Josh, Walsh, and Anonymous, part ii

Archetypes

I’m going to be very frank with you: I simply don’t believe most progressives actually care that Josh Duggar touched his sisters when he was 14. I don’t believe they are upset about it, or that it offends them, or that they are morally troubled by it. I don’t believe them. I just don’t.

I think they’re the real hypocrites.

Matt Walsh is angry at the progressive left, who are fuming over the Duggar controversy, but who have barely said a word against Lena Dunham, Harvey Milk, or Bill Clinton, whose own alleged histories of sexual violence match or outstrip Josh Duggar’s. Dunham, Milk, and Clinton are leftist idols. Therefore, the progressive left doesn’t care about sexual violence – they care about destroying conservatives.

It’s possible – the conclusion fits the evidence presented, anyway. But these sorts of arguments are always double-edged swords. The easiest response to Walsh’s argument is this – Matt Walsh is fuming over Lena Dunham, Harvey Milk, and Bill Clinton, but has written absolutely nothing on his website in condemnation of Herman Cain or, in particular, Bill Cosby, whose own alleged history of sexual violence far outstrips Dunham, Milk, and Clinton. Therefore, Matt Walsh doesn’t care about sexual aggression or violence – he cares about destroying liberals.

Hundreds of objections are probably at the tip of your tongue, no matter where you stand politically – the accusations against Clinton are unproven; well, so are those against Cosby. Leftists didn’t just ignore Lena Dunham – they actively defended her; well, so did the right with both Cain and Cosby. And so forth. The upshot of all of it is this – whatever our suspicions, we don’t know exactly what happened in almost every single one of these cases. They’re a black box. Until we open them up and look inside, we won’t fully know the truth. But anything we claim about them might well be true in the meantime.

That is unfortunate. Because we love few things more, all of us, than speculating about what’s in a black box.

Let’s back up a bit, and talk generalizations, one of the greatest tools human beings have in our ability to communicate. Try saying something simple – say, “Russians like vodka” – and making it absolutely true. It’s a tremendous pain. All Russians? Is the statement still true if even one Russian doesn’t like vodka?

Do I have to interview each one? Because that’s impossible. Must they be enthusiastic about it, or simply tolerate it? Are we talking all Russians, or just the living? Because I see a huge problem with the former.

What exactly does it mean to like something? Do Russians have to like vodka because of something unique to vodka, or does simply liking the alcoholic content count? Can I create a filter that compensates for that possibility? Does anyone still care?

If you’re still reading – and my sincere congratulations, and apologies, if you are – you’ve probably noticed that all the fun has gone out of the question (although I’ve probably raised several questions about stereotypes and racism). The fact is, if you want to make something completely and utterly factually true, you won’t say much of anything. Ever. So we generalize. We turn it into a black box, and talk about the box. It’s a fantastic thing.

(Also, my apologies to both Russians and vodka.)

The problem, at least where controversial topics are concerned, is this – we almost universally generalize in a way that frames the situation to our advantage. We think the best of our friends, and the worst of our enemies; we exclude the crazies in our own camp from being True Believers, but assume the fringiest and nuttiest blowhards on the other side are representative of that side’s center. We assume that the other side’s lack of condemnation of their fringe is indicative of agreement, rather than a lack of attention. Most of all, though, we make the topic all about us. In this case, Walsh is clear – the left isn’t angry at Josh Duggar because Josh Duggar sexually violated young girls. They’re angry at him because he takes a stand for traditional conservative beliefs.

In short, they don’t hate him because he’s terrible. They hate him because he’s awesome.

It’s a self-centered worldview – not selfish, mind you, but self-centered. The entire affair is framed in terms of something Walsh values, and the unknown details – in this case, the motives of everyone condemning Josh Duggar – are generalized in a way that removes Josh from any responsibility for their anger. Walsh is given a black box, and summarizes the contents in a way that’s most favorable to Josh and conservatives.

We all do this, and we do it in a wide variety of situations. I’ve talked with many a friend through many a breakup, and nearly every discussion ends with the dumped coming to one of two conclusions: “she hates me because I’m awful,” or “she hates me because I’m awesome.” In all truth, most of them (with the exception of a few in unbelievable denial) had absolutely ­­_no­_ idea why the breakup occurred. But all of them sure thought they did. And in the absence of direct knowledge of the situation, they instinctively filled the gap in knowledge with comfort. “If she left me because I’m awesome, I don’t have to feel bad, and certainly don’t have to change. If she left me because I’m awful – well, then, the situation is still in my control. I can change, and get her back.” The idea that she left me for reasons that are both beyond my control and that have little to do with things I can change was, and is, intolerable. It’s meaningless. And that is the hardest thing of all to take.

