Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Silent Questions

The questions we ask determine the answers we receive. The specific form of those questions, and the assumptions they hold, further shape our answers. Those are the key ideas in one of my favorite pieces on critical thinking, a short 1976 essay by Neil Postman called "Silent Questions." Unfortunately, it can be hard to find a copy. Here's a taste:

I cannot vouch for the story, but I have been told that once upon a time, in a village in what is now Lithuania, there arose a most unusual problem. A curious disease afflicted many of the townspeople. It was mostly fatal (although not always), and its onset was signaled by the victim's lapsing into a deathlike coma. Medical science not being quite so advanced as it is now, there was no definite way of knowing if the victim was actually dead when it appeared seemly to bury him. As a result, the townspeople feared that several of their relatives had already been buried alive and that a similar fate might await them—a terrifying prospect, and not only in Lithuania. How to overcome this uncertainty was their dilemma.

One group of people suggested that the coffins be well stocked with water and food and that a small air vent be drilled into them just in case one of the "dead" happened to be alive. This was expensive to do, but seemed more than worth the trouble. A second group, however, came up with an inexpensive and more efficient idea. Each coffin would have a twelve-inch stake affixed to the inside of the coffin lid, exactly at the level of the heart. Then, when the coffin was closed, all uncertainty would cease.

This is no record as to which solution was chosen, but for my purposes, whichever it was is irrelevant. What is mostly important here is that the two different solutions were generated by two different questions. The first solution was an answer to the question, How can we make sure that we do not bury people who are still alive? The second was an answer to the question, How can we make sure that everyone we bury is dead?

The point is that all the answers we ever get are responses to questions. The questions may not be evident to us, especially in everyday affairs, but they are there nonetheless, doing their work. Their work, of course, is to design the form that our knowledge will take and therefore to determine the direction of our actions. A great deal of stupid and/or crazy talk is produced by bad, unacknowledged questions which inevitably produce bad and all-too-visible answers...

The first problem, then, in question-asking language may be stated this way: The type of words used in a question will determine the type of the words used in the answer. In particular, question-words that are vague, subjective and not rooted in any verifiable reality will produce their own kind in the answer.

A second problem arises from certain structural characteristics, or grammatical properties, of sentences. For example, many questions seem almost naturally to imply either-or alternatives. "Is that good?" (as against "bad"), "Is she smart?" (as against "dumb"), "Is he rich?" (as against "poor"), and so on. The English language is heavily biased toward "either-or-ness," which is to say that it encourages us to talk about the world in polarities. We are inclined to think of things in terms of their singular opposites rather than as part of a continuum of multiple alternatives. Black makes us think of white, rich of poor, smart of dumb, fast of slow, and so one. Naturally, when questions are put in either-or terms, they will tend to call for an either-or answer. "This is bad," "She's dumb," "He's poor," etc. There are many situations in which such an answer is all that is necessary, since the questioner is merely seeking some handy label, to get a "fix" on someone, so to speak. But, surprisingly and unfortunately, this form of question is also used in situations where one would expect a more serious and comprehensive approach to a subject...

A similar structural problem in our questions is that we are apt to use singular forms instead of plural ones. What is the cause of...? What is the reason for...? As with either-or questions, the form of these questions limits our search for answers and therefore impoverishes our perceptions. We are not looking for causes, reasons, or results, but for the cause, the reason, and the result. The idea of multiple causality is certainly not unfamiliar, and yet the form in which we habitually ask some of our most important questions tends to discourage our thinking about it. What is the cause of your overeating? What will be the effect of school integration? What is the problem that we face? I do not say that a question of this sort rules out the possibility of our widening our inquiries. But to the extent that we allow the form of such questions to get unchallenged, we are in danger of producing shallow and unnecessarily restricted answers.

This is equally true of the third source of problems in question-asking language, namely, the assumptions that underlie it. Unless we are paying very close attention, we can be led into accepting as fact the most precarious and even preposterous ideas...

