Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

TED Talks: Rhetoric And Dialectic

The more I look, the more I find evidence that TED is propaganda.  It uses factually misleading yet emotionally persuasive and motivational speeches to sell the idea that creative geniuses are changing the world for the better.  It sells itself as a conveyor of knowledge and as access to the world of the intellectual elite.  Here is how TED presents itself (the bold is from their own Website):

TED conferences bring together the world's most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes or less). On, we make the best talks and performances from TED and partners available to the world, for free. . . . Our mission: Spreading ideas. We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and, ultimately, the world. So we're building a clearinghouse of free knowledge from the world's most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other.
It's right there:  TED should be appreciated, because it freely shares the ideas of the world's intellectual and professional elite, ideas which have the power to change society and make the world a better place.  TED's audience?  Curious souls.

I like that TED promotes engagement between its audience members.  However, we can't assume that any online discussion forum is actually going to promote critical thinking and the spread of knowledge.  Many online forums are more like echo chambers, where dissenting or challenging voices are drowned out, if not shouted down.  I haven't explored TED's online community yet.  What is important to note, however--what is central to my thesis--is that TED Talks do not promote critical thinking.  They are prime examples of the art of rhetoric, and not dialectic.

Of course, you cannot expect a speaker to engage in dialogue with its audience.  Public speaking is not, generally, in dialogue form.  And I'm not criticizing public speaking as such.  When I contrast rhetoric and dialectic, I'm talking about two different approaches to the spread of ideas.  With rhetoric, the goal is to persuade the audience, manipulating their emotions in order to change their thinking.  With dialectic, the goal is to challenge the audience, forcing them to question their assumptions and recognize the unwanted consequences of their reasoning.

The distinction between rhetoric and dialectic drives one of Plato's dialogues, called Gorgias.  Gorgias was a real man who lived to be over a hundred years old in ancient Greece.  He was quite wealthy and powerful, making money by teaching the rich and powerful how to practice the art of rhetoric.  Socrates, as is well known, didn't live quite so long and didn't make much money.  But he did also try to teach people his art:  the art of dialectic, of challenging people's assumptions about what they know and leading people to recognize that what they think they know has uncomfortable consequences.

The dialogue is often interpreted as making an argument for both rhetoric and dialectic.  Dialectic is unpleasant and unwelcome in most people's lives.  People respond more favorably to rhetoric.  And yet, Plato argues, rhetoric without dialectic is blind.  The art of persuasion must be led by critical thought, or else it will lead nowhere.  And so, in the dialogue, Socrates argues that Gorgias cannot possibly teach his students how to be good and just.  He can only teach them how to manipulate people's emotions.  And this is dangerous, Socrates says, because he can trick people into thinking that they are being taught what is good and just.  When our emotions are manipulated, we think something good and just is happening.  We are tricked into thinking we have found what is good, when in fact we've just found what is pleasant.

This is what TED Talks do:  They give the audience an uplifting emotional experience and they make the audience believe that it is coming from the intellectual elite.  TED's intended audience is not stupid.  They know they are being emotionally manipulated.  But, they think, this is rhetoric informed by dialectic; it is emotional manipulation that we can trust, because it is coming from people who have the credentials, knowledge and experience to know what is right.

When we look at TED Talks, it is very hard (maybe impossible) to find evidence of dialectic. Instead of challenging audience's assumptions and engaging their critical faculties, TED promotes a pseudo-intellectual cult of personality.

Pseudo-intellectualism is the tendency to act with an unjustified air of intellectual authority. A pseudo-intellectual cult of personality, then, is a social movement in which a relatively small number of individuals use mass media to gain power over others by falsely selling themselves as intellectual giants and by leading their audience to act out of a false sense of their own knowledge.

TED speakers are, in some respects, elite members of society. They hold high positions in corporations and industry. They teach at top universities, or at least they have degrees from top universities. They publish widely read books and articles. They have all the formal qualifications, but that does not make one a creative genius. Academic and professional success are not indisputable signs of intellectual superiority.

Now, one might ask, what is the harm in having very smart, educated, successful people share a little bit of their knowledge and experience with the rest of the world?  It is entertaining, uplifting and at least a little bit educational, isn't it?

Obviously it is entertaining and uplifting.  The question I'm raising is about the educational content.  If I am right, then TED Talks systematically mislead people into putting their faith in the wrong hands.  They provide some informational content, but it is generally misleading.  TED says their goal is to spread ideas, though the one idea they seem to be spreading most of all is that TED speakers have the power to change the world for the better.  That idea is not based on fact.  It is a wish that the audience buys into.  And it is supported by the fact that the speakers are so successful.  The assumption that TED relies on is that, if you are successful, you are doing something right.

