Ad-Hominems & the Post-premodern Right

This is a tangent from the last post that would have made it wander too far off topic.

Firstly, I referred to Tommy Robinson as both a football hooligan and a fraudster. Both claims are easily substantiated but a fair question to ask is whether they are ad-hominem arguments.

Yes, yes they are.

However, the first (football hooligan) is mentioned not primarily to discredit Robinson but to establish a key point about the nature of the UK right – it’s long connection with football and football violence. But it is also a bit of an ad-hominem in the fallacious sense but I’ll come back to that.

The second “fraudster” is also an ad hominem argument (or at least a fragment of one). However, it is not a fallacious one. When claims or a narrative are being made by a person, their established record of veracity is relevant. If an argument rests on the trustworthiness of an individual, it is valid to ask whether that person is trustworthy. In the case of Wright and others, they are promoting a version of events based on Tommy Robinson’s spin on what occurred. His past convictions are relevant.

One common feature of most of the rightwing figures I write about is their gullibility. Even the ones with a habit of dishonesty or disingenuous claims, also have a habit of believing almost anything some people tell them. I’ve talked about how this can be quite taxing on my vocabulary because there is an urge to use language that is both ableist and incorrect (e.g. ‘stupid’, ‘crazy’, ‘morons’ etc). Given their careers, the assorted Puppies and others that I write about are not people of below average intelligence, nor are they people suffering from some kind of psychological problem in a medical sense (or if they are, then it isn’t relevant and it isn’t a feature common to them as a group). Using such language is unfair both to them and also reinforces harmful stigmas.

Yet, despite this habitual gullibility, it isn’t the case that they will believe anything. So what is the best way of looking at this? The relevant term is trust. Now we all (as in everybody) use interpersonal trust as the basis for evaluating the truth of claims. We are less sceptical of claims made by people we trust. As social creatures trust is the paramount basis for considering truth in human society.

However, modernity has two impacts on that fabric of truth-as-trust. Firstly, both urban living and capitalism undermine the social fabric of trust. If you live in a modern society you encounter many people each day about whom you know nothing directly. You also buy food and services in a more abstract way – often from impersonal organisations (even more so online). Secondly, since humanity started living in urban settings, we’ve also developed more abstract concepts of truth and at assessing truth. Looked at together, there’s an inevitability there – cities require us to think more abstractly, more sceptically and more critically. The earliest cities also contain the earliest examples of written abstract mathematics for example but also the earliest examples of people shifting trust from neighbours and family to more abstract things (religions, states) or people they don’t actually know (prophets, kings).

The term “post-modernism” has been applied to so many things and described in so many ways that the term has become close to meaningless. However, we can use it to describe the broader social impact of modern, industrialised societies losing trust in those more abstract sources of truth.

One way (and as always, take this as me thinking out loud and subject to me changing my mind) to think about the modern right is as people who place greater value on the personal trust model of truth, less value on the abstract reasoning model of truth BUT who are experiencing the same broad post-modern condition of deteriorating trust in institutions. Hence the term I used in the title ‘Post-premodernism’.

Repeatedly, the pattern of argument I see in the Puppy-sphere rest on firstly identifying somebody as in-group or not and then (largely) accepting what they say uncritically as truth to the extent that it can be adopted as a shared belief. Before you say it – yes, everybody does that to some extent everywhere because it is the fundamental trust model of truth that we all have as humans. However, the difference is there is almost no critical filter at all. When a position needs to be discredited, it is done by discrediting the person. Again, yes, that is something that can happen in any community but again, in this case, that is almost the only way it occurs.

I’ve been watching Vox Day attempt to persuade others that Jordan Peterson is talking rubbish. Of course, Peterson himself has his own weird relationship with post-modernism which I don’t want to get into here. Vox himself is somebody I’m not sure fits the template above – he talks nonsense and believes wrongheaded (and evil) things but I’m not sure he is ‘gullible’ in the sense I mean. His followers though…Anyway, with Peterson Vox has tried to point out issues with his claims and tried to point out the incoherence of Peterson’s writing but the tactic he keeps returning to is that Peterson is not a Christian and not of the right. Vox’s motive and argument is to push Peterson from being seen as in-group (and hence trusted implicitly) to out-group, at which point he will be seen as talking nonsense*.

