David R. Henderson  

An Early Stanley Fish Moment

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The Stanley Fish op/ed that I posted about on Sunday was shocking. I appreciate many of the thoughtful comments people made. I've had more time to think about it and I remembered an evening when I was about 14, a moment that I'll describe as a "Stanley Fish" "might makes right" moment. It was creepy and I think it influenced me for the rest of my life. Specifically, it made me realize that I had a view of justice independent of the fortunes of those I favored--and that many people around me didn't.

When I was 9 years old, I moved from a small town in midwestern Canada named Boissevain, to another named Carman. When I was about 14, the Carman Beavers, the men's hockey team, played in a regional championship series against the Boissevain Border Kings. My Carman friends and I went to the first game of the series to cheer for our team. During the first period, a Boissevain player ploughed into a Carman player, a guy named Chapman, throwing him hard into the boards. It was a dirty move. I booed fiercely along with the crowd. During the break between first and second periods, we found out that the Carman player's ribs had been broken and he would be out for the season.

In the second period, a Carman player did to a Boissevain player what had been done to his teammate. Instinctively, I started booing again, just as I had in the first period, until, a second or two into my booing, I heard something strange. Except for my booing, the crowd around me was completely silent. I stopped and looked around and noticed that I couldn't see, in an arena filled with hundreds of people, one other person who seemed to share my view. When I looked directly at one of my friends, his eyes looked strangely vacant. I felt unsettled and unsafe, as if I suddenly felt I understood how normal people could turn into a lynch mob. It was then that I realized that much of people's expression of outrage is based on their not getting their way rather than on any principle. It shocked me. I also learned that I really do believe in justice. To this day, when a player on one of my favorite teams does something dirty and gets away with it, my enthusiasm for my team wanes, at least for a while.

I wonder how Stanley Fish would have reacted.

There's a bit of a happy ending here. Fast forward about 23 years to an NBA game a friend and I attended between the Golden State Warriors and the Portland Trailblazers. My friend and I started talking to two guys sitting beside us and we got along well. We were all cheering for our team, Golden State. At one point, the ref made a call against Golden State that the crowd, including us four, thought unjustified. We all started booing, as did the crowd generally. But then the replay on the screen showed that the ref had seen something we hadn't. I stopped booing, convinced that it was a good call, but the guy beside me didn't. I thought back 23 years to when I wished I had confronted a friend in a similar situation. So I looked at the guy point blank and said, "Do you think that was a bad call?" He stopped booing, looked at me, shrugged his shoulders, and said, "No. It was a good call."


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CATEGORIES: Economics and Culture



COMMENTS (34 to date)
Daniel Kuehn writes:

The Stanley Fish op-ed was also especially offensive to read because there was no need to invoke anything like that to differentiate Maher from Limbaugh.

The way I've viewed it is that there are some offensive things we can say that are generic insults, and then there are specific commentaries on behaviors. Limbaugh was identifying women who (1.) use contraception and (2.) are sexually active and (3.) are open about it and (4.) think it's a worthwhile policy discussion to have as being "sluts" or "prostitutes" because they do those things. That's considered beyond the pale because he's passing judgement on these things that most of us think reasonable modern women should feel perfectly comfortable doing.

Bill Maher isn't really commenting on behavior. He just doesn't like Sarah Palin and is grabbing for a mean word to throw at her. It's not exactly nice, but it's a different goal altogether than Limbaugh's.

I wish there was a good conservative counterpart to Maher, but there really isn't that I can think of. Maybe it's best to use an apolitical counterpart like Louis CK. He has a foul mouth and he uses all those insults. But like Maher (and unlike Limbaugh) Louis CK is not vilifying reasonable behavior: he's just lobbing insults.

Anyway - the Fish op-ed shocked me too. I like to think most people don't think like this, but you seem to be coming to the opposite conclusion here. There's a good reason to be angry at Limbaugh and not Maher, and Fish did not reach for the good reason.

MikeP writes:

Daniel Kuehn,

First of all, you forgot "(5.) and want someone else to pay for it simply because the desired mechanism of contraception must be prescribed by a doctor", without which this is a complete non-issue.

And secondly, it is very humorous that the obnoxious behavior that at least has some modicum of reason and logic behind it is vilified while the guy insulting people for no good reason because he is just that kind of person deserves no anger.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

MikeP -
Nope, I didn't "forget" about that. For one thing it's not entirely accurate - I'm not sure there's any evidence that Fluke wants other people to pay for it, she simply wants it to be incorporated into her health insurance. There are good and bad arguments for that, but it's not a request for a handout. It wouldn't be a handout.

