Posts Tagged ‘rhetoric’
One of the great annoyances and proofs of human stupidity is the many, many, many news items where poor reasoning or ignorance is used to support a politically correct agenda (be it by the journalist or the politicians, whatnot, reported on). I regularly find myself keeping a browser tab open, because I want to write something about a particularly idiotic item—but before I get around to it a week has passed and I have ten open tabs. (At which point I usually resign myself and just close them.)
Particularly common problems include:
- Variations of the 77-cents-on-the-dollar myth, which has been debunked for years*. Recently, e.g., the video-text of the German ARD reported that Germany is about to introduce transparency rules implying that women should have a (presumably asymmetric) right to find out what men in similar positions in their companies earn.
*Cf. e.g. several earlier posts.
A major problem with this is that just having the same (let alone a “similar”) position is not that strong an indication of what someone earns or should earn. Other criteria include actual performance, experience, education, how long the position has been held, and (very notably) negotiating* skill and tactic.
*It could be argued that this is a bad thing, but as is it is a fact of life. I also suspect that it would be hard to abolish without risking a system where everyone is payed based on purely formal criteria, e.g. years in the company.
The last item is particularly interesting, because men* tend to be more aggressive negotiators and are relatively more likely to turn down offers based on money—while increasing the risk of periods of unemployment and rejections. We can now have scenarios where four out of four women are hired at X (in some currency, for some time interval), while out of four more aggressively negotiating men three are hired at 1.1X and the fourth goes unemployed. The women find out that the three men earn more (while being ignorant of or disregarding the fourth), demand a raise with charges of sexual discrimination, and we end up with four women and three men earning 1.1X and one unemployed man… One group takes the high risk road for a higher reward and the other group receives the same reward without taking the risks… (With many variations, e.g., that is possible that everyone would have gotten 1.1X at a given company—but that only the men asked for it. Negotiations are there because the employers want to pay the least amount they can get away with—not because they want to systematically give women less money. I have even been asked outright what the smallest offer was that I would accept…)
*Here and elsewhere I take is as granted that we speak of group differences, relative probabilities, and so on. That individual variations exists is a given and will not be spelled out.
The first item (performance) is also of of extreme importance: In software development, my own field of practice, the difference in output and quality can be so large that it would often be easily justifiable to pay the one developer twice as much as the other. (Unfortunately, the decision makers are usually under the very unfortunate misconception that software developers are fungible and differences of that size are far rarer than they should be. Still, that someone earns 10, 20, 0r 30 % more is not automatically a sign of discrimination, skill at negotiation, or any non-performance factor—quite often it is a result of better performance.)
- Variations of women-are-not-successful-in-technology-due-to-discrimination.
The truth is simply this: Men and women have different aptitudes and interests. Men more often end up as e.g. software developers and women as e.g. kindergarten teachers because that matches their natural preferences. Too boot, the women I have encountered so far in software development have only very rarely broken into the top half of the pack; off the top of my head, I recall no single woman who broke into the top quarter. (But I stress that my sample is too small to make statements about the overall population of female developers with certainty.)
A particularly idiotic example is reporting on Facebook’s diversity program (which I originally encountered in a German news source which just parrots the original without any critical thinking).
Facebook wants to diversify, but this “has been hampered by a multi-layered hiring process that gives a small committee of high-ranking engineers veto power over promising candidates”. Of course those pesky white men are at it again: “The engineering leaders making the ultimate choices, almost all white or Asian men, often assessed candidates on traditional metrics like where they attended college, whether they had worked at a top tech firm, or whether current Facebook employees could vouch for them”.
What makes this particularly outrageous is the mention of “white or Asian men” in manner that very obviously is intended to imply that “white or Asian men” is the actual problem. It is not: The criteria used by these “white or Asian men” are sound and justified. The problem here is not the decision making process—it is the lack of suitable candidates. If (!) there is a problem here it is not with Facebook but with earlier stages: Facebook cannot be faulted if too few members of minority groups have gone to Stanford and MIT. This article* makes creating diversity a higher priority than finding the right person for the job at hand—an absurd attempt to create equality of outcome through destroying equality of opportunity. Notably, there is not one shred of proof presented that the decision makers would discriminate based on e.g. ethnicity—but if the lead of the article was followed, they would be forced to do so!
*There are a number of problems with the article that I will not analyze in detail, but most of them boil down to observing result X and concluding Y without regard for other alternatives. For instance, it is true that using school as a criterion at the last stage of the process, rather than the first stage, is a bad idea—but if school has not been considered appropriately in the earlier stages and the sensible people only have a say in the last stage, well, better late than never. For instance, the claim that promising candidates, cf. above, are filtered out, is unsubstantiated and an explanation of “promising” is not given. For all we know, “promising” could here mean nothing but “is Hispanic, has a bachelor, wants to work here”—which is a long way from “is Hispanic, has a master from MIT with a great GPA, and has ten years of relevant experience”.
(Not to forget: There is nothing remarkable with these decision makers being “white or Asian men”. Almost certainly this also reflects the suitable candidates in an earlier generation.)
