Friday, 22 April 2016

Why Trump is a Tyrant

One of the lessons the Classics teach us is that freedom is fragile. They show people an age where humanity flourished during systems of government that, for all their faults, guaranteed some basic rights and the chance for people to speak up against injustice and to dethrone tyrants. And then these free systems were destroyed from within. Frustrations with partisan bickering and selfishness led people to look for a "strongman" to set things right. For the Greek city states it was Philip of Macedon, and for the Romans it was Julius Caesar and thereafter Caeasar Augustus. For the Romans a nightmare of despots followed, with the likes of Nero and Caligula displaying some of the most depraved behavior ever shown by tyrants. Then, except for sporadic glimpses, there was no real widespread freedom over all the Western world for over 1700 years. The first democracies and republics were not killed: they committed suicide. This is what made John Adams warn: "Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide." This was the lesson John Adams took from the Classics.

Yet these societies did not go ignorantly into the long dark night of tyranny; nor, to their credit, did they do so without a fight. Demosthenes warned the Athenians and other Greek city states about Philip, and his Philipics are treasured today as masterpieces of rhetoric. The Athenians listened, although first when it was already too late, and took a brave last stance against the onset of tyranny. Similarly Cicero, in Rome, argued in his thirteen Philipics (inspired by Demosthenes) against Julius Caesar and Marcus Antonius. Although ultimately unsuccessful, his speeches survived and helped fuel the flame of liberty throughout generations until freedom could rise again with the American revolution. Cicero and Demosthenes were major influences for the American and French revolutionaries. I am not sure the concept of a democracy or a republic would have survived without them.

So what lesson can we learn from them now that we see tyranny and autocracy rearing its ugly head once more in Western democracies? Only this: "Beware of the tyrant!" Do not let your partisan bickering jeapordize the fragile freedoms you have. Do not let your short-sighted and selfish goals imperil the liberty of this and all future generations. Do not sell your vote and influence in order to let "our tyrant" win over "their tyrant." If there was one painful lesson the Romans had to learn, it was the "equality" of oppression and fear experienced by rich and poor under the terrible reign of the tyrants.

On this blog, I have sometimes lamented the erosion of both morality and liberties in Western societies, and yet the present moment makes me more indignant and troubled than I have ever been before about the state of particularly the constitutional republic of the United States of America. In Donald Trump, a large portion of their populace seem to outdo the Roman republic in selfishness and short-sightedness. Instead of settling for a Caesar Augustus after years of civil war they skip right to a Nero in times of peace!

The Roman emperors were not the high-culture snobs they are sometimes depicted as. A great many of them were base buffons, displaying and indulging in behavior that would shock even Hollywood, using their power to break every written and unwritten law, and take depravity to such absurd lengths that no honest man or woman could bear it. Nero was Donald Trump + power. If power can corrupt even good people, what will it do for someone who already brags about affairs with married women, runs strip-clubs, encourages violence, and promises he will commit war crimes and silence anyone who opposes him by changing the law? Tyranny, for the Greeks and Romans was not a form of government. Tyranny was a disease of the mind, a madness. The Roman historian Tacitus writes, "How truly the wisest of men used to assert that the souls of despots, if revealed, would show wounds and mutilations - weals left on the spirit, like lash-marks on a body, by cruelty, lust, and malevolence" (202).



You may say I am exhaggerating and that Trump could never become Nero because he is bound by the Constitution and checked by the Supreme Court and Congress. Besides, there is the public that voted for him and public opinion to keep him in check. I ask you, "What bonds can control a man that cannot even control himself?" He is a slave to his whims and desires, do you think such a person will be bound by law, morality, or bonds of trust? He who bought the Plaza Hotel to move his wife into its penthouse just so he could free up the penthouse of his casino for his mistress? The only limits that can check him are the limits of possibility, and I fear that a Trump presidency will reveal for everyone just how much power the Executive Branch of government has amassed in the past hundred years. The constitutional limits on the presidency were made to limit the damage a "Trump" could do, but for the past fifty years at least those limits have been loosened to better fit a president with the character of a saint. For all their excesses, neither Bush nor Obama have aspired to become tyrants. Pushed by their constituents they have strained the constitutional limits of presidential power, but they have never sought to consolidate that power.

Here is a brief list of what Trump the Tyrant could and possibly would do as president:
- Replace any leader of the military and any government agencies with stooges that are blindly loyal to Trump and do not hesitate to break any law to do his will. The CIA, Department of Justice, Department of Defense, and other departments as they currently run are impervious to oversight by Congress. Trump will then have a 3 million person strong army to do his bidding and punish his critics and enemies. If you thought the Obama IRS overstepped its authority, just wait for the Trump IRS, CIA, and Department of Justice.
- Threaten Supreme Court Judges to rule in his favor whenever he is challenged on executive overreach. His campaign is already threatening to put out the names and room numbers of Republican delegates at Cleveland who could possibly oppose his nomination to his rabid supporters who are not afraid of using violence. What would a "hint" like that do against the Supreme Court Judges? "Gee, Justice Thomas sure has a nice house. Would be a shame if anything were to happen to it." Especially when anyone who committed a crime in doing so would have the protection of the White House. Trump already offered to cover the legal bills for anyone who committed assault against protesters at his rallies.
- Threaten to use the power of his NSA spies against senators or representatives who oppose his legislative agenda. He has already threatened Speaker Ryan that "we'll get along, otherwise he'll have a price to pay." Speaker Ryan should, according to the Constitution, be almost as powerful as the president. The current situation and status of the Speaker just shows how far the US has fallen from that ideal.
- Wage war (against ANYONE he wants!) for 90 days. 90 days!!! Any liberal who felt smug about Eric Holder's unconstitutional defense of Obama's Drone War should choke on that grin as he realizes what potential powers he has helped bestow on a President Trump. And any conservative who has not bowed down to the altar of Trumpism and wants to maintain any right to voice a protest about potential abuses by the president should feel the call to act now. These powers mean that once Trump hits the White House EVERY single man, woman, and child on this planet is a potential target. American citizens are not exempt, because Holder made that legal. Children are not exempt, for Trump specifically said he would force the military to torture and kill the children of his enemies. For someone who takes every ounce of opposition to his will as a personal insult, that category of "enemies" and "terrorists" could expand to just about anyone. (Ask Michelle Fields, whom he has accused of being a potential terrorist)

He is someone who sees every power and authority as his leverage to crush those who oppose him, His Dad's Army of lawyers have sheltered him from the law his entire life. Imagine what he will do with the Department of Justice at his disposal. If you elect him, you just gave him the world's ultimate leverage. Nothing will then be able to stop him from doing whatever he pleases with whomever he pleases.

