Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Sticks and Stones

There's a reason (well, several, probably) why blog posts have been so scarce here lately.  It's mainly that most of what I'd post would be political rants, and heaven knows we don't need more of those.  But eventually it becomes hard to hold one's tongue.

There have been so many things I could have reacted to:  the various looney doings in the Arizona legislature, for one.   They operate as though Kafka were in charge--actually, even Kafka would find some of what they do too weird.  Then there are the various outrageous statements by politicians who hope you won't scrutinize what they say too carefully--because they don't hold up to any rational or logical examination.

What brings me out of hiding?  Rush Limbaugh, of course, because I think those of us who find what he has said about Sandra Fluke to be so offensive must speak out.  We can all complain bitterly about the loss of civility in our discourse, but if we don't condemn it--if we just watch it as a sort of fight to the death among gladiators--we're at least partly complicit.  Edmund Burke reminded us that evil triumphs when good people do nothing (though it's hard to pin down exactly how he said it--read this interesting compilation).

Rush Limbaugh and others are entitled to believe that contraception shouldn't be part of standard medical insurance coverage.  I passionately disagree with them, but I won't call them names.  In fact, I won't even call Rush Limbaugh names, tempting as it is.  And I won't condone calling anyone names.  (One response to the outcry about Limbaugh's remarks has been to dredge up some really foul things that some liberals have said about some conservatives.  Those aren't right, either, and they certainly don't make this right.  In fact, didn't we all learn as kids that "two wrongs don't make a right"?  I condemn all  hate speech--it is dangerous, vicious, and destructive.)

Apart from the downright mean-spiritedness of the remarks (which was bad enough) Limbaugh made a series of big rhetorical mistakes in his diatribes against Sandra Fluke.  First, he set up a paper tiger or a straw man:  he turned her advocacy for insurance coverage of contraception on its head, claiming that she sought taxpayer support for contraceptives.  Everything else he said flowed from this one great, gaping logical flaw.  He then misconstrued how birth control works (deliberately, I suspect, since it's hard to imagine anyone being that misinformed), suggesting that if she had less sex, she'd need less birth control.  Finally (well, probably not finally--I'm sure there are other sins we can enumerate), he engaged in what is called, ironically in this case, an ad hominem argument.  That's when you don't take on the argument itself, but you attack the person making the argument--an argument "against the man."  This, as Cicero pointed out centuries ago, is basically a distraction.  Yet it's the meat and potatoes of a lot of political discourse.

And that's what I want to condemn.  Disagree with me all you like.  Tell me why I'm wrong and you're right.  Find facts that support your position and demonstrate that mine is misinformed, naive, or just plain wrong.  But don't ignore my argument altogether and just start calling me names.

The sad truth is that ad hominem arguments work.  Mud-slinging works.  Negative campaigning works.  And it will keep working, no matter outraged we pretend to be, so long as we are willing to be swayed by it.

There are websites that check the accuracy of candidates' statements.  Maybe we need one that keeps track of how often they call their opponents names instead of engaging the argument.

So I hereby foreswear all name-calling.  And anyone who disagrees with me is just a stupid jerk.  :o)

(And speaking of Edmund Burke, he also said this:  "All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter."  Yup.  Something else we've lost track of.)