(It’s worth noting that this is a basic human reaction to trauma, no matter how small or large. The Black Death, or invading Mongol armies, must be the punishment of God; nothing so destructive could simply be beyond our control. Two of the most common ideas I heard in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 were “they hate us because we’re a city on a hill” and “they hate us because we mistreat them;” both ideas are still debated today, with little room for discussion or a mix of the two.)

If I’m confronted with an issue that both hurts me and about which I still have questions, my basic response is to frame the affair around either myself or something I value. It’s a self-centered worldview – again, not necessarily selfish, but self-centered. And it’s archetypical. When human beings are confronted with a traumatic event and a lack of direct knowledge about the details, we almost always, to a man, generalize about the lack of knowledge by putting it in a framework that bends every unknown element into a reassurance. Every generalization will work in our favor.  And we all do it. “People hate me because I speak the truth;” well, maybe they hate me because I’m a jerk. “People are opposed to this legislation because they’re racists;” well, maybe I just want an easy way to dismiss people’s genuine objections. And the worst part of it – the part, mind you, that forms the entire basis for this post – is that either option could be true. And, barring a polygraph interview with every single human that hates me, or every single human being opposed to this particular legislation, the fact is this – if I want to form an opinion, I have to pick an option.

And that, right there, is the part that people always seem to miss. We have to pick.

Take the immigration example – is it possible that Republicans traditionally oppose immigration reform because they’re simply all racist? Well, technically, yes, it’s possible. The conclusion fits the data – racist people, anyway, would be opposed to immigration reform, as would people with genuine and thoughtful objections. And though the latter is kinder to Republicans, from a strict logical standpoint, both options are equal – they both make generalizations about an unknown body of data, and both generalizations fit the data. Though I might favor the latter view, short of defining in advance just who is and is not a Republican, and then interviewing each of those people to see who is, and is not, racist, I simply have to go with my gut. My fickle, often unreliable gut.

This, in a nutshell, is how we think with our feelings. We fill in the blanks. We’re given areas that are a black box, as far as knowledge is concerned – we don’t know exactly what’s inside, and we never will. So we summarize the contents. And, given that we have no direct knowledge of what’s inside, our summaries are Rorschach Tests. They’re what we want to believe, not what is, or is not, in the box.

Let’s bring this back to Matt. Walsh makes an astonishing claim, when you think about it – the progressive left hates Josh Duggar because Josh Duggar speaks the truth and stands for what is right, not because Josh Duggar is a sexual predator.

Note a few things about this:

First, Walsh’s claim is an archetype, of the same variety that we use in breakups, or nasty political situations. The situation is generalized in a self-centered way – the important part of the story is that the progressive left hates the traditional values that Walsh supports, not because the left is opposed to child predation. The details are then explained in a way that completely abdicates Josh from any responsibility for the progressive backlash – the left hates Josh because he speaks the truth, not because he hurt anyone. The left loses credibility, therefore, and its anger can be completely dismissed. These are both desirable options for Walsh.

Second, like all generalizations, Walsh’s conclusion is non-falsifiable – it’s entirely possible that the whole of the progressive left doesn’t actually care about child predation, but only about bringing down the right. Walsh’s conclusion fits the data – it’s one of many conclusions that fit the data, mind you, but it fits. I can’t rightfully say he’s wrong. Arguing, in fact, that he’s wrong here is entirely the wrong thing to do – I’ll be asked to prove it, and I can’t. Which, naturally, gives the impression that Walsh has chosen the correct conclusion, and which – finally – brings me around again to where I started – making the same terrible and lazy conclusion about Walsh that he makes about progressives.

Per a recap, Walsh condemned the left for condemning Josh Duggar more than it condemned Lena Dunham, Harvey Milk, and Bill Clinton. I condemned Walsh for condemning Dunham, Milk, and Clinton more than Cain or Cosby. He thinks progressives are hypocrites; I say he is no different. Our conclusions are, logically speaking, exactly the same – they’re not falsifiable, and they rely on very favorable generalizations. And they’re both terrible.

Let’s wrap this up.

The fact is, Walsh might be right. Maybe the left really hates Josh because he’s awesome. Or maybe some of them do. I’d like to claim he’s wrong, but I can’t – I haven’t interviewed everyone, or created a filter to compensate for the anger of people who have been abused themselves, or any number of thousands of things I’d need to do to prove that absolutely no progressive leftist doesn’t hate Josh because Josh stands for traditional values. I believe Walsh is wrong here because my gut says so, not because I have a logical reason.

