Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Just a few comments...

Let me begin by saying clearly that I appreciate the work done by Recluse at the VISUP weblog. However, I wish to weigh in on some of the back-and-forth from Secret Sun regarding Alex Jones and the Watsons. I am trying to fire this off quickly and so I appeal, in the spirit of Pascal: "I have made this post longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter." In fact, I am pasting this from Notepad and will even have to review and correct typos later. I beg the reader's patience and forgiveness in advance!

It seems to me that there is a a danger of Pharisaism in these sorts of discussions - they're almost games of pin the tail on the disinformation agent. Overall, I was not much impressed with Secret Sun's post regarding the gun lobby. I do think that there is a point there. However, a few criticisms can be made. Let me get at a few of these by starting with Jacques Ellul.

In VISUP's very disturbing and incisive ObZen post Recluse quoted from Ellul regarding alienation. In a footnote to one of the quotes (loc. cit. and passim.) Ellul makes this statement:

"[T]he persons subjected to propaganda do not consider themselves influenced by it. Each thinks that he himself has found 'the road to truth.'"

For one thing, I am having trouble with Secret Sun's attack on Alex Jones. I think that criticisms can certainly be made of Alex Jones. But, what I am interested in the form that Sun's criticisms seem to take.

The criticisms strike me as "Pharisaism" in the sense that the thought seems to be:

1. Alex Jones asserted p.
2. P is "a lie".
3. Therefore, Alex Jones asserted a lie.
4. Anyone who asserts lies is a disinformation agent.
5. Therefore, Alex Jones is a disinformation agent.

But the argument for premise 2 in general looks to me like this:

6. Secret Sun holds not-p (for example, this or that shooting is not a "black op").
7. If not-p is true, then p is false.
8. If p is false, then anyone who asserts that "p is true" is wrong.
9. Alex Jones asserts that "p is true".
10. Therefore, Alex Jones is wrong.

Now, this is all formally coherent. But besides the fact that premise 6 seems to be be obviously contentious, there is a gulf between "x is wrong concerning some proposition, p" and "x is lying about p". And the gulf is only bridged by showing something like that:

11. x, knowing (or justifiably believing) that "not-p is true," asserts that "p is true" instead.

And for all of Secret Sun's url-citations, I fail to see that he has gone any distance towards substantiating anything like premise 11.

But, then, at best - even if Secret Sun is correct - all that has been shown is that Alex Jones is wrong, not that he's "lying" let alone that he's lying for the purpose of sowing disinformation.

All of this I take to be fairly straightforward.

I think on a principle something like Gricean charity, we should think that even if a person is wrong about something, that they're wrong innocently - until we have good evidence to believe otherwise.

The evidence presented seems to amount to little more than evidence that Alex Jones believes something contrary to what Secret Sun believes - say, regarding the Second Amendment or "gun control" or the (relevant) shooting(s), etc.

But, this is where the Pharisaism comes in. It seems to me that the impulse to jump from "this person believes something to the contrary of what I believe", perhaps coupled with "the person has a podium from which to shout," to "this person is an agent of disinformation," is far too quick.

And here's one reason to think it's too quick.

12. We're all immersed in a propaganda system.

I take this to be just axiomatic. As Chomsky might say, I'd think it strange if we were not so immersed, given the interest that the mandarins of power have in retaining their power.


13. We're all going to believe that we've found the road to truth.

This is Ellul's dictim.

Here's we have a special case of an old epistemic worry: What does it take for a belief - a true belief - to be an instance of knowledge?

The classic account, arguably going back to Plato (cf. Theaetetus 201d), is that a true belief becomes knowledge when it is coupled with "an account". In contemporary terms, this "account" is something like a reason to believe that p is true - called "justification" or "warrant."

So take a case.

Secret Sun believes that "the gun lobby" is more responsible for some shooting than is "the government."

Schematically, Secret Sun believes that:

14. A is more responsible than B for some event, e.

Suppose Secret Sun is rational and therefore has some reason, r, to think that 14 is true.

Suppose further that 14 IS true.

Therefore, by the classic (justified-true-belief, or JTB) account of knowledge, Secret Sun knows that 14 is true.

Still, in order to assert knowledge of the following:

15. Secret Sun knows that "A is more responsible than B for some event, e."

it is not enough to merely know that "A is more responsible than B for some event, e." One must also know that one knows that "A is more responsible than B for some event, e." In other words, one needs an additional reason to make the second order knowledge claim "warrantedly assertable."

But I think that this second-order reason is simply unavailable. (Secret Sun does not *know* that he is right in the relevant matter.) And the fact that it is unavailable should have two consequences, I think.

Number one, even if we are correct in our pet theorizings, indeed, even if we know them, still we don't know that we know them and therefore we should be charitable towards those with contrary theories.

Number two, because we don't have second-order knowledge of our pet theories, even if we do have first-order knowledge of them in fact, it is epistemically possible that we don't have first-order knowledge. That is, for all that we know that we know p, we might not know p at all - even if we do.