Anyway - I didn't "forget" that, it simply wasn't relevant. That gets into the debate itself and the arguments for and against - and that's a debate we should have. That's a debate Fluke was having (civilly) before she was insulted for her trouble.

And that's really the problem here - insulting people simply for having the audacity of engaging in the discussion.

re: "And secondly, it is very humorous that the obnoxious behavior that at least has some modicum of reason and logic behind it is vilified while the guy insulting people for no good reason because he is just that kind of person deserves no anger."

You and I apparently have very different views of who had "good reason" to act the way they did. But it's not just the reasons (where I think Maher beats out Limbaugh too). It's the intent of the words. Maher's words could have been substituted for any other mean name-calling. Maybe you disagree, but to me that's a lot different from Limbaugh who chose those words specifically for their misogynistic content.

Think of it this way, Maher could have substituted a gender-neutral insult and his tirade against Palin wouldn't have lost any of its force. Limbaugh could not have substituted a gender-neutral insult and made the same point. Why? Because there were fundamentally misogynistic undercurrents to Limbaugh's attack on Fluke whereas there were not fundamentally misogynistic undercurrents to Maher's attack on Palin.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

And this point about misogyny and Maher shouldn't even be a question.

It's trivial to list the things that Maher and other liberals don't like about Palin. It could fill pages. The gripes are completely out in the open - no mystery at all. And none of it has to do with the fact that she's a woman. What they don't like about Palin and Bachmann is pretty similar to what they don't like about Santorum and Perry. The misogyny factor is non-existent.

I don't know where people get this idea that because a woman is attacked it's misogyny.

It's not like simply not liking Obama makes you a racist - the same goes for not liking Palin.

odinbearded writes:

@Daniel Kuhn

Unless Fluke expected to bear the entire cost of birth control being added to her plan, then yes, she expected others to subsidize it. And remember that she was testifying in hopes that the government would mandate that her insurance covers it. She wasn't negotiating with her insurance, she wasn't seeking a private insurer that would cover her needs. She was advocating government action to force everyone to subsidize her contraception wants.

Shayne Cook writes:

My early (but later in life) Stanley Fish Moment ...

I used to enjoy watching sports as well - mostly pro and college-level baseball and football. And I had my "favorite teams" to root for. But the strikes and other nonsense started influencing my choices of favorites.

Then one day in grad school - a course in research methods - the class time was conflicting with a pro baseball playoff game. One of my fellow students asked the professor if we could get out early to watch at least the last part of the game. My prof basically consented. The same student then asked if he was a fan, and if so, of which team. My prof chuckled a bit and responded, "Oh, I just like to watch the games sometimes, but I don't have a favorite team. When I'm watching, I just root for whichever team has the fewest convicted felons".

I learned a great deal about research and research methods from that professor, and I've also adopted his standard for which team to root for.

Devil's Advocate writes:

Groupthink is a powerful force of group dynamics...sometimes it even gets us involved in wars. I think intelligence is also a factor. Is it safe to say that higher intelligence is positively correlated to more principled positions (i.e., not going along with the group when it betrays your inner instincts?)

Matt writes:

My favorite team just hired a man that was recently acquitted of sexual assault. The circumstances make the verdict seem suspicious. A lot of fans were really unhappy when he was signed, but not me. I assume he didn't do it, because a court couldn't prove he did. I also think it's a bit curious to deny yourself product from a person because they have committed a crime. From my perspective, if he did do it, we might as well salvage any contributions this guy could make to society while we can. I'm not sure what that says about my sense of justice, though.

RPLong writes:

Prof. Henderson, that was a great story. Thank you for sharing. It's nice to know that there are other people out there who have gone through similar experiences.

Randy writes:

I have similar memories from High School and College sporting events, and I have wondered about the nature of the administrations that promote, perhaps deliberately, such behavior.

David Henderson's account of the second sporting event, with the referee's call, may provide another example of might makes right, if you twist around enough to see it this way. David found himself outnumbered in the circle of people immediately surrounding him, the fans for one side. But his inner sense of justice evidently found overwhelming companionship in a larger circle, the circle which includes those who hire referees and evaluate their performance.

Ken B writes:

I think Daniel Kuehn has missed a key point. Maher and Limbaugh are in the same business: poisoning debate for fun and profit. They are both what the British call "wind-up artists": they deliberately provoke an (over-)reaction in their (ostensible) adversaries and then use that reaction to whip up their faithful.

DK finds it MORE objectionable that RL framed his provocations as an argument while Maher left his misogyny free-floating. This is like objecting more to the wolf dressing up as grandma than to trying to eat Red Riding Hood.

