Connecting the Dots ~ Fred Allebach

Fred Allebach


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Lessons of Bonita Washington

Posted on May 2, 2017 by Fred Allebach

Many folks self-reference as a preface to their comments: “I did such and such of so many years and…”; “I was on _____ for so many years and …”; “I’ve lived in Sonoma for 35 years and …”; and so on and so forth. Some local players are well known for self-referencing as a substitute for grappling with actual issues. Some confuse self-referencing for criteria and having an argument.

Self-referencing statements are not logical arguments. They do not deal with any of the issues or criteria at stake. They are an attempt to establish a sense of qualifications, which then conflates those purported qualifications with a sound judgement. This style conveniently sidesteps having to deal with the substance of any issues. By changing the context, and making it personal, then the issue becomes a personal/ emotional thing rather than one of shared metrics with other people.

This goes to show that the material, of the issues, is of a socially-constructed nature, and is not like getting plate tectonics, or the creation of planetary atmospheres. There is no one answer or preponderance of consensus. In the socially constructed universe, every law is of our own making. And, as Eric Hoffer said, the truth of a doctrine comes not from its meaning but from its certitude.

Avoid personal pronouns

In expository writing, no personal pronouns should be used. For example, inserting we, you, I, or us, into a text that seeks to explain an issue, makes it more of a personal statement. Analysis of an issue, for strength of argument, should not include referring to how you feel about it, or how others might feel about it. Those references are not primary, verifiable sources. A case can be made on the merits of the issue without throwing in personal pronouns. One strategy for staying issues-based: make a coherent argument, not an I-statement, or at least to attempt to bring up some criteria.

Everybody’s got one

Sure, both I-statements and coherent arguments are opinions. The coherent argument is stronger because it puts more metrics on the table, tries to have strong sources, and starts to approximate the scientific method, where if a thesis is not potentially falsifiable, then it can never be a fact, only an opinion. Anyone can learn this style of thesis presentation right at SRJC.

In local issues, where preferences come down to subjective, socially constructed value judgements, and where there are no immutable “laws”, what happens is endless argument about “the facts.” Yet there are no commonly accepted local facts to begin with. The best that can be done is to try to stay on the issues, and to at least make an attempt to pull the explicit personal elements out of the discourse.

An example

Let’s take on the logic of a few hypothetical self-referencing statements and see how they hold up. “I’ve lived in Sonoma for 35 years, and it’s my experience that no old-time Sonoman would ever want that project.” “I’m on the _____, and we do it like this, so that should be good enough here.” Missing is any reference to the merits of the project or issue, any criteria, or any evidence of analysis. Another rhetorical tactic is thrown in as well: third partying. In third partying, an unsubstantiated third party is referred to as proof of support for an argument.

The ultimate third partying retort is: “Just because Bob jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, doesn’t mean you have to.”

Third partying

“Nobody wants”, “everybody wants”, “they say”, “common sense says” etc., all examples of third partying that provide no proof, no argument, nothing to measure against. Citing peer pressure of unsubstantiated e-mails or informal polls for what “the community” wants, is a form of third partying. Again, the substance of an issue is sidestepped.

It’s really unsatisfying to have public officials third party, or self reference as their main rationale. No analysis has been done.

Just the facts please

But this leads straight to the next speedbump on the possibility of actually getting to a discussion of core issues and addressing them. What are the facts at stake and who defines and agrees on them? If self-referencing and third partying are excised, how will a discussion of the facts proceed?

From public comment, and from public officials, it would be reasonable to expect that the issues themselves be addressed in a straightforward way. Even if we have to deal with differing breakdowns as what the facts are, or alternative opinions. At least then some measure of substance and criteria can be laid out, which is then fair game for debate.

Weasel words as obfuscatory pivots

Frequently a weasel word will lie right at the heart of a contested issue. Beneficial use, sustainable, reasonable, significant, affordable, character, preserve, all these words can be spun to mean one thing here and another over there. They are glittering generalities that say nothing, and act as conduits for a host of alternative facts to be funneled into backing one interest or another.

This is why reading statements for or against a ballot initiative is maddening. What is really at stake (actual issues) is intentionally obscured and reduced to a simple, binary, for or against proposition.

Cherry picking and straw men

As we know, people frequently present only a partial slate of facts, and ignore any that don’t back them up. The issue of “significant impacts” on an EIR is a good case in point. If a big hotel on the Plaza, or in a historic neighborhood right near downtown, is seen as factually significant, or insignificant, then what we have is two camps, each in their own bubble as to what significant means.