Then again, maybe I’m correct. Maybe Walsh condemns Clinton because he hates liberal values, not because Clinton may have been a sexual predator. After all, if he were concerned with predation, he would have written about Cosby, too. Maybe. Or maybe Walsh didn’t write about Cosby because he had other more interesting topics. Maybe he didn’t write about Cain because his blog was still in its early stages. Maybe I picked this evidence because it supports what my gut wants to believe.

The truth is, I have no idea why Walsh wrote about Clinton, and not Cosby. I just think I do. Walsh has no idea why the left condemns Josh more than Lena; he just thinks he does. But neither one of us has the information we need to truly prove our statements. There are far too many unanswered questions for either one of us to be drawing these conclusions.

We think with our feelings when we give ourselves the right to answer every one of those unanswered questions in our own favor.

And we should not do that.

More to come, in part iii

Josh, Walsh, and Anonymous, part one

I wrote a while back, somewhat ad nauseam, that “we think with our feelings.” I’ve written some dozen posts since then in an attempt to cleanly illustrate what I mean. I’ve scrapped them all – too boring, or too long. Mostly too boring. Still, if you wait long enough, the perfect example will sometimes present itself.

Today I’m talking about someone who talked about the Duggars. And the way we all, in general, talk about the Duggars, and about emotional and controversial topics as a whole. Mind you, I realize I’m late to the party – the hot topic of conversation is now gender, Jenner, and sickness or bravery, depending on your political leaning. There’s a strong possibility, too, that several dozen more hot topics will pass through the internet ere I’m done nitpicking this one particular blog post, but that’s OK. My focus here isn’t the hot topic itself, but the way we think about it, and talk about it. Mostly, the way our emotions hijack the way we think and talk about it. A good understanding of how that happens applies to all controversial topics, no matter the subject matter.

We think with our feelings, and it’s good to know how it happens. Which brings me to conservative blogger Matt Walsh.

Matt thinks with his feelings. We all do. We do it in the same specific and repetitive ways, and we rarely see it. And barring, for a moment, a lengthy explanation of how we do it, I’d like to note an important conclusion – debate, especially the online variety, is best understood as an emotional as well as a logical process. It should be treated as such.

Hear me out – assume, for the moment, that our emotions hold a far greater power over our logical reasoning than we think they do. Assume, as I do, that our emotions are almost always the primary arbiter of our beliefs – that we believe what we believe, especially where controversial topics are concerned, because we need to validate the feelings we had, even feelings we didn’t know we had, about the issue before the discussion even began, not simply because we did the research. If that’s true – if we feel first, and think later – then it’s worth understanding the feelings, as well as the logic. Both, after all, brought us to our conclusions.

The first thing to understand about debate, therefore, is this: we don’t debate to search for or spread the truth. We debate to make others feel as we do.

Now, before I proceed, one caveat – this isn’t always true (although it sounds far cooler when stated as an absolute, so I kept it that way). Some people, usually frighteningly nitpicky minds, debate for truth. They make no distinction whatsoever between obscure truths and what we might call relevant ones, taking equal delight in knowing miniscule details of Thomist theology as well as whether or not WMDs were found in Iraq. I’ve found, from experience, that these people are not any fun in conversation.

The fact is, most normal and average minds debate to share or force an emotion. They might – and often – construct completely airtight logical arguments for their emotion of choice, making their conclusion appear inevitable, and not chosen. It’s a false impression. Even completely airtight logical arguments contain elements of choice, and those choice elements usually have the power to dictate the whole of the argument entirely.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to Walsh – I’ve nitpicked Walsh’s response to the Duggar controversy, one you can read here. Please read it. Nothing I write from here on out makes sense without reading that first.

If you’ve read it, proceed only after accepting two apologies – one, this series of posts on Walsh is way too long; and two, it appears to unfairly target Matt Walsh.

Per the first point…well, there’s nothing I can do. The post is long – gargantuan, by blogging standards. I’m breaking a cardinal rule of blogging about trends – keep it short, and sweet. It’s a dumb rule. Complicated topics require thorough explanations. The idea that anything can be explained in six minutes doesn’t always make people more concise writers; sometimes it just eliminates any idea more complicated than six minutes.

Per the second, that this piece appears to unfairly target Matt Walsh, because it only targets Matt Walsh – I can only apologize. I’m not obsessed with debunking or validating Walsh. I imagine we’d get along, to be honest – he has twins, and I have twins; he appears to enjoy spirited beverages, and I just finished a bottle of German riesling. But Walsh’s post about the Duggars is a damn near perfect example of the easy ways emotion can completely hijack logic. His mistakes are common mistakes. I picked Walsh through use of a highly scientific, methodical, and unbiased process – he appeared in my Facebook feed more than anyone else.