"especially offensive to read because there was no need to invoke anything like that to differentiate" [My bold.] You know Daniel, that sounds to me most like a complaint about wasting ammo. Let's save that argument for when we really need it.

Ken B writes:

I don't know where people get this idea that because a woman is called a c*nt it's misogyny.

Tom West writes:

I would like to point out that given the absolute certainty of finding the same bad behavior on "your" side as on the "other" side (both sides being inhabited by human beings), to stand by one's principles and denounce both sides is essentially to cripple your own preferred side (especially given that your opponent is not going to extend the same courtesy to you).

It really comes down to whether you are egotistical enough to value keeping true to your personal principles over the damage that your denunciation of someone on your side does to your preferred policies (and of course, a denunciation of someone on one's own side does a lot more damage).

In other words, are you willing to betray the greater good to satisfy your principles?

(Yes, I am. As a left-winger, I consider Shultz & Mahar's comments beneath contempt, *especially* given that the left is supposed to be especially sensitive to racial or sexist slurs. It is worth noting however, that Schulz was taken off the air for a week by his employers - not a penalty that has been applied to Rush.)

Of course, Libertarians should already be aware of this. Given their propensity for sticking to their principles over supporting their friends, they are often considered untrustworthy allies by conservatives.

Ken B writes:

To repeat a point I made to a lot of deaf ears chez Landsburg, rational debate is conducted within a set of vaguely defined rules and conventions. These can be changed by precedent. Some changes will destroy the possibility of rational debate. For many people this is the goal. The rest of us must resist. Arguments like, well everyone knows why Michelle Bachmann is objectionable so you can call her a skanky twat but with Olympia Snowe you need to provide evidence distort the rules in a bad and uncontrollable way. Comity is too fragile to survive that kind of assault.

@Ken West,
In other words, are you willing to betray the greater good to satisfy your principles?
I don’t see that tradeoff as clearly as you do. Once we sink to certain levels in argument and discussion, it’s even harder to achieve the greater good.
@Ken B,
Your 10:39 post. YES

Ken B writes:

Just by chance I found this on Althouse today:


At 4:40, my edited video, shows, among those who are actively booing, John Nichols — of The Nation and author of "Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street" — and John “Sly” Sylvester. (Sly is the radio host who has "outrageously accused GOP lieutenant governor Rebecca Kleefisch of performing 'fellatio on all the talk-show hosts in Milwaukee' and sneered that she had 'pulled a train.'") http://althouse.blogspot.com/2012/03/in-wisconsin-rotunda-high-school.html

People have well known reasons for disliking Rebecca Kleefisch, so this is OK?


@David: With characteristic generosity you have credited Tom with being a Ken :)

B.B. writes:

David,

Like you, I despise double standards. We should demand morality from all sides, no exceptions.

But unlike you, I am not a pacifist. I can understand why one team, who had a team member seriously injured by an illegal and immoral attack, decided to practice deterrance. You hit us, we hit you. Normally, the police and courts should step in to prevent personal retaliation, but no policeman is going to arrest a hockey player for violence on the ice in a game. It is warfare.

Until we have hockey players getting arrested for inflicting injuries in a game, I am afraid that the threat of retaliation is the best strategy for enforcing fair play in a hockey game. Teams that don't want injuries won't inflict them. It is a game-theoretical stable equilibrium.

David R. Henderson writes:

@B.B.,
You make a good point that I hadn’t thought of. The real test, therefore, would be if the Carman player had done the immoral attack first. Would the Carman fans have booed? Somehow I think not, but I could be wrong.
BTW, I’m not a pacifist. I think you’re confusing me with Bryan. Here’s one post I’ve written on that.

Yancey Ward writes:
I'm not sure there's any evidence that Fluke wants other people to pay for it, she simply wants it to be incorporated into her health insurance.

Daniel,

She wants it included in everyone's policies, whether they want or need the coverage. So, yes, she does want other people to pay part of her costs. This is the equivalent of requiring everyone to buy auto insurance regardless of whether they own or drive automobiles.

Tom West writes:

I don’t see that tradeoff as clearly as you do.

Actually, the trade-off is far worse for people who are actually in the public eye. They are often in positions where they are aware of abuses that the public is not, and if they do denounce, the harm that they cause their side is infinitely worse.

My personal example (writ small) is in the health-care debate. I'm pro single-payer, but my personal principle is that I want supporters to understand that it's not a magic pony. You pay for the substantial benefits with rationing and wait-times. As a Canadian, my words carried a little more weight than they might otherwise.

I received some quite bitter emails about betraying the cause (in so many words), by not eliding the costs. I also found my words quoted a little more often than usual by those I opposed. In some small manner, I did harm "my cause" by putting my principles ahead of what I thought would be a greater good.

