Thursday, January 5, 2012

Ad hominem of the day

I think I'm developing an allergic reaction to Jim Fusilli, the rock critic of the Wall Street Journal. For the second time this week he has annoyed me. And now he will know the consequences!

Here is the article. Go ahead, follow the link and read it first. I'll wait...

Back? Ok. This is the saddest argument I have read in a long time. The only thing that makes it publishable I suspect is the cute opening:
It's 1955 and you're in a record shop. The proprietor puts on "Maybellene" by a newcomer named Chuck Berry. You're enjoying it, but a fellow customer saunters over: "That's nothing more than Roy Acuff's 'Ida Red' with different words," he says, pointing out that Acuff cut his track in 1939. "I wouldn't call that original."
Jim thinks that there are a whole lot of 'generationally biased' people out there who only like music they heard when they were in their teens. As a sociological claim, this could even be true. But its real function is to offer an ironclad defence against anyone who says they dislike the bands that Jim happens to like, like Radiohead. The argument Jim offers, that people who don't like the new bands that Jim likes are 'generationally biased', is an old fallacy called an ad hominem. From Wikipedia:
Abusive ad hominem (also called personal abuse or personal attacks) usually involves insulting or belittling one's opponent in order to attack his claim or invalidate his argument, but can also involve pointing out true character flaws or actions that are irrelevant to the opponent's argument. This tactic is logically fallacious because insults and negative facts about the opponent's personal character have nothing to do with the logical merits of the opponent's arguments or assertions.
The paragraph in the article that illustrates the most ad hominemesque features is this one:
This kind of obduracy isn't new, but it does seem especially egregious among boomers. It may be because the recording industry in the era immediately following Woodstock was so powerful that even today some fans in their 50s and 60s still fail to realize their opinions were shaped by marketing prowess. Music back then was sold more as a lifestyle product than an art form, its performers presented as gods rather than gifted artists. At the same time, a Gee-Bee's loyalty to the music of his youth is often linked to a profound sense of identification with the period and its causes—opposition to the Vietnam war, for example, or support for equal rights for women and minorities. For some Gee-Bees, that identification is a form of validation. To say that there may be better music now isn't merely a challenge to a Gee-Bee's taste. It's a challenge to his self-perception.
You see how it works? If I like the Beatles it's because of the recording industry or Vietnam or something. Boomer bands were lifestyle products not art forms like today's music! I had no idea. Wait, I think there is another fallacy here, something called "begging the question". Jim assumes that I can't have a good reason to dislike Radiohead, for example, so I must be a "Gee-Bee" as he charmingly calls them. Here is his clincher:
Gee-Bees are free to dismiss new music, but let's remember they do so not because they know something about music we don't. It's quite the opposite. We know something they don't—that new music is a joy that enriches our lives and will do so for as long as we choose to listen.
If I dismiss new music (uh, do I have to dismiss ALL new music, or can I pick and choose?), it's because there's stuff I just don't know. Mysterious, mystical knowledge that Jim chooses not to share with us. Wow, and here I thought he was just being condescending.

Ironically, the post I put up a few days ago, critiquing Jim Fusilli's article on 2011 concerts focused on Radiohead. Here it is. I'll say this for Radiohead: they aren't nearly as annoying as U2.

Just to clarify, a lot of the music I like the best was written when I was, lemme see, minus 230 years old. I guess that means I'm "centennially biased". Good to know.


RG said...

The most common usage of "beg the question" nowadays makes the phrase equivalent to "invites the question". in: "He bought $100M Inco shares just before the announcement they found gold. That begs the question: 'Did he have insider knowledge?'" About 230 years ago or, in fact, about 2300 years ago, "begging the question" or "petitio principii" meant "asking [to be given] the main point of the argument". Mr Townsend seems to be accusing the WSJ fellow of doing somthing like the latter -- stating something as agreed that really needs to be proven first. As for me and my house, we enjoy hearing about music. RG

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, RG! You know, that the usage of the phrase "begs the question" has been changing recently did drift through the back of my mind when I was writing this, but didn't make it into the post. Yes, what I was saying was that he was assuming the conclusion, not arguing for it.

I know that one of the problems of music journalism is that you are not really allowed to use any technical terms or music notation so making an argument can be a bit tricky. But most of the time, in this blog, I am trying to do the same thing. When I express a dislike for a particular musician or composer, like Radiohead or Bartok, I give, as clearly as I can, the reasons why. I wish Jim Fusilli would do the same because then, even if we disagree with him, we can still learn something.