A number of these observations may seem like common sense, but that doesn't mean they're commonly applied. Some of Postman's references are dated, but his core ideas hold up very well, and go nicely with George Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language." These days, it's more common to hear people speak of these dynamics as "framing." The recent book The Death of Why? seems to center on similar issues. Postman looked at this from the teaching angle himself in several books, including Teaching as a Subversive Activity (the first chapter is called "Crap Detecting"). And all of this is completely in the spirit of what Socrates did in Plato's dialogues and many a good teacher or thinker has done throughout the ages. One can speak of silent questions, framing, false premises, unchallenged assumptions, implicit false assertions, or something else. Whatever one calls it, the point is to reflect and use a critical eye, on the world and discussions around us, but also on our own thinking.

Most of the liberal blogosphere's media critiques attempt to do just this – question the framing and the unspoken (and often false) assumptions driving coverage. Everyone has his or her blind spots, but the corporate media definitely has its patterns. And poor questions tend to lead to muddled conversations which contribute to poor public understanding and poor policy. Sadly, it's not hard to find examples every day.

"Marquee" events can be even worse. Almost all the questions during the presidential/primary "debates" were absolutely atrocious, despite above-average prep time for the journalists (the NPR debate was probably the sole good one). James Fallows gave a useful overview of the debates, but for a partial recap, there's: Wolf Blitzer asking misleading questions on taxes and Charlie Gibson believing $200,000 joint income is middle-class (no class issues in our media coverage, no sirree), Gibson making misleading claims about capital gains taxes, Fox News asking irresponsible questions on torture ripped from 24 for a Republican machismo contest, badgering by Brian Williams and Tim Russert, Russert asking misleading questions about Iraq, Russert haranguing Obama on Louis Farrakhan after he'd already answered repeatedly, a "debate on race" with superficial questions aimed to make candidates squabble ("Do you believe this is a deliberate attempt to marginalize you as the black candidate?" "Senator Edwards… what is a white male to do running against these historic candidacies?") and the absolute nadir, the ABC primary debate between Obama and Clinton. That debate capped off a steady pile of loaded, shallow, gossipy questions with a few poor policy questions for a turd on top. Yet theoretically, given their importance, the debates should have represented the best of mainstream political journalism. It's pretty easy to ask a candidate a question to make him or her uncomfortable due to its slanted nature or sheer idiocy, of course. But posing a tough but trenchant question on policy or governance that might actually inform the public requires that a journalist be thoughtful and interested. As Neil Postman writes later in the same essay, poor questions "insinuate that a position must be taken; they do not ask that thought be given."

Some important questions rarely ever get asked. The media seldom seems to wonder "How do we hold Wall Street/Washington accountable?" or pose other questions about abuses of power. I've used this example before, but Dahlia Lithwick captures Senator Lindsey Graham's contortions on torture beautifully:

All morning, Graham clings to the argument that he believes in the rule of law. And as he does so, he explains that the lawbreaking that happened with respect to torture: a) wasn't lawbreaking, b) was justifiable lawbreaking, c) was lawbreaking done with the complicity of congressional Democrats, d) doesn't matter because al-Qaida is terrible, or e) wouldn't be lawbreaking if the Spanish police were doing it.

I'd say Graham is flailing because rather than using consistent principles, he's arguing from a conclusion backwards – don't investigate or prosecute these abuses. However, if we phrase that in the form of a question, Alex, it becomes something like, "How do I prevent my pals in the Bush administration from being prosecuted for war crimes?" You can see the same basic dynamics in some beginning acting exercises or everyday situations (such as teenagers trying to borrow the car keys from their parents) – the objective never changes, but the tactics and specific arguments shift constantly. Sometimes pundits and politicians will contradict themselves even within a single segment, because their goal is "to win the half-hour" (as Dan Froomkin puts it), not to build or maintain a system or principles.

