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Monday, January 21, 2008


The Well Said Fallacy

For those of you who read the Slacktivist discussion threads, this is a post based on a thought that occurred to me there.

I've previously talked in my Lexicon about the Well Said Fallacy, defined thus:

The automatic assumption that something is well executed because you agree with its morals or message. The cry of 'well said!' is fine to praise someone for saying something that needed saying, but should never be confused with 'well put'.

It's one that most people commit at some point, and I'm wondering why it's so effective.

I think it comes down to something fundamental: poetic truth. Beauty is truth, truth beauty - or at least, both are convincing. The 'halo effect' in psychology is the effect by which perceived positive qualities in one area make people likely to attribute positive qualities in others, as, for instance, 'This person is beautiful, so they are also nice', or 'This person is affable, so they are also intelligent'. Thus, if you like a book's message, you are more likely to give it a higher rating in other areas, such as writing style and plotting.

But, more than that, art makes you see the world through the author's eyes. Now, there are two ways this can go. Either the art is so perfect that, having seen it, you look at the world anew. You walk down a street with a golden sunset and say to yourself, 'Wow, Turner was right!'; you meet a type of person who reasons just like Brutus and say to yourself, 'Wow, Shakespeare was right!'. Even if you didn't know it before, you know it now: this is a new truth, and the perceptiveness and beauty of the artist's rendering draws you into enlightened, startled agreement with them.

That's the really great way. But there's also a shortcut. Rather than presenting new truths and convincing people of them, you present them old 'truths' of which they're already convinced. These might not necessarily be profound insights; they can vary to common-sense unarguability to deep, wild prejudice: the point is, you're preaching to the converted. You're telling people something, and they hear it and think, 'Yes, that's true'.

And because the sensation of encountering truth is similar whether it's a new truth or an old one, you can mistake something predictable for something profound. A preacher who changes an unbeliever to one of the faithful by the power of his rhetoric is a fine evangelist; a preacher addressing a believer needs far less passion and talent to get the same effect. And what can happen is simply this: a believer effectively attributes to their local vicar the same rhetorical talent as a John Donne, because they feel something similar - in terms of world-view, if not artistry - when they listen to both. 'Spiritual' can refer both to beliefs and to the arts, and it's possible to get confused.

In most of its forms, the Well Said Fallacy is fairly benign. Most people will read a medium-good book that they agree with and put down a medium-good one when they disagree, in the same way that a nice, sincere, ordinary vicar will be listened to by a Christian flock who wouldn't listen to the nice, sincere, ordinary mullah down the road, any more than the mullah's flock would listen to the vicar. It doesn't mean either of them is a bad minister; they simply are working with what they have, and what they have is only going to appeal to a limited group. Within that group, they can do a lot of good, of course, in the same way that a medium-good book can give a lot of pleasure to people who agree with its principles.

It's when the Fallacy goes too far that it becomes tiresome to non-believers. The local vicar, nice man though he may be, is probably no John Donne, and it can be rather irritating to be given an outraged stare if you don't enthuse about his sermon enough. But when it comes to art, message and medium are almost always harder to separate. Novels are fictional, and very few of them are didactic. They have a worldview, but some people won't even agree that all books have some kind of moral standpoint. Many a person arguing that they don't like the principles of a particular work of fiction gets a lot of hecklers crying, 'It's just a story!'. As a result, you can dislike a particular work for its worldview, and find yourself in disagreement with someone who shares its worldview on so profound a level that they're barely conscious of it, who can't understand why you're being so churlish. I've seen online articles, for instance, arguing that Disney's The Lion King has an authoritarian worldview - an opinion I personally agree with, but alas I can't find the article I'm remembering - who were greeted with furious posts reading, basically, 'Get a life you sad little person ITS JUST A STORY'. Of course, ill-mannered miscreants abound on the Web, but the basic argument is there: it's fictional, it doesn't have a worldview that I've noticed (because its view of the world seems to me, personally, to be true and reasonable), so you have no business disliking it.

Because, awkwardly, if you don't happen to agree with a work of art's worldview, you will find it hard to like. You may get in to an anti-Well Said Fallacy, where you dislike its message so much it's hard to see its virtues - but on the other hand, everyone agrees that Triumph of the Will is a great piece of film-making, Nazi propaganda or not. What I suspect is that without the Fallacy working upon you, the work's flaws start to glare. These can be flaws in worldview - sometimes you just can't swallow that the world is really like that - but they can also be flaws in execution that the artist's unexamined assumptions led them to be lazy about. To use The Lion King as an example, young Simba's arrogant desire for kingship isn't really very different from Scar's, except for the fact that Simba's entitled and Scar isn't. If you agree that authority is authority and that you should obey those above you, that's fine: Scar is bad because he's rebelling against the status quo. If you don't, though, it looks like a flaw in characterisation: Simba has not been made likeable enough to get away with that kind of talk. The character is considered entitled to certain latitudes, and so doesn't have to earn them. Dirty Harry works as a hero despite torturing suspects because he's clearly meant to be a flawed character and the film allows you the freedom to judge him; the film's artistry earns the character a certain latitude, fictionally if not morally. Harry's many imitators, produced by artists who really do believe that a square-jawed cop's gotta do, and clean up the scum, and all that paranoid, authoritarian rubbish, produce cops who are simply unconvincing to many viewers because they act like bastards without any authorial perspective or proper justification. The list goes on; I'm picking authoritarian examples because I happen not to like authoritarianism, but I'm sure everyon can produce their own list, in accordance with their worldview.

