Action vs. Talking

There is a widespread belief that “action is greater than talking”. Intuitively, that seems right, yet upon reflection it not clear (a) what it even means and (b) if it’s even true. In this entry I argue that, upon reflection, regardless of interpretation actions being greater than talking is incorrect.

First and foremost, I’m going to assume that by ‘greater’ we mean of greater value (whether intrinsically or instrumentally). Surely we don’t mean ‘greater’ in terms of size or quantity; it would be entirely opaque to us how we could even measure the quantitative size of either, or what even the such measurements would look like.

First and foremost, a literal interpretation cannot be true. After all, talking is a type of action – one needs to move their body parts in order to produce the sounds required for talking.

So perhaps what the belief means is:

Every type of of action (except talking) is greater than the act of talking. 

But this interpretation is pulled apart on both ends. On the action end, there are clearly some actions which are, all things equal, considered worse than talking. For example, we are often taught to solve our problems with our words rather than with our fists. So, all things equal, violent or oppressive actions are worse than talking.

On the talk end, there is some talking which has great value. Such speech acts include promising, apologising, ordering, politely requesting, swearing oaths, expressing intentions, motivations, etc. Such speech acts cannot be expressed through action by itself – such speech acts provide the grounds for us to evaluate the worth of actions. That is, we cannot judge whether some actions are good or bad unless talking occurred before.

Consider, for example, you seriously injured your best friend in some way (e.g., financially, emotionally, physically, etc.). Suppose you feel remorse for your actions, so you start performing actions in order to make up for your poor behaviour but you never apologise for the sleight. Even in such cases, your friend would still desire you to apologise – to verbally admit to your mistake and own up to it.  Indeed, without the apology your actions to make up seem to fall short of being a proper apology. In such cases, talking is greater than action.

One might respond such speech acts are worthless without the necessary action to support them. What is a promise without the action of keeping it? The obvious answer is that such promise was worthless.  But I can admit that without committing to the belief that ‘action is greater than talking’. All we need say is that action is just as important as talking – you can’t act on a promise which you haven’t made.

Perhaps what we mean by here is that:

actions are greater than talk because actions the metric to which we evaluate them favours actions more.

Two such metrics spring to mind. The first is normative results – bringing about states-of-affairs we desire to see come into existence. The second is communication: actions ‘speak louder’ than words.

Yet even using these two metrics, the belief that action is greater than talk falls flat. For it depends upon what type of results or communication we are trying to produce.

Consider again the apology: if the state-of-affairs we are trying to bring about is the rectification of a past sleight, than an apology is a necessary condition which must be met – and an apology can only be brought about through talk. The same would go for promises, requests, and other types of speech acts.

And while some actions do communicate messages more clearly than words, there are clearly some messages which can only be communicated via speech (e.g., an apology, a request for water, etc.).

Perhaps what we mean is this:

solving problems is greater than complaining about problems. 

If this is what we mean when we say ‘action is greater than talk’, then we are very far removed from the saying itself. I have already explained (i) there are some problems which can only be solved by talking (e.g., apology), (ii) some problems talk is considered of greater value than actions (e.g., resolving conflict), and (iii) some actions cannot be evaluated unless the necessary talk has occurred before hand (e.g., promises).

Yet even complaining can solve problems: complaining can cause actions in others, whether to help the one complaining or to stop acting in such a way which causes the complaining.

Consider, for example, John and Mary who live together. John constantly leaves dirty dishes in the sink. Suppose this irritates Mary and she complains John about his behaviour. If Mary’s complaints stops John from acting (leaving dishes in the sink), then complaining has solved the problem.

But just acting by itself without talk, or thought, more often than not fails to produce results. For actions to be successful, they first require a plan or strategy. And we devise such things by talking them out, writing them up, and testing them. Without talk and construction of a plan, one’s actions are unguided and unlikely to achieve the desired outcome (e.g., resolving the problem).

It seems then, given all the above, the only interpretation we are left with is this:

solving problems is greater than not solving problems. 

But this seems trivially true and not at all attached to the original belief. But given certain problems can be solved with just talk, while others can be solved with action and talk, there seems no reason to even invoke a value judgement about talk or action.

