David R. Henderson  

A Lesson in Rhetoric

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A lesson I learned early in life

On Facebook yesterday, an economist friend wrote that, in criticizing work by Thomas Piketty, he was claiming that Piketty is arrogant. He asked me (and others) if I thought that it was a good idea for him to make a joke linking Piketty's presumed arrogance with his being French and an intellectual.

I advised him against doing so. I said that if it is important to establish that Piketty is arrogant, then it is important not to undercut his case with nasty humor. He agreed and decided not to do so. (He gave me permission to use his name in this story but I have decided against.)

In thinking through this, I realize that I learned the lesson about not getting personal when I was a teenager watching my mother engage in a controversy in our small town of Carman, Manitoba. Indeed, because of that lesson, I would be inclined not even to call Piketty arrogant even if I believed it.

Here's what happened back in about 1965. Gary Loeppky, a friend of my late brother, Paul, and me, decided to grow his hair long. He was the first person at Carman Collegiate, a school with about 300 students, to do so. The principal of Carman Collegiate was a man named Frank McKinnon. McKinnon told Gary that he was expelled from school until he got his hair cut.

My mother, Norah Henderson, thought Gary was getting a raw deal. She wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, the Dufferin Leader, making her case. She signed it "A Parent." I'm guessing the reason she didn't sign her name is that my father, Stan Henderson, was a teacher at that high school and she worried that her writing that letter would make it awkward for him. She probably also worried that it would make it awkward for her because, odds are, my father would have been angry at her.

Why mention that she didn't sign her name? It matters for the story, as you'll soon see.

A week later appeared another letter in that weekly newspaper from a prominent citizen of Carman named Harry Dunn. He argued against my mother's argument, saying that Gary should follow the rules and conform. If I recall correctly, he also said that if people didn't conform in such says, things would be chaotic. (There's a 30 percent probability that I'm imagining that last part, though.)

Two things made his letter interesting. First, my mother and Harry were friends and he probably had no clue that he was arguing against her. Second, he was very flamboyant. Although he was in his sixties, he rode around town on a bicycle. In my town of 1,800, that made you flamboyant in the 1960s. He also wore colorful scarves, the kind you just did not see on any other man. If you had asked almost anyone in town whether Harry Dunn was a non-conformist, you would have been laughed at for asking a question to which the answer was so obvious.

My mother sat down to type out (You remember typewriters, right? If not, then Google it) her answer. "She's going to nail him," I thought. "This is going to be great."

Except that she didn't. She did use his individuality to make her case. I remember one section of the letter saying something like "We all have our different ways of expressing our individuality. Some of us do it with our hair; others with other choices we make."

"Come on, Mum" (we used the British rather than the American version), I said, "Make it more direct. Say something like 'others with our choices of scarves.'"

"No," she said.

"How come?" I said, disappointed that she wouldn't stick in the knife.

"Two reasons," she said. "First, that's mean. And that's enough of a reason. Second, I want to convince not just the other readers but the person who will read this most closely: Harry. If I embarrass him, he's less likely to reconsider his views."

Postscript:
One other thing I learned from this experience was to keep a secret. The principal never knew, none of the teachers knew, the other students didn't know, and even my father didn't know, who wrote the letter.


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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy




COMMENTS (14 to date)
Miguel Madeira writes:

"it was a good idea for him to make a joke linking Piketty's presumed arrogance with his being French and an intellectual. "

a) I think that every person involved in this kind of discussions is an "intellectual" by definition (than, does not make much sense to point that the other is an intellectual)

b) probably everybody who has a strong opinion in a very controversial topic, and where several important thinkers and scholars have a different opinion, have some dash of arrogance, and very easily will sound as "arrogant" to the opposite side

John Brennan writes:

It appears that your mother was channeling Jane Addams' pragmatic ethics:

https://books.google.com/books?id=l21zAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA51&lpg=PA51&dq=menand+addams+antagonism&source=bl&ots=tBURVNXwVc&sig=Jc4Epq9poXp0Ft97oiArKr1NXh8&hl=en&sa=X&ei=1uTGVI3hLsjgggSwjoToDg&ved=0CB4Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=menand%20addams%20antagonism&f=false


Brad Ingarfield writes:

What a great lesson. I am going to share with my daughters.

