Why Cross-Examination Is So Damn Great
There’s an obvious solace within the written medium. You get to carve out a space safe from constraints and take as much as you need to fully express yourself. Words are neat! I mean, just look at the torrential avalanche I regularly shit out just on my own.
But still, I don’t want people to forget about the benefits to real-time adversarial conversations, benefits which cannot be as easily replicated with writing. I recently wrote (ahem) about how humans have this nasty aversion to admitting error. You’ll rarely ever get someone willing to outright say “I am a liar” and the roomy comfort that we all love so much about text also provides bad faith actors the ability to build up elaborate defensive ramparts in peace. Nevertheless, even in instances where a smoking gun confession is missing, I cite to a few examples to outline how you can still construct a damning indictment using only a few minor inference hops:
Ehrlich is playing a seemingly uncomfortable game of Twister here, but his behavior makes perfect sense if you read intelligence and agency behind his decisions. The only explanation for the indirect, tangential, and collateral measurements is that Ehrlich knows that a direct measurement will not be favorable to his pet theory. He does not believe in truth, but rather believes in belief as the kids say, and he’s not willing to jeopardize it.
Of course, this gets way easier to accomplish in a real-time confrontation. Chalk it up to the stereotype but yes, I fucking love cross-examination and I want to explain why. Lessons From The Screenplay had a fantastic video analyzing the climactic cross-examination from the movie A Few Good Men while using the vocabulary normally reserved to discuss physical duels. The story’s hook is watching the military lawyer protagonist (Kaffee) figure out how he can elicit an outright confession from a notoriously disciplined and experienced commander (Jessep) using only the ‘weapons’ found within a courtroom. The primary elegance of cross-examination as a weapon stems from the fact that, when done successfully, you can fabricate a solid cage for your opponents using only their own words as ingredients. Kaffee does exactly this by asking questions that appear superficially innocent but, when joined together, weld into a formidable trap Jessep is unable to escape.
I want to highlight a few other recent examples, running the gamut across the political spectrum. My aim here is not to ignite a debate about the specific issue that happens to be discussed (though a toe dip is inevitable) but rather to comment on the rhetorical maneuvers at play and see what lessons we can impart. And a strong word of caution is warranted here: It’s true that some this veers dangerously close to mind-reading, which is obviously prone to confirmation bias and erroneous conclusions. With that in mind my goal is to ensure that any conclusion I reach is both solidly grounded within the available evidence and appropriately qualified (with any alternative explanations highlighted). I think the utility is worth the risk of error, and the harm can be mitigated by a commitment to acknowledging one’s own mistakes.
First up is Nathan Robinson interviewing Christopher Rufo, specifically the part where they discuss whether the Founding Fathers were racist hypocrites — extolling the virtues of liberty while also owning slaves:
Robinson: You don’t believe that Thomas Jefferson was a racist?
Rufo: It’s not true. It’s such a lazy reduction.
Robinson: Do you want me to quote him? […]
Rufo: So I think to go back and say, “Oh, they’re all racist.” It’s just so lazy.
Robinson: But it’s true. It’s not lazy, it’s just a fact. […] Again, it seems a way to not acknowledge that the country was founded by people who held Black people in chains and thought they were inferior.
Rufo: I acknowledge that. That’s a fact. That’s a historical fact. I don’t see how anyone would deny that. […] But to say that they are racist is a different claim because you’re taking an ideological term and then back imposing it on them to discredit their work advancing equality. And so I think that I reject it in a linguistic frame, while acknowledging the factual basis that there was slavery.
Robinson: “The blacks are inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind.” That’s Jefferson. Is that not racist?
Rufo: I disagree with that statement. I don’t know what you want me to say.
Robinson: I want you to say it’s racist.
Rufo: Saying “oh, we’re going to cherry pick one sentence.”
Robinson: I want you to tell the truth. I want you to tell the truth about this man.
So Rufo finds himself in a bit of a pickle. He’s fully aware that he can’t say “Thomas Jefferson, the man who believed blacks were inferior and held 130 of them in bondage, was not a racist” with a straight face. But simultaneously he also expends a lot of acrobatic energy trying to dodge answering a straightforward question. The italicized portion of his statement above explains why. Although Rufo has made his career as a stalwart opponent of Critical Race Theory (however you define it) he reveals that he might accept one of its core tropes — that the United States is indelibly and irredeemably tainted by its original sin of racism. Notice that Robinson did not ask “Should we discredit Jefferson’s work in advancing equality?” he simply asked if Jefferson was racist. But Rufo looks past Robinson’s question and sees the warning beacons coming up on the horizon, and so he charges forward in an effort to preemptively maintain a defensive line on ideas he suspects would next be attacked.