Outstanding artists, and indeed spiritual teachers, can overcome specifics in many cases. But artists who aren't quite that good are always going to get a more tolerant reception when preaching to the choir. Once an artist makes an assumption without properly thinking it through, they get careless and slip up; flawed writing is the result. When that happens, the Well Said Fallacy can plug the gap in some cases - but not with everyone.

I would say something like this also happens when one becomes a fan of a certain artist--you find yourself more willing to forgive flaws in subsequent works because of all the things they've done previously that have resonated so much with you.

A certain musician I'm rather fond of once remarked that people respond better to what they're familiar with. He was talking about why people dance more enthusiastically when the band plays The Hit Single, but I think the same principle may apply in the Well Said Fallacy.
So much to respond to... this is certainly a thought provoking post, halo theory is something I havent heard of, very interesting... it seems very true... but is that because it touches on my prejudices against the beautiful?

I'd say the best works of art are both things you can appriciate despite disagreeing with the intended meaning and also are things which have no precise worldview.

Which are two conflicting things but nevermind!!

The Lion King Rips off Hamlet, but I find the lion king easier to stomach (because I find Hamlet to be such an impossibly selfish character) but both Hamlet and the lion king do a similar thing, they represent a dilemma and they offer up a series of different perspectives on it, different characters offer up different wordviews, as do different moments, both ultimately side with the status quo and authority because both are, in very different historical contexts, bound by an alligence to establishing conservative rather than radical views, but played out in each are radical and powerful ideas. The way you react to one or the other really depends on who you are and what you are most interested in. The material is of a high standard in Hamlet, but I personally find the play tiresome and very hard to relate to, the lion king I find to have a low standard of material but to be easier to relate to. In neither case is this to do with ideology, I am not interested in the lion kings ideology as it is very very simplistic and I am not interested in Hamlets because it offers every ideology (as shakespeare nearly always does) and yet finally reinforces the interests of power (again as shakesapeare nearly always does).

So I'd say ideology has little relation to the way I respond to either text. It is something in my own interpretation and also inside the two pieces of art that make me enjoy or not enjoy them and very little to do with world view.

In general I'd say there are so many writers, musicians, artists etc... whose worldviews I don't agree with but whose art I love despite this.

That said I am sure I do prise the quality of some whose views I share higher than someone who doesn't share their views, but does this really make them of a lesser quality? It depends on their criteria, not in mine clearly because I hold them in esteme. In someone elses? Well who makes their judgement objective and mine subjective, are we not all influenced in our judgement by our ideology? If I like what someone says enough I don't care if they say it as elequently as they might. Equally if someone says something in a brilliant way (such as Hitler or Churchill) but its content is hideous I will not like it regardless of its craft.

Can something be truly beautiful if you consider it wrong? I often like work by people I don't agree with but I don't nessesarily like the moments in there work where they say things I don't concur with, unless they are said in the minds or mouths of a well drawn out character, if what is being said is by a character what matters is whether you consider it real (or real within the world of the fiction) rather than if you agree with it.

In terms of preaching to the converted, this is my greatest fear, but the thing is that whether you are preaching to the converted is based more on how you say the thing than what you are saying. If you are a marxist for example (I am not) and you only publish work in marxist magazines which display marxism in a way that is cliched, then all you can do is preach to the converted, but then again the converted still depends on the reader, mayber that reader will agree, maybe they won't, whether who you speak to is converted to your cause already is determined by the reader and not the author. You may think your piece of marxist theaory will impress and engage marxists only to discover they all disagree with it... and they think its badly written... or even they think it is badly written because they disagree with it... or they disagree with it because its badly written.

It all comes down to the whole death of the author thing... the reader will create meaning from our words, all we can do is try and predict what they may get from it and write accordingly.
Been thinking about this even more today. I was thinking that Tolkien is for example a terrible writer in a technical sense. He over writes discruotions and uses some very clunky prose but something about (some) of his books make them work regardless. What he has to say ideologically is very alien to my own ideals and yet despite my not agreeing with what he has to say or my full appriciation of the way he says it I still find it captivating and engaging.

There is a point near the end of the Lord Of The Rings when "the spirit" or whatever captures the writer, takes him over and he says things that aren't inline with his own worldview. That is the most facinating part for me.

I guess this has only a tangential relation to the idea of the well said fallacy, but I guess I am suggesting that as well as their being things which we like because we agree with them, despite them not being well written, that there are also cases where we like the ideas, the plot or the imagination of the story so much that we will overlook the quality. A close relation of the well said fallacy, maybe even the same thing, but removed from the sphere of agreement and into the realm of inspired by. And if something is good enough to inspire then perhaps the quality of the writing is neither here nor there...

I dunno.

Anyway, sorry to leave such long commnents, but this blog has really spoken to me.
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