So, with the world open to his desires, the question would become: "What are the desires of this man?" His supporters freely admit and even applaud the fact that he would and could do all these things, but they justify it with statements such as this one by @larrysr19701: "Ive survived Obama's Tyranny, so far. Im sure Trump wont disappoint." I don't care how right-wing you are: If you believe Obama is the worst tyrant to have walked the Earth then you need to read a history book. Trump supporters seem to believe there is some kind of moral quality to this man that would somehow make up for the immorality he has bathed in throughout his almost 70 year long life. Let's look at some of the personality traits he has shown:

Suspicion
It is incredible how uncertain of himself this guy is. He has the confidence of a schoolyard bully who acts tough to hide the fact that he gets beaten at home. The protesters at his rallies, they are a personal danger to him, and encouraging his supporters to beat them up is just self-defense. He sees every opposition to him as evidence of a conspiracy; he sees every loss as evidence of fraud. Name one single state that Trump has graciously conceeded to an opponent. Iowa? "It must be fraud, that's why I didn't win." Utah? "Romney stabbed my back and Cruz cheated." Wisconsin? "The establishment and Cruz are in this together." Everyone is out to get Trump according to him. He is nasty to everyone and acts all surprised and innocent when there is any kind of response. But of course, as Trump is fond of saying, he's just a "counterpuncher." Someone else hits him, and he hits back twice as hard. Except, Cruz had no hand in the ad that caused Trump to attack Heidi Cruz and accuse Ted Cruz of adultery (without any evidence). Trump is likely to respond to a terrorist plot hatched in a Muslim suburb of Brussels with a nuclear strike against Belgium. And this guy takes ANY criticism as a veiled personal attack. Megyn Kelly asks a critical question, he goes after her personally. Michelle Fields asks for an apology from his campaign manager, and he labels her a liar and a terrorist. Any news outlet opposes his policies, and he labels them corrupt. This guy thinks he is so brilliant that any critic cannot be acting out of anything but bias and animosity. If in his young years his Dad's army of lawyers shielded him from accountability, now his army of devotees are shielding him from sanity. Imagine an army of intelligence agencies and soldiers shielding him from scrutiny, dedicated to take down his enemies.

Arrogance
From the beginning Trump never had any substance on policy or solutions. His main reason for running was an ego trip. To be able to have the bragging rights of "almost" becoming the most powerful man on Earth. His main argument for electing him continues to be his massive ego. Just read one of his tweets: "News tells of massive foreign criminal gangs in our largest cities. Only I can solve!" It doesn't matter what his policies or preferences are, as long as HE is in charge the decisions are bound to be good. He'll solve a 700 billion gap in Medicare and Social Security payments by clamping down on 3bn worth of "waste, fraud, and abuse." He'll make a gigantic wall along the Mexican border and make Mexico pay for it. He'll solve the Israel-Palestine conflict by "making a good deal." Any problem in the world, just sprinkle som magic "Trump" dust on it and the problem will fix itself. If ever there was a man who claimed to be a god.... Oh, he can get these things done, no mistake. But his cures will be worse than the original problem. He can make up the 700bn by labelling, at random, half of all Medicare and Social Security payments as "waste, fraud, and abuse." He can make Mexico pay for the wall by threatening war and annexing Baja California until they pay the wall as a ransom. He can solve the Israel-Palestine conflict by killing off 1/4 of Gaza, including the entire leadership of Hamas, Fatah, and the Palestinian Authority with all their families and extended families and "collateral damage." It really is amazing what you can get done if you don't let morals get in the way. Nazi Germany were particularly good at these kind of solutions. This is the kind of scorched-earth tactics Trump has lived by his entire business life. He has not studied up on any of the issues and gets his information from cable news (by his own admission). The fact that he can still consider himself fit for the hardest job on Earth tells volumes about the arrogance of this man.

Cruelty and savagery
Politics and real-estate business are blood sports, there is no doubt about it, but even in those venues Trump has earned a reputation for ruthlessness. As a business practice he breaks contracts and pays contractors just 90% of the sum agreed upon in the contract, hoping they will just take that sum and not sue, since that will cost them more. When anyone accuses him of fraud or abuse he responds by trying to destroy their lives. He even sued an author for 5 billion dollars for stating that Trump's fortune was worth 3 billion, instead of the 10 billion Trump claims it's worth. He is suing those who were defrauded by him in the Trump University scam for complaining. As a candidate, in the "job interview" stage of the process where people try to be their best, he has encouraged violence against protesters and Republican delegates, maligned non-rivals such as Megyn Kelly, Michelle Fields, Heidi Cruz, and a disabled reporter, and taken every cheap shot and ad hominem argument imaginable. In his personal life he cut vital medical care to a family member, a little boy with a dangerous neurological disease, because the boy's parents were in a dispute with him about his father's inheritance. The parents sued successfully, and the medical insurance was reinstated, but this clearly shows that no holds are barred against Trump's enemies. As a president he has already said he would torture and kill the wives and children of terrorists. He has applauded the tactics used by Putin to stifle dissent and the actions of the Chinese government during the Tianmen Square Massacre. If there is a low-road insult, a threat, or any use of force Trump can apply to impose his will and get away with it, he has demonstrated time and again that he can and will use it. Lord help us all if this man is ever given executive power and the sovereign immunity of a president.

Immorality and Avarice
One question I and a lot of people have been asking themselves: "Why in the world does Donald Trump want to be president?" He certainly has no desire for public service, as shown by the fact that he has never run for elected office even once. He clearly is uncomfortable discussing foreign policy or any kind of policy for that matter. As far as power and pleasure goes, is there no limit to his appetite for these things? Is there anything more a billionaire could wish for that his current sack of gold does not bestow upon him? If he ever achieves it, what will this guy do with ultimate power? My mind hesitates to go there, but it has to be clear to everyone what the consequences of electing him are likely to be. Bill Clinton was an adulterer, but he at least tried to keep a facade of decency. Contrast this with someone who brags about "sleeping with famous women" who are married and who runs strip clubs at his casinos. Imagine a mobster family taking over the White House and you would get the idea. He would turn the White House into a brothel. This would be the image portrayed to young men in America and throughout the world. This is the lesson: "Cheat, choose the low road, hit your opponent below the belt, use any advantage you have, and you too can become the leader of the free world some day." Make Chick Hicks the hero of Cars, make Gaston the hero of Beauty and the Beast, forget all that religion, philosophy, and civilization has taught man about morality and justice: "Might is right."

Immorality and avarice. These are the vices which a tyrant can exercise without restraint, and the very ability to do so constitute the lure and reward of tyranny. To have whatever one's eye lusts for, be it property, power, or people, this is the lure for the tyrant. The desire for absolute power would have little meaning for unscrupulous people if that power did not enable one to break all bonds which social position, morality, and laws would otherwise restrain. The Roman emperors would frequently display that power by taking the wives of men they had invited to the palace. Do not be surprised if Trump repeats as president the behavior he has bragged about as a billionaire. Remember the words of one of your Founding Fathers, John Adams:

"Those passions [vanity, pride, selfishness, ambition, and avarice] . . . when unchecked, produce the . . .  effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty. When clear prospects are opened before vanity, pride, avarice, or ambition, for their easy gratification, it is hard for the most considerate philosophers and the most conscientious moralists to resist the temptation." How much harder then for someone who has never resisted such temptations....

Turn around while there still is time! Do not elect "your tyrant" to beat "their tyrant" and recognize tyranny for what it is: madness. A tyrant is in your midst and wants to be at your head. Do not allow it!

