Apr 24, 2012

Why Tyler Cowen Is Wrong About Evil

Tyler Cowen posted a link to this little animation, which as an aspiring blogger I very much appreciated:

However, I was troubled by a short section about how Cowen doesn't go in for a lot of traditional blogging:
People have a tendency to approach issues, and they want to apply simple good-versus-evil narratives, heroes versus villains, a certain kind of intolerance. What I do in my writing on the blog is I try to deliberately subvert all of  those expectations and to present points in some other way, with some other emotional framing, almost just to trick people, or force them to think about things in a new way again. That to me is more the mission of the blog.
Again, I think that's a great clip with much wisdom, and I like Tyler quite a bit, though I often vehemently disagree with him. But I don't like the word "trick." I view my duty as a writer to say, for the most part, exactly what I mean as precisely and (I hope) elegantly as I can. While it's good to present things in new and interesting lights, I don't think it's wise to try and convince your audience strategically. Tyler has this very distinctive style characterized by lists of clipped bullet points, subtle (sometimes bordering on obscure) arguments, strange analogies, and extraordinarily effective intellectual pretension (and I mean the last in a neutral or positive way). When it works, it works well, but on occasion Tyler takes this desire to "subvert all of those expectations" too far and comes close to sounding like he's trying to con you.

I think Tyler makes too much of complexity and nuance. I just don't buy the idea that everything is complicated or that a good-versus-evil narrative is in every circumstance the wrong frame. Probably the best example I know right now was told well in The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, by the climatologist Michael Mann. In it Mann talks about how he, a fairly unassuming scientist working on the most important issue of the age, was subjected to a vicious campaign of character assassination largely funded by fossil fuel interests. Among many other things, his email was stolen, cherry-picked, taken out of context, and the misleading edits spread far and wide through hack media and demagogues, who now routinely cite the fake controversy as settled proof that climate change is an elaborate hoax.

Tyler is right to reject simplistic good-versus-evil frames. These people, like Rush Limbaugh and Lord Monckton, are almost certainly engaging in biased reasoning and ends-justify-the-means thinking rather than cackling to themselves about how evil they're being. Nobody is actually Sauron. But the behavior of these committed climate deniers is profoundly evil. These people would literally destroy human civilization if we left it up to them. If that isn't evil, then nothing is.

It's true that we can tell complicated stories about the psychological insecurities of demagogues which would make them uniquely susceptible to this sort of thing, but after a certain point, you leave off empathizing with evil. Instead, you fight it.

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