Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Reflecting on the Corbett affair, part 1: the inevitability of Hannity-bashing

I’ve been thinking about that Corbett fella (the high school teacher sued over his anti-religious classroom remarks), and his provocative teaching method. In his classes, Corbett says some things that are hard for some Christians to hear. That’s one cause of controversy surrounding Corbett, though perhaps not the only one.

Presenting challenging and provocative ideas—in philosophy, there’s almost no avoiding that. That's what I want to discuss here.

One kind of case is the criticism of popular figures. Gosh, I do that all of the time.


Though I am a philosophy instructor, much of my instruction is an effort to make my students better thinkers and writers. (Nothing unusual there.) With writing, I emphasize the virtues of clarity, honesty, and of making every word count.

That is not unrelated to my approach to thinking (“critical thinking” is the buzzword). In class, I assume a community of honest truth-seekers who wish to communicate with each other and to advance understanding. Let's call it the "community of earnest thinkers" (COET) assumption.

Naturally, our actual community strays from that ideal, especially outside academia. Here, at times, one can instead assume a community of wily partisans-COWP.

But I don’t care. I assume that, if a student is serious, he or she will want to join the community of honest thinkers, people who seek to get as close as possible to the truth about things. (This is what might be called a "methodological" assumption, not a plain one.)

Now, is there anything wrong with that? Don’t think so.


But if one starts from there, one cannot avoid presenting the likes of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh (and, say, James Carville, though he is less familiar) as models of poor and less-than-honest thinking. A “critical thinking” instructor who doesn’t point to those kinds of people and say, “Be not like that!” is like a dietician who never carps about McDonalds or a bird-watcher who fails to note the fine pterodactyl passing overhead.

In class, I don’t usually discuss liberal squawkers such as Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow. How come?

Well, Olbermann isn’t perfect—he does a bit of cherrypicking, I think, and he sure loves his pissing contests—but he’s smart and knowledgeable and generally fair-e.g., he doesn't usually engage in the standard trick of the partisan demagogue: "suppressed evidence" (i.e., ignoring salient points or factoids against one's position or conclusion). He's miles from the lowly discursive level of Sean Hannity, that idiot savant of sophistry.

Bill O’Reilly, a complex fellow, actually has episodes of honesty and near-clarity, I think, though they are routinely overwhelmed by the needs of his Leviathan ego. (Is there anyone out there who would deny this?)

Glenn Beck is stupid and mentally ill. The world awaits his complete nervous breakdown.

Maddow, a Rhodes' Scholar, strikes me as a clear and honest thinker. I think she’s great.

In class (remember COET!), I often mention Hannity and O’Reilly, et al. because they are well-known and they offer clear paradigms of what not to do, who not to be. In my view, Olbermann isn't paradigmatic—he's one part demagogue, two parts clear and fair thinker. Maddow might be a paragon, more or less. She's partisan, but she's consistently honest and fair (as far as I've seen).

I should discuss her more often!


Some will say, "That Hannity is wily and Maddow isn't—hey, that's just a matter of perspective." (Now there's a nice conservative position: "there's no truth, just opinion.")

Mostly, I deny this. Whether someone's reasoning is good or bad is largely an objective matter. If someone suppresses relevant evidence, they plainly sin against truth and reason, as they do when they distort the position of their opponent or assume that there are two possibilities when, in truth, there are more than two.

An argument is either valid (that's a technical term) or it isn't. It's not a matter of opinion. And so on.

Most of what I'm saying about paradigms (of the logically good, bad, and ugly) is easily demonstrated. I defy anyone to present even one Hannitized Hour that doesn’t contain classic and glaring sophisms—especially "suppressed evidence." There is no known hour of Limbaughian “entertainment” that does not sport a blatant straw man attack. Humankind has yet to discover an episode of the “No Spin Zone” that isn’t chock-full of bold and fresh fallacies (well, bold ones anyway).

If you do a lot of squawking (as I do—I teach), you're bound to make mistakes. But Maddow's gentle political purr is generally pretty clean, logically speaking. Yes, she's partisan, but that does not preclude fairness or objecitivity. Mostly she's a fair-minded political watchdog (watchcat?). So when there are signs of trouble—hypocrisy, foolishness, betrayal of values—in the Obama administration, she immediately draws our attention to them. I love that about her.


Just take a few minutes of Rachel Maddow and put them alongside a few minutes of Sean Hannity (or Bill O'Reilly or Rush Limbaugh). Look for fallacies and sophisms. Look for substantial points and arguments.

Really, there's no comparison here.

I'll offer two current examples from YouTube below (I typed "Sean Hannity" and "Rachel Maddow" on YouTube and took the first videos that came up):

Hannity's Gospel (March 10)

The Rachel Maddow Show: Insani-Tea (April 9)

Hannity’s performance here is typical of him. While debating a priest (Thomas J. Euteneuer) who accuses him of hypocrisy (and of being an egregious role model qua Catholic, owing especially to his support of birth control), Hannity insists on tarring the priest with the pedophile sex scandals, even though, for all that we and Hannity know, the priest had no involvement whatsoever in those scandals. (The priest attempts to make that point but Hannity parries by simply talking over him.)

Generally, Hannity bullies the priest, often not allowing him to answer questions or to finish answers. At one point, Hannity pursues the proposition that the priest doesn’t really know Hannity well—and that, therefore, the priest cannot judge whether Sean is hypocritical. The priest responds, reasonably enough, by focusing on what Hannity actually said (while representing himself as a Roman Catholic) that inspired the criticism (of Hannity) in the first place.

Hannity’s queries about whether the priest also objects to other problems (he implies that the priest doesn’t, even though, for all that he knows, the priest does so routinely--the priest tries to say that but is "talked over" by Sean) in no sense answer the priest’s points about hypocrisy, etc. The “sex scandal” stuff is a blatant red herring (a particularly crude fallacy of relevance). In general, logically speaking, Hannity has nothing of substance to offer against the priest’s charge and relies almost entirely on obvious fallacies and sophisms. (One suspects, however, that they are not obvious to most of Sean's audience.)

Maddow's performance is fairly typical of her, though, in this case, the entire discussion is largely humorous, not discursively substantial, owing to Republican demonstrators' unfortunate choice of the term "tea-bagging" (which, according to the Urban Dictionary, is the "act of dangling the male genitals into the mouth of another human being”) and the unfortunate circumstance that the pious David Vitter, a chief promoter of these demonstrations, was recently discovered to have availed himself of the services of prostitutes.

Maddow is skeptical of the implied or stated parallels between the “Boston tea party” and these demonstrations against government spending, but she does not pursue the matter. (The famous historical protest concerned “taxation without representation”; the current Republican protests concern the size of Obama’s budget and the growth of government.)

Obviously, it is not a fallacy to ridicule or make fun of people per se (being amused at someone's folly is not in itself illogical). Noting the curious nature of Vitter’s circumstance (hires prostitutes, promotes "tea-bagging") is no fallacy either, as long as Maddow (and her pal Cox) do not offer it as evidence against Vitter’s policies or beliefs. They don’t seem to be doing that.

Not the best example, I suppose, but: no fallacies.


Single examples prove nothing, of course. But I’ve watched these people long enough to know that we can keep going down YouTube’s list of videos and see more of the same: Hannity: wily and unprincipled partisan, Maddow: generally honest and reasonable partisan.

Doubt that? See for yourself.

Anyway, in my classes, I sometimes point to the likes of Sean Hannity and explain their fallacy and sophistry.

Keith Olbermann? Rachel Maddow? --Not so much.

Gosh, how unfair.