The loyal TED audience will defend TED Talks on the grounds that these are highly successful, intelligent individuals who have proven themselves in the workplace.  The ideas they are sharing must be valuable, because they come from the world of great intellectual and professional success.  And yet, it's all rhetoric, not dialectic.  The path these successful individuals are selling is the path which puts blind faith in highly successful individuals.  TED's audience believes in the speakers because they are told to, and because the speakers manipulate their emotions in fulfilling ways.  They are misled into thinking they have received knowledge which can make the world a better place. They are supported in their belief in the power of the individual to effect change.  They may therefore be motivated to work a bit harder at their job, or in their creative pursuits.  But what they are not motivated to do is think critically about their assumptions or engage with TED's ideas in a challenging way.  They are not motivated to challenge the speakers' points of view, or the social structures which put those speakers on the stage and give them authority in the first place.

Of course, many people who watch TED Talks do respond critically to them.  I'm not saying everyone who watches and likes TED Talks is incapable of critical thought.  I'm saying that the talks do not promote critical thought, and are not designed to.  They are designed to promote the one idea that TED champions:  the idea that the institutionally-sanctioned intellectual elite are making the world a better place.  Anything that challenges that idea is unwelcome.  And any manipulation of facts and emotions is welcome, so long as it promotes that one basic idea.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

TED Talks: Deb Roy's "The Birth Of A Word"

I've recently voiced the thesis that TED Talks are aimed at pseudo-intellectuals and promote a pseudo-intellectual culture.  They do not inform so much as they persuade people into following a cult of personality.  I'm not saying they aren't informative at all. They can be, but I think the information is generally misleading and at the expense of a particular, emotionally driven agenda.  However, I have not seen a majority of the many, many TED talks that are out there.  I don't want to jump to any conclusions, so I'm only offering this idea as a hypothesis.  To make a stronger argument about TED Talks in general, a lot more Talks would have to be analyzed.  (It is also important to look at how TED Talks are planned, organized and promoted, but I'll save that for another day).

I know some people who claim to watch TED Talks because they offer a brief, entertaining glimpse into the future of science and technology.  I question how accurate that glimpse really is, and if that is what really draws people to TED.  What they get, I think, is less information and more an emotionally rewarding, inspirational experience.  It is not surprising that presents their list of the 15 most popular TED Talks thus:

Feel like getting inspired, motivated or just looking for a feel-good cry? Then look no further. There's no better way to start your day than with a fresh cup of coffee and a nice TED talk to make you feel ready to take on your day. . . . we've rounded up 15 of the most inspirational, tear-jerking and downright beautiful TED talks out there. So sit back, relax and get ready to listen to some of the most courageous and fascinating people in the world.
My hypothesis is that the emotional rewards are really the point of TED Talks, and that the dissemination of information is ultimately misleading--and misleading in a systematic way, a way which reinforces the audience's belief in the power of creative individuals to effect social change.

I've only had time to watch one of the Talks on mashable's list:  Deb Roy's "The birth of a word."

I chose this one because the topic appealed to me. I did not know what to expect, and I was surprised at just how terrifying it was.  It fully supports my hypothesis:  the emotional appeal is very strong, while the information content is very misleading.

Deb Roy presents himself as a loving father who is proud of his home recordings--recordings, he assures us, which will be cherished by his son, and by his son's children, and on and on.  And he is proud to share them with the audience, too.  When the audience hears his son say "water" for the first time, they give Roy a round of applause.

Roy claims to have discovered new ways of thinking about language acquisition.  However, none of the ideas he mentions (feedback, social behaviour) are new.  He also makes the misleading claim that he has been able to isolate a linear verbal learning trajectory:  how his son learned to say "water."  However, all he has done is edited various sounds together to present the illusion of a learning trajectory.  There is no demonstration of any scientific discovery or advancement.  And yet, the audience breaks into applause when they finally hear the word, "water."  It is an emotionally satisfying moment which is apparently meant to sell the idea that some great scientific breakthrough is on the horizon.

The fact is, Roy's research into language acquisition has not yielded any actual results, and there are good reasons to think it will not.  The first problem is that his study's only subject is his son, so we cannot expect unbiased results which could be reliably generalized.  The second is that he is not observing language acquisition "in the wild," as he puts it, because he has transformed his house into a laboratory in which none of the participants (except the subject) are blind.  Third, any attempt to perform this kind of study "in the wild" would raise enormous privacy issues.