(cough)

In short, this piece is long, and it gives the impression that I really dislike Matt Walsh. The former is inevitable, and the latter isn’t true. My thesis here is simple: when we don’t understand the power our emotions hold over our own reasoning, we are at risk of saying, arguing, and convincing people of very terrible things.

And that little nutshell brings me to Walsh, and Josh Duggar. And, unfortunately, Duggar’s victims.

Part I: The Real Story is How We Feel About Josh Duggar

 Asking what a story is about is a terrible question.

I’m not talking about plot summaries, mind you, but the point of a story – the central message, or central theme, or central something. The simpler the story, the easier and more precise the answer; no problem there. The more complicated the story, and the more numerous the possible themes, the harder the answer. Whole English classes are built from this. I loved variants of this question, especially on tests, because I could put almost any theme imaginable, link it to the story somehow, and pass it off as a central theme, so long as I wrote with apparent passion.

We do this, all of us – hear a controversial issue, pick an aspect of it, and make a claim that the aspect we picked represents the central core of the issue. We claim the right to pick what the story is about. And we usually deny, in turn, that right to anyone else, particularly those that choose aspects we want to ignore. Moving jobs overseas is either about corporate greed or the overreach of government; several weeks in Ferguson are either about racist cops or idiot civilian rioters.

And the Duggars? Well, the most grievous and disturbing problem with nearly all the analyses I’ve seen so far is this – they’re all about Josh Duggar. Or how we should feel about Josh Duggar. Or how we should feel about the people who feel differently about Josh Duggar. Josh, and his redemption or condemnation, is the central story.

Not his victims. Josh, and his place within society and Christianity. Not the place of his victims. This, to say the least, would not have been my preference.

Now, let’s be clear – logically speaking, I can’t complain about that. The story, after all, can be about any number of things, so long as we argue passionately. The choice of what to argue, and where to start, is completely arbitrary. It’s not like I can disprove the idea that Josh’s redemption should be the central story. Josh Duggar’s redemption is a reasonable central theme, at least in the sense that it doesn’t violate any logical rules. But that’s not a strong point, really – no rules exist. A Josh-central narrative doesn’t violate any rules because there aren’t any rules at all for this.

The fact is, if I asked, “what’s the central theme of the Duggar controversy?” I’d have dozens and dozens of apparently good answers, but no way to prove that the one I’d pick is the best. I’d have no method to make the choice, no set of rules for grading each suggestion. On the one hand, that makes criticism of a Josh-central narrative fairly silly. On the other hand, however, it makes it very obvious that a Josh-central narrative is a choice, and not something forced on us. Certainly not something forced on Walsh.

Walsh chooses Josh. He is free to choose any starting point, and he chooses Josh. Mind you, he has to choose someplace to begin, and, mind you, there’s not a logical method for choosing a better or worse place to begin. But that’s the beauty of the situation – whatever Walsh chooses must reflect exactly what Walsh feels. There isn’t, after all, a logical or illogical method for choosing a place to start. It’s arbitrary. His choice is determined entirely by his feelings.

What worries me is that the arbitrary, and knee-jerk, reaction of so many bloggers is Josh Duggar himself, as if he were the central pro- or antagonist in a tragic history.

That would not, as I mentioned, be my preference. I think Duggar should be irrelevant. Because, in this scenario, he is.

Here’s my preference – the story is that several young women were victimized. Most of them have requested anonymity, and though prosecution of the offender is no longer possible, public knowledge of his whereabouts are currently sufficient to guarantee he will either receive proper counseling or, at least, refrain from acting again.

No names. No worries about future TV shows. And, most of all, no invitations to discuss what, to my mind, is a terrible sideshow – how we should feel about the offender, given that most of us already have an opinion of him that might be either validated or crushed.

Now, as I said, my starting points, which make Josh Duggar irrelevant, are no more or less valid than Walsh’s starting points, which make Josh Duggar the fallen hero. Again, we have to start the discussion someplace.

Still, think about this – if we were to ever develop a method for picking the perfect, and most moral, answer to the question, “what is this story about?” I’d hope to God we’d create a method that focuses on those with few, or no one, to speak on their behalves. And if we did manage to create such a method, Josh Duggar wouldn’t make the grade.

It is an astonishingly sad commentary on our understanding of sexual violence that we consider our own emotional resonance with an offender the most important topic of debate.

