When is a crime not a crime? Equivocation

One way people can try to be deceptive is through equivocation. This is when you take a word with several different meanings and use a poor choice of meaning to make your argument. Here’s an example of equivocation: You can’t cite “Man shall not live by bread alone” as a defense for feeding your daughters a bread-only diet when they try you for child neglect. Although “man” can mean adult with XY chromosomes, “man” is also sometimes used to speak of humans in general. To pretend otherwise is equivocation.
Same with the word “crimes” in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.

You’ve probably heard arguments that the president must have committed crimes to be impeached. I think those arguments are equivocating on the word crimes.
Crime can definitely mean a violation of existing, written laws. And “high crimes and misdemeanors” is a phrase that is actually in the constitution. Does that mean that impeachment requires a violation of existing, written laws?Permit me to channel a first-year student for a moment: According to the dictionary, none of the definitions of crime are violations of existing, written laws. They are, instead something punishable by government, affront to morality or disgraceful things.

In this case, to expect “crimes” to mean laws as written in the 2000s would mean the framers of the constitution had some extraordinary ability to see the future, or expected that laws would not evolve. This seems…unlikely. Equivocation aside, the real question then becomes if the actions were against the system of morality the constitution lays out. We can argue about that. But to use the word “crimes” as it is being used seems pretty sneaky to me.

Part of the problem with stop and frisk: Logic

tl;dr If you are given a this or that choice, ask “What other ideas do you have?” and “What other options did you try?” #DetectingDeception

Some of the conversation around “stop and frisk” is an example of a false choice. This is when you have that, you are arguing that it’s one thing or the other, and no other alternative would work.

Often, no other alternative has been tried or even considered.

When it comes to stop and frisk, the argument is that it was a good policy, because crime rates went down. BUT, just because crime rates went down does NOT mean it was a good policy.

The false choice this argument offers is either a) choose stop and frisk or b) have a lot of crime. It leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

First, do you have actual evidence that the policy was what reduced crime? Might there be something else that happened at the same time that caused it. (This is secretly a different kind of logic problem)

Second,  if it was the policy that reduced crime, do you know it is the only thing that would? (Ask: What other ideas do you have? What else was tried?)

The problem with the false choice here is the cost of Option A. Here’s a comparison. Imagine I want to lose some weight. The fastest (“best”) way to do that is to stop eating entirely. There’s a real problem with that. I’ll die. If you accept a false argument that it’s either weigh too much or stop eating, nothing more, the cost is too high.

ESPECIALLY if the cost of the options is high, it’s important to rely on good evidence to make choices.


Why is that the leading news?

When I teach journalism skills to college students, news values are some of the easiest, but also the hardest. Their definitions are easy to understand.  They are some of the hardest concepts to learn to apply in practice. Major news outlets did a poor job with them this week.

Understanding means knowing things like impact of an issue and learning about famous people both matter in choosing what kinds of stories you should give more space/air time to.

Basically it is a battle between what is interesting to the audience and what is important for the audience to know about. Think of it as “You won’t believe this, but…” and “eat your greens”

Ideally, a good news cycle has both. The best stories win both ways – they are interesting AND important. Sometimes, a skilled journalist can make the important become interesting.

It is a tough skill for students to learn for a couple of reasons. First, they have limited life experience, so they are at a disadvantage at knowing the context that would make something important.

Second, they are still developing the perspective and impulse control to realize that what seems interesting to them may not be interesting to everyone.

The best students I’ve taught have a pretty good sense by the time they graduate. Most of the others will go work somewhere where older, cooler heads make those decisions, and the grads will pick it up with some seasoning.

I have to wonder sometimes where those cooler heads are lately. For example, wasting the specks of attention your audience gives you “Person tweeted insult” stories seem ill-advised.

Coverage on Feb. 11 was especially perplexing. Yes, there a primary election in tine New Hampshire. There was a series of resignations that were begging for some context to help the audience understand. For that matter, we had 2500+ new confirmed #coronavirus cases. That day.