Of course, if your only principle is to ensure your preferred policies get enacted, then that's gold to the cause. But if the means are important - you are no longer trustworthy.

Once we sink to certain levels in argument and discussion, it’s even harder to achieve the greater good.

Well, I'd agree that it makes for far better blogging and dinner table discussion, but I'm not so certain about politics. I suspect that the take-away for many Republicans from the 2008 presidential election where both sides were surprisingly high minded (ready to be attacked by both sides now :-)), was that taking the high road doesn't always advance your policy goals.

And in the apocalyptic visions of today, where being out of power for 4-8 years leads to the inevitable destruction of the country, if not the world, every battle has become too important to cede for principle's sake.

RPLong writes:
It really comes down to whether you are egotistical enough to value keeping true to your personal principles over the damage that your denunciation of someone on your side does to your preferred policies (and of course, a denunciation of someone on one's own side does a lot more damage).

Tom, to suggest that maintaining one's personal principles is "egotistical" (by which you rather mean conceited) is one of the more shocking logical contortions I've ever seen.

Here's a thought: those policies you are so desperately in favor of that you will sacrifice your "principles," just so happen to be... yep, you guessed it... principles themselves.

So I guess the real question for you and your rhetorical ilk is: What makes a policy principle more valuable to you than a behavioral principle? More importantly, how and when do you determine the difference between the two?

How do you make the choice between single-payer healthcare and being a man of your word? Does this imply that you would rather live a liar than die an honest man?

This comment isn't an attack on you. I make it only in the spirit of highlighting the moral minefield you've just exposed. How far would you seriously consider taking your conclusions?

Ken B writes:

@RPLong: I think you have misread TomKen, who I confess also misspoke. I think by 'egotistical' he meant something like 'so confident in your views, and placing such a high value on acting on your professed views and feeling righteously consistent so that you ignore evident costs without even pausing to reconsider ...' He means hubris.

I could be wrong, but as an honorary Ken he deserves the benefit of any doubt.

Seth writes:

"Limbaugh was identifying women who..."1, 2, 3 & 4. -DK

'you forgot "(5.) and want someone else to pay for it simply because the desired mechanism of contraception must be prescribed by a doctor", without which this is a complete non-issue.' -MikeP

Correct me if I'm wrong, but Limbaugh's comment had nothing to do with reasons 1, 2, 3, & 4. It only had to do with MikeP's reason #5, so that's the only reason you needed to address. Addressing 1-4 was a straw man.

"Think of it this way, Maher could have substituted a gender-neutral insult and his tirade against Palin wouldn't have lost any of its force." -DK

I can't even believe you're arguing this for such a transparent double-standard. You ignore the obvious. Maher DID NOT substitute gender-neutral terms.

Tom "Honorary Ken" West writes:

By egotistical, I mostly refer to a tendency toward self-congratulation (to which I am prone to occasion to indulge and expressed by others here) on staying true to one's principles without really considering there are costs that others may bear.

Now for me, it's pretty easy. My opinion, no matter how vocally I express it, isn't going to do much harm at all. But for public figures under media attention, the choice to live by their principles may result in their favored policies (which they presumably believe benefit the populace) failing to be enacted.

I use to fairly harshly condemn my own side for not living up to the highest standards, after all, "we're the good guys". As I get older, it no longer becomes so obvious that this is the "right" thing to do. Perhaps the cost of demanding enforcement of those principles is that my agenda never gets enacted at all?

RPLong writes:

But, Tom, when the honesty of the debate is at stake, then what is the value of defrauding one's opponents? Why should we trick our opponents into believing something that isn't true for the sake of "a policy?"

Put another way, why don't you just forcibly take what you want and stop pretending to debate altogether?

This is a trick question, of course. I already know the answer. The only value dishonestly presents a given policy's proponents is the fact that it offers a veneer of credibility to a debate that has been completely undermined by the apparent "winner."

Is this really the kind of tactic you're endorsing?

Tom West writes:

Why should we trick our opponents into believing something that isn't true for the sake of "a policy?"

Um, I'm presuming you've seen an election before. The entire science of winning elections (and it is a science) is based on having the populace believe what isn't strictly true. You build a narrative, avoid points that don't advance your side, etc.

I don't know your politics (not that it matters), but would you really advocate that all the politicians of your preferred side try to educate the voter in the nuances and complexities that is actual reality, and then hope that people's utility function happens to match your own sufficiently to win an election?

In my youth, I'd have said yes. As I get older and perhaps more cynical :-(, I don't think satisfying my personal need for informed truth is worth the fact that the policies that I believe would most beneficial for the majority would rot forever in the opposition benches.

