My first post and my rules of engagement
A few weeks ago I noticed that a near-majority of the writers I habitually follow had migrated to Substack, or were planning on doing so in the near future. I’m as vulnerable to peer pressure(or hero worship) as anybody, and I’m eager to shake the cobwebs off my mostly-fine writing and join in the fun.
But this desire to participate caused one of my old dilemmas to resurface, with a vengeance. Writing itself is easy, or at least easy enough that I can do it. But having something meaningful to write about is a bit harder, and most of the topics that interest me are already fully covered(or over-covered) by better, smarter and more experienced thinkers than myself.
I spent some time looking through my old work and looking for the kind of writing I do the most of, working under the assumption that what I do the most of is likely what I enjoy the most, whether I know it or not. I found that the kind of writing I return to the most is simply disagreeing with people, finding what I consider to be flaws in their arguments and picking them apart piece by piece.
And all this reminded me of something I hadn’t thought about in a long time.
The “Resident Asshole” Concept
A long time ago, I proposed a concept to a friend who worked as a relatively senior editor at a magazine: What if every major publication employed a person who produced no articles of their own, but instead spent their time performing hostile prepublication review of the “real” journalists and writers before their work was released for general consumption?
Ten years ago, it was already apparent that most legacy-media magazines and websites were slowly doing away with any meaningful ideological diversity. In the Trump era, this ceased to be a slow process. With the ultimate hated boogeyman looming over the industry, editors and staff found all the the justification they needed to turn this uniformity-creep into a nearly explicit policy. If you go take a look the present day’s The Atlantic or NYT, you will find a universality of thought and opinion in all the writers that far eclipses anything we’ve ever seen in western media. Going against the prevailing thought-tide at one of those publications means putting your job at jeopardy, as perhaps is shown most clearly by the numbers of free-thinkers fleeing to Substack.
It’s possible that some people don’t consider this to be a negative development, but even if you are down for group-think it’s hard to completely ignore the downsides. If you want an argument tested and improved, you don’t go to someone that agrees with you; you find someone likely to disagree and let them bring their best arguments against your point. That kind of disagreement just isn’t possible at the New York Magazine or Vox of today.
This is what the Resident Asshole concept was meant to correct. Uniformity of opinion means that the confirmation bias all goes one direction, which means arguments go unchallenged and we all suffer.
The Rules of Engagement
I don’t pretend that what I’m trying to do is unique - response pieces are hardly a new concept. But I’m hoping to approach all this in a somewhat systematic way that looks at the same few aspects of any argument I challenge:
The argument you are intended to hear
The imbedded, often hidden argument the author wants to be successful
The changes the successful argument would demand
If I tell you that discrimination and inequality in K-12 educational funding is a problem that should be remedied, it’s hard to disagree with my argument, at least on it’s face. But this isn’t always or even very often where my argument ends. If I’m an honest and thorough person, I’ll make this clear. If I’m not, I might hope you stopped at the surface level of my argument - that way, I could get your support for something you might not agree with at all.
If my argument was to “win” - to garner enough supporters that I might be able to influence actual change with it - then the construction of my argument would make a huge difference to the actions we’d expect to be taken to correct the wrongs I pointed out.
Using the K-12 educational funding example from above, let’s look at that same argument through the lenses of both equality and equity. Equality might argue something like this:
Everyone deserves a shot at success, but we can’t pretend to be giving everyone a fair shot if some kids get less government funding than others. It’s fair and right that per-student school funding be standardized, and that we provide oversight to make sure their funding is used in an effective way.
Equity might argue this:
Everyone deserves success, and we can’t pretend we are giving everyone a fair shot if we continue to see differences in the outcomes different students experience. We need to construct a system that produces success at similar levels for every student, no matter the cost.
Ibram Kendi often makes the second argument for a variety of things, but when he mentions educational inequality in an article, it’s often just that: He mentions it, but doesn’t explain what he’d like done about it. From this article:
Abolish police violence. Abolish mass incarceration. Abolish the racial wealth gap and the gap in school funding. Abolish barriers to citizenship. Abolish voter suppression. Abolish health disparities.
Seems simple enough; educational inequality is bad. Kendi would likely like very much for his readers to take him at face value here, and I’m sure many do. But the picture changes a lot when we look at what Kendi actually thinks about inequality:
the america that denied its racism through the Obama years has struggled to deny its racism through the Trump years. From 1977 to 2018, the General Social Survey asked whether Black Americans “have worse jobs, income, and housing than white people … mainly due to discrimination.” There are only two answers to this question. The racist answer is “no”—it presumes that racist discrimination no longer exists and that racial inequities are the result of something being wrong with Black people. The anti-racist answer is “yes”—it presumes that nothing is wrong or right, inferior or superior, about any racial group, so the explanation for racial disparities must be discrimination.
The buried argument here is clear: Ibram Kendi considers all differences in outcome to be due to racism, with no other possible causes; he will openly call anyone who considers other causes to be a racist. In his model of the K-12 funding problem, the solution is to fund at whatever level necessary to ensure equal success, and to socially castigate anyone who might point out causes besides systemic racism that could be causing the problem.
Many might agree with Kendi if his whole argument was known to them, but many might also disagree. Since agreement with Kendi is the source of Kendi’s success, it’s no surprise to see he hides or obscures his actual goals when possible. Pointing out this kind of clever bait-and-switch is important, not to stop people like Ibram from having their say but to make sure that their actual arguments are strong enough to survive daylight.
Tone and Approach
This has become a longer introduction than I intended, but I want to address the tone and approach I will take in my challenges, if for no other reason than so that people can hold me accountable. I hope to keep to the following:
I will be minimally charitable. Some bloggers who I very much respect are maximally charitable - they give every benefit of the doubt to the people they argue against. Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex is this way, and it’s admirable and effective in his context.
With that said, that approach would not work here. The point of the blog is to make strong challenges to arguments and to hopefully show if the arguments are defensible enough to survive, and a necessary part of doing that is examining the motivations and apparent honesty of the arguer. While I will attempt to be fair and charitable to a point, there are necessary limits on how nice I can be and still be effective.
I will be open to challenge. If you think I’m wrong, unfair or have simply misunderstood something, tell me so. To the extent I can I will address criticism openly, and I will do my best to update my beliefs where I’ve been shown to be wrong.
This blog is more about uncovering what arguments actually are than settling them. Because this is the case, no argument is out of bounds for challenge. This is part of why I’m anonymous here; I’m sure at some point I’ll go after an argument that seems universally good or defend an argument that seems universally bad.
With all that said, I’m glad to have you here no matter who you are. I look forward to hearing from you!