So back to Tommy Robinson. He has had numerous run ins with the law including scuffles with the police. So here’s the thing. If Robinson has hit a police officer in the past that wouldn’t actually be pertinent to the current claims or the ethics of his current behaviour. However, in terms of making people like Wright et al not BELIVE Robinson, it is highly pertinent. So there is the ethical dilemma. What is the wright kind of argument to use? the actual facts (used in the last post) or truthfully describing him as a hooligan?

*[Obviously he is actually talking nonsense]

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The Alt-Right and Traditional Far Right

If you wander through the comment sections of rightwing blogs, as I do, you probably will have noticed repeated references to free-speech in England or even the end of England itself. Lots of histrionics, lots of ranting about injustice. John C Wright has pronounced that “England has fallen”, and elsewhere our old pal Phantom is getting agitated by events too.

So what the flip is going on? The answer is that these various people are super, super upset that some people accussed of quite appalling crimes haven’t been set free due to a mistrial. Cue paroxysms of rage at that statement from that same quarter. True, that isn’t what they THINK they are getting upset about but yes, that is ACTUALLY what they are getting upset about. It is yet another case of people on the right 1. forming opinions based on limited and biased sources and 2. not thinking things through. Reality the conspires to make them look like fools.

So first to the specifics. Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon aka Paul Harris aka Stephen Lennon but better known as Tommy Robinson is a convicted fraudster with a long history of violence including football hooliganism, as well as other crimes such as entering the USA using a false passport. He has also had a long association with a British far-right group called the English Defence League or EDL. The EDL is interesting as an example of changing patterns in extremist politics – it is something of a transitional group between the far-right neo-nazi thugs of groups like the British National Party and the more recent (and more international) Alt-Right. The set of racist, authoritarian and violent views are similar in all cases but the emphasis shifts. The EDL was specifically more overtly anti-Islamic to the extent of being nominally pro-Israel, whereas the BNP had tended to attack Muslim communities in the UK based on ethnicity (often targeting Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities).

Robinson’s current attempt to find celebrity and relevance is to highlight ‘Muslim rape gangs’ – i.e. cases of sexual abuse committed by ethnic minorities (while ignoring cases by non-ethnic minorities). A relevant case is being tried in England currently. England has strong limitations on reporting cases as they are being heard. Why? Because the civil right to a fair trial is an important one AND public claims about defendants PRIOR to a verdict can lead to a mistrial. n addition to this, cases involving child witnesses have even tougher reporting restrictions to protect the victims of crimes. Apparently people like Wright or our old pal The Phantom regard this as objectionable*.

Robinson has previously attempted to broadcast from the courtroom of a different case and was held in contempt of court (but not at that point detained). His sentence was suspended for 18 months. That means he didn’t go to prison but intead there was an 18 month period in which he could be sent to prison if broke the law at all in that time. Suspended sentences may look like an easy escape but they are tougher than they look.

Now let’s be quite clear what his actions were at that point: he was sabotaging a court case and that sabotage could only make it more likely that the defendants would be found not guilty. Whatever his intentions were, and whatever sympathies his supporters might have, that is the actual, factual core of the issue here. The best spin anybody could put on this who has thought about it for more than a minute is that Robinson was only thinking of his own self-publicity rather than the consequences of his actions.

Having been charged by the court of contempt, Robinson apparently had not learned his lesson and returned to outside of a court holding a trial with reporting restrictions, caused a disturbance, was arrested by the police and BECAUSE he was still within that 18 month period of the suspended sentence ended up in gaol. Something he knew would happen,

There is a lengthy breakdown of the events here: https://thesecretbarrister.com/2018/05/25/what-has-happened-to-poor-tommy-robinson/amp/?__twitter_impression=true

Rightwing extremists then used these events to portray Robinson as a martyr, eben though 1. he’s a convicted fraudster and 2. his actions could well have led to guilty people avoiding a conviction.