What I am saying is that I think we should be a little more subdued in our rhetoric against individuals who believe contrary - or contradictory - things. We're (and I am speaking to a specialized readership, here) aware that there is a pervasive and intrusive propaganda system in force. We cannot all be correct as to how, exactly, that system plays itself out. But we should refrain from assuming that persons who believe - and even proclaim - differently than we, must, in virtue of these facts, be a part of the control system itself (whether consciously or not).

But, more than this, I think that Secret Sun's argument isn't very tightly argued, after all.

Again, for all I *know*, he might be correct. But, his hedging (for example, as suggested by the repeated caveat that "I'm simply engaging in a thought experiment...") - which hedging (mainly detectable in the word "simply") I think is an evidence of sobriety - tends to weaken the case that his opponents in argument (namely, Alex Jones) are obviously wrong - let alone that they are obviously lying or disinforming people on purpose.

His chief reason, by my reading, involves not a little hand-waving and revolves around the question "cui bono?" - who benefits? (Again, as Chomsky might say, ever dictator in the world arguably "benefits".) To this point, he rehearses a string of questions: "Ask yourself this: where could James Holmes and the other unemployed killers have gotten all of that expensive firepower and armor? If they couldn't afford it, could someone have given it to them? Who would be able to most easily and cheaply do so? Who would be able to supply a lone nut with all the firepower he could handle and later be able to reap a massive monetary windfall from their actions? Who is out there trying to cultivate an atmosphere of fear and terror in order to create demand for their products? Who believes, like Chairman Mao, that political power comes from the barrel of a gun?"

Now, the devil is in the details, which I haven't space (or competence, perhaps) presently to get into. My point is simply this: For all that has been said in the post, I don't think that strong reasons have been advanced for the thesis that one could NOT cogently answer "the government" as opposed to "the gun lobby" to each one of Secret Sun's questions.

I am not interested, here, in "scoring" some sort of contest between Jones/Watsons and Secret Sun. What I am interested in is the form of the exchange:

Jones/Watson says, "A is responsible for S."
Secret Sun says, "B is responsible for S."
According to Secret Sun (and he may be accurate, here), Jones/Watson say or imply that "anyone who says 'it is not the case that A is responsible for S' is a disinformation agent."
Secret Sun says, "Since Jones/Watsins say or imply that 'it is not the case that B is responsible for S' Jones/Watsons are disinformation agents."

I honestly don't see much of interest here. It seems like Pharasaism with dollops of name-calling. And both Jones/Watson (if Secret Sun's report of Jones/Watson is veridical) and Secret Sun seem to be ignoring Ellul's dictum.

Plausibly, we're all immersed in this propaganda system. Plausibly, the system is supposed to elicit in us the perception, at every turning, no matter which road we take, that we're on the road to truth.

Believing Ellul's dictum, then, should rightly prompt a little charity in us towards those who believe differently.

For everyone also seems to believe this: "There's too much at stake to fall for entertaining bullshit anymore, especially when it's married to a very troubling and manipulative political agenda."

Who's going to disagree?

The questions are: What are the defining features of "bullshit" and what is the relevant "political agenda"? Etc.

These are interesting questions. And to get at them, we need deep thinking and careful collection of evidence. I think more time should be devoted to these enterprises and less time to trying to "call out" disinformers and liars. Very plausible overaching premises of propaganda simply seem to me to undercut the force of much of these. Plus, as I have said, it smacks of Pharisaism and in-fighting.

And if there is one thing that seems indisputable (even if it is disputable whether the mandarins of power are fearful or are gleeful over a populace acrmed with handguns) it's that a group that fights amongst itself is tremendously weakened. It's something like a "divide and conquer" strategy. Of course, let us fight and get into smaller and smaller groups over issues like who the "real" disinformers are. If there are strength in numbers, we need to find ways towards unity, not division.

(Incidently, I think that there are additional problems. I think both "the government" and "the gun lobby" are vague descriptions and are in need of quite a lot of precisification. I think that it's a mistake to think of restrictions regarding "mental health" as being narrow (which seems to be implied in the presentation) - I think they're arguably quite broad. Also, I think that Ellul's dictum is too coarse-grained. Just to give a flavor of this latter concern: I'm inclined to argue that there are earmarks of truth that can transcend the propaganda system. And, what's more, I think Ellul has to believe this as well - on pain of contradiction (or, at least, deep tension). For Ellul himself purports to truly describe the propaganda system. However, either Ellul was in the propaganda system with us, or he was not. If he was, then the fact that he believed his description to be a description of truth could be explicable as a function of the propaganda on Ellul himself. And if he was not in the propaganda system with us, then might have worries along either of two main lines. And there is a cross-cutting epistemic worry in addition: Did Ellul just believe that he wasn't in the system, or was he not in the system in fact? If he just believed that he wasn't, he of course could have been mistaken - and, by his own principle, could hardly have justifiably believed that he was not in the system. But if he wasn't in the system in fact, there are two lines of worry, neither of which is insuperable. First, one might think that he simply lacked the relevant experience to write as he did. Second, one might think his being free from the system is suspicious in and of itself. He would be like unto the upper Echelons of control in Huxley's "Brave New World," or something.)

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