According to his own words, Rufo divulges that he thinks racism is potentially grounds to have your accomplishments discredited. If you accept that framework then it makes sense why he would expend so much energy avoiding admitting that Jefferson was racist; the fear is that this concession would cause the rest of his favored structure to crumble. It’s not likely we would’ve gotten this admission in writing; he had to be cornered by his own statements in real-time for this to slip.
I am going to now praise Tim Pool of all people. A few months ago he invited Lance/TheSerfsTV to his livestream to be grilled on a range of topics. On the abortion question, some of the more enthusiastic pro-choice activists have staked their position on legalizing elective abortion not just at the “viability” line (~22 weeks) but up until the millisecond the fetus exists the birth canal. Lance affirms this is his position, claiming that the mother should always maintain full and absolute autonomy over what happens with the pregnancy. But as the real-time discussion evinced, it’s not clear if he actually believes this:
Seamus: You believe that the moment the child is outside of the birth canal, that they are now endowed with human rights.
Seamus: However, when they are inside of the mother, literally anything you do to them is acceptable because they're inside of the mother.
Lance: Oh no, I don't think anything’s acceptable, but I think the mother should still have the choice — ultimate authority over what happens to her body. [crosstalk]
Tim: Wait wait wait hold on hold on. What about meth?
Lance: Like she should be allowed to do meth? I think if someone is doing meth while they're pregnant, that it is completely acceptable for [child protective services to get involved].
Tim: Woah but that’s her body though.
Lance: Yeah it’s her body.
Tim: She wants to do meth, what's the big deal?
Lance: The big deal is that she's intentionally trying to kill a child. [flashes of cosmic realization]
Tim: Hold on there a minute.
Lance: Yeah. And I see where we’re going.
Tim: I don't- I don't understand what you're saying. It's her body. If she wants to do meth, what's the problem?
Lance: [pregnant pause] Well first off doing meth is illegal period. Doesn't matter if you're doing it with a child or without a child.
Such a spectacular reveal would not have made it through the cognitive filters had it not taken place in real time. If someone’s position is that a pregnant woman can do whatever she wants with her body, up to and including terminating the life of the fetus, it logically follows that such an expansive authority would also include less fatal harms. But as Lance discloses in the moment, he doesn’t believe that a pregnant woman has the right to take meth and so he offers a justification that is on its own eminently reasonable, but only after it’s too late does he realize the self-inflicted rhetorical leg sweep he tripped into.
The rest of the conversation gets bogged down on the legality of certain drugs1 but to Lance’s credit, he does eventually bite the bullet and concede that although he may not agree with the decision he still believes a pregnant woman has the right to take heroin. The eventual consistency is commendable, but the fact that he so reflexively resorted to the commanding ethos of “do not intentionally kill a child” should call into question how much he really believes in the “absolute dominion of the mother” position he insisted upon.
Lastly is our old friend Meghan Murphy again. I already wrote extensively about the numerous logical fallacies deployed in her conversation with Aella on the ethics of the sex industry. Murphy also discussed the same topic with professional debate bro Destiny and he describes the fundamental issue after she had walked out in frustration:
This is what somebody will do, they’ll say “I don’t like cheeseburgers, because they have meat, the buns look orange, and because they go in my mouth.” Then I’ll say what if the bun was blue? And they’ll go like “I still wouldn’t like it.” Ok what if the bun was blue and you ate them with your hands? “I still wouldn’t like that.” Ok what if the bun was blue, you ate them with your hands, and it didn’t have meat or whatever? and “I still wouldn’t like that.” Ok then why the fuck would you tell me all these reasons why you don’t like it when none of them are actually important to why you don’t like it?
That’s a fair question! If someone says they don’t like X because of reasons A/B/C, and you get rid of A/B/C but they still don’t like X, then it inevitably follows they have other reasons for disliking X they’re not divulging. What Destiny has outlined here is an effective method to uncovering pretextual justifications — the false reasons someone provides as a bid to keep the true reasons hidden (likely because they’re too unpalatable or unpersuasive to say out loud).
