Sunday, September 14, 2008

- Evan Sayet: How Liberals Think

A friend emailed me this video about three days after it was posted on youtube. I watched it and found it to be pretty good. It gave useful language to an issue that I’ve often struggled with and that is “how do you explain how liberals think in a way that stops them from making their most obvious mistakes about logic and reason”.

And I guess over the last year I’m seeing it with new eyes. I still think it’s a really great and highly entertaining lecture, but I think it makes a tactical error. Well… maybe not, but it fails to do the thing that I hope to do which is convert liberals back to a view where logic and reason and critical thought become a part of their world view. To be fair, it doesn’t actually fail at that task because it isn’t designed to accomplish it. This is a lecture designed to explain to conservatives how the political opposition thinks. And to accomplish that he uses the tool and thought processes which he clearly says that liberals don’t practice. He uses logic, and reason, and critical thought.

In that way he’s crafted a speech which is the opposite of one which might change liberal minds because it elevates the dialog to the place where the liberal defense mechanisms are at their strongest. The thing I would try to do would be to repackage this lecture in a language which slips under the doors and through the cracks in the liberals defenses and actually change their minds.

I don’t know… maybe it can’t actually be done. Maybe the very fact that life hasn't changed their minds about issues means that they are the people in our society least capable of logic and reason. All the same though I'd love to hear what liberals think of this video. It will probably be all ad-hominem attacks and accusations of arrogance, but I'd like to hear them all the same. Send this video to liberal you know. I’m going to do the same. Ask them to watch it and give you some feedback about it. I’d be interested in what they come back with. Feel free to send me email comments or leave them here.


Red Bull said...

Do you actually think this video represents liberal thought accurately? I do not know a single liberal that "sided with Saddam Hussein" or wants to "promote teenage promiscuity". This is glib reductionism.

Tom said...

Well the people who went to Iraq to act as human shields certainly weren't conservatives. You may not know any people like that, and I grant you that it's not the way I would have tried to say it, but the ideas he discusses do identify liberal ideals in my opinion.

This entire speech is a cleverly codified version of the book he mentions, "The Closing Of The American Mind. It's written by a well respected "liberal" academic. You would yourself a real service by reading it.

ShootLikeAGirl said...

There isn't a single liberal who sided with Saddam Hussein; well, not intentionally, not consciously, not knowingly, anyway. But good intentions are not enough if the outcome or the natural consequences of an action and the intent behind the action are in conflict with each other.

If the intent is good, but the outcome matches the outcome Saddam was hoping for... well, guess what you just did?

Red Bull said...

@tom: The people who protested the war in Iraq disagreed with the US government's rationale for invading another country. Do you really think this is the equivalent of saying that liberals "sided with Saddam Hussein"? How can you say that the speaker accurately represents liberal ideals?

@shootlikeagirl: Surely you recognize a difference between protesting a war you believe is immoral and supporting the enemy. You wouldn't say that a person who opposes the vigilante lynching of a murderer supports murder. Liberals disagreed with the US's right to invade Iraq, and were not defending Saddam Hussein. Conflating the two is just an excuse to not consider the opposing viewpoint seriously.

Tom said...

Well it's pretty clear that we're speaking two languages here. You are polite and sincere in your position so I don't want to be anything else. But I really think you should read the book I mentioned. The guy who wrote it is a highly respected professor of political philosophy. It's not a polemic at all, but an accurate description of the processes that have affected American thinking over the last half century. He's a liberal, (the foreword is even written by Saul Bellow) and because of that I think it will present ideas similar to these in a framework where you might be more open to them.

No one is saying that liberals are bad people... even at my angriest I always tell people that I think most of the liberals I know have only the most admirable motives. But in the case of this speech he’s trying to be clever and entertaining for conservatives. He achieves that goal I think, but at the cost of being understood by liberals.

As for me, I think the place it falls apart for modern liberals is when it comes to execution. Because liberals hold ideals that lead them in what I can only describe as "a wrong direction" the goals they aspire to achieve are not only never reached, but in most cases aren't even approached. Even a casual observation of the last 30 years of history will show that to any unbiased observer.

I really think you should read the book. It's a serious work about a serious topic and I think anyone would benefit greatly from reading it regardless of their politics.

Red Bull said...

I'm not sure where you think we're encountering a language barrier. I don't think we're disagreeing about the definition of a particular word. As far as I can tell, you're making a point tangential to mine. I'm arguing that the speaker in the video is misrepresenting the liberal position. Your statement about The Closing of the American Mind is tangential to my point; am I to understand that reading this book will make the speaker's argument less reductionist somehow?

You presented the video as being an example of "logic, reason and critical thought," but the speaker has committed an obvious logical fallacy: he's set up a straw man argument. He's mischaracterizing the position he seeks to debate. This video will not convince anyone who has the ability to look at it critically.