The West has lived without tyrannies for so long that they cannot imagine anymore what it is like to live under one. Words like "tyrant" are thrown around and misused as soon as there is any new executive overreach. But tyranny, in its proper sense, has an entirely different scope. There is no private property in a tyranny, nor is anything sacred. There is nothing where anyone can say, "this is mine" or "this is private." What is there then to live or hope for?
As the Athenian Euripides writes:
"Why should one acquire wealth and livelihood
For his children, if the struggle is only to enrich the tyrant further?
Why keep his young daughters virtuously at home,
To be the sweet delight of tyrants?
I'd rather die than have my daughters wed by violence" (Woodruff 63).

 Cicero, who saw the death of the Roman Republic in his time sums it up like this in his The Republic: "As soon as a king takes the first step towards a more unjust regime, he at once becomes a tyrant. And that is the foulest and most repellent creature imaginable, and the most abhorrent to god and man alike. Although he has the outward appearance of a man, he outdoes the wildest beasts in the utter savagery of his behavior" (50).

I fear the American public will discover too late that their watered down public institutions and Constitution are woefully inadequate to meet the challenge of a tyrannical president. 

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Arguments and the Structure of Reality: A Beginner's Guide to Perelman, Part III

Well, this is my penultimate (second to last) post on Perelman's system of argumentation. The remaining are "arguments based on the structure of reality" and "arguments to establish a structure of reality."

Arguments Based on the Structure of Reality

These are different from the quasi-logical arguments in the sense that these do not deal with essential patterns of thought, but rather they deal with habitual patterns of thought. Some of these patterns may just be conventions of Western society and may not always be in operation in other cultures. Perelman describes these patterns as follows: “As soon as elements of reality are associated with each other in a recognized connection, it is possible to use this connection as the basis for an argumentation which allows us to pass from what is accepted to what we wish to have accepted” (81). Essentially, you find structures of reality that are already there (already accepted) and then apply them to a specific situation. As Kenneth Burke points out, these structures may only be "natural" in the sense that a path made through a field is natural. Nevertheless, as soon as that structure or path has been made it is there as a structure that can be used to pass from A to B.

Perelman divides these structures into two groups: liasons of succession and liasons of coexistence.
Liasons of succession show a kind of linear progression on the same level (of the same kind), 

  • whereas liasons of coexistence show relationships across different levels.
                                              
          










      As a matter of interest, these two structures may resemble the different structures of how men and women think. According to this psychologist, men think primarily in liasons of succession whereas women think primarily in liasons of coexistence.


     1. Liasons of succession (cause, effect, fact and consequence)
Perelman writes, “Having accepted the existence of correlations, natural laws, or the principle that the same causes produce the same effects, one is able to construct hypotheses within a given context and verify them with the appropriate inquiries” (82). In other words, as soon as we believe that we have identified a reliable mechanism or relationship between cause and effect, we can use that to make arguments about what causes what and what consequences a certain action would have. One of the most common uses of this is the pragmatic argument, which has become dominant in 21st century capitalism: "If it sells then it is a good product!"

-          The pragmatic argument = Evaluate a fact by its consequences

Perelman writes, “The pragmatic argument, which seems to reduce the value of a cause to that of its consequences, gives the impression that all values are of the same order. It is thus that the truth of an idea can, in pragmatism, only be judged by its effects, the failure of an enterprise or life likewise serving as a criterion of its irrationality or inauthenticity” (83). We call Steve Jobs a genius because he succeeded, but if he had failed then we may have called him a fool. One example of this argument can be seen below: 

A: This government program has been vindicated and has proven its worth beyond question. Through it, thousands have found employment, the deficit has been reduced, and valuable goods and services have been provided for the citizens of our country. (fact judged by consequences)

-          One can resist the pragmatic argument by questioning its application. A fact cannot always be evaluated by its consequences, and the post-hoc fallacy is an example of taking this too far (post hoc ergo propter hoc means "this followed that, therefore that caused this"). Correlation does not prove causation. As Perelman says, “How do we determine the indefinite chain of consequences that result from an action, and how are we to impute to a single cause the consequences that result most often from the concurrence of several events?” (83)

B: Just because some things happened at the same time does not mean that the one caused the other! Yes, people were hired during that time, but the economy in general had been recovering rapidly for several months before. The reduced deficit is a result of the economy rebounding, not this government program. As far as goods and services go, you have caused several food companies to lay off workers or go out of business because you provided for free what they sold and therefore destroyed their market.

One could use the same method against arguments that "Hitler led to the end of antisemitism, so we should thank him" or "pornography sells, so obviously it must be a good product," or "making drugs illegal has caused a lot of violence, therefore it is a bad idea to have drug laws." 

-          Means/end arguments of waste

Perelman writes that in this argument, “Means have only a relative value because they depend on the value accorded the end, which is considered to be independent” (85). This is a common thread in the "ends justify the means" argument, which is common in rationalizations of unethical behavior. However, on a smaller scale, we all do this: "I am sorry I yelled at you, but I was trying to save you from being hit by the truck!" Some common forms of the means/end argument are the arguments of waste, redundancy, and the decisive.  

Argument of waste: “The existence of an effective means allows us to realize a desire and gives the desire a stability sufficient to transform it into an end . . . To avoid wasting effort in attaining a certain end, a person will continue a project until it is completed . . . The action, which, under the circumstances, can attain its full bearing and should thus not be considered a waste, will thereby gain in value and this militates in favor of its being done” (87). This is a very prominent argument in science and technology, where the potential of a theory or technology provides an almost irresistible argument for pursuing it. The best pop-culture example of this may be Jurassic Park: "It is technically possible to make dinosaurs. Let's do it!"


Similar arguments are leading the development in bioengineering (after the discovery of the CRISPR gene editing technology) and robotics (despite warnings from Stephen Hawking and others about the potential dangers of autonomous warrior robots). 

It is a powerful argument because we as societies are addicted to "progress" and have seen how we have changed our societies and lifestyles by utilizing effective means to the fullest. We all use this kind of argument on a smaller scale. Here are some everyday examples:

“Your brother was never good at school, but how can you who have been blessed with such talent and intelligence not go to college?”

“Your mother and I have worked for twenty years to make it possible for you to go to school, so you better study and take this seriously.”

“How can we leave and give up now when we finally have a good chance to succeed?”

Device of Stages: This is a form of argumentation that leads a person through many intermediate stages from refusing an argument to accepting it. Perelman writes, “When the gap between the theses the audience accepts and those the speaker defends is too great to be overcome all at once, it is advisable to divide the difficulty and arrive at the same result gradually” (87). This of course is common to most education courses, where a student who cannot possibly understand or agree to an abstract or complex principle is gradually "indoctrinated" or learns the steps to do so. It can of course also be abused to make people gradually accept unethical behavior that they initially refuse since it goes against their principles. I think the quote on vice by Alexander Pope is very appropriate here:

“Vice is a monster of so frightful mien
As to be hated needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.”

This "device of stages" is also found in the EU directives on the process of naturalization, where the goal is to make conservative societies gradually accept homosexuality by saturation and making it the norm rather than the exception. Sales people often use this "trick" to get people to buy what they don't want through gradual assent to smaller propositions leading up to the final assent to the sales proposition.