While Roy presents himself as a father who loves to share his home recordings, he does not mention any difficulties in balancing his roles as father and scientist.  But we have to pause and consider the fact that he and his wife have put the first years of their child's life under a microscope.  Their interactions with their child have been deliberately aimed at studying how he learns language.  It is no wonder that their child was an early language user, is it?  They have spoken to their child knowing it was being recorded for later analysis.  And they spent countless hours going over those recordings, studying them not as parents, but as scientists.  What kind of effects might this have on their relationship with their child, and on their child's development?  Will their son grow up happy to have this incomprehensible mountain of data from his childhood?  Will he really be so happy to share it with his children, as Roy supposes?  It is certainly possible, but I think one or two psychologists might be useful in making sure it turns out for the better.  I'm not jumping to any conclusions about anyone's parenting skills, mind you.  I am just pointing out the dangers of turning childhood into an experiment.  More importantly, I'm pointing out the fact that Roy does not point it out.  The audience is not invited to consider any of the dangers that might be associated with his research.  After all, that would detract from the emotional appeal.

Perhaps more than language acquisition, this talk is about data imaging.  In fact, there is virtually nothing on display in this talk except nifty data imaging techniques.  These pretty images sell the promise of new ways of understanding social data.  Roy does not present any new ways of understanding social data, but he acts as if he's made great discoveries.  He presents old ideas as if they were fresh off the vine; as if nobody knew that language acquisition was tied to social behavior; as if nobody knew that critics connected large audiences to entertainment content.

New technology is certainly making it much, much easier to manipulate and interpret vast amounts of social data.  While that is true, Roy wants us to believe that this is somehow going to make all our lives better.  Yet, he does not offer any evidence that any of this is going to improve anybody's lives.  Now that the world has recoiled in shock at Edward Snowden's revelations, people are much more aware of the dangers of this sort of technology.  But again, Roy does not even suggest the potential for any such danger.

An honest, well-rounded discussion of these topics would at least touch on the possible dangers and limitations of Roy's research and the tools he is championing.  It would not rely on emotional appeals to mislead the audience into thinking that all is well in the land of science and technology, and it would not misinform the audience about achievements and discoveries.  If the goal of TED Talks is to give an honest, well-rounded discussion of its topics, then this one is pretty bad.  However, if the goal is to give an emotionally satisfying, one-sided discussion which sells the idea that the creative genius can change society for the better, then this talk is stellar.  As propaganda, it works.  Unfortunately, it promotes pseudo-intellectualism by promoting a cult of personality in which the intellectual elite are worshiped without critical thought.

Further Reflections on "Gravity" [with Spoilers]

In my review of Alfonso Cuaron's film, Gravity, I offered an interpretation of the film's symbolism.  My main idea is that the film is an argument for personal religion.  There are several features of the film that strongly suggest this interpretation, and I didn't mention all of them in my last post.  Even though I didn't enjoy the film, I think it's worth analyzing to try to see how this message is communicated and also to consider how it might resonate with people without them consciously realizing what the message is about.

First, let's look at some things Cuaron has said about Gravity:

The film was a metaphor of rebirth; literally, at the end, she goes from a fetal position [earlier in the film, when she floats after undressing in the space station], then in the water [shot at Lake Powell, Arizona, with significant postproduction alterations to make it green and lush and butterfly-filled], to come out, crawl, go on her knees, and then stand on her two feet and walk again. You know, it was a bit polemic at some point with some people, with a kind of jaded, more mainstream thing, people saying, “But how do we know that she is going to be fine? How do we know that she is getting safely home? How do we know that she is not going to be kidnapped?” I said, “I don’t care, she is walking now!” I want to believe that if she survived what she survived … she’s equipped to deal with adversities. One film that I love that is in many ways a model — not all the time but many times, and by no means am I comparing the film to this film — but A Man Escaped by Robert Bresson. And that escape film becomes this film where the walls are the metaphysical walls.
There are three points I want to stress:  First, Cuaron set out to make a movie about a rebirth, which is a spiritual concept.  Second, the outcome of the rebirth is that the protagonist is now equipped to deal with adversity.  Third, the main obstacles facing the protagonist are metaphysical, not physical.  The protagonist's return to earth (to a grounded, upright position, tall against the sky) symbolizes the overcoming of metaphysical obstacles to find the necessary spiritual strength to be a successful and powerful individual. It is, in effect, a motivational film.  (That's mainly why I didn't enjoy it, incidentally.  I don't like motivational speakers.)  And it is motivational in a way that explicitly uses religious icons and ideas, including the idea of an afterlife.  This all supports my thesis, which is that the film is an argument for personal religion which romanticizes self-sufficiency and the power of personal determination.

