Monday, May 23, 2011

Streamline Your Arguments

Today's Taipei Times contains a letter from Arron Beck, who quite rightly criticizes anti-Aboriginal bigotry in Taiwan.

He then goes on to write (the bolding is mine):

One more note, speaking of racism: I have also noticed that sometimes — not always, but sometimes — when a front page or inside photograph depicting Taiwanese Aborigines appears in your newspaper, it is often given a witty yet mocking title and caption, insulting the spiritual beliefs of Aborigines in some instances or gently mocking their clothes, their facial tattoos or their customs.

You would never permit photo headlines or photo captions that mock African Americans or Christians or Muslims, yet for some reason your copy editors (and their supervising editors) sometimes allow photo headlines and photo captions that treat Aborigines in a jocular, mocking and yes, racist way.

A while ago I saw a photo in the Taipei Times. It showed a devotee in a temple in Iran, using a shovel to spread sand or dirt (I forget the details) on the floor in preparation for a festival day.

The caption was headlined, "SHOVELING SHIITE".

I remember this because it did seem rather snarky. That said, it was the Taipei Times, not the New York Times, and so the snarkiness did not seem completely out of place. The caption was not an outlier.

Now, since I'm actually in full agreement with the main point of Beck's letter, I want to step away from this particular instance and talk about writing at large. I often see people using this style of complaint -- they complain that a satirical website or TV show would never portray Democrats in as bad a light as they make Republicans out to be, or they would never mock Muslims the way they mock Jews, to come up with arbitrary examples. Very often this claim turns out to be entirely spurious and easily disprovable by anyone with a good enough memory or Google skills.

I understand that we all have our cognitive biases. I'm quite attached to my own; I bet I cling to them like a child clings to his teddy bear. Naturally I don't know what they are.

But doing this just makes your argument appear extremely brittle. After all, there are people out there who know how to nitpick around the edges of an opponent's argument without engaging their main point, and yet make it look like they've bested their adversary through superior knowledge and wit. Look at your own claims with a more critical eye, and you'll leave these people with nothing to work with.

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