Here is an example:
A: I could never kill someone.
B: Ok, I can understand that, you seem like someone with a general good will for people, who would never willingly hurt anyone.
A: I am.
B: Are there some people you care more for than others, somebody that you really love?
A: Yes, of course. My little sister for example.
B: And I assume you would do and have done a lot for her?
A: Yes.
B: Would you be willing to make sacrifices in your life if it could help her? For example, would you donate your blood if she needed it for an operation?
A: Yes, of course.
B: Would you lie if it could save her life?
A: Yes, I would.
B: What if you two were home alone, and someone broke into your house planning to murder your sister? You had a gun and could only stop him by shooting him? Would you pull the trigger?
A: And that would be the only way?
B: Yes, the only way to save her would be to pull that trigger. You already said you would be willing to sacrifice a lot to help her. So what if you have to sacrifice your aversion to killing in order to save her life?
A: Then I guess I would.
B: So what you are saying is that you could conceivably kill someone.
A: I guess….


Argument of direction is a tool one can use to resist the device of stages: Perelman writes that “foreseeing or anticipating future developments, oppose the first step, fearing that it will lead to a ‘slippery slope’ that will allow no stopping and end in total capitulation” (88). 

Here is an example:
B: Would you be willing to make sacrifices in your life if it could help her?
A: Stop, I can see where you are trying to take this. You are going to set it up so I feel selfish for not killing someone because then I am not sacrificing enough for my sister. You know what? I am not going to go there. I refuse to ever kill someone, period. There is always another way out. Your hypothetical scenarios aren’t realistic.

Argument of infinite development: This argument, often used in politics and science, professes to consider each realization in the given field only as a stage in an indefinite progression, usually towards some neverending quest for a utopia. 

Here is an example from the 1937 movie The Shape of Things to Come by H.G.Wells:
“Rest enough for the individual perhaps. Too much and too soon and we call it death. But for man, no rest and no ending. He must go on. Conquest beyond conquest. First this little planet with its whims and ways, and then all laws of mind and matter that restrain it. Then all the planets that are about it. And at last, out across the immensity of the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time, still he will be beginning.”



2.       Liasons of Coexistence (Connects realities on unequal levels)

Act/Person relationship. Do the actions define character or does the character define the action? Whether or not we agree that this is a good argument (sometimes we call it the ad hominem argument) it is always a factor that a person takes with him or her. Aristotle referred to the credibility a person has as his or her ethos
-          
      Ethos: “Past acts contribute to the good or bad reputation of the agent. The good name a person enjoys becomes a form of capital embodied in his person, an asset it is legitimate to use in case of need.” Also, it is in the context formed by the person that people interpret all his acts, attributing to him an intention that conforms to the idea they have of him” (93). One use of this "capital" is the argument from authority. 

Argument from authority: This argument is of interest only in the absence of demonstrable proof. Common criteria for establishing authority today are competence, tradition, antiquity, and universality. When we hear of a new discovery we first ask whether the researcher has competence to make and recognize such a discovery, and we often reject findings that seem to be going against the tradition of science or the established scientific truths. For example, many have rejected the possibility of the EmDrive working because it goes against the law of the conservation of energy. 

Here is an example of the argument from authority, which would work in contexts that accept these authorities:
“As Mother Theresa said, 'If you judge people, you have no time to love them.' We should be so full of Christ’s love that we would not have mind or time to judge other people because of their weaknesses.”

The main question here is the connection between a person and the acts performed by the person. 
-          Techniques to prevent the act from coloring the person or the person from coloring the act are techniques of severance and techniques of restraint.

Restraint: Here one may interpose time, or mention exceptional circumstances, an unusual state of mind, social surroundings, etc. "This was back in his college days," or "this was at a time of national shock," or "that is how everyone he surrounded himself with thought about the issue in those days."

These categories are not exhaustive nor are they always applicable. Perelman writes that “the categories developed in the humanities . . . are constructions of the mind, tied to a distinction between what is essential and what is accessory, accidental, or negligible” (100). It is often said that they are more useful than true, which means that they do not claim universality. 

3.       Double Hierarchies: This is another liason of coexistence. In this argument, the relationship between two terms in one hierarchy are judged by another hierarchy. We often talk of how there is a constitution behind the Constitution or a structure of divine or moral law that directs and gives validity to common law. Many things in our language and in our societies depend on a second hierarchy to give it meaning and legitimacy. This is often used in poetry and fiction. 

For example:
“After the grey, cold, and naked buildings of the industrial district it was refreshing to see the rich colors of the Lake District with its abundance of life and beautiful scenery” (describes scenery in terms of the rich-poor social hierarchy)

“Oh, I know that everyone needs work, clothes, and food and such. But I wish we could talk about other things too, since man does not live by bread and water alone. The spirit or soul of man also needs nourishing you know” (needs discussed in terms of the body/soul hierarchy).

Here is a powerful example from The Great Debaters where James Farmer uses a double hierarchy of divine law/common law to argue that unjust law is no law at all. (6:49-10:00)


As mentioned before, all these arguments rely on habitual structures of the mind, but I believe a good argument could be made that they work so well because they make use of structures that have served us well individually in a lot of decisions that we have made.

PS: Can you figure out which argumentation method I just used?

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

A Beginner's Guide to Perelman's Quasi-Logical Arguments: Part II

As mentioned in the last post, this is a beginner's introduction to Perelman. Hopefully, reading these posts is easier than reading his books. The arguments in the last post were all related to the principles of consistency and identity. The following arguments continue in the same strain, but it may be easier to think of them as dealing with relationships and comparisons between events or identities. Here we go:

1.       Reciprocity and the Rule of Justice



Is it justice of Germany to refuse debt relief to Greece when the country was itself given debt relief by Greece in 1953? Is this a case where "one good turn deserves another"? These are questions of whether or not we can equate or identify two situations with each other.

As Perelman writes, “In practice, the problem is to know in what case it is rational or just to treat in the same way two beings or situations which differ but which can be likened to each other. It is thus a question of partial, not complete identification, which is justified by the fact that the differences are considered negligible but the likeness essential. What is or is not essential depends upon the desired end” (65). Two methods of argumentation depend essentially upon this reasoning: the rule of justice, and reciprocity.

-          Rule of justice = “Beings in the same essential category should be treated in the same way” (66).

It is considered inconsistent or evidence of bias if we treat people who are essentially the same, differently. This is the central argument of discrimination or bigotry. A bigot is defined as "a person who strongly and unfairly dislikes other people, ideas, etc." The defining question here is not the strength of dislike, but rather whether or not the dislike is "fair." The central argument over same-sex marriage is not whether or not there is any difference between a man and a woman getting married or a man and another man. I don't think anybody would claim there was no difference. The question is whether or not there is any essential difference between the two. Defenders of the unique position of heterosexual marriages do not claim that they don't treat the two differently, but rather that they do so for good reasons, fairly, because they see an essential difference between the two arrangements.

This tension is pretty well illustrated in the two meanings of the word "discriminate." It can mean either 1. to unfairly treat a person or group of people differently from other people or groups, or
2, to notice and understand that one thing is different from another thing : to recognize a difference between things. Discrimination has become a devil term in modern times (a term which carries a strong negative emotional connotation), but it essentially means that one is able to recognize difference. Who decides whether you are doing definition 1 or definition 2 of the word? Again, it depends on whether the different treatment is "unfair" or unjustified, Is the different treatment based on warranted essential differences between the two things, or is it based on unwarranted, irrational bias and dislike? If you do definition 1 then you break what Perelman calls "the rule of justice."