Destiny spends an agonizing amount of time trying to get Murphy to explain what her precise objections to the sex industry are and gets nowhere, and their final exchange illustrates why. They’re discussing one of Murphy’s argument that the sex trade is unethical because of women’s particular vulnerability during penetrative sex:
Destiny: I understand that women are particularly vulnerable during sex, that’s probably true. How do you feel about male prostitutes then? Do you think that it would be ethical for men to do sex work?
Murphy: Um, what I don't think is ethical is again for a man to pay a woman or a man for sex.
[crosstalk & sidetracking]
Destiny: So I’m going to ask again: is it unethical to pay men for sex? If a male wants to do pornography or if a male wants to sell his body for sex? Is that unethical?
Murphy: Yeah, I think it's unethical to pay anyone for sex.
Destiny: Okay. Then the vulnerability and the penetration part don't matter then. I don't know why you bring that up if a guy can’t even sell his body for sex then—
Murphy: Well he’s being penetrated also, no?
Destiny: But what if it’s a male prostitute that has women but not with a strap-on?
Murphy: Oh I mean that's a real common thing eh? How many women do know who have ever paid for sex with a male prostitute? I mean, I think that’s unethical too.
Destiny: Ok! That’s what I’m getting at! I’m just trying to figure out why you think it’s unethical!
[more crosstalk & yelling]
Murphy: Every time I start explaining my arguments you interrupt me and act completely exasperated because I'm not saying what you want me to say. You want to frame the conversation in a way that I am not interested in framing the conversation. Like the way that I want to talk about this is not how you want to talk about it and you can't accept that. The way I'm looking at this is not the way that you're looking at it but you don't really want to hear how I’m looking at it. You want to have the conversation you want to have so there’s not really any point to this. You don’t want to learn anything you don’t want to hear, so you are just annoyed that I’m saying something you don’t want me to say.
[more crosstalk & yelling]
Destiny: I’m not showing off to anybody! I’m just trying to have a conversation, I don’t even know why you’re against sex work! That’s what I’m trying to figure out right now.
Murphy: I appreciate the big show that you’re having but I don’t want to continue this if you’re going to keep interrupting me.
Take note of the italicized responses; that kind of evasion is not a generally pervasive reaction for Murphy. She speaks for a living and within other moments in this debate and elsewhere, Murphy has demonstrated a clear ability to confidently answers questions with immediacy and relevancy. It can’t be just a coincidence when acrobatics are prompted only by these vexing questions.
Murphy’s responses make a lot more sense if you assume that her true objections to the sex industry are really borne out of an aesthetic or disgust aversion, and specifically only when men are the patrons. Murphy is evidently aware that this argument can’t be spoken out loud because it’s likely too vacant to be generally persuasive, so she instead cycles through a rolodex of pretextual (read: fake) arguments that she’s willing to unhesitantly discard whenever they risk becoming a liability to her core thesis. That’s why she dodges the male prostitute hypothetical to instead reiterate her dislike of men paying women for sex. That’s why she laughs off the female client hypothetical as implausible instead of grappling with its implications.
I’m comfortable accusing Murphy of dishonesty here because her acrobatic evasions are selectively deployed in response to concrete threats to her position, rather than the result of random chance.
It’s unfortunate that human beings sometimes lie, and it’s too bad that they also refuse to admit mistakes. Such is life. Given the examples I outlined above, some generalizable heuristics is to be suspicious of anyone who refuses to answer straightforward questions (in writing or otherwise), or who refuses to engage in anything but the most sympathetic of conversations. A lot of our contentious interactions have and continue to migrate over towards asynchronous text exchanges, but hopefully I’ve made a case for why talking is still cool. Also I host the podcast The Bailey and I’m always delighted to talk to people I vehemently disagree with, so reach out if you want to butt heads!
As a parting bonus, here’s the journalist Beth Rigby interviewing Iain Anderson, chair of the LGBT organization Stonewall. It’s quite the bloodbath.
It’s not obvious where Lance was going with his insistence on asking whether the given substance is legal or not. As best as I can tell, he seems to be building around the principle that “pregnant women can do whatever they want with their bodies, unless it’s illegal”. But if so, what would then be the argument for abortion access in places where abortion is illegal?