Saturday, December 15, 2012

The art of arguing

I was asked yesterday if I was going to post something on my blog about the tragedy in Connecticut. I said the last thing the situation needs is another half-baked opinion. I stand by that. A thirty second tour of the internet and media outlets will give you every side of every argument, no matter how sensible or crazy. This post isn’t about Connecticut, but it is inspired by it. In the wake of the tragedy, the arguments for and against gun control have already begun. I want to talk about the way those arguments are going to proceed.

What’s the ultimate point of arguing? Some people get off on the conflict; they just enjoy a good row. Others like the intellectual challenge of a debate. At its core, however, an argument exists because one side wants to prove that they are right.

So how do you do that? The easiest way is to prove that the other side is wrong. By default, if the other guy is wrong, then you must be right (or at least “more right,” which amounts to the same thing in the end). To paraphrase the vanilla vs. chocolate ice cream argument from the (phenomenal) movie Thank You For Smoking, I don’t have to prove that vanilla is the best flavour, I just have to show that chocolate isn’t.

So how do you do that? Coherent, reasoned, well-researched, factual points to prove the validity of your point of view, of course. That’s if you like working AND you also have facts and reality on your side. If you’re lazy and/or reality might not be 100% in your favour, this path to victory isn’t for you. It’s important to realize that in any moral or ethical debate, reality is almost NEVER 100% on anyone’s side, so relying on so-called “facts” to win an argument, even if you put in all the work in the world, is a risky proposition. Since you theoretically care about your argument and really want to win, you need to hedge your bets. And the more you care, the more important the issue is perceived to be, the more hedging you’ll feel is justified.

So how do you do that? Well, remember, you don’t have to be right if the other guy is wrong. Personal attacks work wonders here. If you can prove the guy espousing the ridiculous doctrine “sky is blue” is a Holocaust-denying pedophile, who’s going to believe him? At least, who’s going to publicly declare they believe him, no matter what their heart secretly holds onto? And in a public forum, if no one stands up to be counted in defense of a position, they lose by default. Belittling the qualifications of your opponent can also be effective. “He’s just a musician, what does he know about international relations?” Maybe nothing, maybe everything, but the point is, because he isn’t famous for his skill with international relations, you can make him look like a buffoon when he comments on them.

Insults and mud-flinging aren’t your only recourses, however. As any good magician will tell you, distraction is key. Delay, misdirection, and obfuscating the issue can all work to derail an otherwise deadly opponent. Misinterpreting facts can also be a key strategy.

Let’s see how it all comes together. We’ll use smoking as an example, to keep with the theme suggested by the above movie reference. You want to keep smoking legal. Your opponents want it outlawed, placed in the same category as pot. Go!

“Is now really the time to have this debate? The American economy is lurching on the edge of another recession, and you want to talk about crippling an industry worth billions of dollars? It’s amazing how some people just want America to fail. Do you want to drive us into a depression? Our economy just can’t handle a change of this magnitude, and it’s in pretty bad taste, to be honest, to even talk about something so damaging.”

“More government control isn’t the answer. Responsible use of cigarettes, leaving the choice in the hands of the consumer, that’s the way to deal with this issue. What’s next? Taking away my bacon because it’s got cholesterol? No more apple pie because it’s too high in sugar? Where will it end? I think folks are smart enough to make their own choices. God gave us free will for a reason, after all, and it’s not government’s job to take that away.”

“Smoking has health benefits, too, but of course you anti-tobacco lobbyists never want to talk about those. They calm frayed nerves. Do you realize the suicide rate of air traffic controllers jumped more than 30% when their workplaces went non-smoking? Are you aware that non-smokers are eleven times more likely to suffer Alzheimer’s than smokers?”

“We live in a society where one in every ten people is unemployed, and you want to waste time talking about cigarettes? What about solving the real problems we’re facing? Or maybe you don’t want America to continue being the best damn country in the world.”