The film opens with written words communicating the idea that life is impossible in space.  Space is the antagonist in this film.  It represents the spiritual emptiness that Ryan (Sandra Bullock) lives in after her four-year old daughter died.  As the film develops, we see many beautiful shots of Earth.  We don't see any shots of the moon or any beautiful, seductive shots of other celestial objects.  We hardly see any shots of events in space without Earth prominently featured in the background.  When we do see characters in space without Earth in the background, it is at key moments when the abyss is threatening to engulf them.

The only beautiful or safe object in space is Earth, though Earth never seems to be in space.  We never see any shots of Earth completely surrounded by space.  Earth seems bigger than space, which it pushes out of the screen.  In this movie, Earth is not really in space at all.  It is opposed to space.  It is teeming with life, love, beauty, warmth and comfort.  And yet, Ryan is incapable of recognizing or even acknowledging it.  Matt (George Clooney) mentions it several times, but Ryan never takes notice.  She prefers the quiet of empty space.  She prefers lifelessness.

As the story begins, Ryan is quickly characterized as a scientific genius.  She knows how to take care of her ship, one step ahead of ground control. And yet, she's not healthy.  She's weak and should probably not be working.  (Interestingly, her physical health never becomes an issue later, when she is struggling for survival.  Perhaps her physical ailment at the beginning of the story is just meant to give us a sense of her spiritual weakness.  Once she starts overcoming her metaphysical problems, her physical health is no longer a factor.)  She is so focused on her work, she doesn't want to stop until she's finished, even though she's been warned about incoming debris.  This suggests that she does not have her priorities straight, she's not practical-minded.  She's not, we might say, grounded.

Ryan is characterized in contrast to Matt, who is anything but engaged in his work.  He is enjoying a space joyride, trying to set a record for the longest spacewalk.  He is more interested in telling personal anecdotes, setting records and enjoying the view of Earth than he is in doing anything resembling scientific work. The only work he does in the film is help get Ryan focused on what she needs to do to survive.  He is a spiritual guide more than anything else.

When the debris finally hits and her struggle begins, Ryan's character is fully revealed:  She is incapable of acting.  She almost can't even breathe.  Matt guides her, makes decisions for her, stabilizes her a little, but her struggle is not merely to survive.  She is struggling to learn how to deal with adversity.  She is learning how to fight for her life.  When Matt is pulled away from her, we don't mourn his death.  It is not an emotionally devastating moment.  Matt isn't even upset about it.  All we feel is fear for Ryan, because now she's alone, with nobody to guide her.  And remember, as Cuaron said, her obstacles are not physical, they are metaphysical.   She is not just struggling for her life. She is finding a sense of joy in life, perhaps the fullest she has ever experienced.  Ultimately, she finds strength in the joyful thought of Matt and her daughter waiting for her in Heaven.

I am sure that not everyone who likes this story believes in an afterlife.  I imagine those who don't kind of wish they did, though.  And I'm betting they all believe in the power of religious belief to ground people, to help them overcome adversity, giving them the strength to take control of their lives.  That is the argument the film makes:  If you have the right spiritual attitude, if you overcome the metaphysical barriers which keep you empty, lifeless and alone, then you can be a powerful, strong, self-actualized individual.  It's an argument for individualism, but also for personal religion. Gravity is the force of your own spiritual strength which keeps you standing, ready to fight.  Earth is whatever metaphysical truth makes that possible, what many people call "God."

This is not all explicitly stated in the film, but it's all pretty clear.  As Cuaron says, " I think [the studios] have been jaded too much about the need [for audiences] to be reassured, and overexplained in things. Man, I give more credit for audiences."

Update:  Oh, and about the religious icons.  On the American ship, we see Marvin the Martian, an iconic cartoon character who is bent on destroying the Earth.  That could be a symbol of spiritual bankruptcy.  On the International Space Station, a Catholic icon.  On the Chinese Space Station, a Buddha.  Interesting trajectory:  from spiritual bankruptcy to Catholicism to Buddhism to . . . Earth.  Maybe there's no specific trajectory intended, but the use of the icons seems significant.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Gravity is about finding God

At, there's a review of the film Gravity that claims it's a "plea for science," but I think that reviewer is cherry-picking and ignoring important details.  There are some big clues that the movie is, in fact, a plea for religion.


