The Dance of Qualification

The following is what I call Mamet’s Principle:

“Law, politics and commerce are based on lies. That is, the premises giving rise to opposition are real, but the debate occurs not between these premises but between their proxy, substitute positions. The two parties to a legal dispute (as the opponents in an election) each select an essentially absurd position. “I did not kill my wife and Ron Goldman,” “A rising tide raises all boats,” “Tobacco does not cause cancer.” Should one be able to support this position, such that it prevails over the nonsense of his opponent, he is awarded the decision. …

“In these fibbing competitions, the party actually wronged, the party with an actual practicable program, or possessing an actually beneficial product, is at a severe disadvantage; he is stuck with a position he cannot abandon, and, thus, cannot engage his talents for elaboration, distraction, drama and subterfuge.”

- David Mamet in “Bambi vs Godzilla: Why art loses in Hollywood”, Harper’s, June 2005.

(I’m sure this is not what David Mamet wants to remembered for, but tough. Go see his movies, he is great, but don’t forget this.)

Those of us honest enough to be saddled with the truth as we understand it have to put in qualifiers, ifs, maybes, probablies, indicatives, consistent withs. If you don’t put in enough qualifiers, people arguing the dishonest opposition will call you on exagerration and overstatement, which will quickly be rendered in the extremist discussion groups as “lying”. If you are unlucky the mainstream press will pick it up, and contrive a false balance piece where your slight flaw in emphasis is presented as the equivalent of your opposition’s complete fiction.

The problem is that if you put in too many qualifiers, readers will perceive your prose as turgid and dull. If you genuinely suspect that you are facing disaster, but you phrase your concern in a manner that is considered polite academic prose, you will not have impact on people’s behavior commensurate with the risks. “Excuse me, but I do rather have some suspicions about the integrity of the dike. It might behoove us to effectuate some repairs.” The problem with this sort of understatement is that it misinforms every bit as much as the overstatement does.

Consequential understatement, as much as consequential overstatement, is a form of dishonesty.

The representative of truth is always involved in a dance. Every single statement, every utterance of any kind, can be second guessed and third guessed ad infinitum; every degree of qualification of every statement is a moral decision as well as a substantive decision. The representative of untruth has no such burden. As proof here’s a followup interview with George Will (h/t Eli):

•Q: The big issue was about how much global sea ice there is now compared to 1979.

•A: And that of course was a tiny portion of the column. The critics completely ignored – as again, understandably — the evidence I gave of the global cooling hysteria of 30 years ago. [mt: Hmm...]

•Q: They like to pretend that there really wasn’t any hysteria back then.

•A: Since I quoted the hysteria, it’s a little hard for them to deny it. [mt: Hmm...]

•Q: Will you dare to do any more on global warming?

•A: Well of course! It doesn’t take daring. Seriously, I don’t understand what there is to worry about. In fact, the global warming “caucus,” if you will, seems to me singularly toothless. They can’t even get the globe to cooperate. It stubbornly refuses to warm at the moment. [mt: Hmmm...]

•Q: Is there any big lesson that you’ve learned from this encounter with the global-warming people?

•A: This is not a life-changing experience. This is just another encounter with another interest group doing interest-group politics. This strikes me as a very minor event.

•Q: In your career or … ?

•A: In the week! In the week! This is just not a big deal. I’ve written 5,000 columns and a lot of them have caused ruckuses bigger than this.

•Q: But Andrew Revkin and The New York Times? They don’t usually pick on you, do they?
[mt: "pick on you???" Aaaarrrghhhh!!!!
Aaaaaarrrrrrghhhh!!!! ]

•A: No, but they no doubt have their reasons.

•Q: OK, let’s switch to baseball.

I am not making this up.


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