Mathematics and logic games can get very difficult, but their world is essentially simple, elegant and frequently beautiful. Liars always lie; truth-tellers always tell the truth; and statements can be simply true or simply false and mutually exclusive, and that is that. For good and for ill, the real world is typically complicated, usually inelegant, and only occasionally beautiful.
the neat world of math and logic, let's say you want to prove that a
statement, a "proposition" is true or false, but you can't do so
directly. Let's name it California style, Prop-1, and you want to prove
it true but can't figure out a way to do so and have at least a strong
feeling that a direct proof just isn't possible. What you can do — in a
world of abstraction — is note that if Prop-1 is true its negation is
false, and vice versa. Let's continue California style and piss off some
logicians and call that negation Proposition-2.
you can assume that Prop-2 is true and proceed logically from there,
and, if you're clever, you can show that accepting the truth of Prop-2
leads to an absurdity. Then you go back and check your logic. If
accepting Prop-2 leads to something clearly wrong, and your logic is OK,
then Prop-2 is wrong. If Prop-2 is wrong, Prop-1 is right, and you get
to write "Q.E.D." at the bottom of the proof, with seventeen additional
Lifetime Geek Points if you add "per Reductio ad Absurdum." ("It has been proven by a reduction to the absurd.")
one variation of this game, you can assume that it's OK to divide by
zero and work out from there a logical proof that 1 = 2 (or maybe it was
1 = 0). Since we can be pretty sure that 1 = 1, we can conclude that in
ordinary arithmetic and algebra problems, it's a bad idea to divide by
zero. (If you want to get into infinities, that's a different thing —
and probably a more advanced math course.)
literature, things are more complex than math, and there is usually
more emotional content: only a small number of people get emotionally
involved with math, while more people react emotionally to literature
and art generally than is healthy. (If you spend time and expend a good
deal of energy complaining about the crap on TV or in the movies, you
probably should consider writing letters for Amnesty International or
protesting at your State capital against some significant evil.) Still,
most of us, most of the time, can keep emotional distance in art, even
when that art bears directly on current events.
ability of art to distance an issue allows artists to — sometimes,
quietly — walk around our prejudices and other defenses and work on our
heads, including working on our figurative heads and hearts logically.
In science fiction, there's the kind of narrative called "If This Goes On," named after a 1940 story by Robert A. Heinlein.
In stories like these, a contemporary trend is extrapolated into the
future, where we see its very bad results. That is, the
science-fictional technique of extrapolation is combined with what in
satire can be called — and is called by the SF writer Yevgeny Zamyatin —
reductio ad finem, pushing a bad trend to its conclusion,
e.g., Vladimir Lenin's going over to capitalist "scientific management"
getting trashed in Zamyatin's get SF satire, We (ca. 1920). If we don't like what will happen "If This Goes On," then we should try to stop it now.
The dramatic action in William Shakespeare's King Lear
pretty well undercuts any idea of natural bonds between people
logically justified in terms of human society as part of some cosmic
Great Chain of Being. In such a world, one can't prove that bonds of
compassion exist, but Shakespeare does a nice job showing an effect of
not feeling such bonds: in an action and scene often called — SPOILER! —
The Blinding of Gloucester (3.7). The Earl of Gloucester is an old man and a feudal vassal
of the Duke of Cornwall; he's the Duke's host, and, old Gloucester
might think, the Duke's friend. But Cornwall and, maybe more so, his
wife Goneril, are angry at Gloucester, feel politically harmed by
Gloucester, and have Gloucester in their power. So, what the hell, they
gouge out his eyes. On stage. Traditionally, they "Pluck out his eyes" as graphically as the state the art of stage effects can manage.
scene is obscene, in the old sense of the word, and intentionally so.
Done well, even with an audience raised on torture-porn Saw films, it ought to send one or two wise-ass groundlings running to the john to puke.
Will is saying to us, "as 'twere": okay, I cannot prove that you should
— absurdly perhaps, imprudently most likely — feel compassion, but here
is one logical consequence if you don't; if that turns your stomach,
think about it.
The classic example, however, is Jonathan Swift's once well-known essay, "A Modest Proposal"
(1729), originally published to look like an anonymously written but
legitimate and earnestly-argued political pamphlet. In the early 18th
century, poor Irish people were again, as often, starving, and at least
part of the cause of the famine was a set of conscious economic
policies by the ruling elites in England and Ireland. Swift could argue
wonkish economics with the best of his time, and had a price on his head
for doing so in The Drapier's Letters;
but he got to very basic basics in "A Modest Proposal." In classic
economics, "The value of a thing is what the thing will bring," and
"thing" obviously included sub-human animals — sheep or pigs, say, or
even horses — which were bought and sold in markets and whose value
clearly was the market price. (Human slaves were also bought and sold,
but that wasn't an immediate issue in Ireland — although it's a useful
point for background.)
What's the value of poor Irish?
"modest proposal" is that poor Irish should sell their babies at a year
old to be slaughtered for food for the rich; and it is crucial that
that conclusion follows rigorously from "the cold equations"
derived from seeing Man as (Solely) an Economic Animal. More
poignantly, Swift's Projector demonstrates that the baby-meat option is
less despicable, indeed, more compassionate, than current policies
wherewith weakest of the poor are "already dying, and rotting, by cold
and famine, and filth, and vermin, as fast as can be reasonably
baby — and if you're out there puking again, consider strongly the
possibility that the "Proposal" has just reduced to the grotesque, if
not precisely the absurd, the idea that "The Irish are animals" or that
the only value to a human being is a kind of economic price.
Got the principle?
consider at least as a thought experiment that in the summer of 2013
trial of George Zimmerman for the slaying of Trayvon Martin, the six
women, good and true, of a Florida jury reached a logical decision, to
wit, that a large, fully adult White man could shoot and kill an unarmed
Black teenager of slight build — legally.
Florida law on self-defense, given instructions to the jury that
incorporated Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, such a conclusion was
Given the premise that any White person might well fear any noncrippled Black male, that conclusion was pretty likely.
the premise that fear is not just an explanation but a generally
acceptable justification for even violent action, that conclusion was
given the assumption under Florida law and Southern culture that White
men at least have the right to literally bear arms and go out armed —
added to the assumption that such armed White men would do well to
literally go out practicing "self-help justice" and look for trouble — then the "not guilty" verdict was pretty much inevitable.
As many are saying as I write, "Do not blame the jury."
Instead note that the George Zimmerman case is hardly unique even recently. On 17 October 1992, Rodney Peairs shot and killed Yoshihiro Hattori
in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Mr. Peairs stood his ground and defended his
castle against a 17-year old exchange student who got the wrong house
for a Halloween party. Pearis, too, was initially not prosecuted and,
upon criminal prosecution, was acquitted. Mrs. Pearis had been
frightened seeing the teenager come onto their property, and "The
defense argued that Peairs was in large part reacting reasonably to his
wife's panic." The trial took a week, and the jury voted to acquit in
under four hours.
you don't like the verdict in the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case,
or that in the shooting of Yoshihiro Hattori, consider that those
verdicts might be logical and legal and start working to change the
premises that make them that way.
cannot insist that people be heroic; we can insist that armed men act,
as the expression has it, as if they had some balls, and some brains. We
can insist that laws in action lead to justice, and when they don't
that those laws get changed. We can get appropriately angry and verbally
attack films and TV and news shows that demonize young Black men and
teenagers generally and romanticize vigilantism and Wild-West gun
And if the English and, a bit earlier, the Americans, can accept the Irish as fully human, so we can start valuing all human life, even teenagers near our property.