Arguments v. Beliefs and responsibility

Eviscerating pundits who use boatloads of clichés is akin to shooting fish in a barrel (I took a couple of shots myself recently). But that doesn’t stop Thomas Frank in the latest edition of Harper’s from lamenting the tiresome and vacuous use of language by the punditocracy. One of his targets is the use of “argument” as a way to distance oneself from a conclusion. He gives the following examples:

“history just argues incredibly strong against it.”
“one could argue that Barack Obama’s smartest political move was putting Hillary Clinton in his Cabinet so that she wasn’t outside with Bill Clinton causing mischief.”
“Presidents have always been taking vacations and complaining about it amounts to a little more than partisan carping, one could argue.”

Frank calls this usage pattern “an epidemic”, writing:

People in the land of professional commentary no longer believe things or propose things or even assert things; they argue them.

Nice observation, but why is this? The true epidemic here is twofold. Firstly, lack of ownership. Pundits must loudly and reductively state their position in the most indirect way as a matter of job security. In The Signal and the Noise Nate Silver analyzed the accuracy of election predictions made by The McLaughlin Group, a rotating subgroup of the professional pundit class, and concluded that they offer as much predictive value as a mere penny.

The second source of these weasel words is due to the unassailable quality of beliefs. Rampant relativism and extreme individualism create an environment where beliefs are a personal right not to be criticized. Thus, no one is able to assert any beliefs, because they might infringe upon the beliefs of others. If you are not convinced, test this on a nearby creationist.

Certainly a lamentable situation. Although I enjoyed Frank’s observations, I wish he followed his lamentations with some assertions.

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