The rule of justice is the lever that people can use to point out hypocrisy and injustice. Here, the former slave Sojourner Truth uses it to great effect against a white priest who claims that women should not work because they should not have to work:  

“That man over there says women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And arn’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed, and planted , and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And arn’t I woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And arn’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen them most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And aren’t I a woman?” (Sojourner Truth).

But the argument is not irrefutable. For example, take a look at the argument about German debt relief in 1953: because of the elapsed time between there is no lack of arguments people can use to show that the two situations are essentially different and so the rule of justice does not apply. This brings us to the first potential criticism one can use to counter an argument based on the rule of justice and precedent:

- The problem of the assimilation of two essentially different situations.

For example, no matter how corrupt the Greek governments were when they accumulated the huge unsustainable debt loads, these debts were incurred by democratically elected governments from both sides of the political aisle over many years. How can one possibly compare that to the debt incurred by Hitler's totalitarian regime and the damages caused by WWII? I, for one, do not agree that the German people as a whole can be held as accountable for that monetary debt as the Greek people can be for their debt. As for the larger responsibility for WWII and all that it encompassed, the Germans are carrying that debt as a debt of shame, even though the Great Depression, the Versailles Treaty, and the international sentiments that furthered the rise of Fascism make it as much an international accident as the willful act of a nation.

The standard refutation of the rule of justice is "you are mixing apples and oranges." Here is an example of an argument I heard on the radio in the US about protecting life for some and not for others: “You are saying that I am unjust because I am pro-life and yet I am not opposed to the death penalty. You are trying to compare apples and oranges! That little baby has done no harm to anyone. She hasn’t even had a chance to see if she is going to become a decent human being. That is different from wanting to see a pedophile killer who has raped and murdered little children die for his crimes. He has had his chance in life and he chose to waste it and commit offenses which are worthy of death. I protect the life of the innocent, not the guilty.” (Criticizes one category and suggests its replacement with another more essential category)

-          Second criticism: The treatment accorded two situations that are equated with each other.

This is essentially an attempt to show that there is an essential difference, and that our behavior already implicitly recognizes that difference. Here is an example refuting the "all men are equal" thesis:
“We say all men are equal, but if we really believe that then why is there a 1st class option on airplanes? Why are there luxury goods and low-prince goods? Why do only some of us go shopping at Walmart while others go to Whole Foods or Trader Joe? Clearly we are not treated as equal, so why do we go on pretending that we are equal and that class and race doesn’t matter?”

Here another example from the movie Lincoln where Thaddeus Stevens uses this same objection to argue that all are not created equal:


-          Argument of reciprocity (equates two beings or situations).

The argument of reciprocity is very similar to the rule of justice, but the focus is a little different. Whereas the rule of justice states simply that "all who are the same should be treated the same," the argument of reciprocity is more of a two-way relationship, requiring that all which applies to, for example your interlocutor, should also apply to you. For example, it is hypocritical in a discussion to expect your interlocutor to be open-minded and willing to change their mind if you are not. Likewise, one could use the example of Germany and Greece and say that "one good turn deserves another: Greece forgave Germany's debts and now it is Germany's turn to forgive Greece's debts." This argument is implicit in most equal relationships, and it is therefore a resource that an arguer can turn to when arguing that this kind of dealing with one another is just. Some examples:

“I helped you when you were in trouble, so help me now when I am the one who has the same problem that you had before.”

“Germans cannot complain about the fire-bombing of Dresden when they themselves did the same in Coventry and London and indeed did worse with the Holocaust and the Russian campaign.”

Of course, this argument also is not irrefutable. The basic requirement for this argument to work is that there is a certain symmetry between the current situation and a former one. Thus, the first method of refuting this argument is

-          Show inapplicability by showing that the symmetry is only apparent

Yes, these two situations or beings look the same, but there are significant differences between the two which warrant different behavior:

“Yes, we were both in debt, but I owed 1000 dollars, whereas you owe 100,000 dollars. These two situations are qualitatively and quantitatively different.”


2.       Arguments of Transitivity, Inclusion, and Division

This class of arguments build on a kind of "geometric thinking" that is common for certain proofs in formal logic. Transitivity is essentially the postulate of the equilateral triangle, and inclusion and division has to do with the comparison of different geometrical bodies and their relationship to one another.

-          Transitivity (if a relationship exists between A and B and B and C, then the same relationship exists between A and C).
The idea of transitivity is that a consistent relationship in two links can help predict what the relationship will be in the third link. Of course, real life is seldom as simple or straightforward as that. A common argument using this form is, “Any friend of John’s is a friend of mine.” The idea is that of Euclid's geometry: "Things that are equal to the same thing are equal to each other." Here is a clip from Lincoln where he uses transitivity to argue for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment and equality before the law.


We see some looser versions of this thinking in common arguments:

“My enemy’s enemy is my friend. Anyone willing to fight against Hitler is our ally.”

“If justice is more important than advantage, and love is more important than justice, then surely love must be more important than advantage.”

"If we are equal before the law then we are equal indeed."

Of course, as with the argument of "any friend of John," one need only show that these relationships are not 100% the same to undermine this argument. "Yes, John may be such a good person that I can trust anyone that he would trust, but friendship is more than trust." Or, "Stalin may be Hitler's enemy, but he is not our friend, though he may for a time be our ally." 

-          Inclusion of part in the whole

The essential aspect of the argument of inclusion is that something which is a part of a larger category belongs to or is subservient to that category, principle, or body. This is the core of arguments of patriotism, family, basically any kind of communal identity or cause that is given a higher status than the individual or smaller category. The core of patriotic arguments may be describes thus: “A nation is greater and more than just the sum of the people who live in it, therefore sometimes the people who live in the nation must be sacrificed for the good of the nation." Look for example at this quote from Thomas Jefferson:

"What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it's natural manure."

Or this quote from John Adams as he argues for passing the Declaration of Independence:

"If it be the pleasure of Heaven that my country shall require the poor offering of my life, the victim shall be ready…. But while I do live, let me have a country, or at least the hope of a country, and that a free country.

“But whatever may be our fate, be assured…that this Declaration will stand. It may cost treasure, and it may cost blood, but it will stand and it will richly compensate for both.

Through the thick gloom of the present, I see the brightness of the future as the sun in heaven. We shall make this a glorious, an immortal day. When we are in our graves, our children will honor it. They will celebrate it with thanksgiving, with festivity, with bonfires, and illuminations. . . .

Before God, I believe the hour is come. My judgment approves this measure, and my whole heart is in it. All that I have, and all that I am, and all that I hope, in this life, I am now ready here to stake upon it; and I leave off as I began, that live or die, survive or perish, I am for the Declaration. It is my living sentiment, and by the blessing of God it shall be my dying sentiment. Independence now, and Independence forever."

Here we see John Adams subordinating himself and his life to the greater goal of a free country, the Declaration, and a glorious future that will make the trials of the present seem but a trifle in comparison.

