Scott Stevens

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My title might seem presumptuous, but it's not really my title.  It's a shortend form of the title of Alan Jacob's 2017 book, "How to Think:  A Survival Guide for a World at Odds".  The kind of thinking that Jacobs is talking about is the kind that includes the dangerous possibility of changing one's mind--you know, growing.

I read the book after hearing the admirable Fareed Zakaria recommend it.  "How to Think" is short, accessible, and (for me, at least) surprisingly useful.  I've read it twice.  In the concluding summary of the book, Jacobs points out that the kind of thinking he's talking about really can't be reduced to a checklist.  It's with a certain irony, then, that he follows this with a checklist.  He points out that a checklist can be very good for people who think they don't need checklists--because even really competent people forget things.  And frankly, a bit of intellectual humility is pretty much essential for gaining a new perspective.

So below is his checklist.  I've been trying to keep these in mind, and it can be maddeningly hard.  In particular, the first six are why I'm taking a break from Facebook and am happy to be here on OPW.  I present the list without additional comment, except for two footnotes that briefly explain possibly unfamiliar terms. 

                                THE THINKING PERSON'S CHECKLIST

1.  When faced with provocation to respond to what someone has said, give it five minutes.  Take a walk, or weed the garden, or chop some vegetables.  Get your body involved:  your body knows the rhythms to live by, and if your mind falls into your body's rhythm, you'll have a better chance of thinking.

2.  Value learning over debating.  Don't "talk for victory".

3.  As best you can, offline and off, avoid people who fan the flames.

4.  Remember you don't have to respond to what everybody else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness.

5.  If you *do* have have to respond to what everybody else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness, or else lose your status in your community, then you should realize that it's not a community but rather an Inner Ring.*

6.  Gravitate as best you can, in every way you can, toward people who seem to value genuine community and can handle disagreement with equanimity.

7.  Seek out the best and fairest-minded people whose views you disagree with.  Listen to them for a time without responding.  Whatever they say, *think it over*.

8.  Patiently, and as honestly as you can, assess your repugnances.

9.  Sometimes the "ick" factor is telling; sometimes it's a distraction from what matters.

10.  Beware of metaphors and myths that do too much heavy cognitive lifting; notice what your "terministic screens"** are directing your attention to--and what they're directing your attention *away from*; look closely for hidden metaphors and beware the power of myth.

11.  Try to describe others' positions in the words that *they* use, without indulging in in-other-wordsing.

12.  Be brave.

*  Inner Ring:  CS Lewis argued that the "we" in a "we and they" situation is layered like an onion, with a more exalted in-group inside the initial "we" group, and so on for many layers.  Lewis believes that many bad acts are committed by not-bad people in the desire to enter such a group.  See if interested.

**  Terministic screens:  The (perhaps unavoidable) blindspot created by the very words that we use to frame a situation.  To me, the most obvious example is the difference between "unborn child" and "fetus".

6/6 '18 3 Comments
Wow, I really need to read this book! Thanks for posting this - it's giving me a lot to think about.
Nikki Gustas 6/6 '18
#10 seems like another way to talk about "framing." George Lakoff dives into framing extensively, as it applies to the political sphere. One of the reasons I dote on his writing.
Anne Mollo 6/6 '18
Absolutely right.

NOTE:  Karen Hoofnagle has used OPW to try to get a handle on what she thinks.  I'm going to take a page from her book here.  I'd also be pleased if you have any considered opinions that might help me to clarify my thinking.

Sorry it's so long.

                                                  *     *     *

Were the ABC network executives genuinely offended by Roseanne Barr's tweet about Valerie Jarrett?  Certainly, plenty of viewers were.  Viewers vote with their pocketbooks, and ABC heard the reactions loud and clear.  Barr's comments have been widely condemned as "apalling", "horrific", "disgusting", "bigoted" and "racist".  But are these characterizations valid?  I am not a Rosanne Barr fan and I didn't like the tweet, but I detest knee-jerk reactions, especially my own.  So I'm trying to plow through this, and I'd be delighted if you came along as a navigator. 

Here's the tweet: 

“muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj.”

