How A Philosopher Views Dissent

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One of the United States’ great traditions is debate and dissent. In fact, the nation was founded on just such a debate. In the hot and humid summer of 1787, delegates from around the country hammered out what would become the legal framework of the nation: the US Constitution.

It took 115 days in a hot brick building in Philadelphia. A building that lacked modern air-conditioning or any of our current amenities, there was no “door dash” in 1787. Yet day after day, these delegates argued with one another, refining the fine points that would become the foundation of this nation. Historians view this debate process as critical in unifying the 13 colonies.

Unfortunately, today’s public discourse increasingly lacks the back-and-forth of genuine debate. We often see one side of an issue or the other, but the two sides seldom come together in open discussion. Today, we’ll examine how such a debate might look.

***

My recent story, “To My Fellow Boomers, It’s Time To Take A Second Look At Gaza,” has elicited a firestorm of responses. Although most have been quite favorable, several, including among my friends and family, have been sharply critical.

I’d like to focus on those critiques today because they bring up some of the most significant issues we face as a nation: How do we know what’s really going on around us? Specifically, how do we know what’s really going on with these Campus, pro-Palestinian demonstrations?

My conversations with my critics have gone something like this: “David, you don’t know what you’re talking about. These demonstrators aren’t anything like you portray them. They are (fill in the blank) stupid, venal, corrupt, Anti-American, Anti-Semite, the list goes on.”

Most of the time, they’ll reveal that they know all this because they saw it in one of the many forms of mass media, such as television, social media, and so on.

It is the key. You see, what the critics are really saying is that they have a better understanding of the demonstrators than I do because they saw them in the media.

Underlying their assertion is a problem that dates back nearly 3,000 years. Since the time of the Greek philosopher Plato, mankind has been dealing with the issue of how we know what the world is like or, in our example, what these demonstrators are really like. For Plato, this is the question of the “One and the Many;” for the modern Scientist and Statistician, it is an issue of “Sample Size.”

Although both formulations go well beyond our limited discussion today, we can answer these two issues regarding today’s campus camp-ins. Plato asks if all of these demonstrators are one. In other words, are they all just alike, with no discernible differences? The answer is, of course, “no.” We would expect that every demonstrator we see is unique and distinct, with different understandings and motivations. These crowds of demonstrators are not one monolithic group of automatons.

So, we’ll start there; these demonstrations represent individuals with unique values and beliefs. However, they all share a joint opposition to the actions of the Israeli State against the Palestinians.

So, if we have a heterogeneous grouping of demonstrators, how do we determine what most of them think? What’s their common ground? To the scientist and statistician, this is a question of “sample size.” How many demonstrators will we need to interview to find a representative sample of the group’s views? (Hint: the answer is NOT one.)

The math behind this is somewhat complicated, but for our purposes today, we’ll stipulate that a sample size of 40 or 50 interviews should reasonably represent the group’s thinking.

Do you think the critics have seen a representative sample of the demonstrators? One that would have been large enough to provide a statistically reliable portrait of them? Of course not. At best, even watching every television channel and all of social media, it’s doubtful that anyone has seen that number of demonstrator interviews.

As a side note, that includes me; I have not seen a statistically representative number of interviews either. More on that in a moment.

You see, we all live in a world where the information we’re presented needs to meet the basic requirements of fair and representative sampling—the kind of sampling that we’d all need to make a truly informed decision about the demonstrators.

We all view the world through a microscope when a telescope is needed. The world we see is through the tiny camera of a smartphone or other camera, with all the limitations of that media. Yes, it is a beautiful, up-close-and-personal view, often presented in real-time, but it is, nonetheless, a jaundiced look at any event. Size and scope are sacrificed to fit everything into the small screen. Worse, when we scan back on the camera to capture the entire crowd, we lose the detail of those up-close personal shots.

A fundamental understanding of what’s happening on today’s college campuses takes more than an iPhone post or tweet. Understanding is only achieved through past experience and within the context of the issue involved. In other words, to know what’s happening in these demonstrations requires some experience with these types of protests and, at the very least, a rudimentary understanding of the issues in Gaza.

As someone who has participated in past demonstrations, I appreciate how the media can twist any “news report” to fit a particular agenda and how a peaceful gathering can be “spun” to look like a violent uprising. I’m also aware that the demonstrators themselves are not the only actors in this drama and that outside agitators and law enforcement can be brought into the picture to give an entirely artificial view of the demonstrators.

As an avid consumer of the foreign (non-US) press, I’ve witnessed the vast gulf between offshore representations of the US College Demonstrations and the fate of the Palestinian people. That’s at the heart of what I’m trying to accomplish: present the other side of this vitally important issue.

Indeed, I may be wrong, and I welcome those who disagree. It is just the type of dialog we need in America today. Thank you for your dissent! The reality is that none of us have a complete lock on the “truth.” But by fostering a discussion like this, we will be better able to ferret out just where the truth lies. Debate and descent were at the heart of this country’s founding. Let’s continue that tradition!

