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Culture War Roundup for the week of August 7, 2023

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Why Cross-Examination Is So Damn Great

There's an obvious solace within the written medium. You get to carve out a space safe from constraints and take as much as you need to fully express yourself. Words are neat! I mean, just look at the torrential avalanche I regularly shit out just on my own.

But still, I don't want people to forget about the benefits to real-time adversarial conversations, benefits which cannot be as easily replicated with writing. I recently wrote (ahem) about how humans have this nasty aversion to admitting error. You'll rarely ever get someone willing to outright say "I am a liar" and the roomy comfort that we all love so much about text also provides bad faith actors the ability to build up elaborate defensive ramparts in peace. Nevertheless, even in instances where a smoking gun confession is missing, I cite to a few examples to outline how you can still construct a damning indictment using only a few minor inference hops:

Ehrlich is playing a seemingly uncomfortable game of Twister here, but his behavior makes perfect sense if you read intelligence and agency behind his decisions. The only explanation for the indirect, tangential, and collateral measurements is that Ehrlich knows that a direct measurement will not be favorable to his pet theory. He does not believe in truth, but rather believes in belief as the kids say, and he's not willing to jeopardize it.

Of course, this gets way easier to accomplish in a real-time confrontation. Chalk it up to the stereotype but yes, I fucking love cross-examination and I want to explain why. Lessons From The Screenplay had a fantastic video analyzing the climactic cross-examination from the movie A Few Good Men while using the vocabulary normally reserved to discuss physical duels. The story's hook is watching the military lawyer protagonist (Kaffee) figure out how he can elicit an outright confession from a notoriously disciplined and experienced commander (Jessep) using only the 'weapons' found within a courtroom. The primary elegance of cross-examination as a weapon stems from the fact that, when done successfully, you can fabricate a solid cage for your opponents using only their own words as ingredients. Kaffee does exactly this by asking questions that appear superficially innocent but, when joined together, weld into a formidable trap Jessep is unable to escape.

I want to highlight a few other recent examples, running the gamut across the political spectrum. My aim here is not to ignite a debate about the specific issue that happens to be discussed (though a toe dip is inevitable) but rather to comment on the rhetorical maneuvers at play and see what lessons we can impart. And a strong word of caution is warranted here: It's true that some this veers dangerously close to mind-reading, which is obviously prone to confirmation bias and erroneous conclusions. With that in mind my goal is to ensure that any conclusion I reach is both solidly grounded within the available evidence and appropriately qualified (with any alternative explanations highlighted). I think the utility is worth the risk of error, and the harm can be mitigated by a commitment to acknowledging one's own mistakes.

First up is Nathan Robinson interviewing Christopher Rufo, specifically the part where they discuss whether the Founding Fathers were racist hypocrites — extolling the virtues of liberty while also owning slaves:

Robinson: You don't believe that Thomas Jefferson was a racist?

Rufo: It's not true. It's such a lazy reduction.

Robinson: Do you want me to quote him? [...]

Rufo: So I think to go back and say, "Oh, they're all racist." It's just so lazy.

Robinson: But it's true. It's not lazy, it's just a fact. [...] Again, it seems a way to not acknowledge that the country was founded by people who held Black people in chains and thought they were inferior.

Rufo: I acknowledge that. That's a fact. That's a historical fact. I don't see how anyone would deny that. [...] But to say that they are racist is a different claim because you're taking an ideological term and then back imposing it on them to discredit their work advancing equality. And so I think that I reject it in a linguistic frame, while acknowledging the factual basis that there was slavery.

Robinson: "The blacks are inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind." That's Jefferson. Is that not racist?

Rufo: I disagree with that statement. I don't know what you want me to say.

Robinson: I want you to say it's racist.

Rufo: Saying "oh, we're going to cherry pick one sentence."

Robinson: I want you to tell the truth. I want you to tell the truth about this man.

So Rufo finds himself in a bit of a pickle. He's fully aware that he can't say "Thomas Jefferson, the man who believed blacks were inferior and held 130 of them in bondage, was not a racist" with a straight face. But simultaneously he also expends a lot of acrobatic energy trying to dodge answering a straightforward question. The italicized portion of his statement above explains why. Although Rufo has made his career as a stalwart opponent of Critical Race Theory (however you define it) he reveals that he might accept one of its core tropes — that the United States is indelibly and irredeemably tainted by its original sin of racism. Notice that Robinson did not ask "Should we discredit Jefferson's work in advancing equality?" he simply asked if Jefferson was racist. But Rufo looks past Robinson's question and sees the warning beacons coming up on the horizon, and so he charges forward in an effort to preemptively maintain a defensive line on ideas he suspects would next be attacked.