Rather, I suggest, is disposing of the belief and replacing it with a new and more truthful belief:

Action and talk both resolve problems. Wisdom lies in knowing when to stop talking and start acting, and when to stop acting and start talking.


Problems with The second tenet of Free Speech Crusaders

Previously, I claimed that, generally speaking, Free-Speech Crusaders (FSCs) hold at least three core tenets. They were as follows:

(1) There are no conditions in which free speech should be censored, limited, or even curtailed [the naive free speech tenet].

(2) Truth is the only necessary (and thus sufficient) condition, thus the only justification for holding a belief [the facts don’t care about your feelings tenet].

(3) A persons emotions, or feelings, should never be an input into our reasoning about (1) or (2) [the logic and reason tenet].

In the last post I showed that (1) is not true, since morality and truth appear to be things that legitimately restrict what we can say. And while truth and ethics might limit our speech we do not, intuitively, take these restrictions as violating free speech.

In this post, I’ll explain how there is serious tension between (2) and (3), since there are some propositions which has their truth value turn upon how we feel. Such propositions are those that relate directly to our feelings while others are moral claims that primarily involve ‘harm’ (as understood in both consequentialist and deontological thought).

To begin, let us consider propositions involving feelings or emotions. Consider the following. Suppose two teams, Red and Blue, are playing a game of football (soccer). The final score is 5 – 0, in the red’s favour. Suppose we make the following claims: 

1. Blue lost to Red.

2. All the players on Blue are happy they lost.

3. All the players on Red are happy they won.

4. Most of the players on Blue are angry because they think Red cheated to win.

The above propositions have truth values; the claims are either true or false (or perhaps both or neither). Claim 1. and 2. are false, while Claim 3. and 4. are true. What makes the respective claims true or false? The claims seem to depend on facts of the matter, but some of these facts are not independent of feelings. The truth values of claims 2, 3, and 4, are somewhat predicated upon the feelings of the players of those teams. Since this is the case, it means that (3) is false, because some claims do require us to consider a persons (or group of persons) emotions or feelings, then for such claims our reasoning on them requires taking into consider the feeling of others.

Now, we might want to say that (2) still holds, because even if the truth of some proposition hinges upon feelings that does not mean we take consideration of feelings as an extra condition. For feelings would only matter in virtue of them grounding a truth claim – but the thing that makes them worth noting is that they are true and not that they are feelings. Perhaps an argument can be made here, but the point remains that truth and feelings are still not as inseparable as FSCs think they are.

Another problem about the dichotomy placed between (2) and (3) involves ethics and morality. It appears that certain types of claims about morality and ethics, especially surrounding under what conditions a person is wronged, are problematic.

If we adopt a theory of ethics similar to consequentialism or hedonism, the wrongness or an action depends upon the harm it produces. And considering the most intuitive way of understanding harm along consequentialist lines involves a persons emotive response, then it appears again that the conflict between (2) and (3) arises. Worse still, in cases such as these the truth of whether an action is wrong or not depends entirely upon that feeling. 

The same problem still seems to exist in deontological ethics with regards to consent. Consider two different cases. In case one, Andy hits Byron square in the jaw during a robbery, knocking him out. In case two, Casey hits Dany square in the jaw during a boxing match, knocking her out. Who was harmed, Byron or Dany? In terms of violation of consent, Byron has been harmed whereas Dany has not. Reason being that as part of a boxing match, Dany has waved her right to not be physically assaulted (i.e., consented), whereas Byron has been physically assaulted on the street and did not give consent for such behaviour to be done to him. 

Note, however, that the fact of whether Byron or Dany were harmed in such cases depends upon the subjective opinion of the person who was hit. Whether such waving of consent can be counted as a feeling or emotion seems doubtful to me, but the hard line that so many FSCs draw between facts and a persons subjective experience seems problematic at best, especially when we consider ethical truths or propositions.  

So it seems that (2) is too strict a claim and is not sensitive to the fact that some truth claims can be dependent upon our feelings or emotions. Considering (3) states that such feelings should never be inputs into our reasoning for (2), then it’s not entirely clear at all how we could ever evaluate claims dependent upon feelings or emotions. 