David R. Henderson writes:

@John Brennan,
Interesting. I read that page you linked to. Kind of the same. Although I guarantee, not that you were claiming this, that my mother never knew about Jane Addams.
@Brad Ingarfield,
Thanks.

Philo writes:

Did Gary have to cut his hair?

David R. Henderson writes:

@Philo,
He had to, and he didn’t. So he never went back to that school.

Phil writes:

David,

The beauty of your blog is not just the life lessons, but the important life lessons. Onward...

Shane L writes:

Nice story David. I have tried to follow a similar approach in online debates and for the same reasons. Plus I am also opening myself to being convinced by others.

"First, that's mean. And that's enough of a reason."

Well said, your mother!

Ray Lopez writes:

Great story. Modern version: Muslim girl refuses to take off head scarf and veil in a French school, she is deported for public safety reasons and nobody cares. In the USA this might go the other way, see below.

In US society the state under the "rational basis" rule often gets away with all kinds of restrictions under the guise that it promotes public safety. For example, in the long hair at school example the government might get an economist to argue long hair promotes head lice, or cause friction and potential fistfights with short-haired students, or other such bogus ad-hoc reasons. See,
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rational_basis_review

Compare to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strict_scrutiny Strict Scrutiny for 'race', 'religion' reasons (yarmulke wearing in prison for example), as opposed to economic freedoms (the USA, after the Lochner case was overturned, sadly no longer considers economic freedom as worthy of much constitutional protection) see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lochner_v._New_York

John T. Kennedy writes:

If he really thinks it's relevant that Piketty is a French intellectual then I don't mind him making his case.

If he doesn't think it's relevant then I assume it's a joke and I don't see the problem with that either, as long as he additionally makes a real argument.

Piketty should be fair game for such a harmless joke.

Steve Patterson writes:

But surely, there's a point at which it is appropriate to call a spade a spade.

I agree that civility is essential for persuasion. But, flamboyant arrogance (a la Krugman) I think should be openly acknowledged and criticized.

After all, if we're concerned about accurate beliefs, then it's quite fair to say that Krugman's extraordinary arrogance and inflated view of himself gets in the way of sound reasoning. He's seems unable to take contrary positions seriously for long enough to critically evaluate them. Instead, in smugly dismisses ideas which he deems inferior, purely due to arrogance.

If an intellectual thinks himself superior to his peers, unwilling to be bound by accurate data (Piketty), then why should we keep quiet about it? If the emperor wears no clothes, shouldn't we point it out?

John Brennan writes:

David,
I would go back a few pages and read the Jane Addams /King Lear section in full. I think that without Jane Addams in 1894, the rise of John Dewey Progressivism may not have taken place. I think that Menand's Metaphysical Club covers the encounter better but it has become clear to me that Addams in a core respect was Dewey's intellectual touchstone--not the other way around. Also, studying the life and works of Addams has, more than anything, pushed me toward a pacifist/non-interventionist approach to American Foreign Policy.

ThomasH writes:

In discussion an argument, I don't see any use in discussing the character of the person making the argument. When I read that "arrogant" or "heartless" Mr X is wrong when he says Y, I wonder why the person wants me to know that he thinks X is arrogant instead of why he thinks X is wrong and I suspect that the reason is that he does not have a good reason to think X is wrong. At best "arrogance" or "heartlessness" might explain why X had arrived at a wrong conclusion.

ThomasH writes:

I guess not insulting the character of the person you are arguing against is marginally helpful if you have any hope of changing his view (probably pretty low if the charge is arrogance or narrow mindedness) But it also runs the risk of insulting your reader. If your reader knows that ad hominem is a faulty mode of argument he may suspect that you know it too and used it not because you were stupid but because you thought the reader was stupid and would be fooled by it.

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