Over the Hedge with Nate Silver and Jacques Derrida

Photo of a labyrinthine hedge dividing a grass yard from a gravel path

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In October 2012, statistician and New York Times blogger Nate Silver was predicting up a storm. He was aggregating, calculating, and tabulating poll results in order to determine the probable outcomes of the upcoming presidential election. By the end of the month, he had President Obama’s reelection chances at 79%. MSNBC pundit Joe Scarborough was not amused:

“[A]nybody that thinks that this race is anything but a tossup right now is such an ideologue, they should be kept away from typewriters, computers, laptops and microphones for the next 10 days, because they're jokes.”

In his own blog for the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates aggregated some of the Silver backlash that occurred in the final days before the election. From Politico’s Dylan Byers:

“For all the confidence Silver puts in his predictions, he often gives the impression of hedging. Which, given all the variables involved in a presidential election, isn't surprising. For this reason and others—and this may shock the coffee-drinking NPR types of Seattle, San Francisco and Madison, Wis.—more than a few political pundits and reporters, including some of his own colleagues, believe Silver is highly overrated.”

And from Dean Chambers: “Nate Silver is a man of very small stature, a thin and effeminate man with a soft-sounding voice.”

Coates sums up:

“I don't really know. Anyway, Byers goes on to quote David Brooks and Joe Scarborough, manly-men who can't find San Francisco on a map and are so macho that they chew coffee beans whole, leaving the French press for you ... Terry Gross-listening, Steve Urkel-looking m—”

Actually, I’d recommend reading his post for yourself.

I found Coates’ gloss of the Silver’s critics compelling and astute: The critique often boiled down to the fact that the critic didn’t think Silver was “manly” enough. But there’s also a flip side to this critique: He was also too bold, too bombastic, too reckless in his prognostications. So to the (I would argue significant) extent that such adjectives are linked with masculinity in American culture—political culture included—Nate Silver was branded as both too macho and not macho enough. He’s too confident; he “gives the impression”—but only the impression—of “hedging.” In a way, his hedges were taken as a superficial way for this “man of very small stature” to make incredibly arrogant (at least for Scarborough et al.) claims without proving it on the gridiron like a real man.

At the same time I was following the 2012 election and Silver’s blog, I was also reading a lot of Jacques Derrida’s work, as well as criticism of that work. I found myself struck by similarities between Silver critics and Derrida critics. Slavoj Zizek (whose name, I suppose, arouses as much ire in some academic corners as Derrida’s does in others), for example, states “that in his writing he's seeking ‘simply to make completely sure that the idea comes through,’ in contrast to the exasperating rhetorical adornments he finds—or rather skips over—in a thinker like Derrida” (Nealon). Urban Dictionary’s entry on “postmodernism” is less nuanced and scholarly, but raises a point that’s hard to miss: “pseudo-intellectual Trojan Horse of tyrants everywhere in the western world. Began in Arts faculties in various universities under ‘thinkers’ like Derrida.... Works insidiously by ... dressing up bulls*** in flowery language.” There are those “adornments” again, and this time they’re floral.

Lest I be taken for a “pseudo-intellectual,” maybe I should get to the point. (Or maybe being readily taken for a pseudo-intellectual isn’t such a bad thing?) Though the work of Silver and Derrida travels in relatively different professional and cultural circles, I think readers of both authors miss something important in dismissing vast sections of that work as purely stylistic or only apparent. Brushing off Silver’s hedges as mere “impression[s]” or Derrida’s “rhetorical” use of obscurity—“exasperating” as it might occasionally be—elides something significant. The hedges of both serve important rhetorical purposes, even if those purposes aren’t “to make completely sure that the idea comes through” clearly and immediately. The last two chapters of Silver’s 2012 book are, after all, entitled “A Climate of Healthy Skepticism” and “What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You.”

But let’s get to the part where I actually say what I mean (pundits, you can start reading here): The various controversies and critiques surrounding Silver and Derrida have made me wonder whether I need to spend more time teaching students to read and write hedges. As a teacher of rhetoric, I am bound up in the tradition of teaching students to “make the weaker argument the stronger.” But perhaps I need to spend more time teaching students to make the stronger argument the weaker: That is, to understand the importance of the prolonged performance of self-doubt as it manifests itself in both the thinking and writing processes of rhetors. To understand that practicing and manifesting such doubts is not just a way of annoying or toying with yourself or your audience, but a way of trying (even if Zizek takes the shortcut straight from the conservatory to the lounge) to get them to dwell with problems, catches, and weaknesses for the sake of fashioning a more incredulously wrought and thus more credible argument in the end. Or perhaps the point is not an end at all, but rather—

Ooh, I’ve gotta go. Fresh Air comes on in five minutes.


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