Barr's tweet is not at all funny to me, but it's not the lack of humor that has caused this firestorm.  If a knee-jerk reaction isn't a good enough reason to be outraged, then how do you contextualize this tweet?  I think I'd say this to Roseanne Barr:

1.  Your tweet is based on your suggestion that Jarrett looks like an ape. 
2.  Jarrett is Black. 
3.  Black people as a group have often been insultingly compared to apes in the past.  (That past includes Blacks being considered as subhuman.)
4.  Your ape tweet about Jarrett isn't about her as Valerie Jarrett.  At least in part, it's saying she is loathesome and inferior simply because she is Black.
5.  That is racist and offensive.

I think you have to have all of #1 - #4 to justifiably get to #5.  #1 to #3 aren't steps in an argument, they're simply statements of facts--but relevant facts.   We wouldn't be embroiled in this story if Jarrett was White, or if Barr had suggested that Jarrett was the result of the mating of an Avon lady and a scorpion.  But is the leap from #3 to #4 justified?  Given the power and pervasiveness of #3, yeah, I think it is.  Especially when coupled with some of Barr's earlier statements.  And once you get to #4, #5 seems to me to be a no-brainer.

So screw you, Roseanne.  I'm sorry about the blameless people who were working on your show and who now are out of work, but I'm happy to say buh-bye to you.  Part of your defense for your tweet (aside from Ambien) was that you were "only joking".  The particular kind of joke obviously falls into the mockery-derision-lampoon category.  And just when I thought I had reached clear sailing, I've find I've got another problem.  Because I have long enjoyed Stephen Colbert, John Stewart and the like.  Let's look at some of their "jokes".

Colbert:  “US Senator and ventriloquist dummy plotting against his master, Orrin Hatch...”

                 “Attorney General and racist Dobby, Jeff Sessions..."

                 "Majority Leader and doll carved from an apple, Mitch McConnell..."

Stewart:  “I believe, and I am being completely serious right now, Senate           Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is a turtle.”

Stephen Colbert often uses the template above, usually with a picture that fits perfectly with his jibe.  The best of these are often my favorite parts of a segment.  As for Stewart, in the segment above he went on to try to entice McConnell with a leaf of lettuce.

Like Barr's tweet, these quips are rooted in something unkind.  You don't say things like that about people you like.  You don't say things like that *to* the person in question unless you're upset or angry with them.  Even being catty behind the person's back springs from some negative and shared feelings about the target. 

Virtuous souls may judge that such mean-spirited comments are always unkind, and therefore never funny and so shouldn't be made.  I don't think most of us buy that.  Satire, for example, is actually a very useful way to expose problems and deflate the pompous in the public sphere, and satire is going to include the kind of mockery we're talking about here.  So what's okay, and what's not?

Maybe it's wrong to lampoon someone about something that they can't change.  I hear this a lot when the topic is sex or race.  But that's not the issue.  Mitch McConnell can't help looking like a turtle--so what?  No, in my search for some kind of guidelines, the best I have been able to do is this:

*  Don't deride someone who is down, especially if they are down permanently.  Don't deride someone that you have a lot of power over.

*  If you deride someone you know to their face, especially in public, you are intending to hurt them.  The *why* you want to hurt them is another matter.  This goes double if you care about one another.

*Being catty (i.e., deriding someone in your social sphere behind his or her back) might be theraputic for spleen-venting, but it is not Nice.  If you do it a lot, you are not Nice.

What *is* okay might be the opposite of what isn't.  Dodging all of the asterisks above leaves you with an acceptable target for your derision.  Someone you don't like (at least right now) but that you really don't know, and who doesn't know you.   Someone who probably wouldn't hear what you said about them, and wouldn't really be much moved if they did.  These requirements might be the permission slip...but the *desire* to deride in this way (or to enjoy the barbs of others) comes almost always, I think, from the feeling that this person has power over you--that there is some vexation in your life that they are responsible for, and that you can't make go away.  And they just don't care.

So I guess I end up with an acceptable target list of celebrities, public officials, administrators, bosses, and the like.  By this reasoning, I may a valid target for my students' jabs, so bring it on.  Just make sure that the mockery is rooted in perception of the individual, not some hackneyed stereotype of a group.

I'm talking to you, Roseanne.