One of the United States’ great traditions is debate and decent. The nation was founded on just such a debate. In the hot and humid summer of 1787, delegates from around the country hammered out what would become the nation’s legal framework: the US Constitution.

It took 115 days in a hot brick building in Philadelphia. A building that lacked modern air-conditioning or any of our current amenities, there was no “door dash” in 1787. Yet day after day, these delegates argued with one another, refining the fine points that would become the foundation of this nation. Historians view this debate process as critical in unifying the 13 colonies.

Unfortunately, today’s public discourse increasingly lacks the back-and-forth of genuine debate. We often see one side of an issue or the other, but the two sides seldom come together in open discussion. Today, we’ll examine how such a debate might look.

***

My recent story, “To My Fellow Boomers, It’s Time To Take A Second Look At Gaza,” has elicited a firestorm of responses. Although most have been quite favorable, several, including among my friends and family, have been sharply critical.

I’d like to focus on those critiques today because they bring up some of the most significant issues we face as a nation: How do we know what’s happening around us? Specifically, how do we know what’s happening with these Campus, pro-Palestinian demonstrations?

My conversations with my critics have gone something like this: “David, you don’t know what you’re talking about. These demonstrators aren’t anything like you portray them. They are (fill in the blank) stupid, venal, corrupt, Anti-American, Anti-Semite, the list goes on.”

Most of the time, they’ll reveal that they know all this because they saw it in one of the many forms of mass media, such as television, social media, etc.

It is the key. The critics say they have a better understanding of the demonstrators than I do because they saw them in the media.

Underlying their assertion is a problem that dates back nearly 3,000 years. Since the time of the Greek philosopher Plato, mankind has been dealing with the issue of how we know what the world is like or, in our example, what these demonstrators are really like. For Plato, this is the question of the “One and the Many;” for the modern Scientist and Statistician, it is an issue of “Sample Size.”

Although both formulations go well beyond our limited discussion today, we can answer these two issues regarding today’s campus camp-ins. Plato asks if all of these demonstrators are one. In other words, are they all just alike, with no discernible differences? The answer is, of course, “no.” We expect every demonstrator we see to be unique and distinct, with different understandings and motivations. These crowds of demonstrators are not one monolithic group of automatons.

So, we’ll start there; these demonstrations represent individuals with unique values and beliefs. However, they all share a joint opposition to the actions of the Israeli State against the Palestinians.

So, if we have a heterogeneous grouping of demonstrators, how do we determine what most of them think? What’s their common ground? To the scientist and statistician, this is a question of “sample size.” How many demonstrators will we need to interview to find a representative sample of the group’s views? (Hint: the answer is NOT one.)

The math behind this is somewhat complicated, but today, we’ll stipulate that a sample size of 40 or 50 interviews should reasonably represent the group’s thinking.

Do you think the critics have seen a representative sample of the demonstrators? One that would have been large enough to provide a statistically reliable portrait of them? Of course not. At best, even watching every television channel and social media, it’s doubtful anyone has seen that number of demonstrator interviews.

As a side note, that includes me; I have not seen a statistically representative number of interviews either. More on that in a moment.

We all live in a world where the information we’re presented needs to meet the basic requirements of fair and representative sampling — the kind of sampling we’d all need to make a truly informed decision about the demonstrators.

We all view the world through a microscope when a telescope is needed. The world we see is through the tiny camera of a smartphone or other camera, with all the limitations of that media. Yes, it is a beautiful, up-close-and-personal view, often presented in real-time, but it is, nonetheless, a jaundiced look at any event. Size and scope are sacrificed to fit everything into the small screen. Worse, when we scan back on the camera to capture the entire crowd, we lose the detail of those up-close personal shots.

A fundamental understanding of what’s happening on today’s college campuses takes more than an iPhone post or tweet. Understanding is only achieved through past experience and within the context of the issue involved. In other words, to know what’s happening in these demonstrations requires some experience with these types of protests and, at the very least, a rudimentary understanding of the issues in Gaza.

As someone who has participated in past demonstrations, I appreciate how the media can twist any “news report” to fit a particular agenda and how a peaceful gathering can be “spun” to look like a violent uprising. I’m also aware that the demonstrators are not the only actors in this drama and that outside agitators and law enforcement can be brought into the picture to give an entirely artificial view of the demonstrators.

As an avid consumer of the foreign (non-US) press, I’ve witnessed the vast gulf between offshore representations of the US College Demonstrations and the fate of the Palestinian people. That’s at the heart of what I’m trying to accomplish: present the other side of this vitally important issue.

Indeed, I may be wrong, and I welcome those who disagree. It is just the type of dialog we need in America today. Thank you for your dissent! The reality is that none of us have a complete lock on the “truth.” But by fostering a discussion like this, we will be better able to ferret out just where the truth lies. Debate and descent were at the heart of this country’s founding. Let’s continue that tradition!

 

 


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