Tom said...

No I don't think you've misunderstood a word, but I think your assumptions are so different from his, and mine, that you cannot accept the concepts he offers as even possible of being true, even though to he and I they seem perfectly self-evident.

As an example, you say the people who acted as human shield in Iraq, placing their bodies in between the US forces and the assets of an Iraqi dictator (who is described even by most liberals as running a vile and utterly repressive regime) were simply protesting the US political decision. You think that their intent is the only critical element to their actions….or at least the most important one by far.

In the meantime he and I would both say that their intent is personal and irrelevant, it's their actions which matter. And what they did with their actions was stand in opposition to an army which has done more for the cause of human freedom than any force in human history. To defend a despicable dictator who is all but universally condemned.

You say they weren't taking a side because it would be wrong to say we are "better than them" and they were only trying to prevent pointless violence. We say that whatever they meant by it they "sided with the bad guy".

That's what I mean when I say we're speaking two languages. I wasn't saying you were illiterate… you clearly are not. I was saying that your base assumptions prevent you from seeing things from our perspective. But I think the book I mention will make the same points he makes ... points which for the moment still seem to be totally invisible to you, in a way that you would better understand them.

David said...

(Hope you don't object to long posts. This is my first visit to your site, via John Derbyshire in The Corner.)

Thomas Sowell wrote two books about how the thinking of liberals and conservatives differ. Following is a quote about those books from a piece by Robert Bartley in The Wall Street Journal back in 2003:

Thomas Sowell has written two books pondering why the same people end up on the same side of issues that have no intrinsic connection. In “A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles,” he writes that this is because they operate from two different “visions” of how the world works, indeed of human nature. In “The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy,” he argues that the prevailing vision in the press, academy and politics has become so dogmatic that it has lost touch with reality.

Mr. Sowell labels the competing visions “constrained” and “unconstrained.” The constrained vision argues that perfection is impossible, that social policy consists of structuring incentives for self-centered men, that life is a series of trade-offs. This vision is represented by the likes of Adam Smith, Edmund Burke and Alexander Hamilton . . . .

The unconstrained version argues that man’s imperfections are the result of bad institutions, that pure intentions matter more than actual effects, that rationality can solve problems once and for all. In the time of Smith and Burke, this tradition was epitomized by William Godwin, whose “Enquiry Concerning Political Justice” was popular in Great Britain until the public started to witness the excesses of the French Revolution.

For the path of the unconstrained vision ran through Rousseau, Voltaire and Thomas Paine (a defender of the French Revolution as well as a hero of the American one). Today’s academy is in thrall of descendants of these French ideas. The academically popular “deconstructionism” promoted by Jacques Derrida argues that the conception of meaning or truth is another corrupting institution, merely expressing power relationships.

Students and journalists who have never heard of Derrida reflect his influence in preoccupation with issues of gender, class and race. As Mr. Sowell writes, the “vision of the anointed” has become impervious to evidence. Rather, it’s “a badge of honor and a proclamation of identity: To affirm it is to be one of us and to oppose it is to be one of them.”
Robert L. Bartley
“Thinking Things Over:
Now, Who Are the Smart Guys?
The Wall Street Journal
14 Apr. 2003, A19

Tom said...

Actually I'm probably one of the biggest Tom Sowell fans alive. I've read almost everything he's ever written (the late talking children work is a little off the path for me) and for a big part of my career I've actually based much of my work on the ideas he develops in "Knowledge and Decisions". In my opinion, that book is not only his best most transcendent work, but it's also one of the most underrated economic texts ever written. Eventually, when its full meaning comes to be understood by the majority, I think people will realize that Sowell was decades ahead of his time. At least as far ahead of his peers as Hayek, whose work he based it on.

More than anyone alive I admire his brilliant ability for directness:

"Many have argued that capitalism does not offer a satisfactory moral message. But that is like saying that calculus does not contain carbohydrates, amino acids, or other essential nutrients. Everything fails by irrelevant standards."

T. Sowell

You just can't top him.

David said...

Yep. Paul Johnson calls Sowell "America's leading philosopher."

Red Bull said...

I see your point, now, and thank you for the explanation. It's entirely accurate to say there are those who believe that pure intentions somehow negate human selfishness, and I think that Derrida is right to recognize that the concept of truth can be used as a cudgel.

But if I grant that it's fair to equate Sowell's "unconstrained" worldview with modern American liberalism, then it sounds like what you're against is naivete, and I'll readily grant a lot of liberals are certainly naive.

I'd agree that going to Iraq to act as a human shield is perhaps hopelessly naive. I can understand a battlefield general being insulted presented with such fools.

But your argument continues: "[W]hat they did with their actions was stand in opposition to an army which has done more for the cause of human freedom than any force in human history. To defend a despicable dictator who is all but universally condemned."