Graham's maneuvering is also designed to shut down questioning – he's not inviting anyone to examine these matters more carefully, he's trying to prevent it. Graham's mostly a partisan hack, but in the case of torture it's because he has some inkling of the stakes of accountability. In partial contrast, while many torture apologists in the punditocracy are biased toward protecting their luncheon buddies and oppose investigations and prosecutions too, it seems they're genuinely unreflective and uninformed as well. Take a look at Glenn Greenwald's conversation with Chuck Todd on torture investigations. Todd's amiable enough, I suppose, but he's painfully uninformed on the subject matter, including legal statutes mandating that credible allegations of torture be investigated, and the strong evidence that the OLC memos "authorizing" torture were neither issued in good faith nor legally sound. Like most of the Beltway crowd, apparently Todd has simply never asked, "What are the possible consequences of not investigating this?" As Greenwald points out, it's one thing to argue against investigations, but never for a moment to consider why they might be desirable or even necessary is an appalling omission. But that's the rule rather than the exception in the corporate media. Issues are decided largely by unreflective consensus, and there's simply little social pressure among the chattering class to be informed about policy, the law, or facts, let alone care about them.

As bad as most of the mainstream media is, no one loads their questions up with crap quite like Fox News. One of my favorites comes from the 2005 edition of their annual "War on Christmas":

Now there's a fair and balanced question: Economic Disaster if Liberals Win the "War on Christmas"? This presupposes that a "war on Christmas" can exist, that one is being waged, that such a war can be "won" or "lost," and that liberals are waging it – all before we even get to the question of whether "economic disaster" will occur. But that part of question, as breathlessly sensationalistic as it is, is largely superfluous. The main point of asking the question in the first place is to push its premises, that liberals hate Christmas, Christians, and prosperity, and are the enemy of all that is good and holy (apparently, Bill O'Reilly).

This example's actually more innocuous than most of their blather, and Fox News' routine, demonizing propaganda would be merely funny if it weren't for two factors – Fox News pretends to be legitimate and is often treated as such, and together with the rest of the right-wing echo chamber, it does have an effect. While Bill O'Reilly and Fox News aren't directly responsible for Dr. George Tiller's murder, all that ridiculous anti-abortion "liberals hate babies" and "Tiller the Baby Killer" crap contributed to a dangerous climate and validated extremist views. Fox News certainly never portrayed Tiller as a compassionate person who helped women facing some very tough situations. The teabaggers, birthers, and angry, uniformed town hall mobs spring in part from the same fevered mindset. Liberals may view right-wingers as dangerous and mock and insult them, but it's pretty rare for liberals to use eliminationist rhetoric, which is disturbingly common on the right-wing. (It's not both sides bringing guns to town hall meetings and threatening violence there, either.)

Rachel Maddow and Steven Pearlstein have produced good pieces at major media outlets on how conservatives have distorted the health care debate. The "shrill one," Paul Krugman, is also reliably incisive. But a great deal of mainstream coverage has been pretty bad on the issue, and it's more common for journalists to make ridiculous contortions to present false equivalencies. It's extremely rare for health care reform to be criticized from even slightly to the left, all the more so because those perspectives are crowded out by blather such as Sarah Palin's idiotic and irresponsible statements about government death panels (Newt Gingrich doubled down on that). Such tactics push the discussion into paranoid fantasy land, and challenging that vile stupidity wastes time that could be spent debating possible solutions to very real problems. (In this case, pointing out how insurance companies effectively have their own death panels is rather pertinent.)

The media simply decides what's important and what's not, but often with little regard for public opinion or reality. As DDay and Ezra Klein note, single payer was deemed Not Serious, just as war protesters weren't, but astroturf organizations have often been treated as legitimate. Meanwhile, as Thers quipped, "Imaginary Liberal "Disruption": Fascism! Actual Conservative Disruption: Democracy!"

Some of the most glaring unchallenged assumptions are on budgetary matters. As Stephen Walt observes:

One of the great triumphs of Reagan-era conservatism was to convince Americans that paying taxes so that the government could spend the money at home was foolish and wrong, but paying taxes so that the government could spend the money defending other people around the world was patriotic.