And so forth. It’s pretty easy, really, particularly if you use a lot of volume. I’m not arguing for gun control or against it, or for any other particular stance. I’m not an expert on the multi-layered causes of a violent outburst like what happened in Connecticut. All I’m saying is that I’m sick beyond belief of the garbage tactics used by opponents in their arguments. Carry the day based on the validity of your position, not on parlor tricks and bullshit. Better yet, wake up and realize winning your case is less important than SOLVING THE PROBLEM!

So get to it. Quick. Before the next tragedy comes along.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Disgusting CSIS

Did anyone out there see the movie Syriana? There’s a scene in it I’ll never forget. George Clooney is duct-taped to a chair and his captor wants information. There’s no bragging, no boasting, no Bond-style delays or veiled threats. Clooney’s jailer means business. In very short order, Clooney is having his fingernails removed by pliers. His acting is very compelling. I remember being thoroughly drawn into the horror of the moment, imagining the degree of freak-out I’d be having in his place. How helpless I’d feel. How desperate I’d be to have the pain stop. How I’d be begging my body would go into catatonic shock the likes of which only the safety of a semi-private room in a Canadian hospital could cure. Clooney doesn’t talk, unrealistically, in my opinion. He’s a spy, so theoretically he’s been trained in keeping his lip zipped even under the worst conditions (for which this certainly qualifies).

I wouldn’t do as well in his place. The moment I saw a guy heading towards me with pliers, I’d be telling him whatever he wanted to hear. If my answers didn’t satisfy, I’d make stuff up. I believe most people would do the same. Even if some lunatics are tough enough not to wilt at the mere threat, they have ten fingernails to suffer through. Then ten toenails. Then the pliers might go for something that doesn’t grow back. There’s any number of things to choose from. The imagination would fill in the blanks as required. The logical conclusion of “My torturer’s probably just going to kill me afterwards anyway, so I might as well keep quiet” would have no weight with me at all. Death is nowhere near as scary as torture. Not even close. The pain ENDS when you die, after all. Most humans aren’t movie-star tough. We’ll crack, and probably pretty soon.

That’s why it seems to me that information derived through torture can never be considered reliable. The sufferer, unless he’s a clinical masochist, wants his torment to be over. He’ll not only talk, he’ll tell you want he thinks you want to hear. Truth is less important than ending things, so a victim will invent anything if he thinks it’ll help out. At the very best, the confessions of the damned are only good as leads to be followed and later confirmed by other sources. If you can’t get that confirmation, chances are the info was bogus.

So why did our glorious Canadian Security Intelligence Service conclude precisely the opposite? Setting aside the considerable ethical, legal, and moral issues involved in profiting from torture-derived info, what rational person thinks it’s reliable? I’m referring to the “case” against Mohamed Mahjoub, an Egyptian man accused of being a ranking member of Vanguards of Conquest, an Egyptian group linked to al-Qaida. They want him deported, and have apparently done everything they can to accomplish this without actually succeeding. (Which is just sad. They’ve used torture-tainted information, illegal wiretaps, and suspicious “summaries” of mysteriously “lost” interview tapes and still haven’t managed to achieve their goal. Lazy or incompetent or a little bit of both? Impossible to say.)

Mahjoub has been kept under wraps for TWELVE YEARS without being formally charged. Maybe he’s guilty of being a threat to national security, maybe not. What I do know is, if you can’t prove that kind of thing in the lifespan of your average beagle, maybe you should be in a different line of work. CSIS has been at work on Mahjoub since Chrétien was in office and they still haven’t got him. Were they so focused on obtaining information from any source that they forgot they needed to actually, you know, present a case? Preferably a legitimate one, which clearly they haven’t done.

It’s all rather pathetic, when it isn’t repugnant. I’d like to have a moral government, if at all possible, and have that morality trickle down through all of their policies and subsidiary arms. That includes the intelligence service, military, police, etc. Failing that, I suppose it’s better to have incompetent villains, from a “public good” perspective. Bumbling and slow evil is preferable to swift and efficient, I guess, but if our guys were at least honestly dedicated to the Dark Side, maybe we’d be a country to fear. Respect is better than fear, yes, but isn’t fear better than disgust? Right now, all I’ve got for us is disgust, and it doesn’t feel so great.