In the middle of the film, Ryan (Sandra Bullock) complains that nobody has ever taught her how to pray.  Then she does pray (to her fallen comrade), hoping that her daughter is in Heaven waiting for her.  This is after she finds a renewed appreciation for life.  She is now ready to act, live or die.  A leap of faith.  And what does she say after she acts?  "I hate space."

The contrast between space and earth is always looming in this film.  While space is empty, desolate, lonely and meaningless, earth is warm, friendly, meaningful and hospitable.  Earth is always in the background, beautiful (as Ryan is often told, though she never acknowledges or notices it), but far away. Space is where Bullock resides, where she went after her daughter died.  Space is where she goes for quiet, away from humanity.  When she gets to her lowest and coldest, she is touched by a small dose of life and love (through a random radio connection).  She cries, but since she's never learned how to pray (as she explains), she gives up.  But then, somehow, she is awakened and she is inspired to take that leap of faith.  And so she prays and confidently expresses her disdain for space:  for being away from God.

Her leap of faith, her reaching out to God, leads her to earth--or, rather, to the pull of earth.  The film is called "Gravity," after all.  It is the force of gravity that ultimately saves her.  But she is saved only because she made a leap of faith.  We can equate the two:  her leap of faith brought her closer to God just as it brought her closer to earth.  Earth symbolizes God, and so gravity symbolizes religion.  The leap of faith brought her to religion, and thus to God; to gravity, and thus to earth.  This is even clearer when she finally gets to earth and says, to the ground, "Thank you."  Is she speaking to the earth or to God?  Or is she thanking gravity, religion, for grounding her?  Perhaps it is all of the above.  Through her thanks she finds the strength to stand.  And so the film ends, with her on her feet, grounded, standing tall against the sky--taller than ever before with religion to see her way forward.

One Catholic priest commented in response to that review:

As a Catholic I saw in the movie the Communion of Saints. In her darkest hour, she bemoans that she has no one to pray for her and that she didn't know how to pray for herself. Then she is visited by George Clooneys now dead character. Later she prays to Clooneys character to reach out to her child. And in the Russian craft there is an icon of St. Christopher (patron of travelers) carrying Jesus across a stream paralleling how Clooney carried her "across a dangerous passage." The final scene was both birth and baptism (which is a rebirth).
This makes sense to me.  I don't think the film is saying that God is everywhere.  I don't think the film is embracing science, exactly, either.  Science takes Ryan into space, away from God.  God is on earth, where mankind belongs.  So the film could be saying that science is dangerous, that science takes us away from our true path.

Anyway, I didn't like the movie.  I thought it was boring, annoying, disrespectful to basic physics and marred by bad, often hokey, dialogue. (The only really annoying thing that was disrespectful to physics, for me, was that there was nothing at all pulling George Clooney away from Bullock, and so there was no need for him to untether himself.)  It felt a lot like watching a motivational religious speaker, actually, but with much better special effects and cinematography. At least Sandra Bullock was believable. (Clooney, not so much.)

Also, I was offended by the way they characterized the different nationalities.  The American ship gets a Marvin the Martian.  The Russian ship gets a chess piece.  The Chinese, a ping pong paddle.  Talk about stereotypes!  Ping pong in space?  That would be entertaining to watch.  (And by the way, why was the computer on the Russian ship flashing the word "Fire"?  Don't they have a Russian word for that?)

But a lot of people think it's a great story.  That's probably because it is so enthusiastically motivational.  (Which reminds me how annoyed I was at how over-the-top the music and sound effects sometimes were, though they were occasionally quite effective).  It's all about overcoming great odds, finding faith, and doing it on your own, standing tall.  A very American story.

Update:  Here's a review from a Catholic publication that's worth checking out: Faith in Space: A Review of "Gravity".

Also check out my Further Reflections on "Gravity".

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Learning From History: Interpreting Godwin's Law

Godwin's Law seems as old as the Internet itself.  It's the principle that, given enough time, any online discussion will inevitably lead to some mention of Hitler or the Nazis.  Today, however, some people take Godwin's statement as a prescription:  Don't mention Hitler or Nazis in an online discussion (unless you're discussing something specifically to do with Hitler and the Nazis).

I recall once, a year or two ago, I made a comparison between Ayn Rand and the Nazis on a friend's Facebook wall.  I think the analogy was that Ayn Rand is to capitalism what the Nazis were to nationalism.  My point, which I made explicitly clear, was that you cannot criticize capitalism by criticizing Ayn Rand, just as you cannot criticize nationalism by criticizing the Nazis.  (Edit: Actually, I think I phrased it this way:  Defending capitalism by defending Ayn Rand is like defending nationalism by defending the Nazis.  But the point is the same.)  I think it's a fair point.  One could draw the analogy a little deeper:  Ayn Rand's version of capitalism is extreme, irrational and even sociopathic.  The Nazi's version of nationalism was also extreme, irrational and sociopathic.  That's probably about as far as the analogy goes, but I think it's a legitimate one.  However, somebody responded,  "Godwin violation," and my post was immediately deleted. The implication was that I had broken some rule of conduct, as if any mention of the Nazis was unacceptable.  Of course, the reality is that I did not violate Godwin's Law.  I helped confirm it!

