Scott Cawelti

About Scott Cawelti -

Scott Cawelti was born and raised in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He taught writing, film, and literature at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) from 1968-2008, and has written regular opinion columns and reviews for the Waterloo / Cedar Falls Courier since the late 1970s.  He played for years in a folk duo with Robert James Waller and still regularly performs as a singer/guitarist/songwriter. Scott continues to teach as an adjunct instructor at UNI.

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  • More on Feelings, Opinions, Judgments, and Hypotheses

    • Posted on Jun 04, 2014 by Scott Cawelti


    Originally published Nov. 30, 2008

     I thought this essay deserved resurrection because of recent discussions on Facebook about opinions. 

     Someone asserted that all opinions are in fact equal.  Below, I argue just the opposite.  What this Facebook poster calls “opinions” I call “feelings” as in

    “I don’t like rock music in church,”  “Apple pie tastes better than pecan.”

     Feelings are personal, everyone has them, and they are equally valid.  That’s why rhetoricians caution about arguing about matters of taste—there’s no way to “prove” what tastes best, which color is a favorite, and so on.  

     Though all feelings may be created equal, all opinions/judgments/hypotheses are not. 

     Incidentally, my “hypothesis” at the end turned out to be terribly wrong, sorry to say.  If only.   

     

    +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

    Hardly a day slips by without my hearing or reading  “That’s just my opinion,” as if to say don’t bother to examine my statements closely, since they’re just idle chatter.   It’s almost an apology. 

    But what about this:  “Obama has been worshipped by the media.”   Chatter, or a serious point?  Or   “Only an idiot would support Sarah Palin as a serious candidate for the presidency.”  Or “Democrats will turn America into a socialist country.”  

    Since we’re now blanketed by similar statements from bloggers and bloviators, opinionizing deserves special attention. 

     Not all opinions are created equal, nor are they endowed by their creators with facts, logic, and the pursuit of effectiveness. 

     Whole classes of opinions are designed to provoke a quick gut-level response from either conservatives or liberals.   These are called “polemics,” and the vast majority of current “opinions” fall into this category.

     Those three assertions with which I began are polemics, and when offered in a public forum, generate plenty of responses, meaning still more polemics.  It’s a form of entertainment, and the anonymity of blogged responses to columns or news stories encourages bloggers to create veritable towers of babble.

     None dare call them enlightening.  Except for a precious thoughtful few, they’re verbal pornography, designed more for arousal than for understanding.

     Another class of statements, however, is based on facts, examples, and logic.  Such assertions deserve analysis, followed by agreement or refutation.  These I would call judgments, and I respect them.   Instead of the polemic  “Obama has been worshipped by the media,” one might assert, “Obama’s ideas on the environment are similar to editorial positions of several mainstream newspapers.” 

     That’s a statement that can be supported or refuted, and doesn’t create an immediate visceral response.  It’s potentially fact-based, and therefore worth far more than two cents.

     The columnists I read most often write more about judgments rather than polemics:  Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, Leonard Pitts, and Kathleen Parker come to mind.   But not Ann Coulter or Sean Hannity, who polemicize for profit and not much fun. 

     Another class of statements deserves serious attention, more so than either polemics or opinions and judgments.  These are the conclusions that derive from research based on extended readings of historical events, laboratory experiments, direct observation and experience, or some combination.   

    Here is where knowledge of our world and its workings gets created and shared, and which we ignore at our peril.  I call them “hypotheses” for want of a better term. 

    Understanding hypotheses takes a good deal of energy and time, and they aren’t found in the rants that pass for commentary on cable news channels or blogs.

    Nor does it come from right-wing pulpits, where faith-based assertions can overwhelm common sense and logic. Though faith and religion deserve study in schools, they don’t belong in political decisions or in science classrooms.  That’s a judgment, by the way, not a polemic. 

     Some hypotheses can be highly controversial, and have become the subject of extended debates among specialists and laypeople alike:  “The World Trade Center Building collapsed from a controlled demolition, not just from jetliners flown by terrorists.”  And “JFK was shot both from behind and in front, so Lee Harvey Oswald could not have acted alone.” 

    Citizens need to take time to study the logic, facts, and sources behind such hypotheses and decide where the truth lies. 

     Some opinions and hypotheses, to be blunt, are just plain wrong, and deserve oblivion. Incidentally, in my opinion, both of those conspiracy hypotheses are wrong, based on cherry-picked or faulty evidence.

     My advice, then:  ignore polemics unless you find them entertaining.  They’re mostly just distractions.  Judgments and hypotheses, however, are the stuff of adult conversations and deserve attention, even analysis.  Feelings are merely personal tastes made as assertions.  

     Judgments and valid hypotheses can make all the difference when understood and applied.

     Here’s a judgment that I hope will prove to be a valid hypothesis:  The current economic crisis will force Democrats and Republicans to put their country ahead of their political parties and cooperate on a range of solutions. 

     [June 4, 2014] And what a shame I was wrong—the country is still divided, still ruled by polemics, and therefore still stalled, thanks to a perfect storm of misguided politicians, angry Fox-news viewers, stoked by virulent polemicists, and a visceral hatred of President Obama among right-wing fringe elements.  

