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Readings: 21 Jul 2016

From a Neil Postman’s “Bullshit and the Art of Crap-Detection” (emphasis mine):

Each person’s crap-detector is embedded in their value system; if you want to teach the art of crap-detecting, you must help students become aware of their values. After all, Vice President, Spiro Agnew, or his writers, know as much about semantics as anyone in this room. What he is lacking has very little to do with technique, and almost everything to do with values.

Now, I realize that what I just said sounds fairly pompous in itself, if not arrogant, but there is no escaping from saying what attitudes you value if you want to talk about crap-detecting.

In other words, bullshit is what you call language that treats people in ways you do not approve of.

Harry Frankfurt’s analysis in “On Bullshit” suggests that the bullshit comes not from a difference in values, but from a disregard of values.

For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony. In order to appreciate this distinction, one must recognize that a fake or a phony need not be in any respect (apart from authenticity itself) inferior to the real thing. What is not genuine need not also be defective in some other way. It may be, after all, an exact copy. What is wrong with a counterfeit is not what it is like, but how it was made. This points to a similar and fundamental aspect of the essential nature of bullshit: although it is produced without concern with the truth, it need not be false. The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong.

I’m not really sure why bullshit is on my mind this week.

David R. MacIver offers advice on how to bootstrap into a new work situation:

Here is my knowledge acquisition procedure. I bequeath it to you. Use it well:

  1. Can I figure out how this works on my own? (5 minutes)
  2. Can I figure out how this works with googling and reading blog posts? (15 minutes)
  3. Ask someone to explain it to me (however long it takes)

[…] For the love of all, please do not sit there ineffectual and frustrated because you can’t figure out what’s going on. It’s nice that you don’t want to bother your colleagues, and the first 20 minutes or so of trying to figure things out on your own is important as a way of preventing you from doing that too much, but your colleagues need you to be useful. They also probably possess the exact information you need. It is their responsibility and to their benefit to help you out when you get stuck.

I need to struggle with material at least a little bit if I’m going to retain it, but I’ve also gone way too far at times. MacIver’s time-boxed approaches strikes me as a good balance – although twenty minutes may not be the right amount of time in all situations.

Amod Lele examines our competing conceptions of democracy at Love of All Wisdom:

Few would want to vest authority in just any lawmaker. In modern politics, especially but not only in the West, we typically place a very high value on the idea of democracy, rule by the people. […]

But if the people should rule, what aspect of the people should rule? Their intellect, or their will?

The phrasing of intellect and will sounds archaic, and I think that’s why the point I’m making here is not obvious. But what the phrasing refers to is very much a live question, at the heart of contemporary political debates. What authority do the people of a democracy have? Do the people have the authority as a trusted judge of what is best – do we expect them to think, reflect from their experience, and thereby reason to the right decisions? Or is it simply that whatever the people say goes, that a democratic decision is right because it is democratic? And this is to ask: is democratic authority vested in the people’s intellect or the people’s will?

In the midst of wide-spread feeling that the elite have captured politics and governed for their benefit rather than that of the polity as a whole, this strikes me as a good conflict to consider – but not necessarily with the aim of a definitive resolution. All of us are, to some degree or another, the product of a battle between our intellect and will: our intuitions and desires versus our longer-term aims and values.