Live news the night after four career federal prosectors stepped down after their work was overturned, apparetnly in response to a tweet, was mostly random musings of news people filling air time waiting for precincts to upload returns. The next day’s  homepage are also primary-heavy. As were all my notifications.

I teach my students that their choices in what news to cover and in what way matter to both the present and the future. I think we are selling both out right now.

Acquittal doesn’t mean AltGov-type resistance is over

Author’s note: The AltGov accounts are anonymous because some fear for their careers if exposed. In my agreement with them, I gave them all alternative names and use male pronouns. That doesn’t mean they are all male. There will be a key in the We Are AltGov book

There may not be an impeachment party. It’s a running joke among AltGov accounts and followers that has been described with fanciful planning that sounded a bit like a giant meet up on the National Mall.

I thought this article from Pennsylvania about the state of what several academics have described as the resistance was interesting. The reporters interviewed organizers of anti-Trump efforts like protests and get out the vote campaigns in the reddening areas of the state. Those local activists worked to elect Democrat Conor Lamb to the House in a special election.

After that high, according to the article, it’s been hard to maintain enthusiasm during wave after wave of what feels to them like bad news.

I asked some of the AltGov account holders if they feel the same. Overall, no.

Dallas*, optimistically, still believes an impeachment party might happen. He told me “this has only hardened my steel and will embolden me as we move forward.”

While most of the resistance studied by other academics has foregrounded middle aged or older white women, I believe AltGov account holders are more diverse in just about every way. And they see their work as different.

Resisters who write postcards, knock on doors or show up with their signs at protests are taking direct action. AltGov accounts believe they are inspiring that direct action by reminding followers that action can make a difference.

Asher said “People want to stand up and do what’s right. They just don’t want to be the first to do so. As long as at least one person stands others will rise.” He wrote a lengthy thread that is a good example of this.”

That’s not to say that there isn’t worry. Morgan told me “Every time they get their hopes up, they get shocked again. I’m afraid they’re going to start accepting the shocks and not bothering with the hope, or with trying to make things better.” He’s still trying, however, and so are the others.



Propaganda and the president: An interview with rhetoric expert Dr. Jen Mercieca

Dr. Jen Mercieca is a teacher and researcher specializing in the rhetoric around politics.

As politics is the main headline in the news just about every day, understanding how leaders and commenters are using language is essential for being a good citizen. Dr. Jen Mercieca from Texas A&M University has been teaching and writing on political rhetoric for years and has some interesting insights.

Mercieca, whose forthcoming book is Demagogue for President, said “rhetoric and politics are inextricably intertwined.” People choose their words in order to affect their listeners, whether that’s to gain mutual understanding or for something else.

In the case of President Donald Trump, Mercieca said  “Trump uses language for compliance-gaining. He doesn’t seek to persuade so much as he uses language as force and manipulation.”

One way to manipulate an audience is by triggering emotions, Mercieca said. When a speaker triggers a strong emotion like fear, it can make people more likely to believe that speaker. Those messages are also more likely to spread. You can see examples of this with videos that evoke outrage and are quickly spread on social media.

“Both negative emotions (fear, frustration, outrage) and positive emotions (pride, love, sentimentality) can be used to target people to amplify messages, “ Mercieca said.

When people spread those messages, they become part of the problem. “We are all propagandists now,” Mercieca said. “Our platforms and technology have trained us to express ourselves in the most outrageous and polarizing ways.”

Learning about how rhetoric works can help. Mercieca’s latest book, which is coming out in June, focuses on the president’s rhetoric so that readers will be able to understand “how he uses language strategically to prevent us from holding him accountable,” she said, noting that “It highlights the fact that Trump has been very good at attacking the American public sphere.”