The rebuttal for such reasoning is one that may easily seem less noble, since it cannot claim the same degree of unselfishness and self-sacrifice that we are naturally drawn to as moral creatures. Yet, it can be effective.

-          Questioning inclusion can happen by showing the presence of the present and actual over the larger concept.

An argument in this strain could say, “What is a nation? It is an abstract concept, a gigantic myth, it is unreal. What is real is that we have each other and care for each other. Let the big men and masses have their war. I just want to live.” Bobby Darrin invokes such an argument in his "Simple Song of Freedom" to defuse the patriotic war rhetoric of the 1960s.


Mr. John Dickinson famously invoked this kind of rhetoric to defuse John Adams' rhetoric and sabotage the passing of the Declaration of Independence. Though we do not have his exact words, this is what the summary record mentions (you can probably imagine how he said it):

"The War will be carried on with more Severity. The Burning of Towns, the Setting Loose of Indians on our Frontiers, has Not yet been done. Boston might have been burnt to the ground."

-          Argument by division (includes dilemma and arguments a pari and a contrario).

This argument is got by dividing a topic, body, or situation in different ways, and thereby gaining a certain effect of perspective. When it comes to concepts and categories, can choose where to divide something, so the division is also a choice rather than something set in stone. Dividing into two pieces invites antagonism, whereas dividing into many pieces invites diffusion. Observe the difference between "If you are not with us then you are against us," and "You may support us directly, or morally, or remain neutral, or disagree with us, or actively oppose us." One directs towards clear action, while the second diffuses action since the possible relationships are harder to grasp.

A common use of antagonistic thinking is the argument of dilemma. Dilemma is where two unpleasant options are presented and we have to choose the best (or lesser evil) of them. For example,

“There is no ignoring ISIS. We can either fight them now when they are still disorganized and scattered, or we can encounter them later as a consolidated power with terror cells established in every Western nation.” (aims to force a decision)

Observe the argument of division in this polemical political ad that builds such a strong us vs. them picture of the world that you think it's the terrorists themselves that are building a mosque in New York!

Closely related are arguments  a pari and a contrario. Comparing one species to the other and saying they should be treated the same (a pari) or differently (a contrario). For example, Cicero writes, "However one defines Man, the same definition is true for all of us." (argument a pari). In another place he writes, "You wish to keep all citizens safe, even when those citizens are a danger to the Republic?" (argument a contrario). 

3.       Weights and Measure, and Probabilities. These are arguments about the important and the probable, which are notoriously subjective categories. We often use these methods when we make arguments of comparison that are assumed to have an arguable basis. Of course, the choice of comparison assigns the weights.

When we compare two things, we automatically place them in a hierarchy relative to each other. One is placed higher whereas the other is devalued. The effect of comparisons is often more to impress than to inform. Here is an example:

“Everything was better before. You could expect people to be decent and care about each other. Now, we hardly even see each other as we walk down the streets with our heads in our iPhones.

A weight one can use is called "Argument of sacrifice." In the absence of an objective standard, things are judged only by the value people attach to them. For example, 

“We don’t know what the purpose of the Stonehenge was, but we can tell from the effort it took to bring these stones all the way here that this was important for whoever built this.”

or

“We have come too far, we have sacrificed too much to give up now.”

-          Probability (final category)

When we talk of arguments of probability, we are not necessarily referring to the use of statistics. Rather, we use certain patterns of expectation that come from human experience and help us assign preference and probability. For example, we prefer many rather than few options, certainty over uncertainty, the known over the unknown. You may hear advice to take a certain kind of education because "then you leave more options open to you." All those options may be wrong, but we generally think that the sheer number of options available increases the chance of making a good choice. The same goes for valuing the certain over the uncertain. Before the Challenger launch, this argument was made on this basis:

“So there may be some risk of losing a flight if we launch, but there is certainty of losing money if we delay the launch.”

This tendency is also why we value metrics so much, and why we often make the measurable important rather than making the important measurable. It feels good to have something we can be more certain of in our hands.

Perelman adds a warning to these arguments of probability:

“All these techniques presupposed the reduction of a problem to only one of its aspects, noncalculable but capable of evaluation in terms of frequency. But this reduction can lead to the disregard of other possible essential aspects” (80).

Monday, 20 April 2015

Philosophical Rhetoric: A Beginner's Guide to Perelman's Quasi-Logical Arguments, Part I

When I first read The New Rhetoric by Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, and later The Realm of Rhetoric by just Perelman, I was struck by how elegantly these books describe the kind of arguments that are being used all around us. The second realization, was that this system, for different reasons, is often not used in areas where they could provide the most help. Part of the problem is that these books are sometimes seen as difficult or inaccessible.

Therefore, I have tried to make a "beginner's guide" to the system Perelman describes in The Realm of Rhetoric, beginning with his classification of what he calls "quasi-logical arguments."

Quasi-Logical Arguments
As far as I can tell, he calls them quasi-logical because they resemble formal logic, but are not as restrictive. More than anything, what we are dealing with here seem to be essential patterns of thought when we try to deal with a concept in some way (53). Perelman had a background in formal logic as an analytical philosopher, but he found that system to be too restrictive (for example, there was no way in that system to argue about what the meaning of justice should be). These, loosely defined, are "logical" patterns of thought that still do not pass the over-rigid test of formal logic. The point is that Perelman saw these as valid methods of reasoning, and felt it would be a mistake to overlook their effect just because of an over-rigid definition of logic.

1. Contradiction and Incompatibility
In formal logic, as in math, you can prove a system to be nonsense if you can find a contradiction in the system. This is not the case in general argumentation. In argumentation, as in life, one can allow for nuances which show that it is just an apparent contradiction rather than a real one (54).

In real life, what we really experience are not contradictions but incompatibilities which force us to choose in a conflict which rule will be followed. It is the fear of ridicule or disrepute which makes us try to avoid incompatibilities in our statements, and which makes us try to resolve them once they appear (55). The standard example, may be the charge made in the 2004 election that "John Kerry is a flip-flopper." This historical campaign ad shows how incompatibilities can be exploited to invoke ridicule against an opponent.


A version of arguments of incompatibility on stereoids is called "autophagia." An autophagia is when a rule is incompatible with the conditions or consequences of its assertion or application. If you prove that this is the case you retort the former argument.

Here are some prominent examples of how retorts have been formulated by pointing out autophagia:

Positivists famously have stated that, “To be meaningful, a proposition must be either analytical or empirical.” This claim was made by A. J. Ayer and many other prominent positivists. To this a critic can simply respond (and many have): “Was that statement you just made analytical or empirical?” Ayer's statement is a statement of definition or preference, but there is nothing analytically or empirically verifiable about the term "meaningful proposition" that gives it the meaning Ayer is endowing it with. In other words, Ayer is himself breaking the rule that he wants everybody else to follow! The very assertion of a rule of preference violates his rule against assertions of preference.

Similarly, the postmodernist may claim, "I have just discovered that all knowledge is subjective and everyone just sees what they want to see." But the critic can answer, "If all knowledge is subjective, how can you make a claim to know what everyone else sees? And how could you discover anything? Aren’t you also just seeing what you want to see? Perhaps only your knowledge is subjective." The claim that "all knowledge is relative" requires a perspective that is able to view knowledge somehow from the outside, from an objective vantage point. The philosopher Ray Bhaskar has argued for example that in order to even consider such a point as Thomas Kuhn's "incommensurability," you automatically imply the existence of an objective reality outside of the incommensurable theories of science.