According to his own words, Rufo divulges that he thinks racism is potentially grounds to have your accomplishments discredited. If you accept that framework then it makes sense why he would expend so much energy avoiding admitting that Jefferson was racist; the fear is that this concession would cause the rest of his favored structure to crumble. It's not likely we would've gotten this admission in writing; he had to be cornered by his own statements in real-time for this to slip.

I am going to now praise Tim Pool of all people. A few months ago he invited Lance/TheSerfsTV to his livestream to be grilled on a range of topics. On the abortion question, some of the more enthusiastic pro-choice activists have staked their position on legalizing elective abortion not just at the "viability" line (~22 weeks) but up until the millisecond the fetus exists the birth canal. Lance affirms this is his position, claiming that the mother should always maintain full and absolute autonomy over what happens with the pregnancy. But as the real-time discussion evinced, it's not clear if he actually believes this:

Seamus: You believe that the moment the child is outside of the birth canal, that they are now endowed with human rights.

Lance: Yes.

Seamus: However, when they are inside of the mother, literally anything you do to them is acceptable because they're inside of the mother.

Lance: Oh no, I don't think anything's acceptable, but I think the mother should still have the choice — ultimate authority over what happens to her body. [crosstalk]

Tim: Wait wait wait hold on hold on. What about meth?

Lance: Like she should be allowed to do meth? I think if someone is doing meth while they're pregnant, that it is completely acceptable for [child protective services to get involved].

Tim: Woah but that's her body though.

Lance: Yeah it's her body.

Tim: She wants to do meth, what's the big deal?

Lance: The big deal is that she's intentionally trying to kill a child. [flashes of cosmic realization]

Tim: Hold on there a minute.

Lance: Yeah. And I see where we're going.

Tim: I don't- I don't understand what you're saying. It's her body. If she wants to do meth, what's the problem?

Lance: [pregnant pause] Well first off doing meth is illegal period. Doesn't matter if you're doing it with a child or without a child.

Such a spectacular reveal would not have made it through the cognitive filters had it not taken place in real time. If someone's position is that a pregnant woman can do whatever she wants with her body, up to and including terminating the life of the fetus, it logically follows that such an expansive authority would also include less fatal harms. But as Lance discloses in the moment, he doesn't believe that a pregnant woman has the right to take meth and so he offers a justification that is on its own eminently reasonable, but only after it's too late does he realize the self-inflicted rhetorical leg sweep he tripped into.

The rest of the conversation gets bogged down on the legality of certain drugs but to Lance's credit, he does eventually bite the bullet and concede that although he may not agree with the decision he still believes a pregnant woman has the right to take heroin. The eventual consistency is commendable, but the fact that he so reflexively resorted to the commanding ethos of "do not intentionally kill a child" should call into question how much he really believes in the "absolute dominion of the mother" position he insisted upon.

Lastly is our old friend Meghan Murphy again. I already wrote extensively about the numerous logical fallacies deployed in her conversation with Aella on the ethics of the sex industry. Murphy also discussed the same topic with professional debate bro Destiny and he describes the fundamental issue after she had walked out in frustration:

This is what somebody will do, they'll say "I don't like cheeseburgers, because they have meat, the buns look orange, and because they go in my mouth." Then I'll say what if the bun was blue? And they'll go like "I still wouldn't like it." Ok what if the bun was blue and you ate them with your hands? "I still wouldn't like that." Ok what if the bun was blue, you ate them with your hands, and it didn't have meat or whatever? and "I still wouldn't like that." Ok then why the fuck would you tell me all these reasons why you don't like it when none of them are actually important to why you don't like it?

That's a fair question! If someone says they don't like X because of reasons A/B/C, and you get rid of A/B/C but they still don't like X, then it inevitably follows they have other reasons for disliking X they're not divulging. What Destiny has outlined here is an effective method to uncovering pretextual justifications — the false reasons someone provides as a bid to keep the true reasons hidden (likely because they're too unpalatable or unpersuasive to say out loud).

