dismissals of the clich
é as a rhetorical tool ranges from the vague and general accusation that they are simply silly or beneath the sophistication (whether aesthetic or technical) of formal debate, to the more substantive critique that the cliché is a misleading trope that attempts to foist an unwarranted redintegration—or, in more layman’s terms, that attempts to expand from a commonly accepted truism about a partial phenomenon to a blanket generalization.

However,
clichés also have their beneficial uses:

1) They can save time in a presentation, nearly instantly illustrating a particular point with a few words which otherwise would take many more words to communicate, e.g., Theres more than one way to skin a cat” quickly conveys the sense that There are many different ways to arrive at the same goal and some of these different ways through their differences often mask their unity in having that same goal”. Or: Dont throw the baby out with the bathwater” which quickly conveys the sense of Beware, in rejecting one major part of something, of also ending up rejecting another part that you would not wish to rejecta part that, although separate from the part you wish to reject, is so closely linked to it, it may well suffer the same fate by your action of rejection as the part you do wish to reject”. Or: What’s good for the goose is good for the gander” which quickly conveys the sense of “Whatever you impugn one person or position with also applies to the person or position you are defending since [it is implied] you have already agreed similar circumstances applythis one being particularly zingy as a riposte to Tu Quoque jabs from Muslims (as well as the Ego Quoque jabs from self-hating Leftists).

None of these examples (nor of a host of other clichés that could be adduced) necessarily entails the flaws or faults of the critiques noted earlier.

2) Closely related to saving time and words, the use of clichés in a debate can also help to keep the discourse free of meandering verbiage that in the hands of some serves to facilitate diversion and obfuscation.

3) Finally, clichés have the aesthetic advantage of injecting the spice of succinct and vivid verve into a debate—which, of course, should never be employed to substitute for, or distract from, reasoned argument based upon data, but only to embellish same, and make the brilliance that much more acutely clarifying, or the assimilation that much more pleasant to swallow and digest.

Both beneficial uses cited above, of course, only pertain to the extent that the user of clichés remains scrupulously on guard against their limitations in specific contexts.

Weaselly language

This term may be less familiar to my readers: by it I am referring to syntactical constructions that seem to be giving with the right hand what they are taking away with the left, or which seem to be asserting some provocative claim while simultaneously trying to soften its blow or even sugar its bitter harshness, or which
to formulate my point with more acute precisionare simultaneously putting forth a position while also giving the appearance of eschewing responsibility for that same position (or at least for the consequences of that same position). In these respects, of course, weaselly language is not a particularly dignified rhetorical maneuver, and often verges close (if not crosses the line into) obfuscatory deceittaqiyya, kitman and khad’ah, in the Islamic apologetics. In the rather banal and technical realm of legal reports and medical narratives of accidents used for legal proceedings, what closely resembles weaselly language is often used, such as descriptions of the severity of an injury in purposefully imprecise formulations, yet still meant to indicate seriousness: The patient stated that his limitation of movement to his neck is somewhat worse than it was immediately after the accident, and has become a fairly serious problem for his activities of daily living. . .” Such qualifiers as somewhat” and fairly”, etc., soften the main adjectives or nouns that establish the problem, in order to avoid any interpretation that would pin down the description to an inflexible standard, but not so much as to leave the way open for an eventual nullification of the problem.

I would argue, however, that there is a place for weaselly language in respectable debate, particularly the uses of those qualifiers and intentional vagueness where precision is not necessary: example,
Too many Muslims are committing terrorism in the name of Islam” can be more effective than precisely quantifying the Muslims actually committing terrorism in the name of Islam with respect to their proportion in the overall population of world Muslims—leading the debate directly to the point of the argument that the proportion, whatever it is, is a problem.

Closely related to this acceptable function of weaselly language is its ability to palpate and present nuances and complexities in a position that is still in process—but whose process, nonetheless, should not be vulnerable to the license to so relativize the problem which concerns the position as to dissolve it into thin air. As with the other rhetorical sins” we have analyzed above, weaselly language needs to be employed with care, lest it lend itself to abuse, both in the practitioner and in his opponent. The best way to regard its function is as a way of demarcating the parameters of a point or argument—with the parameters serving as provisional (or indefinite) replacements for boundaries, where boundaries are inflexible limits, while the absence of boundaries would threaten the argument’s coherence altogether.

