Wednesday, May 1, 2013

In Front of Your Face

One of the important lessons that my father taught me as a child was that: "'Obvious' is something that is so crystal-clear than you are the only person who sees it." Like a number of my father's sayings it was, while memorable, a bit cryptic for a pre-teen, and so I really didn't "get it" at the time, although the basic message was clear enough. As I've grown older, I've revisited that saying over and over, and my understanding of it has developed nuance and layers. In the end, I think, the message is a fairly simple one, than can be summed up as: Obvious is in the eye of the beholder.

I've done my best to take this to heart, and, as a result, I work at keeping in mind that something is obvious to me because of my perceptions - and my perceptions are shaped by may experiences. I've learned what's obvious to me, rather than been gifted it because of my intellect and sensitivity. And so I hope that I'm careful about assuming that things are obvious to other people.

And so I found myself nodding in agreement with Clive Crook as he lamented Paul Krugman's willingness to dismiss his critics as "knaves and fools" who "have an intense desire to be wrong." While haven't seen Mr. Krugman refer to his critics as sociopaths, I have been in discussions with people who follow his theories, and they have no qualms about labeling those who disagree with him as mentally ill. Of course, this doesn't end there; instead, Mr. Crook is now in someone else's crosshairs. We'll see who answers that fusillade, and how long the firefight goes on.

I'm not terribly familiar with Mr. Crook's writing. I'd heard the name before, and that's really about all I know about him, so I hope to stay out of the Keynesian versus Hayekian/Liberal versus Conservative politics of the issue. (Besides, I see the two approaches as differing more in style, than in substance.) For me the issue is a simple one - lots of people are convinced enough of the self-evidential nature of their beliefs that they are comfortable in calling out their critics as fools, knaves or mentally ill. And I, for my part, simply don't see how that helps things.

I understand frustration with people appearing to be incapable of understanding things that have been laid out for them again and again. But one of the things that I've learned from my father's aphorism is that no-one, no matter how correct I might think myself, is obligated to ever see me as correct. If I expect someone else to do something based on an argument that I am making, the burden is on me to prove it to them, on their terms and to their satisfaction. If I cannot do this, that's my problem, not theirs. And if I come to the conclusion that they are being willfully obtuse, in order to thwart me, then I have to be able to prove that, as well - rather than simply conclude it.

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