Our house is in order (part 2): the art of repudiation is a powerful thing

When I hit “publish” on the previous post “Our house is in order: reframe the debate guys, don’t make a mountain out of mole dung” I did pause. No really I did.

Was I too harsh on people I have nothing but the deepest admiration for? I hope not, and that the comments are taken in the spirit they were intended. Should I include a “naughty word?”

I fully appreciate that not everyone agrees with the style and tone of my blog, and that in fact some would consider its approach (“deniers” is the mantle of this blog!) confrontational and off-putting to segments of a broader audience.

All true.

A politician or scientist can’t speak with the same folksy bluntness that I do. I write as I speak and think.

But I suspect I’m voicing what’s on many people’s minds.

As the hacked emails from the CRU demonstrated, scientists will happily share blunt views on the “sceptics” in private. However I agree my approach is not the only approach, nor necessarily the right approach: I happily admit my amateur status and naivety.

But I have come to think that for over twenty years – the span of a generation – the denial machine has had a free run. It’s tactics and personalities have not been directly challenged. And when I say challenge, I don’t mean that we engage in formal debates with them.

We all know how that ends up: witness how Not-really-a-member-of the-House-of-Lords Christopher Monckton performs on stage. He is a powerhouse speaker, even if his liberal use of latin aphorisms smacks of pompousness.

We don’t give them massive platforms to inject their disinformation into the public debate like the deeply flawed “I can change your mind on climate” which quite frankly was – even if well-intentioned –  a massive own goal.

I believe there is merit in taking them head on, exposing and repudiating them. There are countless examples in history when this has happened. We should observe, forensically dissect, expose and repudiate. That members of the denial machine – who are paid to do what they do – shed some crocodile tears along the way should be of minor concern.

And what about the contested middle, the ordinary mums and dads so to speak.

What about the contested middle?

Hey guys – I am the contested middle.

I’m a father and work outside media and science. I grew up in the suburbs, went to a public school. I struggle to pay bills, raise a kid and manage a career.  I share the values of many “ordinary” folks. I only got interested in climate change a few years back and what I read both amazed and horrified me.

My reaction was “What can I do?”

My teachers have been the countless scientists, bloggers and activists such as Tamino and Michael Tobis.

Guys, thanks – you educated and inspired me to act, to speak up and to fight.

But pause for a moment – the thing about us people in the “contested middle” is that we are deeply cynical of spin, messaging and framing. You might think we’re dumb and easily manipulated but “we” smell spin a mile off.

The collapse in public trust in the media, politicians and other social institutions may very well be due the fact that they all speak with the same bland, monochromatic tone of the well massaged press release and uninspired speechs that have been worked over and sanitized.

We in the contested middle can read the code words…

We know “restructuring” in business means job losses.

We know “work place flexibility” means pushing wages down and cutting benefits.

We know.

What we in the contested middle crave is honesty, plain speaking and truth.

The deniers have been successful because they have read the mood of the contested middle and exploit it, stealing the mantle of underdog and plain spoken truth-tellers.

On crocodile tears

If there is one thing I learnt in life, is that bullies have glass jaws: when you stand up to them and say “No more! You will stop!” they often dissolve into histrionics and claims of being victimized.

There are two things they hate: laughter directed and them and the word “no”.

Sound familiar?

Repudiation example one: “Have you no decency?”

Senator, may we not drop this? We know he belonged to the Lawyer’s Guild…Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator; you’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?

It’s the 1950s – the height of the McCarthy era when America was in the thrall of a conspiracy craze about reds-under-the mattress. During the Army-McCarthy hearings lawyer Joseph Welch stood up to rabid fear monger, Joseph McCarthy:

Many have come to see this as the beginning of McCarthy’s fall.

Repudiation example two: Barney Frank strikes back

“On what planet do you spend most of your time?”

During the acrimonious debate over the introduction of Obama’s health care act, Tea-Party activists claimed the President’s policies were the same as Hitlers. Yeah, I know – nuts.

Democrat Senator Barney Frank responded to such claims during a town-hall style meeting:  

The woman making those claims felt the sharp sting of social repudiation in the audience’s response: and rightly so. 

Deniers, have you no decency? I would get no further talking to a dining room table then I would with you.

5 thoughts on “Our house is in order (part 2): the art of repudiation is a powerful thing

  1. 1) Don’t worry about disagreeing with me. I relish intelligent and constructive disagreement. I think it’s the most valuable commodity around.