Now all of that is not is what is interesting.

What is interesting is the collision of worlds here. Robinson and the EDL (more history here https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Tommy_Robinson ) are a slightly updated version of how the far-right has been in the UK: a mix of semi-plausible spokes people at the tob (sometimes trying to get electoral respectability) above a movement of street thugs and football hooligans. Moseley’s Blackshirts in the 1930s, the National Front in the 1970s, the BNP in 1980s and 90s – the template is similar but the names change.

However, the EDL did three things. Firstly, they repackaged their targetting of immigrant communities in the UK as an attack on Islam, secondly they toned down their anti-Semitism (it’s still there but less public) and thirdly they started making links with US rightwing groups. That last step isn’t new in itself but whereas in the past British far-righ groups tried to court similar white supremacist groups in the US, the EDL targetted the Tea-Party and vocal anti-Islamic activsist in the US.

The long term impact of the courtship is a channel of propaganda from the ‘traditional’ far-right in the UK to the pseudo-libertarian right in the US. There’s no conspiracy there, it’s just where different groups tap into for memes, propaganda and news. And hence why somebody like John C Wright is busy pushing a garbled account of events in the UK around a football hooligan fraudster finding himself in gaol for attempting to sabotage a court case.

*[Again, they’ll say they don’t but this is the actual reality they are objecting to rather than their private fantasy.]

A sort of notice I guess

It has been brought to my attention that an author is claiming that they are considering legal action against me in the event of them being targetted in connection with attendance at a convention. The exact statement is a little hard to parse, but the author seems to be under the impression that I’m responsible for or connected with various cases of disinvitation of rightwing science fiction authors from conventions.

I don’t want to take this too seriously but we live in a strange world and people do strange things. So just to be clear:

  1. I have never lobbied any convention or convention organisers to ban, disinvite, or remove somebody.
  2. I haven’t encouraged anybody else to lobby any convention or convention organisers to ban, disinvite, or remove somebody.
  3. I have discussed cases of when a convention has done so but generally after the fact and in a few cases primarily to get information.
  4. I’ve also discussed more generally the practice and processes around such decisions.
  5. I do not believe I have ever defamed a living person on this blog or elsewhere – or even come close to doing so.

However, said author really does genuinely seem to have some concerns about me and this blog and frankly I don’t want to see anybody unduly agitated just because I’m writing. So, as of today, I won’t be discussing this author here or elsewhere on the net – this way the said author can feel assured that if they do experience any adverse experiences on social media or in relation to convention attendance then I played no part in it. As well as not discussing the said author, I shall not be mentioning them either. I note from early past interactions, this author was also concerned about social media and blogging presence even though I had only ever listed their books and author name in wider contexts. Again, to protect this author I won’t be mentioning their name or books so that they can be assured that even neutral coverage is not some underhanded way of me signalling discontent. Finally, I note that a past post of mine in relation to a new science-fiction body may have caused this author some concern. Consequently, I shan’t be discussing that body either – again to ensure that the author in question need not feel any undue concern.

Yes, some may think it odd that champions of free speech would be so keen to ensure some people didn’t speak but that’s a whole other question.

Now, to aid you all in this and to ensure that the said author need not fear any negativity about them here, I have also (to provide them with the protection they need) added their name to a list of words that will move comments into moderation.

Hopefully this will enable the said author feel more safe.

How big is a mob anyway?

While I had more important things to post about today, I couldn’t let this post by Brad Torgersen go by without some comment. Having said that, this isn’t a Brad bashing piece. Rather, some of his comments got me thinking about some of the language we use (as well as touching on some questions about truth and evidence which is very much my briar patch).