As a professor myself, I was especially interested in Mercieca’s work because it is a work of public scholarship – taking the research of academics and making it useful for the public. “I’m a huge fan of public scholarship,” Mercieca said. “I think that scholars should try to make their research as accessible to the public as possible. Knowledge wants to be free and open.”


Some reasons why students don’t vote

There are many ways #voting is troublesome for students. Some are the result of societal trends, some the nature of college itself and some are issues with the daily obligations of students themselves.

Societally, the student experience has changed in many ways. There are fewer “traditional” students – the 18-23 or so year olds who live on campus and spend a continuous 4 years enroute to a bachelor’s.

For the non-traditional students, they may be fitting in classes as part of a busy adult life that often includes a family and work, sometimes at multiple jobs. For them, their studies are an additional compression on time that makes it even harder to find time to vote. Consolidating early voting locations and hours tends to disenfranchise them more.

For traditional students, other societal changes can make a difference.

For example, in some places you must paper mail requests to vote absentee. I realized a few years ago that many of my students have never addressed a letter or bought stamps, It’s not uncommon now for students to not learn to drive while in high school, particularly if they come from places with good transit. They don’t always have state-issued ID, and their student ID is sometimes not acceptable in places that require it.

We’ve studied it, and lack of information hurts two ways for student voters. First, civics education is lacking in many places and some students tell us they don’t know how to register or how to vote absentee, or they realize too late to make arrangement.

This can feel like an ignorance is not an excuse kind of thing, and I realize that. And there are some strong efforts, both on campuses and from civic orgs to make it as easy as possible. These efforts get complicated by changes in laws and by differences when students go to school out of state.

The second information gap is about candidates and issues. Our studies have suggested that students feel bad about voting if they are not informed about everything, and will fail to vote on that basis.

It would be easy to say “Well, get informed, then, lazy!” But consider that a ballot where I live will have not only big federal elections, but state ones. These things like Commissioner of Labor (which in NC inspects elevators, among other things). We might have 15 judicial elections and the county sheriff. These are all important, but it becomes very challenging to be informed on all this. The quality of information decreases quickly as the reach of the position shrinks. When you can find it, it’s often not focused on issues students tell us they care about. Depending on where they register, it may be positions like this in a place where students know they are living very temporarily.

Finally, packing and cracking happens for campuses, as well. Here’s an example. North Carolina’s extreme gerrymandering could save the House Republican majority
The state’s incomprehensible, constantly changing congressional districts, explained.

When you split campuses, even into different voting precincts, it’s an extra burden for students to even tell where they should vote. They often have class on election day, so if they make the effort to get off campus to the polls and go with their friend who has a car, they might end up at the wrong one. They might not have time to fix this.

Yes, our young adults need to be responsible for acts of citizenship, like we all do. But they do have some things stacked against them as far as making that happen.

The anonymity problem in Twitter movements

My first interest in the AltGov started with a conspiracy. Or maybe it didn’t. Since shortly after the election, I’ve had a Twitter list I jokingly refer to as my “conspiracy Twitter” and it has had a lot of the AltGov accounts in it as well as others. It was really amusing to read for a while, but now I rarely look at it, since it quickly became apparent that I couldn’t tell which accounts were real and which were trolls, fakers or wannabes.

With millions of people working for the federal government or its contractors, it was lonely and chaotic for the people who had Alt Gov accounts. Does identity matter?

Some of the AltGov account holders were actually asked at work if they would report if any of their staff were doing things like sharing on line. Others ferreted out frauds, pretending to be similar accounts in order to ask for money or just to cause chaos and concern. At the same time, accounts were beginning to share messages with a few others, seeing places where they might be able to help each other or work together. The emerging structure still relied on anonymity, but this was functional, one explained to me, because, like other resistance cells in history, it’s useful to not have information on others in case one gets found out.

Anonymity worked, but also caused issues. Just as accounts didn’t know who to trust among themselves, their audience is also uncertain. Some details on how the Alts deal with this is in the book.