5/31 '18 6 Comments
My suspicion is that there's more context involved in why they fired Roseanne Barr and canceled the show. The ratings have dropped by 50% since the premiere and it's produced by an outside company which means it costs more for ABC to acquire. If it had maintained its ratings and been produced by ABC, would they not have canceled it? It's an interesting question.
Nikki Gustas 5/31 '18
I'm not terribly quick to give ABC the moral high ground for this one either. My gut says (ok, I'm prejudiced against Trump supporters) that she's probably actively terrible to work with. Couple being a repulsive bigot with only so-so ratings AND being terrible to work with? Done. If she'd been a savvy and awesome partner for them, they'd have given her a "talking to" and asked her to self manage. I need to give some thought to the offensiveness of Colbert. Sometimes he does make "your ugly and your mama dresses you funny" sorts of jokes. It's true. But more often he's apt to make sure what you're laughing about is hypocrisy or greed. You're generally safe from being told you're a giant cheeto if you're not already measurably doing a 1000 other terrible things.
Karen Hoofnagle 5/31 '18edited
Thanks to both you and Nikki, and yeah, I have the same general impression about Colbert as you. I am less a fan of his network monologues than I was of his more incisive Comedy Central bits, but I still feel he doesn't automatically settle for the cheap shot.

I force myself to watch things like Fox News and to listen to creatures like Mark Levin, partially to know what the world looks like to these people I don't understand, and partially to remind myself of the traps of starting with your own cherished assumptions. I do not want to be part of that herd, but I don't want to be part of any herd.

It is an enormous comfort to me that I am not given the dilemma of either flashing my progressive credentials or to being dismissed; progressive minds should be better than that. So I thank the people here that will consider my thoughts and share their own. You rock.
Scott Stevens 5/31 '18edited
When you're so generous with the positive reinforcement, of course we're there for you! :)
Also, I did a quick google on Roseanne and you know how I was just GUESSING she's hard to work with? OMG. She's an unstable public gift to tabloids everywhere!! I had no idea. My hot take is definitely: ABC got in bed with crazy and then thought better of working with Impossible Assholes who are not also actively printing money when given moderately decent public cover for dumping her early instead of late.
I am sure that some people would read my hand-wringing in this post and find it ridiculous. "Does he really have to 'figure out' that the tweet was racist?"

Well, I'm glad that I did, but because here we are with Samantha Bee and her comment about Ivanka Trump, and by the same guidelines, I say that the comment is sexist against women, which is odd coming from someone as feminist as Bee. "Feckless c*nt" added nothing to her critique, unless it was to try to push the impression that she's hard hitting and not afraid to "tell it like it is". Ivaka Trump's shortcomings, whatever they are, don't stem from the fact that she has a vagina.

You can think about something that evokes no emotional response, if you want--but you don't do it, do you?  Not unless you have to.  "I don't care" is the quickest way to nip a conversation in the bud.  And why is your job disappointing?  Because you spend all of these precious hours doing something that you just don't care about.

Human beings care about stuff.  It's where we start.  We may later use our rational part to look more closely at something, but the caring comes first.  By the time our analytical brain turns on, we're generally already emotionally invested in...whatever it is.  We're well downstream from the our original point of departure, and we have little desire to backtrack--to go back upstream and start the trip again with both the gut and the rational mind on board.  So we start reasoning, analyzing, discussing from just where we are. 

The people whose boats are floating near us become our tribe.  The ones floating way over there are not, and they include the evil, the misguided and the stupid--the fleet of deplorables.  By the time we engage with others on a subject, we have pretty much figured out our position.  Our logic is internally consistent and our answer the right one.  That means we can spend our time passionately defending that answer and pretty much ignoring the babble of others...unless those others agree with us. 

And if this Us and Them dichotomy is emotionally satisfying, then you can go for it.  If you actually want the world to become a better place, though, this isn't going to help.  To have a discussion that might actually lead to something, somebody (hopefully everybody) needs to return to at least a semi-open mind.  They also need to agree on the meaning of the terms that they use and on what can they can take as common ground.  There will be some common ground, although at the outset, nobody may know what it is.

Let me try to make my points by talking about something that most people don't--and shouldn't--care about.

There is an "IQ" math quiz going around on Facebook, which I reproduced below.  Over 3000 people have "solved" it and then gone on to debate the answers.  We have the "Answer is 96" team and the "Answer is 40" team, and so on.  And each team is absolutely sure their answer is unassailable.  They're passionate about it.  You can figure out why--and I bet it isn't a love of math.