     

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  • Rare "Man Bites Dog" Moment

    • Posted on Mar 07, 2014 by Scott Cawelti

    My Feb. 16 Column, “We Deserve Better than Fox News” caused a bit of a stir. No surprise there; people who stay with Fox News feel attacked, it seems, every time someone points out the flaws in their sources, their selection of stories, or their on-air personalities.  


    But there was one rather amazing turnaround in a reader, and that only happens once in a solar eclipse.  When it does, like the man bites dog story, it deserves attention.

    So here is the angry first email, received a few days after the column appeared.  I won’t mention any names to save embarrassment. 

    Here it is, and I’ve broken it into paragraphs for ease of reading: 

     Hey Calwelti,  it has been a week since you wrote that fabulous piece about Fox News in the Courier and I am sure your inbox has been buzzing. I hope to add to it.

     You seemed frustrated that, while Obama has 99% of the media in his back pocket, he doesn't have Fox news. He waxes on about it whenever he is given the chance and it appears as though you picked it up on it for your column.

     You reference a couple of books that one other person besides yourself has read. We aren't exactly talking best seller material here are we? I will have to take your word for what was in them because I am not going to waste the money.

     You mentioned having watched Fox from time to time. Do you cheer when they make an effort to give the liberal side of things? Allen Combs, Bob Beckel? Numerous other libs that struggle, in vain, to make their feeble points. Embarrassing to see them get skewered time and time again for them, like you, their voices carry no reason what so ever. No logic, no rationale, no nothing except a bitter tone of hating conservatives and everything that they stand for.

    You really should watch Fox on a regular basis. You will learn some useful things. You will learn that our President has lied to us about Bengahzi, targeting conservative groups using the IRS, Solindra and green energy and on and on, and  fill in the blank. The man is a pathological liar.

     Is there something in your DNA that makes you ignore all the things that this President has done against the American people? It is extremely hard to understand how people like you, or other libs, can support this guy given all he has done and what he is doing to our country. Worst president ever? This guy, your guy, will come down as EPIC worst ever.

     

    One thing I have got to credit you for is that you have some big stones. To come out and call thousands of Courier readers ignorant takes big ones. Especially given the fact that we taxpayers pay for your lavish retirement as a former professor.

     And, while you were working, it is such a comfort to know that part of the check I wrote for my daughter going to UNI ended up in your pocket. That gives me a warm fuzzy feeling. To get called ignorant makes me feel so good for the money I am spending.

     I see that you are a part time writer. Hope the rest of your stuff is better than the crap you put in the Courier.

     I gave up on “real” replies a long time ago, since they end up in pissing matches—kind of a duel of sources and logic nitpicking.   I do resist personal attacks, so the attack on my profession was a low blow, as was his calling my writing “crap.”  Everyone writes a little crap, I’m well aware, me no more than most.  

    So I replied only. ‘Hope you feel better.” 

    hen three or four days later, and I kid you not, this arrived: 

     

    Hey Cawelti, I sent you an email the other day regarding your column on Fox News. Have been thinking about it and wanted to apologize for flying off the handle at you. I had a bad day, this weather stinks (everyone is on edge I swear), yada, yada. I should have let it roll off my back. I did not and I apologize for my words.

    I did not read your reply, which I saw early Monday morning as I was leaving for the gym. I did not really care what you said in reply as I felt bad for what I had said shortly after sending it. Anything you would had said back to me would not have made a difference. Ever throw one out there and wish you had not?

    I hope we can agree to disagree on the policies that are affecting our country. We are getting pulled apart from both sides. It is sad, and alarming, to see. We need to work together. I will continue to watch Fox news and try not to throw things at the TV when Obama is on. Ha. I may even expand my horizons and watch some NBC News. Ouch. You? Watch a little more Fox to see what the conservatives are thinking and expand your horizons. Read the Wall Street Journal editorial page if you get a chance. They do a good of job getting under what is going on behind both sides of this political junk.

    Regarding your writing, you had a piece in the Courier, sometime around the holidays, that was really, really good. Something about things that matter. Almost sent you a note telling you how good it was. Would like to do so now. We need more of that.

    Knock me over with a  feather, eh?  A complement, no less, too. 

    I wrote a real reply: 

    Well, thanks, _____.  Appreciate your apology, and all I replied was "Hope you feel better."  And I still hope that--your apology helped with that, I'm sure. And I completely agree with your second letter's substance--we are being pulled apart.  And we can surely agree to disagree.  At heart, we probably disagree about the role and size of government--and that's an honest argument that has been going on since 1776.  Honorable people differ on that, and probably always will.   

    So thanks again, and I might use your letter on my web site (the apology) without attribution to illustrate how much we probably do agree and need to work together to solve problems. 

    Here's hoping for an end to this horrible winter.   I'm grumpy too.  

     *******************************************************

    I’ve received no further reply, and don’t expect to, but at least we’re parting without the anger and personal attacks. 

    For me, this apology stands as a ray of hope—that people can overcome the divisive tone that pervades Fox (not the others, except occasionally MSNBC, granted) and rise above it.

    We do disagree, but only on a few principles, and we can discuss those rationally with no personal attacks—and maybe all learn something.  

     

     


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