Pigeonholing

What I term
pigeonholing” is probably more commonly known as categorizing”—a particularly egregious, if rather vague, sin” that Leftists regularly accuse their opponents of committing but of which they, the Leftists, are of course innocent as the driven snow. Another common term for this sin is labeling”. Pigeonholing, then, is the sin of actually identifying a person (or a group) as a something—either with a noun (Communist”, Leftist”, Fascist”, etc.) or with an adjective (politically correct”, liberal”, utopian”)—as well as the use of the aforementioned nouns, and many others like them, as adjectives themselves, and vice versa.

It goes without saying that pigeonholing is bad when it unfairly and/or inaccurately applies its label to a person or group. But to proscribe pigeonholing as a matter of general principle
—as the Leftist wishes to do—is to imply that all sociopolitical labels are invalid at any time; which is surely an irrational position. Furthermore, when the pigeonholer applies his label to a person or group, it doesn’t mean that he is damning that person or group to that label for eternity; nor does it mean that he is utterly abnegating all subtlety or complexity by which the person or group so labeled could never be acknowledged to evince features that do not in every way comport themselves to the limitations of said label. No: when the pigeonholer—at least, the conscientious pigeonholer—applies his sociopolitical label to a person or group, he is principally noticing sufficient sociopolitical data about that person or group to warrant their identification with that label. The larger issue here is not the person or group, nor the oftimes controversial activity of labeling; it is, rather, the putative existence, and viability, of those sociopolitical categories that the pigeonholing activity clarifies (or, to the extent that the pigeonholers are not conscientious, muddies).

This existence and this viability must be continually challenged and articulated, and the pigeonholing activity is, thus, an ongoing work-in-progress, subject to constant tweaking and revision—but not, as the Leftist would have it, to wholesale abandonment. This implies an ongoing questioning state of mind that, nonetheless, does not suspend the pigeonholing activity as long as the questions pertain, but rather advances judiciously and prudently: What is this Leftism”? What are its parameters? Are there types and flavors, degrees of Leftism? Can Leftism, or aspects of Leftism, cross over and permeate other sociopolitical categories that seem at first glance to be at odds with Leftism? What is the direct opposite of Leftism? Etc. Such a questioning state of mind keeps the pigeonholer young and flexible, without becoming so flexibly flaccid and open-minded” that he sacrifices altogether the utility of his pigeonholing activity. In fact, it keeps him on his toes to be able to wield his labeling-gun with more precision. (The French critical analyst of Islam, Alexandre Del Valle, is particularly nimble and adept at labeling individuals and groups, with usually a dead-on accuracy facilitated by his deployment of a wide-ranging palette of labels.)

Afterword

One fascinating and significant sociopolitical phenomenon palpated by this questioning state of mind, incidentally, is the remarkable propensity toward fungibility among ostensibly diametrical categories. My favorite example came as a kind of minor epiphany to me a few years ago, after reading some of the correspondence the limousine Leftist novelist Gore Vidal had with Timothy McVeigh (off and on for three years), which then motivated me to dig up McVeigh’s last communication to the world before his execution, a rather obscure 19th-century poem which he himself formally chose (and wrote out longhand, apparently from memory).