Looking over the posts, it seems that virtually everyone makes these two assumptions:

1.  There is only one correct solution, and in it, all of the equations have to be true.  If all of your equations are true, you have proved that your answer is the right one.

2.  "+" isn't really "+" .  On the other hand, all other symbols are being used in their normal way. 

The first assumption is common enough in its form; it echoes "There is only one true God" among others, and it includes the always-popular confirmation bias:  paying attention only to data that supports your conclusion.  I'm letting that go today.  I want to take the second assumption as a poster child--an emotionally neutral poster child--for the problem of and importance of terminology.

Assumption #2 is perplexing, in its way.  Why would people "know" that all of the other symbols mean exactly what they've always meant, but that the odd one out is the plus sign?  Why not assume that "=" means "less than or equal to", and give any value of 19 or more as the answer?  It may be what is called a "Schelling point" in game theory.  In a cooperative game, a Schelling point is a good one to choose simply because, for some reason, most people figure it would be chosen.  So I'll accept the idea that the "+" is the odd one out as common ground. 

Of course, the puzzle could have said, "? is a binary operation and 1 ? 4 = 5, 2 ? 5 = 12", and so on...and then asked how ? worked.  But instead we have "+", which we now assume isn't really "+", but is pretty much like "+"--which should be good enough if you're not being a pedantic prig.

But it's not.  Virtually everyone assumed that this new "+" was a binary operation (although they may not have ever heard that phrase), that it took the two given numbers and always returned a number as the answer.  You know, just like the usual "+".

Except--and here's where the debates started--with regular addition, A + B  and B + A are the same.  With regular addition, you can figure out A + B for any two numbers.  Do these properties have to hold for this new "+"?  A + B uses arithmetical operators--just one, in fact.  Does the new A + B have to do this?  Because if not, A + B might mean "the entry in row A, column B of this here table".  And if you're upset that you could fill that table in an infinite number of ways...well, sorry, but it's not hard to prove that you can come up with an infinite number of different arithmetical formulas that all "work" for the data given.  As two examples, you can get A + B = A(B+1) or A + B = 1/4((A + B + 1)^2 - 16).  The first of these has A + B different from B + A; the second has them being equal.  Both of them agree on the answer to the puzzle...and on almost nothing else.

I kinda hope you skimmed that last paragraph.  Who cares what the right answer is?  My bet is, almost no one.  But they care about their answer being right.  And almost no one is interested in seeing if the other answers offered are right, too.  And this is in a case where it's trivial to check to see if the other answers work!

And matters are only made worse because the problem used a "+" sign, a common and universally understood symbol, but deliberately used it in a way that refers to something that wasn't addition, but was "like it in important ways".

Trivia?  Absolutely.  But we see the same thing in discussions about meaningful and important things, and then we don't need to muddy the water by using terminology that means whatever we want it to mean at the moment, leaving it to others to sort out.  This is especially true if you're trying to find common cause with the people in those boats on the other parts of the river.  They're not all a fleet of deplorables, and we need to keep track of the differences.

If you don't mean "all Republicans" or "all men" or "all police officers" when you speak of Republicans or men or police officers, then please take a couple of syllables to say so.  "Many Republicans", "too many men", "most police officers", or whatever.  This does not turn the conversation away from your point.  It keeps the conversation on your point by getting rid of an objection to something you didn't mean anyway.  It also keeps you honest with yourself, forcing you to remember that the statements you are making are not universal truths, regardless of how important certain cases are, and how largely they loom in your thoughts and heart.

Words easily become confused with truths.  If you get in the habit of making sweeping or hyperbolic statements because they sound strong and definite, will you be able to remember what you actually meant?  Will others?