This comes via Eric Martin, who has more on the inconsistency between Beltway attitudes on war and health care. Television journalists, most of them richer than the average American, have repeatedly pressed Obama about what the middle class must "sacrifice," yet never acknowledge the massive wealth inequity in America, nor how it's grown worse over the past 30-some years. Might the most prosperous and privileged have some duty, too? Again, everyone has his or her blind spots (this writer included), and while there's far too much deliberate hack work out there, some of these unchallenged assumptions are probably unconscious. But they're even more harmful and persistent because of that. As Paul Krugman points out, "the fundamental fact is that we can afford universal health insurance — even those high estimates were less than the $1.8 trillion cost of the Bush tax cuts," which he notes most Blue Dog Democrats supported, and which disproportionately benefited the wealthy. Furthermore, "even as they complain about the [health care] plan’s cost, the Blue Dogs are making demands that would greatly increase that cost." (Matthew Yglesias dissects these contradictions as well.) The issue has never been costs - it's priorities. As Digby notes:

...You have to recall that there was no discussion, zero, when the last administration asserted without any debate that we were engaged in a war without end, for which costs could not be measured nor should they be. It was accepted by members of both parties as a simple imperative and no discussion of cost-benefit analyses were even on the table. But when it comes to directly benefiting Americans with a life and death threat of another sort, that's all we talk about. This is not an accident.

It's also no accident that Robert Samuelson, who's expressed feudal attitudes on health care, has also made misleading attacks on Social Security and attacked decent wages and health care for auto workers as "welfare." Nor is it an accident that many opponents of health care reform have health care themselves, and largely ignore that roughly one in six Americans is uninsured, and that many of those who are covered are underinsured. They've got theirs. Perhaps it's hard for these pundits to imagine otherwise.

Occasionally health care opponents do voice their silent questions and unchallenged assumptions, such as the one that 'people who don't have the money to pay for good insurance deserve to die.' My favorite recent example comes from the reliably disingenuous and callous Wall Street Journal editorial page, in a piece by a British physician titled, "Is There a ‘Right’ to Health Care?":

When the supposed right to health care is widely recognized, as in the United Kingdom, it tends to reduce moral imagination. Whenever I deny the existence of a right to health care to a Briton who asserts it, he replies, “So you think it is all right for people to be left to die in the street?”

When I then ask my interlocutor whether he can think of any reason why people should not be left to die in the street, other than that they have a right to health care, he is generally reduced to silence. He cannot think of one.

As John Casey notes:

I can think of a lot of things wrong with this argument. In the first place, perhaps Dalrymple (that's the author's name) ought to ask different people from the men on the Clapham omnibus. Secondly, it's weird that the people he asks always give the same answer and are stumped by the same objection. Third, Dalrymple's question is adequately answered by the person, who takes it as self-evident that no one should be left to die in the street when someone can do something about it.

Rights, for the average guy on the Clapham omnibus, are like that. Ask the average American on the 151 Sheridan whether she has the right to private property, and she will say "yes." Ask her why it shouldn't be the case that no one should take away her goods for no reason at all and she will stare at you and repeat that she has a right to private property.

The recognition of baseline inalienable rights (so we can say for the sake of argument) does not mean one lacks moral imagination...

Beyond any questionable claims about British health care, the Dalrymple op-ed is a dreadful piece, even as just a thought experiment (and if you're familiar with the WSJ editorial page, or if you read the whole op-ed, you'll know it's not). It's quite an amazing conceit that posing that it's "all right for people to be left to die in the street" somehow represents bold, independent thought versus the usual selfishness married to unusual ghoulishness. It certainly doesn't show "moral imagination" - just a privileged, feudal outlook and a contempt for one's fellow human beings. Compassion basically requires imagination of a sort, but certain political ideologies don't fare well with either compassion nor imagination, and are belligerently proud of that. I suppose it's refreshing to hear someone from this group actually come out and explicitly state their actual positions. (I wonder, does this guy tell his patients, "Tell me why I shouldn't let you die"...?)