What makes Godwin's Law worth our attention is the fact that people do sometimes use Nazi analogies to demonize people.  Nazi analogies are often not only intellectually bankrupt, but meant to provoke emotions instead of furthering understanding through civil debate.  And so we have a "law" that states what we've come to expect:  That the more irrational and heated a discussion gets, the more likely people will use Nazi analogies.  However, this does not mean that any and every use of Nazi analogies is irrational or intellectually bankrupt.  It does not mean we should be afraid to make comparisons to Nazis and Hitler.  And it does not mean we should criticize people just for making such analogies.

In my last post, I made a comparison between TED propaganda and Mein Kampf.  I was careful to give this some context.  As I explained in my post, I teach Nazi propaganda in a class and I compare it to other forms of propaganda.  I do not do this to demonize anybody, but to help my students understand propaganda and how it works.  In my post, I explained that I do not think TED is promoting dictatorship.  I think it was clear that I was not calling TED followers "Nazis."  I explained that I was just making the comparison because it has historical validity and it can help us better understand how TED propaganda works.  And yet, one of my Facebook friends said that I was woefully wrong for making the Nazi comparison, and that my post was "worthy of Godwin."

What I did not explain, but perhaps I should have, is that when I teach Nazi propaganda, I try to be as charitable as possible.  I do not try to demonize Hitler or the Nazis.  I try to instruct my students in the principle of charity, as well, to make them responsible interpreters.  Here's what I tell them (in writing) when we are analyzing Mein Kampf:

To be a responsible interpreter, we must also try to understand how the text was intended to be read. We are not reading the text in its original context, or even in its original language, but that should not stop us. Assuming the translation is accurate (or accurate enough), we should try to imagine how the original text might have been interpreted in Germany when Hitler rose to power. This means we have to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes. We have to empathize, to see and feel from somebody else’s point of view. It’s important to practice doing this, because it is not always easy to do—especially when the shoes we are trying to step into are ugly, uncomfortable or just the wrong size. But even then, we should try to wear the shoes as well as possible—what I mean is, we should try to be charitable.

The principle of charity states that, whenever we are reading or listening to a text, we should try to imagine that the person who is speaking (or writing) is as intelligent and reasonable as possible. We should not assume that they are stupid or crazy. We should try to give them the benefit of the doubt whenever possible, and try to interpret their words in the best way possible. We should not assume that anyone who liked the book was stupid, evil or ignorant. We should not assume that everybody who followed Hitler was crazy or irrational. That would be very uncharitable. The principle of charity says that we should do our very best—as hard as it may be—to think of how this book may have given an intelligent, reasonable and educated person something to believe in.
The principle of charity can be very difficult to apply, especially with a book like this. It is very easy to jump to conclusions and criticize people when they seem to be stupid or ignorant. It is hard to be charitable when we want to criticize a person or a group of people, and it is especially hard when we are talking about something as terrifying and terrible as war and genocide. However, we would not be responsible interpreters if we did not at least try. This does not mean we have to think that Hitler was right, or that anybody was right to follow him. It only means that we should not assume that Hitler and his followers were stupid, ignorant or crazy. If we approach the book with that kind of attitude, we will not learn very much at all. (We may finally decide that all Nazis were stupid, ignorant and/or crazy, but we should only come to that conclusion after eliminating every other possibility.)
I try to remember that people are sensitive to the topic, which is why I cushioned my comparison between TED and Mein Kampf  in so many ways.  But it seems that people still have the wrong idea about Godwin's Law.  They still think that any Nazi comparison is wrong just because it is a Nazi comparison, regardless of what validity the point might contain.  This attitude only cripples our ability to learn from history.

Sometimes mention of Hitler and the Nazis is offensive, irrational and intellectually bankrupt.  Sometimes it isn't. If we're going to learn from history, we have to learn to tell the difference.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

TED Propaganda and Pseudo-Intellectualism

Author Thomas Frank has written a critical commentary on TED and the literature of creativity.  His thesis is that the literature and TED are engaging in propaganda, selling their audience (identified as the professional-managerial class) the false idea that their own creativity is the source of their financial success and power.  I'm not convinced by Frank's argument, but I think there is something in what he is saying.  However, I also think he gets something very wrong.