    2) You have me a bit wrong. I’m not opposed to exposing the deniers. I am opposed to doing it badly. Your piece was far better than the Governor’s.

    3) Barney Frank’s response was on the money. There are certainly deniers not worth talking to.

    4) Not every skeptic is a denier. This may be hard to believe but it is true. Some people have very elaborate stories they tell themselves. Most of those with identifiable personas on the main blogs are acting on what they think are just principles.

    5) Engaging a serious skeptic who respects reason and honesty is usually a good thing. You can learn a great from identifying why their arguments are wrong. (Truth being what it is, they reliably are.) And you can learn about what turns people against us.

    6) Usually they end up disappointing you by being stubborn in some way. But aren’t we all?

    7) What’s appropriate for an individual or a political party is not necessarily appropriate for a government, which should bend over backwards to respect all its citizens.

    8) In any case the web page is not an especially compelling version of the story.

    9) As proof that one could do much better I point to this very article.

    • MT – thanks for reply, and for clarification. We are closer in opinion than both of us appreciate. Or one of us forgot that! (points at self)

      Actually I’ve stated on here many times I don’t believe every sceptic is a denier: indeed I have empathy for the “rank and file” who have been mislead. Indeed, I can see the emotional and intellectual drivers – and yes the values and ideological drivers – for scepticism.

      Also: I’ve learnt a great deal from my own interactions with the sceptics who frequent this blog. Indeed, their arguments are illustrative of what is going on in the denial community and point me to sources worth investigating. On occasion they make a point.

      My issue of course is with the machine and its operators.

  2. Sou says:

    Interesting to read this and the previous discussion.

    Mike, keep doing what you are doing. It’s honest and ‘you’. IMO if a person tries donning a persona that doesn’t fit, that’s when they start to come across as phony.

    I’ve engaged with lots of deniers on a particular website in the past (till I got banned for illegal reasons on their part, not necessary to go into now). I agree with Michael Tobis that some deniers really honestly believe what they write but those who write prolifically will never change their tune. I’ve seen people using the same turn of phrase (Lysenko, eco-terrorist, alarmist, CAGW) for more than 10 years without a sign of hesitation or deviation. That’s when you know it’s an ingrained belief not a rational thought process.

    On the other hand, people who are trying to work through the science are never as ‘certain’. They admit what they don’t know and are open to finding out new things.

    However it’s not the ‘deniers’ who blog and comment who are important (except in that they can be useful for showing up their silliness and intransigence). .It’s the readers and lurkers who are trying to find out more. This latter group may comment, but rarely and usually to ask a question. And they express thanks when you make the effort to give them info or point them in directions where they can find out more. Some could be called ‘swinging deniers’ – but they are less hostile than the ‘belief’-based deniers.

    Anyway, I’m all in favour of speaking plainly and bluntly and not letting the ‘machine’ run all over everyone. Might be partly an Australian thing – we’re a young country and not that sophisticated, so speaking bluntly doesn’t seem as rude to us as it might to people in some other nations🙂

  3. Cugel says:

    Call me old-fashioned, nostalgic even, but for me a blog is a personal thing, where you say what you want to say the way you want to say it and everybody else is free not to read it. As it happens, I do read it; I’m entirely comfortable with the style, it chimes with my own opinions (well, I’m only human), and it spares me from having to watch the deniers myself.

    I’ve been watching the AGW blog-war develop and evolve for a decade-and-a-half now. It was always clear that the big guns and early easy victories would be with the professional bullshitters, but they could not win a long war – which it was always going to be, and by now has been.

    Speaking of has-beens, the denier stars are fading fast. Meanwhile Michael Mann has become a serious player. And, of course, there was always the killer fact that boiled eggs should indeed be opened from the little end. I mean, like, d’uh.

    • Watching the Deniers says:

      Thanks Cugel, and you’re points are indeed valid.

      The deniers – that is the professional, dedicated group – were always going to loose. But it was never about “winning”, it was merely a delaying action.

      It is just like the tobacco wars: delay for as long as possible regulatory regimes or society moving away from fossil fuels and squeeze out every drop of oil and profit before the inevitable sunsetting of the industries the carbon lobby represents.

      During the course of this debate it merged with the pulse of the culture war to turn it into a left/right and he/she said debate so beloved of the media who like a bit of “controversy”.

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