Destiny spends an agonizing amount of time trying to get Murphy to explain what her precise objections to the sex industry are and gets nowhere, and their final exchange illustrates why. They're discussing one of Murphy's argument that the sex trade is unethical because of women's particular vulnerability during penetrative sex:

Destiny: I understand that women are particularly vulnerable during sex, that's probably true. How do you feel about male prostitutes then? Do you think that it would be ethical for men to do sex work?

Murphy: Um, what I don't think is ethical is again for a man to pay a woman or a man for sex.

[crosstalk & sidetracking]

Destiny: So I'm going to ask again: is it unethical to pay men for sex? If a male wants to do pornography or if a male wants to sell his body for sex? Is that unethical?

Murphy: Yeah, I think it's unethical to pay anyone for sex.

Destiny: Okay. Then the vulnerability and the penetration part don't matter then. I don't know why you bring that up if a guy can't even sell his body for sex then—

Murphy: Well he's being penetrated also, no?

Destiny: But what if it's a male prostitute that has women but not with a strap-on?

Murphy: Oh I mean that's a real common thing eh? How many women do know who have ever paid for sex with a male prostitute? I mean, I think that's unethical too.

Destiny: Ok! That's what I'm getting at! I'm just trying to figure out why you think it's unethical!

[more crosstalk & yelling]

Murphy: Every time I start explaining my arguments you interrupt me and act completely exasperated because I'm not saying what you want me to say. You want to frame the conversation in a way that I am not interested in framing the conversation. Like the way that I want to talk about this is not how you want to talk about it and you can't accept that. The way I'm looking at this is not the way that you're looking at it but you don't really want to hear how I'm looking at it. You want to have the conversation you want to have so there's not really any point to this. You don't want to learn anything you don't want to hear, so you are just annoyed that I'm saying something you don't want me to say.

[more crosstalk & yelling]

Destiny: I'm not showing off to anybody! I'm just trying to have a conversation, I don't even know why you're against sex work! That's what I'm trying to figure out right now.

Murphy: I appreciate the big show that you're having but I don't want to continue this if you're going to keep interrupting me.

Take note of the italicized responses; that kind of evasion is not a generally pervasive reaction for Murphy. She speaks for a living and within other moments in this debate and elsewhere, Murphy has demonstrated a clear ability to confidently answers questions with immediacy and relevancy. It can't be just a coincidence when acrobatics are prompted only by these vexing questions.

Murphy's responses make a lot more sense if you assume that her true objections to the sex industry are really borne out of an aesthetic or disgust aversion, and specifically only when men are the patrons. Murphy is evidently aware that this argument can't be spoken out loud because it's likely too vacant to be generally persuasive, so she instead cycles through a rolodex of pretextual (read: fake) arguments that she's willing to unhesitantly discard whenever they risk becoming a liability to her core thesis. That's why she dodges the male prostitute hypothetical to instead reiterate her dislike of men paying women for sex. That's why she laughs off the female client hypothetical as implausible instead of grappling with its implications.

I'm comfortable accusing Murphy of dishonesty here because her acrobatic evasions are selectively deployed in response to concrete threats to her position, rather than the result of random chance.

It's unfortunate that human beings sometimes lie, and it's too bad that they also refuse to admit mistakes. Such is life. Given the examples I outlined above, some generalizable heuristics is to be suspicious of anyone who refuses to answer straightforward questions (in writing or otherwise), or who refuses to engage in anything but the most sympathetic of conversations. A lot of our contentious interactions have and continue to migrate over towards asynchronous text exchanges, but hopefully I've made a case for why talking is still cool. Also I host The Bailey podcast and I'm always delighted to talk to people I vehemently disagree with, so reach out if you want to butt heads!

As a parting bonus, here's the journalist Beth Rigby interviewing Iain Anderson, chair of the LGBT organization Stonewall. It's quite the bloodbath.

Overall, this is a great post, and I think you have a good point. However, I beleive you overargue it a bit, and even the insinuation that these examples might involve lying or dishonesty, is under-evidenced here(thought not necessarily untrue, just over interpreted given you're examples).

There's a very real difference in cross-examining on material facts of a situation from epistemic positions, and I think you're extending the implications of contradictions in the former too much into the latter. If I ask you 'where were you?, when?, what did you do?, with who?, and so on, and you provide me answers that self-contradict or are contradicted with other evidence, then I can fairly accuse you of being dishonest or mistaken.