Brad, somewhat late to the party, discusses Larry Correia’s disinvitation as Guest of Honour at Origins Game Fair. He summarises the problem as this:

“What’s concerning is that conventions — indeed, almost all institutions of various descriptions — are being placed in the position of either bending to the will of what are essentially mobs, or facing threats of both bad PR and, potentially, painful legal annoyance. In each case, the institutions almost always take the path of least resistance. It’s far easier to eject a guest who has attracted the mob’s attention, than stand your ground and endure the mob’s ire; as a “defender” of the alleged wrong-doer.”

‘Mob’ is doing a lot of work here. It is partly a way of making those who complain faceless & depersonalised and partly a way of making them seem irrational, angry & threatening. It is easy to characterise groups of people doing something as a ‘mob’ – for example, it would have been easy to call Sad Puppies ‘a mob’ or the Tor Boycott the action of a mob but the ease with which it can be done also demonstrates why it is largely an empty term.

But what about something like Gamergate? I can see why people use a term like ‘mob’ there but I am still worried that the term clouds issues more than it describes actions. The actual decisions made by people in Gamergate (or if you prefer some leftwing incident of many people acting on social media) were not those of an actual mass of people in physical proximity but rather many separate individuals making distinct decisions over long periods of time. I’m not trying to play dictionary definitions on the word ‘mob’ but rather trying to point out that ‘mob’ creates a misleading impression of the psychology and the community dynamics here.

In the case of the Origins Game Fair, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of a mob of any kind. Larry Correia himself is blaming one person as the source of complaint but I’ve seen evidence of other, quieter concerns raised to the con.

“Mob” as a term primarily obscures. It hides the way social media forms out of individual action both negatively and positively. An individual who is told they were part of a social media mob can look back at their actions and think “No, I just made that one comment and it was a reasonable one” and yet the subject of the comment may genuinely feel mobbed. At the Gamergate end of this spectrum, direct, individual acts of malice are made to look like individual responsibility played no part.

The (often genuine) feelings of being mobbed comes from the volume and the individuals making comments are often unaware of how they contribute to that volume.

An examples that crosses the Puppy/Puppyologist divide would be the recent brouhaha concerning the Romance author who is attempting to trademark the word ‘Cocky’ for her book series. I’ve written about it and Mad Genius have written about it and I don’t think there is much of a difference between our views on the issue. I’m sure the author concerned is feeling mobbed by the sheer scale of the response. It is unlikely she has read the Mad Genius posts on the topic and even more unlikely she has read my post but to some extent those posts all contribute. If our answer is ‘well she deserved it’ then I can see how that is a reasonable conclusion but that feeds into a different issue.

Brad raises other questions:

“None of this — in 2018 — happens without social media, of course. One might argue that Social Justice Zealotry could not exist without the anonymity and virility that social media provides. Pick your target from behind the safety of your keyboard, light the digital torch, rally your friends to the cause, and off you go to pillory whichever offending party suits your fancy this week. Proof? A preponderance of evidence? P’shaw!”

I’m not going to pick through the obvious hypocrisy of Brad’s complaint there — if we lived in a world in which Brad reflected on the faults he sees in others and whether they applied to themselves, then I’d have far fewer blog post topics.

Rather, it is worth asking about standards of evidence. Rather absurdly, Brad compares the con’s decision to the work of a military ‘seperation board’:

“Thank goodness separation boards don’t rely on the mob’s methods. Because when I am sitting down with my fellow officers to review a case, we’re all poignantly aware of the fact that we’re holding somebody’s career in our hands. We are not a court martial, so we can’t determine anyone’s guilt or innocence of a crime. But we can determine if the evidence of misconduct — not necessarily criminal in nature — does warrant severing the servicemember, and what the character of that severing should be. Because any discharge below honorable carries potentially life-long, negative consequences for the servicemember in question. And when something’s going to stick with somebody for the rest of their lives in a bad way, there better damned well be plenty of proof that it’s necessary, and justified.”

Again, self-reflection would probably help Brad see that, no, the standard of evidence that people should feel they need to have before commenting on social media about a con’s choice of guest should NOT be required to be of the same standards of evidence as a board convened to determine whether somebody should lose their full-time job. But that does not imply we should have no standards of evidence or truth.