To return to Postman's essay, I've always gotten a strong nosferatu vibe from the buried alive story he tells at the start. The tale's also strangely relevant to several of the political battles of today (as the WSJ piece shows). In the story, the first group ("How can we make sure that we do not bury people who are still alive?") is concerned with people, and set on preventing or alleviating their suffering. The second group ("How can we make sure that everyone we bury is dead?") is focused on money, perhaps on fear, and essentially ignores the concerns of the first group. Crucially, the second group doesn't or can't imagine itself in that horrible situation, and their "solution" is one which allows them to dismiss it. Looked at one way, liberal reformers are the first group and their opponents are the second. But stepping back, perhaps it's the reformers who need to wield stakes (metaphorically only, of course) against a parasitic and predatory ruling class, to combat that boot stamping on a human face, the steady stream of zombie lies, and that great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity.

(Cross-posted at Hullabaloo.)



Comrade Kevin said...

I suppose the solution is to teach people to think for themselves, which is all kinds of ironic because many already think they do.

I'd love to see critical thinking classes or lectures in schools.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Very nice post, holmes, and thanks for the Postman excerpts. I hadn't read that before and it's a great piece.

One of the worst forms of questions that occurred during the presidential election debates was: "Can you promise that you will/won't...?"

Twiist said...

Great post, what a fantastic read. Thanks for the excerpt from Postman; I'll try to find the whole essay.

I read the post over at Digby.

Suzan said...

Having followed Graham pretty closely since the Clinton impeachment I feel safe in saying that he prides himself on knowing military law and knows exactly how he is doing everything but telling the truth about torture.

Thanks for the Postman too. I studied him in undergrad school and thought he was a terrific writer/scholar. I even read the '76 book, which was a treat.

I've also been rereading Orwell (yes, I'm a classics geek) for the common sense he offers to us who are caught in this newspeak era. I recommend him to anyone wanting to read what comes from a clear mind thinking critically.

Nice work, again, B!


Suzan said...

Whoops, I forgot to mention how I still long for the time when the League of Women Voters was running fair debates before they were turned over to Snooze journalists.


Batocchio said...

Suzan, I am so with you on the League of Women Voters thing. That came up many times on blog threads during the actual "debates" - which were mostly joint press conferences.

Also, I posted this in the Hullabaloo thread, but you might enjoy this cartoon based on Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death. I probably should have added that to the many links in this post!

debg said...

It's a great post, Batocchio. I talk about the link between research questions we ask and the answers we get quite often in my history courses.

Batocchio said...

Nice to see you again, debg. Hey, did you ever read much by Hayden White? I read one of his pieces on "objectivity" in history in a narratives class in undergrad. It was about 20 pages, but I remember taking about an hour to read the whole thing because it was the first piece in the book, and I was pondering each sentence and mulling each claim as I went, scribbling notes... (Guess I should read through it again - the book was a good compilation and it was a great course.)

I'm sure you have a wealth of examples from class!

Batocchio said...

I should also note that as folks in the Hullabaloo thread pointed out, the food in the coffin idea isn't that great. As I recall, there's an Edgar Allen Poe story where they guy sets up a bell-on-a-cord system because he's so terrified about being buried alive. That would be more effective – or leaving the bodies out for a while. But as Postman says, that's not his main point anyway.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

As I recall, there's an Edgar Allen Poe story where they guy sets up a bell-on-a-cord system because he's so terrified about being buried alive.

Poe was obsessed with that shit. Cask of Amontillado is a perfect example.

debg said...

I keep reading you, I just don't comment often. Yes, I do deal with Hayden White in my Philosophy of History course. If you're interested, go to http://www.emporia.edu/socsci/faculty/dgerish.htm where you'll find my e-mail address, and I'll send you anything you ask for about my courses, research, etc. You've suggested I start blogging myself, but I think I'm more of a blog-enabler!