I've been thinking a lot about propaganda lately, since I'm currently teaching it as part of my IB English: Language and Literature course.  In my class, we focus on Nazi propaganda (especially an extract from chapter three of Mein Kampf) and Walt Disney war propaganda cartoons from 1943, such as "Reason and Emotion."

As I explain to my students, the Mein Kampf extract and "Reason and Emotion" used many of the same rhetorical strategies (flattery and ridicule, in particular) in order to give their audiences hope and encourage loyalty.  Of course there were political ends.  In the case of Mein Kampf, it was support of the Nazi party and Hitler's dictatorship.  In the case of "Reason and Emotion," it was support of the war effort against Hitler.  In both cases, the propagada's stated purpose was to encourage people to think independently, with reason, and not to be led by their emotions or fooled by the press.  And yet, in both cases, the propaganda's actual message was that people should be led by particular emotions (patriotism in one case, nationalism in the other; and fear in both cases) and that those who did not support their side of the war were irrational, emotionally unstable, dangerous and, ultimately, manipulated by the press.  Both Mein Kampf and "Reason and Emotion" silenced whoever opposed their political aims.

Propaganda does not always silence the opposition, but it does always serve a particular social or political agenda.  According to Thomas Frank, TED talks and the literature on creativity have an economic agenda:  to prop up the professional-managerial class, to help them believe that their power and success is deserved and rooted in their own creativity.  The problem is, I don't think propaganda is generally about helping the powerful justify their own power to themselves. Power only needs to be justified to the people who don't have it.

I am not familiar with the popular literature on creativity, and Frank does not give enough details for me to discuss.  However, I have seen a number of TED talks (never in person, mind you) and I've always felt there was something phony and pandering about them.  Speaking only about TED, then, I think the draw is more a form of wish-fulfillment for pseudo-intellectuals. I presume the class of pseudo-intellectuals intersects a lot with the professional-managerial class, but I don't think the TED audience is limited to the professional-managerial class.  So here's my first thesis:  TED talks systematically give pseudo-intellectuals something to believe in: the power of the creative genius to bring about social change.

The audience is flattered into believing that they, too, are (or can be) part of the change: by appreciating and supporting x, y and z.  They are led to be able to talk about x, y and z only as a pseudo-intellectual, of course.  They are not able to offer a critical analysis of x, y and z, and they are not inclined to.  So they intuitively recognize that they are not the creative genius that they worship.  On the other hand, they are given license to celebrate in their own creativity, however limited it is.  (And if they realize they are not very creative at all, then they feel good in at least being able to recognize that they should be more creative.)  The audience feels special because they are given the chance to recognize and (to a limited extent) identify with such greatness, and support the change it heralds.

Hitler did something similar in Mein Kampf. He went on and on about the nobility and power of the creative genius. It was the need for such a leader, he said, which made dictatorship necessary.  I'm not saying TED is setting us up for a dictatorship.  That would be silly.  My main point in making the comparison to Mein Kampf is to show that this idea is not new.  The idea of the creative genius has a strong history of being used to manipulate people.  TED sells hope in the creative genius to people who are afraid they do not have power to effect change.  It gives people something to believe in--something far less dangerous than dictatorship, perhaps, but still something we should think critically about:  the role of the intellectual in society.

The American intellectual has a privileged position in American society, but it is a culture that values personality over rigor.  (I've commented on this previously with respect to Sam Harris, who has also pandered to pseudo-intellectuals with a TED talk.  See here and here.)  Intellectual honesty and integrity are sacrificed for the sake of cult.  The result is that the most successful public "intellectuals" are, in fact, pseudo-intellectuals.

I doubt that we could analyze TED talks and find a consistent set of economic or political values being espoused.  I rather think that TED promotes something else:  loyalty to the cult of personality which sustains America's pseudo-intellectual climate.

Also see:

Here are a couple more criticisms of TED that are worth checking out:  one, two.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Two Kinds Of Knowledge In Plato's Gorgias

Provoked by some Facebook posts by Jason Stanley (Yale) and an ensuing discussion with Jason and Michael Morris (Sussex), I've been arguing for a certain interpretation of Plato's distinction between medicine and cookery, or, more generally, between crafts and knacks.  By "crafts" we might take Plato to mean arts or skills, or perhaps even what today would be called "sciences."  The difficult question concerns what Plato means by "knacks," and whether or not they entail a particular kind of knowledge.