Baseless accusations are not a good thing but we also can’t hold all truth claims to some sort of court-of-law standard either or even the standards of a HR function of a major institution*. To shift contexts slightly, there is a problem of regress here – imagine a company with some sort of grievance policy. The policy has to have at least two standards of evidence:

  • The standard used for the company to act on a complaint by one employee about another.
  • The standard used by the company to regard an employee’s complaint as reasonable.

The second standard has to be less than the first standard because employees need to be able to make complaints without undertaking the same due-process/evidence gathering/discussions that the complaint process uses. Indeed, there needs to be a third standard: the evidence needed for the company to regard a complaint as malicious or frivolous.

The same is true for reporting something to the police. It’s unreasonable to demand that somebody reporting something to the police should have ascertained the level of evidence needed for a trial. It’s unreasonable (indeed absurd) for the police to need that level of evidence to decide whether to investigate a possible crime. However, there has to be SOME standard because people make malicious complaints to harass others and there are obvious (and sometimes deadly) instances of the police acting on the basis of very poor quality information and/or prejudice.

There’s no easy answers at the end of this. To not just be truthful but to be concerned about the truth is a moral imperative. To consider the collective impact of our individual actions is also a moral imperative. That there are social consequence for bad (but not illegal) behaviour is part of how societies work. That there is no one-size-fits-all standard for evaluating the truth of a claim before commenting on the claim is a logical necessity.

*[Only afterwards did I see that calling the US Army a ‘major institution’ was a pun.]

Today’s Important Charts

Star Wars movies title lengths by year:

starwarslengthname

The long period of consensus on proper Star Wars movie title length has ended with a sharp decline.

Neither Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure nor Ewoks: The Battle for Endor were included in the first graph as they were TV movies. However, including them implies the recent decline is a natural correction to mid-1980’s excesses.

withewoks

Most importantly (save the strongest results till last) including all the movies and comparing title length to running time produces this important result:

runningtimevlength

That’s an R-squared that’s not to be sneezed at!* 40% of the variance is explained by title length. According to the Felapton Towers research scientists the mathematical model is:

running time = 151.42 – 1.2979×title length

This is excellent news for when they produce the film entitled “R2”, chronicle his life and career as a Sith Lord. the model predicts a running time of 148.8242 minutes, which is shorter than The Last Jedi (a bit of an outlier). Whereas The Life, Loves and Wacky Adventures of Galactic Senator Jar-Jar Binks and All His Fun Friends will mercifully be only half an hour long.

*[Moral: be careful looking at correlations]

Name Tools

I’m blatantly stealing this from the comment section.

There are various online tools that give frequencies of names in, particular countries. Two are https://uknames.gbgplc.com (UK names) and http://howmanyofme.com (US names). Given that stories need names, these look like a fun resource.

A game I’ve been playing with both is attempting to come up with plausible sounding names that are actually unique.

For example Jason Harpman. I think that sounds innocuous (apologies to any actual people called “Harpman”) and not made-up but both tools indicate that the name is unique. The trick is to pick a surname that uses syllables that occur in English/Anglo names and/or are one-syllable common words in English. Obviously ‘man’ is a plausible end syllable for an English-sounding name, as is ‘smith’. So something like “Helen Oaksmith” might work. (Again – apologies to any actual people called ‘Oaksmith’).

Some possible end syllables (some nonsense, some words, some stolen from place names):

  • er/ter/ster
  • idge/ridge/didge/bridge
    (you may need to play with an inital consonant to make it work)
  • ver/over
  • man
  • smith
  • tham
  • ford
  • don
  • den

Start syllables – short English words. You should get some actual names as well as fake names when you pair them up:

  • Cat
  • Dog
  • Fish
  • Harp
  • Oak
  • Tree
  • Grey
  • Black
  • Wood
  • Stone

Is Criticism of Jordan Peterson an Arts v Science thing?

I think the answer is simply ‘no’, as is traditional for questions that are headlines.