Rhetoric: fire-with-fire

Broadly, a rhetorical device is a type of tactic used by a communicator to persuade an audience into believing a view. Under this construal, even an argument that follows sound principles of logic is a type of rhetorical device. I want to put that technicality aside and go with our intuitive understanding of rhetoric. That intuitive understanding of rhetoric would be something like this: rhetoric, contra logical reasoning, uses irrational or non-rational methods to persuade an audience. The reason rhetoric often sits opposite logical reasoning is that rhetorical devices, when taken by themselves, baulk in light of philosophical reasoning. For example, appealing to an anecdote is often compelling at persuading a person to a view, but a single anecdote does not tell us anything about all other similar events. 

Regardless of how irrational a rhetorical device might be, they are still compelling. After all, if they weren’t, then they would have fallen out of fashion many years (or generations) ago. Pointing out a rhetorical device as being a rhetorical device, or  even explaining why they do not hold up to philosophical scrutiny, does not seem to persuade many away from a claim being expressed via rhetoric. So if pointing out a rhetorical device for what it is or explain why they are logically flawed fails to convince people, what else can we do to repel them? 

An effective countermeasure I have deployed is to simply use the exact same rhetorical device, word for word, back at the person who initially employed it. So, if one were to appeal to a slippery slope fallacy I would employ the same fallacy to argue for the exact opposite of my interlocutor. If one were to appeal to ridicule to criticise a premise or conclusion, simply use the same appeal to ridicule back at them. If someone uses a hedging term (e.g., ‘it’s just X), I might say, “exactly, it’s just X, so if it is just X, then what is the problem?”.

This fighting ‘fire-with-fire’ might appear problematic for several reasons. First, it is itself a kind of rhetorical device, and for that reason might viewed as irrational. Second, such a blunt approach to dismissing an opponents argument (even if it were correct to do so), might appear to lack philosophical rigour. And finally, repeating almost verbatim what someone else says in response to them might appear childish. I want to address these points in turn.

First, under the broad construal of rhetorical device, this fire-with-fire approach definitely falls into this category. After all, it is being employed precisely because it is being used to persuade an audience. Under our more limited and intuitive notion of rhetoric, the fire-with-fire method is indeed irrational on the surface level, but if we look underneath the hood of why it is being employed in the first place, we will see that it is in fact actively demonstrating how fallacious such rhetorical devices are, precisely because they do not hold up under philosophical scrutiny. So, although explicitly the fire-with-fire method is rhetorical, the actual point is implicit, by drawing out two robust intuitions we have about reasoning and fairness.

What do I mean by this? The first intuition is about reasoning and evidence. The fire-with-fire method draws out a very robust intuition that could be summarised as follows. Evidence or argument can only support the Truth and nothing else. So if the same piece of evidence or argument can be used to support any competing and incompatible claims, then that piece of evidence or argument is useless and cannot be relied upon.

This intuition about evidence and the relationship it has truth and justification is robust for both laypersons and academics. After all, many types of evidence are ruled out as legitimate precisely because that type of evidence can be used to support or discredit a claim either way. 

The second intuition is more simple to understand. It is an intuition we have about fairness: we recognise that a piece of evidence is unacceptable for an interlocutor to use, then it is not fair if we were to use the exact same evidence ourselves. This intuition is so widespread that violating it even has a name: special pleading. I don’t think much further explanation of this intuition is required.

The fire-with-fire method makes both intuitions salient and instantly generates the belief that, if this rhetorical device is itself the evidence for a claim, but that same device can be used to support a competing claim, then not only is it a useless piece of evidence, but that if I were to cling to it I would not be being fair. What makes this fire-with-fire method so beautiful is how effective it is. And considering that both intuition about evidence and reason are also highly implemented in academic studies across a breathe of fields, it seems that, philosophically, to be quite robust. 

But is repeating something verbatim to prove a point childish? I suppose in one sense it is, but this might be another reason for why it is so persuasive too. The fact that it appears childish, and yet is so robust, gives us the impression that the implicit argument of doing so is so obvious that even a child could spot it.

