Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Taking Cohen at his word

Here's a copy of a letter Laura and I sent to the Washington Post, regarding everyone's favorite "liberal" columnist.

Dear editors:

As people who paid attention not only in our algebra classes, but in our logic classes as well, we believe we have figured out Richard Cohen's argument from his recent column ("So Not Funny," May 4). First, Cohen defines "rudeness" as "taking advantage of the other person's sense of decorum or tradition or civility that keeps that other person from striking back or, worse, rising in a huff and leaving." Thus, a statement is "rude" only when there is no threat of retaliation from its object. Second, the phrase "speaking truth to power" is defined to require "repercussions, consequences -- maybe even death in some countries. When you spoke truth to power you took the distinct chance that power would smite you, toss you into a dungeon or -- if you're at work -- take away your office." Ergo, a "true" statement is one against which there is some retaliation. The contrapositive of this premise -- "if there is no retaliation, the statement is not true" -- follows logically, and indeed Cohen affirms this when he claims that Colbert was not "speaking truth to power" because "he will not suffer any consequence at all."

Cohen states that "The sort of stuff that would get you punched in a bar can be said on a dais with impunity." By applying the premises above, we can see that this "stuff" is not rude when it gets you punched in a bar, since retaliation implies a non-rude statement. It's also possible, though not necessary, for the "stuff" to be true when said in a bar. However, when said on a dais, the same thing cannot be true, since there will presumably be no retaliation. It is, however, rude. In fact, anything rude cannot be true, and anything true cannot be rude.

One interesting consequence of Cohen's logic is that if something is not rude, it must necessarily have negative repercussions. (The identity between "rude" and "no retaliation" means that the statement "if there is no retaliation, then the statement is rude" is true, as is its contrapositive "if the statement is not rude, then there is retaliation"). In other words, politeness has to be punished. This perhaps explains Cohen's shrill denunciation of the readers who responded to his Colbert column ("Digital Lynch Mob," May 9). Cohen complains of his interlocutors' across-the-board "ignorant, false and downright idiotic vituperation," but admits that he "peeked into only a few of the e-mails." He is, therefore, punishing the hundreds of calm, rational letter-writers whose emails he did not see fit to peruse, which is of course the correct response to politeness. Interestingly, however, his angry response rendered all of the letters not rude – the identity between "rude" and "no retaliation" also means that the statements "if something is rude then there is no retaliation," and therefore "if something is retaliated against then it is not rude," are necessarily true. Had Cohen not whined about the letters' rudeness, they would all have been false (if something is true, there are negative consequences, so if there are no negative consequences, it is not true). However, since he did complain, they were all polite.

We must admit to a certain pride in navigating Cohen's logic, which -- being uninformed by algebra classes, and perhaps by rhetorical writing classes too -- is frankly rather obscure. Perhaps Mr. Cohen would like to meet to discuss our findings... in a bar, of course. We wouldn't want to be rude.


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