One morning a few years ago, I was riding to the office after dropping off the kids at school. Slightly ahead of me, somebody opened the door of a parked car without looking back. I swerved, so the door didn’t hit me, but the kid trailer tangled with the edge of the door and left a scratch on it. Nobody was hurt. I stopped to size up the situation. It was obviously the driver’s fault– you’re supposed to look in the mirror before you open a door on a public street– but she wanted very much to put the matter on another footing. “You bicyclists!” she started out. “You guys just run all the stop signs and act like you own the streets. You must think having a fancy bicycle gives you the right to break the law! And I’m sick and tired of it! And now here you come along scratching my car! You’re going to pay for the damage!”
I tried to point out the irrelevance of these remarks and to get the discussion back to its main point, as I saw it, which was that we’d been lucky nobody got hurt and I hoped she would look in the mirror next time, and too bad about the scratch but it wasn’t something I was responsible for.
Eventually we exhausted our stock of pleasantries and I got back on the road. But the exchange reminded me quite specifically of something I usually try to avoid, but can’t entirely ignore. Namely, public discussion in the era of the comments page.
The encounter was as accidental as these things can be: two total strangers impinging on each other’s vehicles on a city block. The other party, sensing that she was in a weak position for blaming and claiming, resorted to a kind of ersatz scientific mastery: you, she says to the utterly empirical individual who has chanced into her orbit, are a Cyclist, and all Cyclists have these objectionable properties, so you are categorically at fault for being a Cyclist. I suppose my next move by the rule book should have been to yell back at her that she as a Motorist is responsible for X many deaths per year, air pollution, deforestation, tyranny in the Middle East, and so on, but it didn’t seem relevant.
This is what human reasoning in public looks like. I think the invention of the comments page has only brought the underlying habits of mind to view and opened the field of play to more people with an untutored natural approach to dialectics. Subordinate the present case to the broadest category you can think of, typically some category of population or behavior that you’ve been annoyed with for some time anyway; ascribe to that category universal blame or praise, whichever makes you feel better; say “This is the way they always are” and call the result Knowledge. The individual case in front of you, for the purposes of this Knowledge, is not worth enquiring into. The driver wasn’t interested in my actual law-abidingness (or not) on public streets over the last forty-some years, or in the features that might assimilate me to or differentiate me from her profile of The Cyclist (tattooed, overeducated, with anarchist leanings, always spending money on disreputable netherworld pleasures such as microbrews and specialist coffee, and a reckless mocker of the decent citizens whose minivans stop on red). Learning from the individual case was not the agenda. Confirming a picture of the world in which Good and Evil were clearly arrayed and wore their hearts on their sleeves was.
Let’s call the driver with big blanket generalizations Barbara, after the syllogistic mode: All A’s are B, all B’s are C, so all A’s are C.
Easy, once you start thinking about it, to draw the parallel with various events in public life of the last few years. A crime was committed by some Muslims. Any Muslims become liable for it, and why not those Muslims who imposed themselves on our notice so unpleasantly a few years back? Those Muslims, they are like that, etc. Some additional play time may be gained by trying the inverse: none of Us do what They do, so We are whatever They are not, etc. Moreover, if you have a group behind you that is likewise invested in affirming its identity (an act of predication the value of which may correlate with its untruth), there will be a reward in shouting as loudly as possible the simplistic profiles that differentiate Us from Them.
Barbara is my least favorite mode of argument. All-All-All predication and repetition both wear me down, and I feel there’s an implicit connection between the two. I don’t often see Barbara arguments leading to actual discovery. Investigation, as I see it, asks what we can know about Some, Not-All, and Sometimes– premises that can then lead to asking about causes, occasions, mechanisms, differences. All, Always, None and Never are much prized by those who don’t want to learn from experience, but just reiterate their stored-up preconceptions. And I get impatient with tautology and repetition. Life is so short, and people get actual pleasure from telling themselves the same thing again and again! If it were technologically possible, I would clap a filter around my ears that would diminish the volume of Barbara-statements and amp up slightly those of the Some, Sometimes and Not-All modes. As it is, I just look at the top left corner of the ceiling and think of the rosy-fingered dawn that rose, reliably, always as before, on every morning Homer made.
If Barbara is the default mode of the human mind adrift in a confusing world, one of the few useful things that we can do who are teachers is to convey to students how unrewarding the snap judgment, the yay/boo and the quick generalization are, no matter how much it may make you feel like an expert on TV to throw out an opinion covering all Germans, or all kale eaters, or all people over 30. We can share our first-hand and second-hand experience of why things are not as simple as all that, and we can ask for species-level generalizations to be reformulated in terms of populations, for example. When all else fails, we can pull out one of these:
(Korzybski’s Structural Differential [TM], from Science and Sanity.) Oh well. For the logic fans who are also fans of vocal music, here’s a madrigal made from William of Shyreswood’s original Barbara Celarent mnemonic for the modes of syllogistic. You might as well gather a few good friends and sing it out. If only to recall that there are 256 possible modes of predication, and 23 that hold water, at least some of the time, in addition to the overused Barbara.