Partly, this is because we're working on a very clear frame of ontology and epistemology that nobody is pushing back against. We're working within a materialist, physical reality that is universal and constant, and so forth. Contradictions that cannot exist in that shared framework must be reconciled, they are not usually allowed as evidence against the framework.

Imagine to the contrary, someone, when faced with a contradicting timeline, tried to argue that this is because of an update to the simulation or because of Christmas magic. You could dismiss as lying or crazy, but assume you didn't. To engage them, and get back to your orignal accusation of impossible contradiction between Event A and B, you must first travel down one level and redefend the consistent materialist frame. If your witness's entire argument rests on the existence of Christmas magic, and you refuse their allowance of arguing or even answering within a framework where that might exist, then you will walk away with the appearance of simple inconsistency, and interpretations of dishonesty, insanity, or stupidity.

So that's a somewhat silly scenario, because we all know that Christmas magic can't change the rules of physics and that we don't live in a simulation (right? don't we know that?).But the crux in epistemic, ideological, and political debates, is that the "we all know" is far less founded than in empirical examinations. When the examiner sets the frame, he controls the debate.

Chris Ruffo's example gets at this swimmingly, and he even tries to get to this meta-argument and it isn't accepted by the presenter (at least in your exerpt).

In his book, The Allure of Order about how educational debates are framed, Jal Mehta lays out three ways in which a particular paradigm in a debate shapes it. The main point is that having first mover advantage on setting the paradigm is powerful because replacing a paradigm is much more difficult, and the existing paradigm has tremendous authority over the conversation.

1. Consitutive (interpretations) effects. The paradigm sets the way an issue is conceived and discussed. 2. Strategic (incentives) actions. The paradigm creates opportunities for those who's views are consistent with it. 3. Regulative (intersubjective) function. It constrains the positions those who oppose the paradigm can take.

You can see all three of these on display quite clearly in the Ruffo example. And if you simply accept the paradigm, it might look like Rufo's in an epistemic jam. But if you reversed the cross examination, you would have seen an equal and opposite jam. These say nothing about who's epistemic position is inconsistent, because it only says that the conclusions of the one actor is inconsistent with the frame of the others... Which is not as interesting or 'gotcha' as it seems.

We see this also in your interpretation of the Murphey example, where you force a reframe of what's more likely a deontological view as an aesthetic one:

Murphy's responses make a lot more sense if you assume that her true objections to the sex industry are really borne out of an aesthetic or disgust aversion, and specifically only when men are the patrons.

This seems inaccurate, and you use that to ground your entire critique.Without the full clip, what I see Murphy doing here is having a deontological opinion, but defending it inside a paradigm about effects and outcomes. No fault to Destiny here. In fact, effects and outcomes, is kind of the default way to discuss morality across unsettled moral frameworks. But this has a constitutive effect, initially setting the converstaion into a causal discussion. There's nothign dishonest about taking this up, especially because the conversational cost to resetting the paradigm is great and rarely effective. (See Rufo's attempt).

Because we're talking effects and outcomes, Murphey takes the strategic position of showing the bad outcomes. But when it comes to exceptional examples, the regulative function of the paradigm set contrains her from being able extend the worldview. What we see here is an existing paradigm chase someone who's framework doesn't actually fit into a corner, not necessarily a breakdown of her actual position.

Now I think you get at this with your interpretation, but I think you mis-characterize it as her dishonestly hiding her real objection, when I think it's really getting chased down from trying to play along with a different framework's boundaries in realtime.

Sure, Murphey could have threaded this needle better by saying something like, "Male prostitutes for women are tremendously rare. Nominally allowing them, creates a standard of inequality for imperceptible benefit. Whether or not I find it wrong objectively is beside my point about the real-world affect of female prostitution on women."

But the fact that she didn't isn't really a point against here. When you drop someone else in your own maze, it's a hollow gloat that they get lost. What is interesting is whether they get lost in mazes they got to choose.

With that, we get to Tim Pool's example which is different, and notably happens because Tim interjects, he's not the cross-examiner.

Remember before I said:

These say nothing about who's epistemic position is inconsistent, because it only says that the conclusions of the one actor is inconsistent with the frame of the others... Which is not as interesting or 'gotcha' as it seems.