Here are a few simple examples you may have heard:
A: Communication is impossible
B: Then why are you talking?

A: I’m not talking to you!
B: You just did.

Philosophers love to use this method to "catch" others in faulty thinking. This sketch illustrates the principle of autophagia in philosophic rhetoric:



So how does one solve an apparent incompatibility? Perelman mentions a few common strategies, though I am sure there are more.

- Escape from contradiction comes by interposing time

We recognize that the world is in flux, and so are our beliefs, values, and perspectives. Therefore, by interposing time we can show two incompatible statements to actually be compatible with a changing world and people who develop and grow. We constantly hear that the views of politicians "have evolved." That is an attempt at explaining apparent incompatibility by interposing time. Here are a few more examples:

A: You said that we didn’t have to worry about Russia, but now you say we do have to worry?
B: Well, back in 1994 we didn’t! Things have changed.

A: You said that Germany is the most evil country in the world, and now you praise them?
B: Yes, but that was during the Second World War. It is a totally different country now.

- Insist on the situated nature of the decision

We are human enough to realize that people make different situations when they are differently situated. The situation looks different on the ground than it does from space, we excuse a colleague who is frustrated on the day after his mother died, we condone some criminal actions perpetrated under situations of intense stress or fear. This is why insisting on the situated nature of a decision can be effective. Some examples:

A: Do you agree with what this platoon leader did?
B: I leave to the soldier on the ground to decide what action the situation requires.

A: You claim that you believe in law and order, but in 1998 you pardoned a murderer.
B: It was a young boy who saw his friend get beat half to death in front of him. In that situation I did not feel the mandatory sentence fit the crime.

- Hide the incompatibility

Of course, this is the least robust method, since all it takes for it to fail is someone to find the incompatibility and point it out. Still, if the incompatibility can remain hidden then one may never have to deal with it. All political parties are a walking incompatibility since they try to be a home for people with very different beliefs, personalities, and statements. We ourselves are walking incompatibilites since we have all done things that another part of ourselves would never do. Millions are spent every year to hid information that would expose incompatibilites about candidates, parties, companies, etc. But once this effort is exposed, the result is devastating. Nothing is more glaring than a lie to cover a lie.

2. Definition and Analysis
To give a name to something is actually an argument. That is clear in the example of “He is a RINO (Republican in name only),” but less clear in statements like “a human is a rational animal” or “this was an accident” or even “I am a student.” Still, these are arguments, not simply statements of fact. This is the case because a definition chooses some aspects and leaves out others. Yes, the person may be a student, but what he studies may be how to break into people’s cars. It is because terms are not defined once and for all that we have to make an argument for them.

For example, “Equality does not mean that there is no difference between people, nor does it mean that we should not treat people differently based on our relationship with them. How could we? Equality rather has to do with a fundamental respect for people, and that before we know anything else about them we see them as being just as deserving of that fundamental respect as we are.” This is one definition of equality. There are other definitions, some that seek economic metrics for it, others that are more philosophical. Still, the nature of the word "equality" means that anytime people are talking about it they are implicitly making an argument for what the word means or should mean.
As Perelman writes, “Every time an idea can be defined in more than one way, ‘to define’ comes to mean to make a choice” (62).

For example, Jeb Bush said that illegal immigrants/undocumented immigrants (whichever term you prefer) bringing their kids illegally to USA constituted "an act of love." That is one definition of the act. The video below is making an argument of definition to oppose that definition and replace it with its own.



- Analysis

Perelman writes that, “All analysis is directional, for it aims to make certain expressions interchangeable by leading the audience toward conceptions that conform to what the speaker has in mind and by setting aside what different interpretations another person might want to give to the statements being analyzed” (63). By making definitions we make some arguments, but the interpretation of the implications of those definitions are also arguments. Bertrand Russel wanted to claim that statements had an implied fact content, but Perelman argues that Russel is very selective in choosing exactly what implied fact content he claims the statement has in real life. Indeed, the very question of fact content does not come up in the statement itself before Russel discusses it. Just because someone says "the King of France" does not mean that France necessarily has or had a king. A statement doesn't have to have any factual correlation to the real world, as Russel claims it does. I might just as well have said "the King of Goose Egg." So when someone says they are only "doing analysis" remember that they are actually "making an argument for what this should mean." Here are two examples "analyzing" the same situation based on two definitions of the same population:

A: We are a nation of laws and do not reward lawbreakers. Illegal aliens have broken laws and are therefore criminals. If we reward people who break the law then we by implication make the law something that does not matter. It is an invitation to lawlessness. (analysis of term illegal alien)

B: We are a nation of people and we treat people as people, not like animals. Undocumented immigrants are people just like us, since we are a nation of immigrants. The only difference between them and us is a piece of paper. If we remove that disparity, we can restore them to the dignity that humans deserve. (analysis of term undocumented immigrant).

Arguments of incompatibility and definition work because of basic and almost universal patterns of human thought. Most people yearn for consistency (which is why incompatibilities are so frustrating and confusing) and for a clear concept of identity (which is why definitions are so powerful). These desires may be but symptoms of our overarching desire for order. Consistency and stable identities make our world more manageable, and we trust what we can easily comprehend. As John Dewey writes in Art as Experience:

"Order cannot but be admirable in a world constantly threatened with disorder—in a world where living creatures can go on living only by taking advantage of whatever order exists about them, incorporating it into themselves. In a world like ours, every living creature that attains sensibility welcomes order with a response of harmonious feeling whenever it finds a congruous order about it" (13).

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Can Neuroscience Make You A Great Leader?

"Take much of what you have heard about how the best executives make decisions. Now, forget it." This is how The Wall Street Journal hails the new findings from neuroscience in their article "Inside the Executive Brain" by Andrew Blackman. Neuroscientists have revolutionized what we know about good decision making (according to the neuroscientists themselves anyway). So let's take a look at what these people have found and want to teach, and how they want to teach it. Are they really discovering new things or are they just reinventing the wheel? What have they discovered and what may they have missed?

Lesson 1: Deadlines can make people less creative. Pardon me, but this isn't really brain science is it? Oh, right, it is. Is anyone really surprised when they hear that people aren't the best at thinking outside the box when they are stressed and just have to get something done? At least for my wife and me, that is when we hit survival mode where we just have to get it done in the simplest way possible. Mistakes are made in such situations. According to Blackman, "Richard Boyatzis - along with another colleague Anthony Jack and others - has found that a tight deadline increases people's urgency and stress levels" (R1). Really? Wow, I never would have guessed that. Seriously, you needed to use "sophisticated machines to map what's going on inside the brain" in order to figure that out? I don't even want to know how much that study cost.


Anyway, the part of the brain that is activated is the "task positive network" which works on problem solving but does not come up with original ideas. Who knew? "The research shows us that the more stressful a deadline is, the less open you are to other ways of approaching the problem." Yes, that's when I shut all the windows, close myself to everyone, and just attempt to barrel through the problem. It leads to people not even seeing the box they are thinking inside. The solution, they say, is to teach employees to meditate more, which some were able to do before the whole tyranny of deadlines was imposed in the first place...oh well.

