Title: How To Be Right
Author: James O’Brien
Publisher: W H Allen, November 2018
Length: 240 pages
Rating: 3/5 – hit and miss, thought provoking but sometimes patronising attitude can be off putting.
I confess I have only heard James O’Brien on the radio a few times but am aware of his reputation for dismantling caller’s arguments so thought this book would give a fuller picture of O’Brien’s views and techniques. I’d say the book is a mixed bag. If you like O’Brien and are more left leaning then you’ll enjoy it as he mostly plays to the left wing gallery. There are laugh out loud moments and plenty of quotable passages.
I both agreed and disagreed with O’Brien’s arguments but that’s good as it shows he makes you think and I enjoyed the format where his own views are joined by transcripts of some of the phone conversations from his show. For me O’Brien’s arguments were stronger in the latter chapters than the earlier and middle ones.
He does have a tendency to come over as quite self-righteous and patronising and even admits this but I’m not sure whether this is his true personality or a persona he inhabits for the radio. This attitude backfires though as if you’re not careful you start to doubt what might otherwise be valid arguments because they are submerged beneath the patronising veneer. In my view some of his own arguments contain unwarranted leaps of logic and while at times he produces evidential data to back up his views at other times he simply presents a view with no evidence.
While he has a good grasp of some issues he also shows a lack of awareness of others. He criticises Jordan Peterson while admitting he hasn’t studied Peterson’s works and presumably this is why he misrepresents Peterson. In the chapter on LGBT issues O’Brien admits that after listening to both for and against arguments re self-identifying trans women, he sympathises with both and frequently changes his mind. This is at least more open minded than most on the left wing although once more some of O’Brien’s reasoning is flawed. For example being in favour of something because Donald Trump was against trans people in the military rather than examining it on its own merits isn’t a good method. O’Brien then seems to contradict himself, “‘Self-identification’, the legal process by which a biological male can assume every single right currently enjoyed by biological females simply by stating that s/he is a woman, is clearly problematic. There are a number of reasons why I lean towards supporting it, though…the examples of Ireland and elsewhere suggest that many of the fears expressed by people who didn’t want it to make its way onto the statute book in the UK are largely unfounded.” I wonder how much O’Brien has looked into this? A biological male can enter women’s sports events simply by stating, “I self identify as a woman” (this has already happened in the USA depriving actual women of race medals). Males (identifying as transwomen) can use female only changing rooms regardless if the women object and a teacher can be disciplined or suspended for simply ‘mis-gendering’ a pupil. In addition to this anyone who doesn’t agree with transgender ideology is labelled as bigoted and transphobic even when in possession of strong scientific evidence for their case and free speech is undermined.
O’Brien further falls into the trap of isolating Bible verses without understanding their context in the cultures they were first given to. While chatting to a caller claiming the Bible is against homosexuality O’Brien repeatedly asks what Jesus said about this in the Gospels? The caller can’t answer (because Jesus didn’t specifically say anything about homosexuality in the Gospels) but keeps referring to the Apostle Paul. While the caller didn’t (in my view) argue very well, O’Brien placed great weight in a flawed argument. He seemed to think that because Jesus said nothing about homosexuality in the Gospels this disproves that God is against it. Whatever your views on homosexuality the fact is the Gospels tell of Jesus as Messiah in his journey to the cross as Redeemer, they aren’t supposed to deal with wider ethics as those are dealt with elsewhere. Jesus never spoke of climate change or whether we should go to war etc but I’m assuming O’Brien would think these are issues Christians can have views on though Jesus didn’t address them in the Gospels. He also states that Paul never met Jesus. This is untrue as he encountered Jesus on the Damascus Road in the biggest turning point of his life and in his writings shows some of the most developed understanding of Jesus ever written. Again, regardless of anyone’s views on homosexuality, you do need to have a better understanding of the Bible than isolating verses out of context and understanding the Bible is more than the four Gospels.
O’Brien frequently accuses callers of being brainwashed by the media into false views but sometimes he seems guilty of the same. He seems to think (as do others) that because some people voted for Brexit for racist and anti-immigrant reasons this effectively means this was the only reason anyone voted for Brexit. Whether for or against Brexit, many who voted Leave did so for logical and well thought out reasons that have nothing to do with anti-immigrant racism but what they see as the undemocratic and totalitarian bullying nature of the EU.
While I agree with almost all O’Brien’s criticisms of Trump what I found interesting is that while O’Brien rightly highlights the way Trump uses the media and sloganeering to ‘persuade’ people of dangerous views, he seems to ignore the fact that Trump’s political opponents can also manipulate the media for their own ends.
Also, while I completely agree with O’Brien that all Muslims should not have to apologise for Muslim extremists, I found his argument ‘should all Richard’s apologise because the shoe bomber’s first name is Richard (Reid)’ frankly ludicrous. That is simply false equivalence. Simply state instead that not all Christians should have to apologise for Christian extremism or not all Labour politicians should have to apologise for disagreeable Labour politics (apply to any political party!).
On reflection it seems to me (I can only go on the examples in this book as I haven’t listened to the actual radio show enough) that some of the arguments O’Brien ‘dismantles’ are actually very poor arguments anyway. There are people with far better arguments in the academic and intellectual world but I’m assuming these people have better things to do than phone a radio show. Admittedly O’Brien can only respond to the people who actually phone his show but from the examples in this book they do tend to be ‘low hanging fruit’ to coin that phrase. It reminded me a bit of the accusation against Richard Dawkins that he had a habit of going after arguments that were weak anyway to avoid getting into debate with those with stronger arguments. It would be nice to hear O’Brien debate against an academic who knows what they’re talking about. That said, I do get the feeling that if someone presented sustainable facts and data on a given subject then O’Brien may well be open minded enough to alter his opinion.
In summary while I both agreed and disagreed with points raised in this (fairly short) book I think it’s a decent exercise in listening to other viewpoints on hot topics and thinking things through yourself…if you can see past the sometimes patronising attitude.