While it may be true that the American army has a great history of fighting for good reasons, this does not mean that this case and this war was, too. You've assumed it was, they believed it was not. Neither one of us made the decision to invade Iraq, so ultimately neither one of us can know for sure. We only have the government's word as to why they chose to do what they did. But we do know that they were wrong about the information they said they were acting on, and it certainly didn't go according to plan.

So some (naive) people decided it would be a good idea to protest the attack. You've repeatedly characterized it as "defending Saddam Hussein", which it clearly wasn't. "Defending Saddam Hussein" would be taking up weapons and fighting. They didn't do that. They were protesting.

Peaceful protest is the bedrock of the rule by and for the people, and consider Gandhi: peaceful resistance has transformed empires. The liberal position says that we have to engage one another's ideas, and not use force to impose our will on one another. We are all equals. This says nothing at all about belief in reason solving all problems. It's that we need to treat one another reasonably. That's democracy: self-interested people all trying to get along and build something that they believe in.

Try a thought experiment: assume that a war was unjust, and you thought you knew for sure. Imagine you felt something was being carried out in your name that you didn't agree with. Would it be right to say so? To sign a petition? To write a song about it? To rally against it? To donate your money to stop it? Throw yourself in front of a tank to stop it? It's all a matter of degree.

Let me state unequivocally: a "human shield" protest in Iraq is a criminally stupid thing to do, but like the activist who murdered the abortion doctor, it's certainly unfair to use such an extreme example as a representative case study in liberal thought.

You're arguing that liberals have an epistemological framework that presupposes the ability for human institutions to attain perfection. I don't think that's true at all. Liberals believe that by striving for perfection, we can transcend selfish interests. The government – and that includes the armed forces – is meant to work for the will of the people. If you believe that the government isn't doing that, what is the right thing to do?

David said...

Oops. I see now that you covered Sowell's two books in your 9/9 post. I'll read your archives before presuming to inform you again.

Tom said...

Don't be silly. You presume away. As Dr. Sowell's fame is something less than it should be I think you'll be more right than wrong.

Tom said...


You’re right… I think it’s unfair to cast all liberals as being a certain way by the actions those who are “most liberal”, but I was trying to make a point and the differences in our base assumptions are so great that I believe that anything less obvious would have been lost in translation. The same as you may cast someone who goes to extremes to prevent abortion as a villain, I can tell (or at least I believe) that you would never accuse all conservatives of believing those actions are justified. I think your view is very far away from mine so I was shouting. I didn’t mean it to be rude.

And this really, is why I think you should read the book. In this speech Evan uses terminology and a framework to speak directly to conservatives like me, and he connects immediately and universally. Virtually all conservatives think this is an entertaining and highly accurate speech and those that don’t, think it doesn’t go far enough. In the meantime you sound to me like you are trying to justify the liberal perspective of specific policies. But because of my base assumptions and how I define basic morality, there isn’t any way to get me to agree that human shields were acting morally. I’ll agree that they probably thought they were, but in my world view one’s intent doesn’t necessarily justify the harm that’s done from one’s actions.

In my world, being “wrong” can be a painful and costly thing. If the harm done is only to oneself then it’s usually forgivable, even if it’s deserving of ridicule to help incentivize those who were mistaken to try harder to be “right”. But if the harm is done to others, then it’s a thoroughly reprehensible act. In my view those human shields did harm… indirect harm I’ll grant you, but harm none the less. And I don’t mean to some general’s ego… I couldn’t care less about that. In fact in my world view the general shouldn’t care about it either. You make lucid rational points and your arguments follow a logical line of reasoning, but they start out from a place I can’t get to, and go to a place I don’t care to go.

I know to you that sounds like I’m just terribly closed minded, but in as much as I can bridge the communications gap let me assure you that that isn’t the case. Its’ just that my preconceived notions provide me with answers for issues that you believe are still very much questions. The same as yours do for you. You are debating issues which I consider settled, the same way I seem to be “tangential” to you. We begin with differing beliefs, and the only roads left to each of us are mutually exclusive. But the book that Evan refers to, “The Closing of The American Mind” by Alan Bloom, is an excellent work. He takes our mutually exclusive monologues and casts them both in the language he’s most comfortable with, the language of classic liberal academics. He’s written a book about political philosophy which can be read by anyone with the neccesary background regardless of their starting point. It’s a serious work about how his students have changed over the years, and it presents his very reasonable and clear eyed ideas in a language and with a base set of assumptions that both of us can understand.

I’m guessing that you will probably feel that you should explain to me that these concepts of being “right” or “wrong” are not for us to decide ourselves, but this is the fundamental point where our world views differ, and is the main reason you should read that book. The book won’t tell you that I’m right and you’re wrong. It will explain to you why it is you can’t get through to me with more clarity, and probably give you a better set of terminology for bridging the divide.

ShootLikeAGirl said...