5/5 '18 5 Comments
I started to reply and realized I have my OPW for the day. Moving it there :)

You have identified a very specific problem in discourse right now and something that really burns my muffin. I've spent a lot of time recently with someone who makes blanket statements about "all" people of a particular type and is quick to demonize, specifically about politics. The thing about those blanket statements is they're easy. They don't require nuance. It's the brain's way of creating a shortcut. But the more we do that the less opportunity we have for real dialog.
Nikki Gustas 5/7 '18
I feel like it's THE problem of the 21st century. I mean it's always existed, but the rise of the internet didn't really fan this flame into quite such a giant conflagration until (I really think) the last decade or so. I teach my children 3 things. 1. You cannot be afraid of math. You MUST get as far as statistics. 2. You must understand the semiotics problem. 3. be prepared to knife in a dark alley anyone who tries to take your bodily integrity from you
If you follow these 3 rules, horrible things can still happen to you, but you will see them coming and/or not be asking what the hell happened like a complete sheep and you will be empowered to take the best steps anyone could reasonably take. Ok, there's more stuff I try to teach them... you know. Like "floss" and "don't let ANYONE convince you they have the corner on the market for truth" and "don't hang out with people who suck" but you get the idea.
I really like #3 in particular.
Nikki Gustas 5/7 '18

I’m sure you know about poetic meter.  It may be Shakespeare that you think of first—although for me, it’s always been Descartes:  I think, therefore iamb.

Okay, perhaps I peaked too soon.  Perhaps you think, “if that’s a peak—then Facebook, here I come”.  So let me get my feet out of my mouth and take another shot.

Iamb, trochee, spondee, dactyl, and the rest.  Someone mad or stupid must have coined these names.  Every time, I have look them up.   Thank the Lord for Google, I suppose.  Phyrric.  Really?  That's a meter? 

Never mind the major nightmares shown on our TVs.  We can fix this mess, at least.  Let's have every name reflect its pattern.  Trochee is the poster child for this.  TRO-chee, TRO-chee, TRO-chee.  Say it, and you know just what it means.  Yes...but take a look at dactyl.

What do you hear when somebody says "dactyl"?  It's only two beats, but the meter has three.  And the fix is so obvious.  Just switch the names!  Take the name amphibrach (AM-phi-brach, AM-phi-brach).   Steal it for dactyl and call it a day, because nobody talks about amphibrach anyway.

But you can’t fix them all in this way, sad to say.  Because none of the names—the names we were taught—the terrible, meaningless names we were taught—have three beats and then ends with the stress on the last.  You could say an-a-PEST if you want--go ahead!  But you’ll sound like a rube. 

It doesn't matter.  No one writes in meter anymore, anyway.

4/17 '18 7 Comments
You just reminded me of a ridiculous children's book I read when I was around 10, "Fast Talking Dolphin" by Carson Davidson. I had to look it up, and let me tell you that was no simple search. I am positive that my interest in poetic meter and obscure forms can be traced back to reading this book obsessively over the summer.

A Dolphin falls out of a plane into a pond in the woods. Kid finds him there. Dolphin can talk. Dolphins, as it happens, all talk in rhyming verse and social class is determined by the *meter*. The dolphin in the pond is an Anapestic dolphin and quite proud of the fact thankyouverymuch. The book also features a Rube Goldberg contraption the kid makes to slowly feed the right amount of salt-water into the pond. and a classic "adults are going to find out and ruin everything, what will kid and dolphin do?" plot.

So you know, it spoke to me on a lot of levels..
Paul Lord 4/17 '18
I just bought "Fast Talking Dolphin". You should have been a salesman.

I was hoping it would speak to you on a lot of levels. I wonder if it will to others...
Scott Stevens 4/17 '18edited
When I think of a dactyl, before I think metric form, I think dinosaurs. As in terradactyl... It did odd things to the inside of my head in prosody class in college, I can tell you. And I also need a copy of Fast Talking Dolphin now....
Karen Hoofnagle 4/18 '18edited
I was hoping to work "pterodactyl" into the dactyl paragraph, but it's trochee, so there was no way it was going there...and I needed the end of the trochee paragraph to transition to dactyl!
Scott Stevens 4/19 '18
And now I realize I googled to get the spelling right and grabbed the rap album name instead of the dinosaur name and am feeling extra silly.... I may have to listen to Serengeti now just so I know what the heck I grabbed.

Karen Hoofnagle 4/19 '18edited
I am now the proud owner of a copy of Fast-talking Dolphin, published by Scholastic Book Services in 1978. I have learned that

The most casual thought
Can become quite majestic
When properly rhymed
In the best anapestic.

So saith the dolphin. So saith we all.
Scott Stevens 4/21 '18edited
It's so bonkers I can't not love it.
Paul Lord 4/21 '18