In Gorgias (463a), Socrates refers to knacks as parts of flattery, which he calls "the habit of a bold and ready wit, which knows how to manage mankind."  In another translation, flattery is defined as "a shrewd, gallant spirit which has a natural bent for clever dealing with mankind."  Both translations indicate that flattery entails knowledge: either it is knowledge how to manage mankind, or it is whatever knowledge is required for clever dealings with mankind.  (Cleverness is a variety of intelligence, and philosophers of my and Jason Stanley's ilk will argue that intelligence always entails knowledge.)  This is concrete and direct evidence that Plato thought flattery entailed knowledge.  While Jason Stanley does not think this passage is sufficient to prove that Plato thought knacks entailed knowledge, he has not attempted to give us an alternate reading of the passage.

Instead of countering my interpretation of 463a, Jason drew my attention to two other passages in Gorgias.  First, on page 464, Socrates says cookery (one part of flattery) "assumes the form of medicine, and pretends to know what foods are best for the body."  Clearly, then, cookery entails a certain ignorance.  Shortly before that, Socrates also says that flattery "divides herself" into parts (such as cookery) by mere speculation or guesswork, and not according to knowledge of her principles.  The implication is that flattery does not know the nature of her own principles.  Cookery, for example, does not proceed by a knowledge of reasons or principles, but by some other means.  Thus, I responded that while Plato is clearly drawing our attention to a lack of knowledge, it is not necessarily a lack of knowledge simpliciter.  It is rather a lack of knowledge of reasons/principles.  The implication is that knacks entail knowledge without knowledge of reasons/principles.

The same argument applies to the second passage Jason drew to my attention, on page 465.  Here Socrates says that flattery "aims at pleasure without any thought of the best. An art I do not call it, but only an experience, because it is unable to explain or to give a reason of the nature of its own applications. And I do not call any irrational thing an art."  In another translation, it reads: "it aims at the pleasant and ignores the best; and I say it is not an art, but a habitude, since it has no account to give of the real nature of the things it applies, and so cannot tell the cause of any of them. I refuse to give the name of art to anything that is irrational."  This is perfectly consistent with what I have already said:  flatteries, such as cookery, are ignorant of their reasons and principles, but attempt to please people through repetition of habits.  The learning and repetition of a habit surely entails knowledge.

However, Jason Stanley and Michael Morris are not convinced.  Their main point of contention has to do with how we should translate the Greek word "stochazetai," which is translated in the two versions above as "aims."  They prefer another translation (found in the Dodds version). Instead of flattery "aiming" at what is pleasant, they say flattery "guesses at" what is pleasant.  Perhaps that is a better translation, perhaps not.  I'm not convinced one way or the other.  (Michael's argument for "guesses at" is that it is consistent with the contrast Plato is drawing between knacks and knowledge; but this only begs the question, since I am questioning that any such contrast is being made.)  But it doesn't matter which translation we choose.  What matters is that both translations are consistent with my argument.

Flattery does not proceed according to knowledge of its ends.  It does not entail the application of reasons which could explain or justify its procedures.  And so, in a sense, cookery is ignorant of pleasure.  Cookery does not proceed by drawing conclusions about pleasure from reasons.  It does not pursue knowledge of pleasure at all.  It "guesses at" pleasure, but only in the sense that it hopes to produce pleasure without having reasons/principles which could explain or justify its procedure.  Thus, I wrote:

even if we do interpret it as "guesses at pleasure" or "guesses at what is pleasant," it still seems that knacks can entail a sort of knowledge. Namely, knowledge of how to carry out a habit which guesses at pleasure without knowing (from reasons) how to bring pleasure about. And Plato does repeatedly refer to knacks as habits, and as involving routine and recollection, and even "knowing how to manage mankind."
I see no evidence at all that Plato regards knacks (and flattery in general) as entailing a complete lack of knowledge.  The evidence rather suggests that knacks entail a lack of knowledge of a particular sort:  knowledge of reasons/principles which could explain/justify their procedures.

In my most recent comment to Jason, I strengthened my argument as follows:
a brief argument should make the case for my reading even more persuasive. Socrates notes that there is a difference between "having learned" and "having believed," and this is meant to illustrate the difference between knowledge and belief. Wouldn't Socrates allow that one can learn how to cook? If so, that implies that cooking entails knowledge. What makes it merely a knack, then, is in how the learning occurs: by repeating what has already been done. This is opposed to learning crafts: In crafts, learning occurs through instruction based on principles/reasons. So we have two kinds of knowledge: one involves mere habit, based on recollection; the other involves the application of reasons.