The McVeigh-Vidal correspondence indicated that McVeigh, far from being a
right wing nut” as is the conventional label given him (most fervently by those Leftists who otherwise eschew labels), actually shared the pathos of the so-called bleeding heart Liberal” with regard to the Iraqi people”, whom he regarded with strong emotions of pity for their plight, and anger at the American government for so callously and cruelly mistreating them, as well as adversion to the supposed hypocrisy” of the U.S. government in condemning Iraq for stockpiling weapons. The Vidal report also mentions how McVeigh cited the A-bombing of Japan as an indication of the evil of America—again, a familiar trope in the Leftist litany. His psychiatrist, Dr. John Smith, from his interview with McVeigh, said that although McVeigh admitted he was technically inspired by the Turner Diaries for the making of his bomb, he made a point of insisting that he was not a racist and did not hate homosexuals. And, of course, last but not least, it was McVeigh who first wrote the ultra, albeit stately, Leftist Gore Vidal, commending him on a Vanity Fair article he had written suffused, as usual, with ornate rants about the evil of the American Empire”; while in his second letter he tells his new Leftist mentor that I think you’d be surprised at how much of that material [in Gore Vidal’s book United States, which McVeigh had read] I agree with. . ..

Meanwhile,
McVeigh’s swansong poem indicated that his inspiration and worldview was not Christian at all—another label that goes together in the minds of Leftists with right wing nut” like a day and sunshine—but was decidedly agnostic and rather relativistic (as well as tinged with 19th century Romanticism)—again, more conducive to the Leftist orbit (and, incidentally, utterly unlike the blatantly and precisely theological valedictories of most Muslim terrorists). The fact that McVeigh also obviously flirted with the ultra-right orbit (more or less casually networking with gun show types and militia members in various states) does not, as we argued above, necessarily vitiate his consanguinity with the Leftist orbit. The explanation for how these two apparently contradictory views can co-exist in one and the same person does not have to lead us to abandoning the labels by which we understand those views, nor should we feel obliged to torture one or the other of the two groups of data in order to salvage the one or the other label as the only one deemed appropriate.

A more reasonable explanation would revolve around the crux of my point in raising all this: Left and Right are not polar extremes on a line, but rather on a circle, and their polarity, as each becomes comparatively extremist, tends to converge; while the less extremist they are, they tend to diverge—though that too approaches a point, on the circle, where diminishing returns, as it were, come into play, and once again, to the extent that both Right and Left approach a point of self-dissolving moderation, so to speak, they similarly converge into a kind of mutual Centrism, at the diametric point on the circle opposite from their extremist convergence. The Centrist convergence tends to dilute the convictions of both Left and Right into a modus vivendi that, at best, pursues faint semblances of those convictions in realistic and pragmatic compromises; and, at worst, dissolves all convictions into a mealy-mouthed and insipid utilitarianism verging on an amoral materialism (albeit robustly parasitic on lasting structures historically dependant upon those same convictions). The Extremist convergence, on the other hand, tends toward an incoherent anarchism and/or a gnostic utopia—both dependant, from different angles vectoring in on the same result, upon a pathological suspicion, paranoia and destructive hostility to all historical and extant sociopolitical structures (often positing a heritage in some fantastic underground movement throughout the ages perennially struggling against an equally fantastic super-governmental cabal; viz., perennial rebels against the Masons and/or the “Illuminati, etc.). Both the ultra-extremist Left and the ultra-extremist Right are irrationally anti-Government and anti-Globalist.

Other examples of this convergence of categories verging on fungibility include the puritanically reactionary nature of fundamentalist Islam where, meantime, it is endowed approvingly by Leftists (and their PC hangers-on) with the aura of a cool ethnic Third World culture and their paramilitary struggles” become freedom-fighting” in the name of resistance against oppression” and occupation”—the latter two being sociopolitical evils of which, of course, Islam remains, in the minds of Leftists (and their PC hangers-on), innocent as the driven sand. And let us not forget the Leftist and Socialistic nature of supposedly ultra-right-wing Nazism (for a fine argument of this case, see this article).

This fungibility of categories, rather than vitiating the applicability of categories altogether—as many a Leftist (at least those who would not sneeringly dismiss it out of hand) would be reflexively tempted to attempt to argue—actually helps to illuminate deeper complexities of their nature and helps to prevent the entire pigeonholing process from ossifying into simplistic and superficial name-calling in the service of ideological tendentiousness. Just as importantly, it can help to expose conventional misunderstandings—couched in inappropriate pigeonholingthat usually have been motivated by ideological demagoguery, as our aforementioned examples indicate.


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