Minding your Manners

One of the more common criticisms levelled at “leftists”, or social justice warriors (SJWs), is that they lack respect and common courtesy during discussions, debates, or critiques of opposing views or ideologies. More concisely put: the left lack manners.[1]

Broadly, criticism of the left via manners takes several paths, to which I name only a few. First, manners are used to invoke how leftists or SJWs are attempting to violate or censor the speech of their opponents. For example, allowing another to speak is thought to be a part of social etiquette. When an interlocutor shouts down an opponent, or cuts them off to challenge a fact or opinion, this is viewed as a kind of censorship and thus ‘showing no manners’. Second, manners are invoked to dismiss even engaging with interlocutors. When someone is rude towards us, by becoming aggressive or calling us names in the heat of argument, some might invoke manners as away of ostracising that person until they are willing to be ‘civil’ and ‘play nice’ (i.e., until that person shows us respect we shouldn’t hear what they have to say).  And third, appealing to manners is meant to show the validity of ones own ideas while discrediting ones opponent. For example, the fact that my views perhaps allow for manners or even require them means that my view just is the right one, and that any contra view is ipso facto wrong. 

But what are manners, and what are their purpose? Intuitively, what manners are can be defined as a set of rules about how ought to conduct oneself in social settings. With regards to discussion and debate, those rules of conduct dictate how we speak to one another, in terms of tone (e.g., calm), language (e.g., ‘sir’), and behaviour (e.g., allowing the other to speak).

And it seems manners serve are two purposes. First, manners demonstrate respect towards an interlocutor, as manners are thought to show that the speaker recognises the person as a person and therefore a bearer of moral value or worth. This particularly Kantian intuition (recognising a person as a person) is meant to show that, even when you disagree vehemently with someone, that the disagreement does not demonise or dehumanise the other, for even if they hold the different or mistaken views, they still have intrinsic moral worth. Secondly, displaying manners is supposed to tell us something about the character of the person who displays them. Intuitively, I think advocates of these rules think that displaying manners shows a person has humility in the face of authority, but also and humility in recognising the other as a person, whom they have equal moral worth, and thus are no better (or worse) than.

If this is what manners are and the purpose to which they serve, I think most people would find them acceptable. They intuitively fit with many of our moral concepts and intuitions. When people use manners towards us it is especially appealing because it reminds us of our moral worth. This sounds good in principle, but how are manners used in reality?

While it is true that manners are used for the above purposes I have described, they can also be used as rhetorical devices and manipulative tools, some of which are contradictory or problematic with some views held by the Free-Speech warriors (FSWs).

How are manners used as rhetorical devices? I have already outlined several ways in which manners are deployed to dissuade people from siding with leftists and SJWs, namely, that if they lack manners they should not be listened to, or are simply wrong. Using manners as a rhetorical device fails to provide any actual argument against whatever a leftist of SJW has to say. The reason is obvious: pointing to a lack of manners as signifying the falsity of a claim is a straight up genetic fallacy. For where an idea comes from, or how an idea is communicated, has no bearing upon the truth value of that idea. If I were to aggressively scream at you that “the sky is blue”, the aggression in which I say it does not unmake the colour of the sky. And if an incredibly rude or blunt person (i.e., me) were to inform you that “the sky is blue”, the fact you would have learnt the colour of the sky from me would not render the proposition false.  

But I don’t think manners are used primarily in this way. Perhaps more troubling is how manners are used as a manipulative tool to compel particular kinds of speech acts or behaviour from people. It is troubling because if you are demanding that a person speak to you in a particular way (and punishing them by either de-platforming or ostracising them) then you are in some sense, forcing them to communicate and speak in a way that you deem fit. Considering the majority of FSWs stand by ones right to say something, even if they disagree with it, attempting to control another persons language by way of manners seems to be, at surface, hypocritical or contradictory to their most fundamental ethos.

[1] Whether it is actually case the left lack manners does not impede the claims I make in this entry.



The Alt-Right Marketing Machine

When Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, one anon member of 4chan remarked that “we actually elected a meme as president.” That is not so far from the truth. Trump – and the politically aligned who rallied under his banner- became the face of a modernisation of authoritarianism and populism. Such a movement was dubbed the alt-right. Those who reject that label, yet still swim close to alt-right waters, sometimes describe themselves as “classical liberals”, “centrists”, or “skeptics”. But those are just attempts at rebranding themselves, as those who self-describe themselves as these often still hold closer to alt-right values and positions rather than what has been historically or academically understood as what liberalism, centrism, or skepticism actually are.

