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The Rhetorical Advantages of the Counterintuitive Assertion

No locution is easier to make than one that includes a statement of doubt. There are inherent personal advantages to assertions that things are not as they seem.

One source of our predicament as a country is our polarization, fueled mostly by doubters of various sorts with suspicions about the institutions in their lives: the fairness of voting systems, the intentions of professionals involved in education and childcare, or maybe the offerings of universities presenting courses thought to be useless.

To any observer it looks like we have become a nation of cynics and sceptics, leaving millions of teachers, election workers, city leaders and clinical experts struggling to assert what was once a given: acceptance of their knowledge, legitimacy and good will. This is not a wholly new pattern. After all, Richard Hofstadter’s legendary Anti-Intellectualism in American Life was published in 1963. A pattern of ill-founded “truths” was well known then. But ill-informed assertions are now common, and more easily proliferate.

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What’s going on? Why are our friends and neighbors willing to doubt the expertise and intentions of so many professionals and public servants?

At least a partial explanation seems to be this: No locution is easier to make than one that includes a statement of doubt. There are inherent personal advantages to assertions that things are not as they seem. First, they seem to be the safest and most comfortable of all responses to an admittedly complex world that cannot be fully understood. To say that “elections are rigged,” or “banks exploit their customers,” or “too many teachers are indoctrinating their students” is to offer an opinion that, presumably has some weight of experience or evidence behind it. By contrast, to simply affirm what seems like an expected state of affairs (i.e., “the city is making a valiant effort to curb crime,” “Women make up an important segment of the military”) asserts a more routine status quo. But to offer a negative judgment or opinion is subtly ego-enhancing.  It suggests deeper understandings about accepted truths. “Things are not going well” or “things are not what they seem” are the kinds of statements that carry a presumption of awareness and knowledge.  There’s drama and intellectual chaos in the denial of another’s accepted truth.

To make such an accusation is to confer on oneself a much-needed sense of agency.

Second, ersatz accusations allow a kind of rhetorical covering that skips the due diligence of learning in favor of the appearance of a contrary judgment. This rhetorical form also has the advantage of trying to buy us off with a kind of faux-expertise that can mask a sagging ego, or a sense of powerlessness. For example, if a person does not want to take the time to read about vaccine safety, why not convert some free-floating displeasure into direct dissatisfactions that can be passed off as insights? The easy targets of this scapegoating can be the drug industry, perhaps, or public health officials, or anyone with a rightful claim to special expertise. Similarly, if a person doesn’t like a vote tally that will keep a preferred candidate out of office, why not soften the sting of defeat with charges that the election was a “fraud?” To make such an accusation is to confer a much-needed sense of agency on oneself, gaining more standing as an accuser than as a person bound by the facts as they are.  In other words, if one’s life is not unfolding in positive ways, why not cast out some of that displeasure by making accusations about others? In our times, the resulting press attention can be sources of satisfaction.

Small Minds Thrive on Personalization

It is a malady of our time that many do not exert the intellectual energy needed to understand the structural and institutional forces of contemporary life; but they are certain they can ‘know’ the nefarious intentions of others. It is easier to make an outrageous assertion about an individual than to weigh the effects of a given policy. Small minds thrive on personalization.

This kind of scapegoating logic is the only way I can wrap my head around outrageous and false accusations made against others, for example: suggesting widespread the “grooming” of children by librarians and educators to induce premature sexual or gender activity. A charge hinting at something like child abuse is sure to get attention. But in our age, and for the many who will not seek out customary routes to certain knowledge, fantasies of professional malfeasance are revealing markers. Accusers who make these kinds of claims strive for the unearned honor of “knowing” more than the rest of us.

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Is Music Translatable?

Rogers assumes that all of us have music “sweet spots” that come from causes that can’t be fully explained

A book published this year by record producer Susan Rogers raises one of the great conundrums when writing about the arts.  Her book, This is What it Sounds Like (co-authored with Ogi Ogas and published by Norton) is a valiant attempt to assess what it is we love and we hear a favorite piece of music.  What, exactly, is going on? It can be hard to wade into these dark waters that conceal unseen holes that can pull a writer way out of their depth. As one critic put it, when writing about popular culture it’s hard to not sound like a jerk.” But Rogers has produced albums for Prince and a host of other bands and singer/songwriters. In addition, she regularly takes the pulse of modern listeners as an instructor of Record Production at Berklee College of Music.  She’s a professional listener at a school that has a reputation for helping students who want to get foothold in the mysterious commercial music business.

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In the book we learn that she and her co-author share very few of the same musical passions.  Her tastes run to grunge rock, for example: preferring the rougher style of the Rolling Stones to the more polished playing and production that was common with the Beatles.  But she also acts on the premise that there is little point in pressing one’s case that a certain song or album is superior to another. She wants to build an understanding of why we have such different tastes, without dwelling on the weaknesses of individual talents. That’s what music critics do, and sometimes very well.  But music is a phenomenological experience. Studies of neural mechanisms of hearing will only get you so far. That’s as it should be, but I can attest to the fact that it makes life difficult for academics if they venture beyond the safe tropes of the social sciences.

So, challenges to write sensibly and clearly about popular music are enormous. Music is its own language. A writer must translate feelings and the attributes of specific sonics into verbal forms that range from barely adequate to very clumsy. Needless to say, analogies abound: everything from discussions of auditory “circuitry” to “whispers” of sound, and even to tactile terms like “harsh” and “cold.” Sometimes these conversions work, and at other times they surely distract us from the difficult task of communicating more nuanced features of music. If you assume that a composition is wonderful because it exceeds what can be explained in ordinary language, then it is easy to see how the whole enterprise of musical dissection can be a fool’s errand. But Rogers is aware of this problem. At many points in her book she is candid enough to admit that nothing can replace the experience of listening to a specific effort.

Rogers assumes that all of us have music “sweet spots” that come from causes that can’t be fully explained. We may have a preference over, say, acoustic rather than electronic sounds, syncopation over straight rhythms, broad melodies in lieu of more obscure ones, and so on.  She rightly assumes that there’s no sense in trying to find a neurological reason to prefer one attribute over another. For example, some of us get hooked on a particular timbre, never able to hear enough of the kind of sound produced by an instrument or singer. The sonics of any piece always have their own unique features. And for true “sound centrics,” hearing particular timbres is reason enough to go back to the source again and again. The organ-like tones coming from a steel band work for me. Others of us prefer the distortion or the “on the beat” music of a rock song with the out-front thud of bass coming from a drum machine locked into the same tempo.

Throughout the book Rogers takes the musicianship of those she works with seriously, noting at one point that even the best often have to hold back to make a particular tune fit with the rest of a band. In our era, and for most listeners and record producers focused on pop music, virtuoso playing is hardly the point.

I can’t say that I have spent much time with the kinds of music Rogers likes to record. But I admire he ability to maintain a panoramic view of music.  And it is indeed helpful to try to identify some musical “sweet spots” that make listeners swoon and a handful of musicians unexpectedly rich.

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