What has happened here is easy to understand: Facebook started to search for more diversified candidates, put them into the process, and found them being filtered out again, because they were not satisfactory. By analogy, if a fisherman casts his net wider, he will still not get the fish that is small enough to slip through the net.
- “Mäns våld mot kvinnor” (“mens’ violence against women”) is a Swedish specialty, but has similar variations in e.g. the U.S. (notably the misconception that domestic violence is committed predominantly by men onto women, which is very far from true).
Using this specific phrase, feminists has spent decades running a grossly sexist campaign that paints men as serial abusers and women as innocent victims. Violence in the other direction and any other form of violence is strictly ignored. Violence simply is not a problem for these people—except when the perpetrator is a man and the victim a woman. To boot, “Mäns våld mot kvinnor” is painted as gigantic problem, while it in reality is a marginal issue: The vast majority of men do not in any way, shape, or form abuse their women.
Unfortunately, feminist populism has become such a staple in Swedish mainstream political rhetoric that this type of hate speech and sexist rhetoric is regularly uttered even by high level politicians.
One of the most common problems encountered in debates (in particular, against groups like feminists or creationists) is the use of misrepresentations in the strawman-line: A statement is made that is partially true, but which is distorted, exaggerated, or otherwise made into an easy, but ultimately irrelevant, target. A classic example is the sometime creationist claim that evolutionists think that pure chance is behind evolution—followed by “counter-proofs” like the analogy with the Shakespeare-replicating monkeys or the jet plane assembled by a tornado.
I recentlye encountered a debater who made several statements that I took (and still take, actually) to be strawmen, but where the author claims that they were merely hyperbole. For example, to support the speculation that children would be affected by what they perceive as “gender-adequate” behaviour:
Pojkar leker inte med bebisdockor. Men män tycker (i allmänhet) om att umgås med sina riktiga bebisar.
(Boys do not play with baby dolls. But men (generally) like spending time with their real babies.)
Now, the second half may or may not be true (I suspect very great individual variations and a far lower “saturation threshold” than for the mothers); however, the first is very decidedly an exaggeration.
The most obvious conclusion is that this is simply a strawman: The reasoning is based on a claimed change in behaviour between boys and men—and this change, if at all existent, is noticeably smaller in reality than in the claim. With the exaggerated difference, a point can be made; without the exaggeration, the point is no longer, or only partially, valid.
(As an aside, even if the statements had been true, the proposed conclusion was but one of several possible explanations. Indeed, the opposite conclusion seems more natural to me: Little boys go by their inborn instincts towards babies, whereas fathers have an altered behaviour towards specifically their own off-spring as the result of some bonding mechanism—or through brain-washing about what the “correct” behaviour for a modern man is.)
My pointing to a strawman, however, was rejected by the author: She had merely used hyperbole—or what Wikipediaw describes as:
[…]the use of exaggeration as a rhetorical device or figure of speech.[…]
[…]An example of hyperbole is: “The bag weighed a ton”. Hyperbole helps to make the point that the bag was very heavy although it is not probable that it would actually weigh a ton.[…]
If we are kind and take the author at her word, she actually meant “Boys rarely play with dolls.” and used the stronger formulation for effect. In a next step, the question arises: What proportion of perceived strawmen are actually strawmen and what is merely incompetent (s. below) reasoning/formulation? Seeing that perceived strawmen are particularly common with feminists and related heavy-with-women groups (e.g. the politically correct or those in favour of social-constructivism) and that women are very prone to categorical exaggeration in arguments (“You never take my side!”, “You always forget to [x]!”, “You never do the dishes!”), the proportion could be quite high. If so, this has non-trivial implications both on how a particular misstatement should be interpreted and on how it should be reject/corrected. (While the details will vary from case to case, greater diplomacy and constructiveness is called for when dealing with errors in good faith and incompetence than with deliberate or malicious distortions.)
Obviously, incompetence is better than malice in this case; however, incompetence is bad enough and hyperbole (and similar forms of exaggeration) should be avoided: Most notably, it becomes hard to tell when a statement should be taken literally and when as exaggeration, which damages all involved parties. Further, unnecessary ambiguity is introduced: When I replaced “never” with “rarely” above, I speculated—possibly, the true back-translation is “less often than girls”/“less often than the men in the next sentence”, “almost never”, “not that often”, … Because the author did not say what she actually meant, there is no way to deduce the exact intention from the text alone. (See also an earlier text on litotes, a form of rhetorical understatement.)
More generally, rhetoric is largely the art of making people believe things irrespective of the facts—and as such it should be used sparingly: If the facts support a claim, then the facts can talk and the rhetoric be silent; if they do not support the claim, then rhetoric should certainly not be abused to shout the facts down.
(Note: “Strawman” in the strict sense applies to misrepresentation specifically of the opponents opinion. Above, and often elsewhere, I slightly misapply the word to represent a more general group of distortions that have the common aim of making a weak argument/position/enemy appear to be the “real McCoy”.)