Politics and the English language, 2014 edition

Via Alex Tabarrok, I came across a post on the blog of Stanford’s Hoover Institution by law professor Richard Epstein regarding attitudes toward police shootings.

In reading Epstein’s post, I was struck not so much by their content (pro-police views of the center-right variety, basically suggesting we give the benefit of the doubt to police in controversial situations such as the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri) but rather by its writing style, in which a series of cliches are juxtaposed in a sort of collage:

It often turns out that libertarians are their own worst enemies in their critique of tough current affairs . . . harbor grave doubts . . . It is not that I entirely part company . . . libertarians of all stripes . . . public authorities, without whom we cannot enjoy the ordered liberty that we all prize . . . a regrettable necessity . . . fringe groups . . . chaos and sectarian violence . . . the shuddering connotations . . . back to the old story . . . neither the training nor the temperament . . .  the swollen ranks . . . These cases resist any orderly characterization . . . not to jump to judgment . . . It is not that the problem is not serious . . . the visual evidence makes it all too clear . . . snap judgments about right and wrong . . . The accounts vary all over the map . . . surges to the fore . . . Full and prompt disclosure . . . tamp down on local distrust . . . By the same token . . . a sorry state of affairs . . . axe to grind . . . The situation does not get any easier when we seek to draw broad implications from this tragic incident . . . It is of course an open question . . . anguished reflection . . . the use of excessive force by police is always inexcusable . . . tamp down on those forms of abuses . . . a weak link in the system . . . These arguments speak, moreover . . . which in the end . . . any distinctive take on these critical issues . . . That is ultimately the challenge of any responsible system of public administration . . . that task need not raise profound questions . . . a common moral substrate . . . public confidence and respect . . . No easy job . . .

Or, as Orwell put it in his famous article:

Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

Okay, part of this is simply a culture clash.  I don’t hang out with the kind of people who would use a phrase such as “shuddering connotations,” “anguished reflection” or “a sorry state of affairs.”  But it’s more than that. Orwell wrote, “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.”  Here I am taking a slightly different position:  I’m not saying that Epstein is defending the indefensible — I have no idea what is defensible or not regarding the Ferguson, Mo., police department. Rather, I’m saying that his piling-on of cliches is a thoughtless style of writing that leads to serious errors.

Here’s my concern:  One trouble with using cliches is that you can end up writing false statements — statements you know are false — but you don’t realize it because you get caught in the flow of the writing.  This happens a lot, and it’s something that I see in scientific as well as journalistic writing. People use phrases that sound good, and sound sensible, and that seems to be enough.  But it’s not.

In particular, here are three items from Epstein’s post:

1. “the police, with their own monopoly over the use of force”

2. “And when they fall short . . . [the police] cannot plead the excuses available to ordinary people who have neither the training nor the temperament to engage successfully in the use of force.”

3. “[Deaths of police officers] are more common than deaths to citizens from police officers”

Item 1 doesn’t seem right to me.  Millions of Americans own and use guns legally. Indeed, elsewhere in his post, Epstein defends non-police officer George Zimmerman’s use of force in shooting Trayvon Margin.  So the use of deadly force in the United States is not monopolized by the police, either legally or in practice.

Item 2 seems wrong too, in that its phrasing implies to me that police necessarily have the temperament to engage successfully in the use of force.  Training, sure, but temperament?

As for item 3, I’m not sure on this one but a bunch of commenters to Epstein’s blog disagree.  One commenter points to this post by Reuben Fischer-Baum and Al Johri estimating that about 1,000 Americans are killed by the police each year, which is quite a bit larger than the “105 total deaths [of police officers], with 30 by gunfire” cited by Epstein.

In his post, Richard Epstein writes:

I often like to say that I am a professor of law and not a professor of facts . . .

But in this world we all need to be “professors of facts.”  Otherwise, look what happens.

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science at Columbia University. His books include Bayesian Data Analysis; Teaching Statistics: A Bag of Tricks; and Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do.
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