On Manichean Worldviews and Effecting Change

Aside from the rise of concerted trolling (which Barry Ritholtz discusses in a post today), it has been hard not to notice what amounts to an increase in collective pissiness among the NC commentariat. One might ascribe it to a multitude of influences: elevated stress produced by a lousy economy, the utter distastefulness of the Presidential campaign, the offhanded corruption among our ruling classes and their minions, the nagging worry that another big shoe might be about to drop (Iran? Europe?).

I’m not about to tell you all to take Soma. But there are a couple of forms of argument that are destructive to the community here, as well as being just plain fallacious. I’m coming back to this issue because I see the group that comes to converse at NC as an effort to make sense of and find some routes, even if small ones, for taking action against an increasingly oppressive economic and political climate.

I’ll discuss an obvious destructive tactic and a more insidious type. Barry and his readers highlighted one I’ve seen in spades of late, which is “tu quoque” or “you too”. The narrow version is “both sides do it,” usually with the added zinger “and where are you in calling out the other side?”. First, this is simple bad faith argumentation. Parents don’t tolerate “everyone does it” from their children, and it is even less acceptable for supposed adults to try that line. Second, almost without exception, we (or the person mentioned in the post) actually have gone after the opposition on whatever the issue in question is. And since this is a blog, not a PhD dissertation. I do not provide footnotes on what I’ve said that might be tangentially relevant to a post. The Web and this blog have search functions. I recommend that readers using them before making accusations.

But for some reason, this “tu quoque” form is great for hijacking threads. It seems to elicit more reader agita than any other canned strategy. So I strongly urge readers, when you see a commentor trying this approach, to say “Bad faith argumentation, don’t feed the trolls” or “tu quoque, don’t feed the trolls” or Lambert’s automated response to trolls, “Thank you for sharing your concerns. Your comment is very important to me. Please do not hesitate to comment again.” AND STAY AWAY.

The more insidious type of fallacious argument, and this comes more from established readers than from the probable trolls, is black/white, or Manichean, thinking. Anyone who has studied propaganda will tell you that purveyors of that dark art work hard to eliminate nuance, and force “with us or against us” choices on people when the options are almost without exception more complex.

A fresh example is the reactions to the post yesterday about Sheila Bair’s new book. A surprising number of readers took the position that (basically) because she was one of the senior people in the regulatory apparatus when the bailouts were undertaken, she had to be a bad guy. No consideration of the fact that she had been out of DC since 2002 (and had last been in what was supposed to be a work/life friendly position in Treasury, meaning not part of big policy decisions) and came to the FDIC in 2006. She immediately, and over considerable opposition, fought for higher capital levels for bank and bigger reserves for the FDIC even as all the other regulators insisted she was punishing healthy banks. The FDIC was a secondary regulator, remember, and she still did what she could to curb Turbo Timmie’s “give the banks everything they want and 50% more stance” such as selling Wachovia to Wells (with no FDIC assistance) as opposed to the subsidized sale to Citi (meaning, as we discussed at the time, yet another stealth bailout). I also have to note (checking my archives) that there was a lot of misreporting at the time, with the subsidized Citi deal being depicted as Bair’s initiative. It now comes out it was cooked up by Geithner and Citi, approved by the OCC, and foisted on the FDIC (remember, the FDIC was not Wachovia’s primary regulator, there weren’t a lot of plausible acquirers and Wachovia was going down fast).

But there is also a subtler, and ultimately more important issue: no one in a position of power is going to be pristine, which is the standard some readers wanted to apply to Bair and others. Having influence means making compromises. And even in situations like the Holocaust, it is not as easy to draw bright lines as one might think. One particularly good discussion came in 2001, in an article by Omer Bartov in a review of a book describing how Bulgaria came to be the one Nazi state that refused to turn its Jews over to Germany for extermination:

But the lesson is not quite so simple or so edifying. For we also learn from such instances that the difference between virtue and vice is far less radical than we would like to believe. Sometimes the most effective kind of goodness – I mean the practical kind, the kind that can actually save lives and not merely alleviate the consciences of the protagonists – is carried out by those who have already compromised themselves with evil, those who are members of the very organizations that set the ball rolling towards the abyss. Hence a strange and frustrating contraction: that absolute goodness is often absolutely ineffective, while compromised, splintered, and ambiguous goodness, one that is touched and stained by evil, is the only kind that may set limits to mass murder. And while absolute evil is indeed defined by its consistent one-dimensionality, this more mundane sort of wickedness, the most prevalent sort, contains within it also seeds of goodness that may be stimulated and encouraged by the example of the few dwellers of these nether regions who have come to recognize their own moral potential. As the great cosmological myth of the Kabbalah has it, the shreds of light that remain from the original divine universe may be collected only from the spheres of evil in which they now reside.

This post was originally published at Naked Capitalism and is reproduced here with permission.

One Response to "On Manichean Worldviews and Effecting Change"

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