But how has the alt-right and authoritarian populism become so huge? What happened in our political climate that caused this sweeping reactionary culture? Answering that would require more expertise than I have to offer, so in this entry I want to posit one hypothesis about how the alt-right movement became, at least, so big. It strikes me that the alt-right simply has a better marketing campaign or propaganda machine than the left (or even standard conservatism).

What tools does the alt-right marketing machine have? Well, their online presence in the main social platforms such as Youtube and Twitter is considerable. And the personalities of their figure heads are large and charismatic. The alt-rights spokespersons (e.g., Carl Benjamin, Jordan Peterson, Milo Yiannopoulos,  Paul Joseph Watson, Alex Jones, Lauren Southern) are constantly producing content, have strong onscreen presence. Perhaps most overlooked, is that these individuals have voices that are, for one reason or another, appealing to the ear (much like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens were back during the heights of the Theism vs Atheism debates).

But is simply having a nice voice (or at least, a captivating voice) all that is needed to be persuasive? Whether they realise it or not, these alt-right spokespersons have a firm command of rhetorical devices; verbal or physical cues that elicit desired responses in their audience. When Youtube was dominated by Atheist-focused commentators (Amon Ra, Thunderf00t, Cult of Dusty, Non-stamp collector), we saw the same kind of tactics at work (and still are when some of them moved on to attack feminism). 

These rhetorical devices have proven highly effective. If the election of Trump was not enough evidence, the results of the Brexit vote I hope add more validity to my claim. Yet, rhetorical devices seem to be something that the left and traditional conservatives have either forgotten about or vastly underestimated. What are these rhetorical devices? Besides a slew of logical fallacies (slippery slope, correlation proves causation, Gish-Galloping, to quoque, etc.,) alt-right commentators seem to have a strong sensitivity to the value of their viewers, and using subtle language cues to elicit intuitions that can be generated by appealing to those said values. 

For example, it is a widespread intuition that ‘truth’ (whatever that is) is a fundamental value. That is, knowing the truth, and forming views and beliefs around it, are an absolute requirement for being a rational being. A ‘fact’ is a type of a truth – a fact is how things are, independent of how a person feels or thinks, and thus a fact cannot be ignored and must be accepted. 

Alt-righter commentators have been very adept at stating some proposition about the world (e.g., muslims are more violent) and then, after stating that proposition, merely asserting that the proposition is true. They might say, “that is just the facts”, or “the fact is”, or “facts don’t care about your feelings”. Questioning whether the proposition stated is actually true or not makes the interlocutor look foolish, weak, or stupid. They look foolish because the proposition, after all, is apparently a fact. The interlocutor looks weak because they are attempting to distort the truth and thus cannot handle ‘reality’. And they look stupid because who would question the truth in the first place?

These fact assertion tactics are often coupled with hedging terms: ‘just’, ‘simply’, ‘merely’, etc. Hedging terms attempt to reduce the bar of evidence required for supporting the truth of a proposition and, in doing so, attempt to make the proposition appear more obvious. People who are already sympathetic to believing the proposition (whether the proposition is actually true or not), hear the hedging term as justifying their belief as not only as being true, but also obvious. So obvious, in fact, that it requires no actual evidence or argument to support the claim being made. 

For example, suppose we get into a discussion about radical skepticism, specifically: how can I know I have hands if I cannot know I am not in a computer simulation? A common tactic is to respond as follows: “Look, we are in an external world, and that’s just the way it is”. Any attempt to respond to the proposition “we are in an external world” is viewed as it being the case that we are not actually in an external world. Further, no evidence is actually given to support that proposition, because claiming the proposition as “just the way it is” frames the position as being so intuitively obvious that it doesn’t actually require any evidence at all.

So obviously true that anyone who disagrees with it must be a foolish liar who is ignoring the truth for alternative reasons, whether it be their leftist, or gay, or communist, or socialist, or post-modernist, or marxist agendas.