Evan Sayet made this speach at The Heritage Foundation, in front of a conservative audience, and because of that, he couldn't resist poking some fun at liberals in the process. Therefore, his speech comes off as insulting to liberals.

This is my understanding of what Sayet is trying to say, minus the insults, plus a little bit of a different interpretation of my own.

In the beginning, he states that clearly liberals are neither stupid nor evil. They simply follow a different thought process when it comes to solving world problems.

We all want to make the world a better place. But perhaps the fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives, to put it very plainly, is that one sees the glass as half empty while the other sees it as half full.

Conservatives prefer logic and reason, and often point out what is generally known (or has been, until the influence of modern liberalism) as basic "common sense."

Liberals, as Sayet says, look at the world, see all its faults and imperfections, and conclude that if human logic, reason and "common sense" has brought us here, to this mess we've made of the world, then logic, reason and common sense must be contributing to the problem, and therefore, logic, reason, and common sense need to be questioned, re-examined, doubted, and turned on their head.

Since "common sense" has resulted in a mess, then in order to achieve the opposite effect -- a utopia -- we must do the opposite of "common sense." What we've perceived as "good" all along must be "bad", what we've perceived as "right" must be "wrong". We must question the existing common sense of modern Western Civilization and we must re-define the "common" sense. We must question what WE believe to be logic and truth. We must question what WE believe to be rational. We must question ourselves and our perceptions. We must doubt ourselves.

In doing so, we must lose sight of our standards and all the rules that we've valued and held sacred.

In order to make the world a better place, we must throw out what we know, and stop doing what we've been doing, and start doing the opposite.

Notably, there IS logic in this thought process.

This thought process may stem from the liberal view that human nature is extremely faulty, and therefore, requires much doubt, control and supervision. Hence the perception that conservatives have a tendency to be arrogant.

At the same time, liberals believe that humans can be brought to a state of selfless cooperation, given the right environment and set of circumstances. They have great hope.

Conservatives on the other hand believe that you can't bring about a better world (the right environment) unless you work with (not against) human nature.

So it's not that liberals are evil or stupid, they just imagine a different path of getting from point A to point B. Their intentions are certainly good. Liberals don't want poverty, they don't want war, they don't want conflict, they don't want suffering. They have a vision of a better world and a vision of a different path to get there -- one that's different from previous paths.

Conservatives get frustrated with this because they see, with proof, that it's not working. Liberals hold out with hope and good intentions that if they keep doing the same, it will work eventually, given enough time, or when enough people are on board, or when some other piece of the puzzle is in place. They feel so strongly about wanting a better world, and their intentions and convictions are so strong that they will not relinquish their vision.

Anyway, that's my take on it.

Red Bull said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Red Bull said...

@tom: It seems that your purpose in inviting a liberal opinion on the video is to tell liberals to read this particular book. I had mistakenly thought you were interested in making a convincing case for conservatism, which you don't seem willing to do on terms other than those presented by a particular author. As a matter of fact, you've repeatedly asserted that the conservative point of view is, to your mind (or perhaps it's Sowell's mind), "self-evident". That's the very antithesis of a logical argument. That's dogmatism.

Personally, I think conservatism is a much more compelling political theory than that, and could rattle off a hundred good reasons why we should resist changing our fundamental social institutions, why we should be wary of any program that gives people something for nothing, why we should want small government and why we need to maintain a powerful military.

But perhaps that is the point you're trying to make: that your version of conservatism rejects logic as a basis for making decisions on whether something is right or wrong, good or bad. Am I understanding you correctly?

Tom said...

No... I appreciate that you're trying to understand but I don't think you actually do. The fact is, the upheaval in the market is being pretty demanding on my time the last few days so you're only getting my "off the cuff" responses.

But my even beyond that, my point wasn’t to engage in a defense of a conservative view because I've tried before and failed at it. I think that's mainly because I lack the rhetorical skills to communicate my thoughts effectively to a liberal audience, and my hope was to get comments that might shed some light on the difference for later rebuttal.

But since I'm pressed these last few days, I'm defaulting to Bloom's work because I think he's done as superior a job as anyone I’ve ever read. Although to tell you the truth it's your reasoned tone that makes me do anything at all. Had you given the kind of liberal comments that conservatives can typically expect from self defined liberals, I could have just dismissed you. But in my opinion you deserve better than that, so I'm doing my best to comply.

I don't have time to make the case myself so I'm pointing to someone who I think can make my case for me.

Scott H said...

Of course, you think that your side is logical and rational, and the other side is not. Guess what, the other side thinks the exact same thing, in reverse. The fact is that all humans think they are right and all humans think their side is logical and rational. And they all are blind to the arguments of the opposition.

The smart ones realize that little fact of human nature, and admit to the fact that they might, just might, be wrong even though they feel they are so right. You might want to remember that.