So, to answer your question - I don't endorse any policy. However, I do try to understand when public figures of either side fail to demonstrate the standards that I would inherently expect of those who claim to strong ideals.

RPLong writes:

Tom, you asked "Are you willing to betray the greater good for the sake of your principles?"

I would venture to guess that the biggest difference between us is that for me, there is no conflict between my principles and the greater good. The truth of my beliefs is so absolute that there is no value in lying about anything. It is only a very weak position that requires dishonesty to uphold it.

The rather strange thing I'm getting from your comments is that you say you feel more and more this way *with age*. I always thought it was very young children who felt justified in lying to get their own way. I don't really see that as a mark of wisdom, maturity, or experience.

Snorri Godhi writes:

B.B.'s analysis of the hockey game contains a broader lesson.
The way I see the issue is this:
Stanley Fish explicitly rejects the Golden Rule in favor of tribal loyalty. (Many of his fellow travelers do so implicitly.) David Henderson and like-minded people are shocked, shocked! that Fish rejects the Golden Rule! but what are they going to do about it?
As far as I can see, the only sensible option is to reject both the Golden Rule and tribal loyalty, and adopt tit-for-tat: do unto Stanley Fish as he would do unto you. That will teach him a lesson; and not only to him.

Snorri Godhi writes:

Not sure what to make of Daniel Kuehn's first comment: my best guess is that, in the USA, you can call any woman a slut, as long as she is not openly promiscuous. This is the exact opposite of my experience elsewhere.

If my interpretation is correct, I also expect that American men are eager to marry women they call "sluts": the sluttier, the better.

Tom West writes:

I would venture to guess that the biggest difference between us is that for me, there is no conflict between my principles and the greater good.

Wow, in some way I envy you.

I don't know your politics, but if your preferred side has never held power, it's perhaps a hint that holding your principles above all else *is* a bar to power and thus the chance to allow others the beneficial effects of your policy. If it *has* held power, and you haven't been denouncing the multitudinous sins of your (winning) side against your principles, then I think you have a problem with either blindness or hypocrisy.

Unless, of course your philosophy is "my side, no matter what", in which case you're in great shape!

More seriously, on a personal side, if I cannot come up with a cogent and persuasive argument as to why everything I believe is *wrong*, then it's a clear signal to me that I've not examined my philosophy closely enough.

David Friedman writes:

Re Mike and Stanley and reason 5:

Limbaugh's initial insult had nothing much to do with Fluke wanting other people to pay for her contraception. But the revised version, "prostitute" instead of "slut," did. It still didn't make much sense, since although she wanted other people to pay the cost of her sex, she wasn't offering to have sex with the people who paid it. But that was the basis, however confused, of Limbaugh's revised insult.

On the question of whether she was asking for "insurance," I think the answer is that she was not. Insurance converts a low probability of a high cost into a certainty of a low cost--that doesn't fit paying for contraception, even if the payment comes from an insurance company. She was asking to have the cost of her contraception spread over other payers who didn't want contraception.

MikeP writes:

Limbaugh's initial insult had nothing much to do with Fluke wanting other people to pay for her contraception.

I am not going to try to defend Rush Limbaugh's rationality nor his proper use of words. But reading three pages of exerpts from his (apparently since removed) transcripts shows that every single sentence of criticism hinges on reason 5, including his first use of "slut" and "prostitute":

What does it say about the college co-ed Sandra Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex, what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She's having so much sex she can't afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex. What does that make us? We're the pimps.... The johns? We would be the johns? No! We're not the johns...Yeah, that's right. Pimp's not the right word. Okay, so she's not a slut. She's "round heeled."

You can see that he's thrashing around for words here, so you might excuse his inept use of "slut" before refining it to the slightly less inept "prostitute" along with his inept use of "john" and "pimp".

Nonetheless, without reason 5, he would not have brought the insults, nor would it even be on his show. Of course, without reason 5, the issue wouldn't be in front of a congressional committee either.

Snorri Godhi writes:

David Friedman:
"She was asking to have the cost of her contraception spread over other payers who didn't want contraception."

This is going off-topic, but maybe somebody can help me here: who are those other payers? as I understand, Fluke was asking that her college be forced to pay for her contraception. If the college is forced to do so, it will recoup the cost by raising tuition fees. So the other payers are other students at her college who pay less for contraception than she does. If Fluke uses the average amount of contraception for her college (and keep in mind that the average amount would go up if contraception is free), then she won't save anything. (That in itself suggests that she estimates using more than the average amount of contraception.)

Am I missing something? is there a scheme by which the cost can be passed on to taxpayers?

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