Here, Pool allows Lance to draw out his own framework. The "mother's body, mother's choice" has no starting point in the pro-lifer's frame. And Lance walks into an open contradiction within his own set of justification. It's somewhat similar to Murphey, but you already admitted that Murphey here probably isn't arguing her actual epistemic foundation around prostitution. There's no appearnce that Lance isn't. Lance is just proving that his heuristic is undercooked. It's nothing like the Rufo situation, which is just open paradigm warfare.

I really appreciate how thorough and thoughtful this response is. I should have perhaps made it clearer that live debate has plenty of failure mode, particularly with how a conversation gets framed.

But if you reversed the cross examination, you would have seen an equal and opposite jam. These say nothing about who's epistemic position is inconsistent, because it only says that the conclusions of the one actor is inconsistent with the frame of the others... Which is not as interesting or 'gotcha' as it seems.

I don't think I understand this, what do you mean by "reverse" the cross-examination? I'm guessing you might mean an alternative scenario where Rufo asks Robinson about Jefferson's legacy but Robinson refuses to say anything positive about it? If that's how the discussion shakes out then yes I agree that would establish Robinson's position as inconsistent. It's perfectly possible for both of them to each hold inconsistent positions, showcasing that one person is using dodgy reasoning does not imply the other participant is innocent. [It's not relevant to your hypothetical, but in the interview Rufo does reverse the roles and asks multiple questions which to his credit Robinson readily answers.]

Re: Murphy

This seems inaccurate, and you use that to ground your entire critique.Without the full clip, what I see Murphy doing here is having a deontological opinion, but defending it inside a paradigm about effects and outcomes.

I agree with your analysis here based on the excerpt I picked out. I omitted a significant amount of prior discussion just because I wanted to be mindful of space, but I should have been more explicit. A commentator elsewhere made a similar point so I'll just repost part of my response:

The lead up to this particular exchange is relevant because Murphy was first arguing that sex work is bad because it's coercive, and it's by definition coercive because it involves someone having sex they wouldn't otherwise have were it not for the money offered. Destiny offers the obvious rejoinder that if you accept that premise, then ALL jobs are also "by definition coercive" as well. There's some anti-capitalists that actually agree with this premise but Murphy doesn't and so she finds herself having to add yet another qualifier to her argument, this time about how women are much more vulnerable during sex. Similarly, there are radical feminists that actually believe that ALL heterosexual sex is "by definition coercive" because it's penetrative and occurs within a patriarchal system where consent is impossible. Murphy has to be aware of these arguments, but as an unapologetic heterosexual woman, she doesn't want to concede that. At this point my impression is she quit because she ran out of pivots.

Re: Lance

Here, Pool allows Lance to draw out his own framework. The "mother's body, mother's choice" has no starting point in the pro-lifer's frame. And Lance walks into an open contradiction within his own set of justification. It's somewhat similar to Murphey, but you already admitted that Murphey here probably isn't arguing her actual epistemic foundation around prostitution. There's no appearnce that Lance isn't. Lance is just proving that his heuristic is undercooked.

I concede that "undercooked heuristic" is a possible explanation for what transpired but I'm not convinced because of how Lance's pivots were deployed. Reflexively his first objection was based on a straight forward "thou shall not intentionally kill a child" ethos, which I believe is revealing because it sheds some light on what Lance believes 'kill' and 'child' to mean. When he realizes how much he stumbled, he doesn't acknowledge that, he just pivots to another reason ("meth is illegal") that seems even more undercooked. Granted, the lack of an acknowledgement is not dispositive given the real-time nature of the discussion and how many people were ganging up on, but my impression of the exchange still falls along the lines of "oh damn, I admitted something I wasn't supposed to, now I have to think of another reason." My interpretation can indeed be characterized as a stretch, but it's also not set in stone and I would be interested to hear an alternative explanation from the man himself.

Eh, a deontological view of morality is, to caricature, 'sex is bad because it's on the list of Bad Things that my society told me I just know, ya know'. There's not really much defending to be done, within that framework, it's just on the moral-duty-list or it isn't. And I think that corresponds to a real flaw in Murphy's position that no framing fixes.

Destiny wasn't losing that debate no matter how things were 'framed', because Murphy's just not a capable thinker or debater. Obviously, there are plenty of strong and coherent cases against pornography.

To be quite fair, I dony know who either of these people are or the debate beyond what @ymeskhout quoted. My point was mostly about the power of the frame and the difficulty epistemic differences bring to claiming contradictions in a value based discussion as compared to a fact based one