That, folks, is part one. Still finishing up parts two, and three.

A Brief Introduction

This is a blog about feelings – mine, yours, and ours, and how we use and misuse them.

That’s…misleading, and doesn’t sound nearly masculine enough for my taste. Let me try again:

We think with our feelings.

Still misleading, without context. Let me try again: this is a blog about how we’re all wrong, and also right, and, in the end, all ok.

So much worse. I should start at the beginning.

This blog is the end result of several years of thoughts I’ve had while debating family, friends, and strangers. It’s an analysis – really, an overanalysis – of the way we all think about controversial issues. Most of all, it’s a testament to a lot of wasted time. I feel I should mention that at the beginning, because there’s something sick about this entire endeavor – the fact is, I have more important things I should be doing. The kids have destroyed the hosue, and it needs cleaning. Instead, I’m thinking, and writing, about the way we all think about controversial issues.

Not the issues themselves, mind you, but the way we think about them. I think we fall into familiar patterns of thought, regardless of what the issue is. I think, in the end, that most controversial issues are the same, in the sense that they provoke predictable reactions and logical constructs from us, no matter what the subject matter happens to be. We suffer under the illusion that we approach issues on a case-by-case basis, and draw our conclusion from the facts. And I disagree. We don’t do that. We fall into specific patterns, analyze data a specific way, and make the very same assumptions about the depth and reach of the data available, regardless of religion, political affiliation, or loyalty. We do this, over and over, no matter the issue, no matter the importance. Controversial issues are all the same, and we respond to them the same, even though we think we’re dealing, each time, with separate entities.

I think, in the end, that we don’t so much analyze controversial issues as react to them. Because, again, we think with our feelings.

That all sounds impossibly vague. At this point, it is. I can, mind you, be more specific, but it requires several posts, and lots and lots of explaining. I’m not kidding. As evidence, I offer up my thesis for this entire blog:

“A controversial topic is here defined as a topic discussed with two or more points of ambiguity. Debate, therefore, becomes a contest in which two more more participants use not only facts and reason to support their conclusions, but manipulate the ambiguities to their own advantage. An honest debate is one in which the ambiguities support either all or none of the participants.”

See? Wasn’t that much worse? “We think with our feelings” probably doesn’t seem so bad at this point.

I’ll be honest – I’ve been thinking about this a long time. And I’ve wanted to write about it, for a long time. And I’ve tried – I have no less than a dozen different essays, all written over the past three years, attempting to describe the way that I now see people arguing with each other. I’ve written about the movies Noah and American Sniper, about war, about conservative and liberal insults, and Robert Fisk, and history – lots and lots of history. All of it had the same theme – we think with our feelings. All of it ended up being scrapped.

I could blame the kids, I suppose. There’s three of them, and I love them, and my wife, dearly. They are (with the exception of my wife) destructive. Unimaginably so. My house, right now, is a wreck. I cleaned this morning. My wife cleaned this afternoon. And it doesn’t matter. A child of two can ruin an entire house with a glass of milk. I have twins. Two of them, two years old. Nothing is clean. Nothing at all. The child of seven doesn’t help, either.

But blaming the kids feels odd – I’m supposed to be an adult. I’m blaing my children for keeping me from a blog. Not a job, or a learning opportunity, but an internet blog – one that will most certainly earn me no money whatsoever, but that will doubtless keep me from more important tasks, like studying for a promotion. Or cleaning my house. Or – don’t judge me, too much – graduating, from a college I left over a decade ago with no more than six credit hours left towards getting a diploma. I have, today, no less than three credit hours remaining. By any stretch of the imagination, I should be studying for a CLEP test. Or cleaning. Or making a week’s worth of school lunches, or anything that even remotely screams Parental Responsibility. But certainly not this. Not a blog. Not a series of essays that no one except my parents will read.

But I’m writing.

I don’t know how to describe why. I feel that I have to. It’s not a passing feeling – I’ve been at work for no less than 14 hours today, and almost every minute has been spent in thinking about this essay. That, and my wife. Actually, my wife, and then this essay, to be honest.

Writing this seems irresponsible. But I’m doing it anyway. The fact is, I accepted a while back that it’s easier to admit that I, as much as it smacks of a delusion of grandeur, feel like I have something important to say. And it’s better (or more efficient, anyway) to write it and then move on to adulthood, rather than fake adulthood while thinking about a blog.
Which brings me here, to this blog, and this honest statement: I have something important to say. We think with our feelings. I can explain how, and if you keep reading, I can teach you how to debate better.

Forgive the arrogance. And give this a chance.