Still, I was pointed at this piece: https://catherinecgill.wordpress.com/2018/05/24/the-correlation-between-arts-degrees-and-hating-jordan-peterson/comment-page-1/#comment-433

Gill is a journalist/writer who writes opinion pieces for UK newspapers (The Times among others) and is sometimes a talking head on Sky News.

Her recent blog post on Jordan Peterson starts:

Something concerning of late is the number of Left-wing journalists laying into the scientific theories of Jordan Peterson, even though they have arts degrees! I have nothing against arts degrees, incidentally, but I do take issue with people pontificating about areas they know nada about…

A few things to unpack here:

  • Yes, if you google the background of a bunch of journalists you are likely to find lost of arts degrees. That’s a side effect of looking at people in a profession that suits people with arts and humanities backgrounds. Are there journalists with more science-based backgrounds? Sure, but they are going to be less common than those without.
  • Are the people criticising Peterson disproportionately people with Arts degrees? I don’t know but I doubt it.
  • Is an arts degree an impediment to criticising the scientific basis of Peterson’s claims? Well, no. Peterson’s scientific claims aren’t very strong or highly technical. There are plenty of debunkings, so a journalist who knows how to look stuff up and do basic research shouldn’t have a hard time evaluating that he’s talking nonesense.
  • An arts degree, or specifically a degree in lietrature is probably a very GOOD grounding for engaging with Peterson’s writing (at least the stuff relevant to why he is in the news). Peterson’s arguments (such as they are) are cultural criticism and his mode of argument (such that it is) is not logico-empirical but closer to the modes used in literary criticism. Peterson rests his cultural/political arguments on Nietszche, Dostoyevsky, Jung, and the Bible not on science.
  • Yes, he does include some science in his arguments and it is uniformly garbled (more on that).
  • “I do take issue with people pontificating about areas they know nada about” – then you should take issue with Peterson.

But before I continue some links:

Psychology Today on Peterson: https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/hot-thought/201802/jordan-peterson-s-flimsy-philosophy-life

Leonor Gonçalves Research Associate in Neuroscience, Physiology and Pharmacology at UCL on Peterson: https://theconversation.com/psychologist-jordan-peterson-says-lobsters-help-to-explain-why-human-hierarchies-exist-do-they-90489

P Z Myers Professor and Evolutionary developmental biologist https://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2018/03/15/the-criticism-jordan-peterson-deserves

That’s just three I had to hand.

Gill continues:

“Generally, the Left has huge issues with psychological theory. This is because of their belief that people are ‘blank slates’ who can be shaped by the environment, so as to justify their desire to engineer it. Thus they cannot stand anyone who cites biological variables in human development – for example, personality traits have genetic components – as Peterson and all psychologists will do…”

This is a version of Steven Pinker’s argument, although Pinker’s argument has a bit more nuance than that. Is it correct? I guess for some value of “generally”. The left is more sceptical of arguments that propose biological determinism in various forms as an argument against social change. Some of that scepticism gets expressed as over-generalised ‘blank slate’ style arguments but those arguments are not a neccesary part of left wing views. There’s no shortage of people on the left who can recognise:

  1. What is actual evidence from biology about various traits.
  2. The capacity for humans to not be constrained by that.

To use a simple analogy, that your basic hair colour is genetically determined does not prevent you from dyeing your hair and is certainly not a reason for the state to ban hair dyes or for people to discriminate against particular hair colours or for somebody to repetedly point at your obviously red hair and declare that it is ‘really’ blond because ‘genetics’.

I’ll leave this last quote from her piece as an exercise for the reader:

“This aversion to psychological theory is part of the reason why I have never been published in this subject in a left-wing publication. I have a First Class Honours BSc in Psychology and 86 in a neuroscience paper – sorry for the brag, just making a point – yet I am deemed as “right wing”. Why? Because I was always accurate about reporting my studies. It is astonishingly frustrating to have an ideology planted onto you for being factual.”

[ETA: I don’t think I’ve posted this link before. Prof. A.W. Peet’s list of Jordan Peterson rebuttals http://ap.io/pet/12/ ]