Not “pull your fingernails out” bad, but still... not so great.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

"Human wrong"

Canada’s Human Rights Museum is scheduled to open in 2014.

Originally it was slated to be done in 2013 but they’ve had delays (of course) and spiraling costs (why don’t costs every spiral DOWN? A spiral can go both ways, you know), so 2014 is the new number. Unbelievably, they’ve chosen to build it in Winnipeg. While the ‘peg is the city nearest to the geographical center of Canada (at least on the east-west run), every other national museum in this country has been plopped in Ottawa, the greedy buggers. It’s high time they started to share.

Any project is bound to have it’s issues, and this one is no exception. In fact, I’d guess it’s far worse than normal, and it sounds like the people who work (or have worked) there would agree. They have 68 current employees. They have 38 people who have been fired or quit. This seems high turnover, like “call-centre” high. Everyone who leaves get slapped with a gag order. They aren’t allowed to say anything bad about the museum or its employees. Harsh. The CEO of the Museum, Stuart Murray, says the gag order is a standard provision and they would never sue anyone over it. So why have it then? Are you telling me the contracts can’t be edited? We have this wonderful thing called a “Delete” key. Or whiteout. Or, if you’re truly archaic and have hammered all your employee contracts on stone tablets, a thin coat of pre-mixed cement will get rid of that silly “standard provision.” If you aren’t going to enforce the clause, the only reason to have it in there is to intimidate the ignorant, and isn’t that pretty close to a human rights violation? At the very least, it’s bullying.

So now Murray’s established himself as being full of crap, a trait no doubt in common with many other CEOs (it’s hard to rise that high without the ability to lie). Therefore it’s hard for me to believe him when he says there’s been no political interference in the museum. See, the employees who have left complain (anonymously, for the most part) about government and corporate influence. The powers-that-be want more “positive stories” and nothing that negatively touches on current government policies. (Just what might those policies be, I wonder, that they would feature in a museum about human rights?) This is entirely too likely, in my opinion. Corporations and governments are big fans of interference.

Here’s my favourite quote of Murray’s, though. He says the museum has to have balance and not be concerned solely with atrocities. “This is going to be a museum for human rights, not wrongs.” What a gem. Beautiful. He clearly employs a writer from SNL. How long has he been holding onto that chestnut, waiting to drop it on some reporter?

However, I call “bullshit” again. Just how do you explore the history of human rights WITHOUT hitting bad stuff? Every time we enact positive change it’s in response to inequality. You can’t end slavery without there being slaves in the first place, for instance, and it’s a strangely blind person who looks at that situation and says in smug self-satisfaction: “Hey, wow, good for us!” Yes, good for us for ending something terrible, but SHAME on us for starting the terrible thing in the first place. If someone sets fire to your house, watches the flames build for a half hour, maybe pours a few litres of gasoline on the blaze, then lets you use their cellphone to call the fire department, do you thank him? (Maybe you do, if you’re Canadian, but otherwise, NO WAY!)

You can’t touch on a “human right” without a corresponding “human wrong,” plus there’s a boatload of stuff still going on or essentially “unfixable” beyond simply not doing it again. Apologies and cash payouts just don’t cover the evil garbage we do to each other. Residential schools come to mind. So does the Holocaust, Rwanda, and all the children being abused by Catholic priests. Not only do genocides and abuse continue to happen, our reactions to these things are strangely subdued. We freak out when our internet goes down, but when people suffer? We kind of shrug and move on. For instance: When Jews were hunting for refuge back in the early and mid-20th century, what was our enlightened, generous response? “None is too many.” A touching sentiment made no less horrible by the reality that it was shared by virtually the entire Western world. Boy Scouts have reported on the abuse their charges have suffered, but so far as I know, their organization isn’t being dismantled, or even culled and reworked. Ditto for Catholics. The tales of human sins enacted on ourselves is legion, and very few of them have (or can) ever receive the justice they have coming.

I suggest, Murray, you throw out the idea of “balancing” right and wrong. You’re operating a museum. Just show us the truth as history has revealed it. Let us draw our own conclusions.