(This became all part of a big dance where arguments, polls, and studies are martialed, and passionately spoken about, with a host of other rhetorical devises, and then it gets down to the judgment of elected officials. The officials need to at least convincingly explain, with some criteria and metrics, why they buy one argument and not the other, more than feelings, self-referencing, and third partying.)

Bubbles and silos

And so, in Sonoma there are various bubbles: government actors, consultants, developers, businesses, tourism boosters, environmentalists, labor and social justice advocates, sustainability advocates, neighborhood stasis advocates, etc. And each of these bubble communities has an interest at stake, with a coded way of speaking about those interests.

Common ground?

To get all these actors on the same page, to some voluntary common ground, may be a Rodney King-type pipe dream of “why can’t we all just get along?” Public policy common ground so far, has been defined by protracted battles of interests, where the winner imposes their will on the loser, a ballot initiative, a vote, and the game is such that an objective debate of the issues is really not happening. What happens is a long-term positioning to get the power and votes to win, so that the interests of the particular bubble in question prevail. So much for dealing with the issues and the facts. Different sets of facts exist relative to very different interests, and within entirely different discourse communities. No wonder self-referencing and third partying comes up: people really have no intention of dealing with issues to begin with. What they are doing is acting out the assumptions of their bubble as if those assumptions were the a priori truth.

No wonder the expectation that officials will be objective and measure an issue right before our very eyes is so frequently disappointed. Most people come in already decided.

The goal of rhetoric and evidence-based argument?

Is the goal of all this speech and rhetoric to get on the same page, or to prevail, win, and prove somebody wrong? Will cultivating a strong, evidence-based argument win, and steer society to needed changes and corrections? Obviously not, if you take human-caused climate change as example #1. Here you have the entire preponderance of evidence on one side, and yet a few bone heads elected by other boneheads, are determined to ignore all the solid evidence. America is turning to an Idiocracy. Coherent argument is being destroyed by anti-intellectualism.

The role of grudges

And then layer on top of all of the above the cumulative baggage of perceived and real sleights, and things do get personal. It’s hard to keep the decks clear while navigating storm after storm of issues, where differences and impediments inevitably emerge. The issue storms are the result of interest groups stirring up all kind of verbal weather. After a while, all interest-based actors start to sound like broken records, acting out their own hubris through time and space.

Grudges lead to vendettas and sabotage of process

When issues become personal, a battle is joined where often enough, a death spiral ensues. A fatal conflation takes place between personal elements and the issues at stake. The ensuing vendettas then take the process hostage, and serve to sabotage any ability to have good will and address issue-based criteria. Well-known reasoning abilities are used to argue against an issue or process, at all costs, just so the other guy will lose.

A certain false absolutism takes hold. We’re right, they’re wrong, nothing more to say, no movement possible now. A low-grade suspicion and non-cooperation festers, as the personalities see conspiracy and corruption everywhere but in their own hearts. Issues are then conflated as if a property of the enemy, rather than as topical and able to be handled as matter of good will and interest.

Death spiral vendettas can be seen in a number of local and regional issues, from the Sonoma Planning Commission debacle, to accusations of local Clinic mismanagement, to the IOLERO personnel dispute, to hotels and affordable housing projects. This stuff happens to the best of them. People get alienated, and end up condemned to a purgatory of ill will, or find a way to get back in the policy horse and ride.

Narcissism, ego and confirmation bias is central to all

At the end of the day, a self-reference plus the reasons why may be the most honest I- statement you can get. The task becomes the ability to explain why in some reasonable way. If reason goes out the window, then there we are with raised tone of voice, anger, intimidation etc., which are just other forms of self-referencing.

With confirmation bias as a central human behavioral feature, all cultures and individuals within those cultural bubbles, seek to confirm that their primary, unprovable, socially constructed assumptions are correct, by whatever means necessary.

Because my name is Bonita Washington

Years ago, as I was waiting for the bus at Roscoe and Halsted in Chicago, I noticed a young girl protesting and asking “Mama, why!?” And the mother answered, because my name is Bonita Washington, that’s why.”

And obviously, Bonita liked things the way she wanted them, and all the rest was window dressing. And so, all local issues really get down to simply whether we want them or not, and to the verbal and social gyrations we go through to justify why our preferences lie here or there.



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