Lesson 2: Fear and anxiety lead to bad decisions. Wow, didn't see that one coming. Evidently, people who live in fear of losing their job or company tend to expect the worst and act accordingly, thereby often self-sabotaging or avoiding opportunities which may have saved them. Well, here's my comment:


Seriously though, is this really news to anyone but Wall Street Journal? Anyway, Srini Pillay, founder of the coaching firm Neurobusiness Group says the answer is not to avoid fear and anxiety, since they are apparently inevitable in modern workplaces. "The solution lies not in trying to avoid it, but in learning to accept it. It is important to be aware that your response is likely to be an exhaggeration." In other words: EMBRACE YOUR FEARS! 

Though he mentions that "consciously countering it by reframing an issue in more positive terms, can also be effective." (Instead of calling it a market meltdown, think about calling it a market waterfall! Ooh, I feel all warm and fuzzy inside now ;)

Lesson 3: Good leaders look past facts and lean more on emotions and intuition than logic. Ok, here I am actually learning something, although I am not too surprised. After all, there is a reason why number crunching by itself does not lead to good decisions and why we need people rather than machines in leadership positions. Researchers gave a bunch of management scenarios to experienced executives and scanned their brain as they were analyzing. What they found surprised them. According to Blackman: "They expected to see a lot of activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain known for its involvement in things like planning and logical reasoning. There was activity there, but different areas of the brain were dominant - those involved in social and emotional thinking." This disparity increased in those who were known to be the best decision makers.

Of course, part of the reason is that leaders have to consider the emotions of those they are leading. David Rock, director of the research organization NeuroLeadership Institute says that "A lot of strategies that go wrong are because managers haven't thought through what happens when it hits people" (R2) and many leaders have problems shifting between the analytical number-crunching and social modes of thinking. In other words, they have gone to business school to learn all about finance and numbers, and as leaders they struggle to relearn what they once knew about people.


A tip from Matthew Lieberman, professor of psychology at the University of California, is "simple reminders" like sticky notes to remember not to get too caught up in numbers and analysis. Getting quite advanced here, isn't it? Meditation, embracing fear, and putting up sticky notes to remember to think about people. I can definitely understand why these consultants and researchers are paid millions of dollars for their absolutely invaluable advice and insights.

Lesson 4: Good leaders are positive. Evidently, although some people somehow think you have to be a jerk to get things done, "the data says that's just not true" according to Dr. Boyatzis. So now he can stop abusing his research assistants while thinking he is doing them a favor, I guess. I can't believe how surprised Blackman sounds when he is writing this! He writes, "The best leaders, it seems, are good at motivating people with things like encouragement, praise and rewards - thereby creating a strong emotional bond and sense of purpose among employees." Wow, business gurus have finally realized that you need to be nice to people to get them to work for you. Isn't this just basic common sense? There is a reason why memes like these are so common:

What is the point? you may ask? Have I written this article just to make fun of researchers in general and perhaps neuroscientists in particular? Actually, I find this research to be valuable. Yes, it often confirms things that we already know, but it adds the weight of science and numbers to common sense. There is an increased credibility when research like this has been done, credibility which has more power to inform policy than "common sense" does. It is one thing if you have read it in a book by the likes of Dale Carnegie, and something else if it has been "proven" by science. If you have a boss who has bought into some kind of new management craze and requires tighter deadlines, puts people more on their toes, prefers number crunchers to people who are socially intelligent, and says that being negative and tough is "just his style," you now have numbers and research of your own to convince him or his superior that his approach is mistaken.

However, I do have an axe to grind against some of the neo-positivistic thinking which goes into a lot of this research which says that everything that is important can be measured and quantified. This, I think, becomes most clear of all in the feeble and vague solutions they propose for these problems: Meditate, what kind of meditation? Not all meditation is productive. Embrace your fears and become aware of them? How exactly do you do that? Put sticky notes up to remember people? Right, because all we need to change our behavior and way of thinking is another reminder in a world full of checklists and notification devices.

Most absurd of all, Doctor Waldman at Arizona State University wants to train good leaders by making them watch TV! Yes, you read it right. He claims that "We are right on the cusp of being able to assist leaders to rewire their own brains." You see, they have found that good leaders have what they call "inspirational leadership" which they define as "the ability to articulate a vision that inspires people and makes them buy into your strategy. Not only can these people see the big picture, but they can put that picture into words and impart it to others." In other words, a good leader needs to be a good speaker and communicator.

This was the goal of the entire tradition of teaching rhetoric, with successful outcomes shown in people like Pericles, Cicero, John Adams, and Winston Churchill. They learned through exercises, principles, and practice to analyze a matter, find a good solution, and then to articulate good arguments and reasons for this course of action. Some of the core skills and practices involved articulating the larger principles at stake, showing their connections to the case at hand, and making the perspective vivid and compelling. In fact, the humanities and a humanistic approach is especially suited to this training (as I argue here).


According to Waldman, I guess they have been going about it in the wrong way. The real way to teach leadership is through neurofeedback. Here is how it works: You make people watch a movie while you are monitoring their brain activity. "If the people aren't displaying the desired brain patterns, for example, the screen they're watching may go fuzzy. When they do display the right brain patterns, it becomes sharp again. Gradually, people's brains learn to follow the patterns that are positively reinforced." Come on! They think the brain will reprogram itself simply by "giving it a cookie" when it is doing the right thing? Even dogs' brains aren't that mechanistic! I know, I have trained several. With this "brainwashing" activity they really think that they will train people's brains to "make those visionary-leadership connections naturally - and, with any luck, make it easier for them to inspire people more easily."


Wow, who knew that to become a visionary inspirational leader all you needed to do was to watch a TV which goes fuzzy when you think the wrong way. If only Cicero, Churchill, and Martin Luther King Jr. had known this! To think of all the hours, years, they spent listening to and giving speeches, studying the concepts, listening to people and trying to understand them, and then to find out that all they needed was a little bit of reprogramming through neurofeedback. Well, good luck Dr. Waldman. Of course, he says that neurofeedback still needs more research before researchers can be sure it will work in developing leadership ability. Guess who is going to fund that research, and guess how likely it is that he will be a recipient of government grants, stipends, and research fellowships in order to carry on with that research.

Have you heard the saying "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail"? In some ways it makes sense that if you have a machine like the fMRI-scanner which records activity and connections, the solution seems to be to rewire those connections which happen to be the problem. Yet the mind is more than just a ball of wires. I think it would be appropriate to end with a word from Kenneth Burke. He predicted that positivists will be blind to the non-mechanistic elements of human nature and reality. “The quasi-scientific reductionist theories, with their caricatures of perfection, will not only never see it in the first place, but will be so constructed that they never even miss the loss” (301). While looking for the secrets of leadership through the methods of neuroscience it seems like it is also possible for researchers to become blind to other aspects of what it means to be and become a good leader. As Kenneth Burke would say, "It's more complicated than that." Leadership is not developed in a day, and despite the short-cuts these people are promising, it takes patience, passion, and natural ability. Becoming a good leader is a lifelong pursuit.