"There is no maxim in my opinion which is more liable to be misapplied, and which therefore needs elucidation than the current one that the interest of the majority is the political standard of right and wrong...." ~ James Madison
What You Can Do to Detoxify Political Debate
Column by Robert Kaercher.
Exclusive to STR
Now, about that mass shooting at that Safeway in Tucson, Arizona….Wait, where are you going?
Yes, yes, I know that at this point you’ve probably read and heard about as much as you can stand anymore about all the political fallout that has followed that horrific tragedy. Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik decided to do some impromptu psychology, citing “the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government” and its effect on “unbalanced people,” and the latest three-ring Left/Right media circus was unleashed upon the land. The good sheriff has not yet disclosed the empirical specifics of his research on the matter, nor have any of the other amateur social and psychological theorists pegging the slaughter on any one of a variety of allegedly criminal influences ranging from crackpot conspiracy theorists to the murderer’s parents. What a wondrous time it is to be a self-alienated village idiot when you don’t have to bear the responsibility for your violent actions alone.
The Tucson massacre is now serving as the pretext for new Federal speech laws. Now I don’t want to come off like some kind of paranoid, anti-government nutjob, but there is much potential for governmental abuse in such legal language as “to incite violence.” But that’s one of the many nifty perks of being a ruler. You’re in the unique position of simply asserting causal links between acts of violence and expressions of speech while never having to worry about being held accountable for the acts of violence carried out at your command on nearly a daily basis, such as President Obama’s constant bombing of Pakistani civilians by means of automated drones, to name just one example of state violence among many. (One that Obama himself has made the premise of what appears to pass for a “joke” in his mind.) Who could dare mount any kind of meaningful challenge to this monopoly power to convict others and acquit yourself?
In any case, there’s been a lot of talk in the wake of the Tucson shootings about what many consider to be the high level of incivility or “toxicity” of political discourse in this country and the possibility of its creating the sort of social climate in which disturbed individuals feel licensed to go around shooting people. The War on Drugs, yet another example of quite uncivilized massive violence carried out all the time by governmental actors at the request of other governmental actors, appears nowhere in this discussion, of course, perhaps because we’re all supposed to just accept it as granted that people wearing tax-funded uniforms using tax-funded firearms should be allowed to use all the lethal violence they want in order to stop ordinary people like you and me from indulging in any officially disapproved plants or chemicals.
However, putting all of this to the side, there may still be much value in voluntarily ridding political rhetoric and debate of anger and rancor for the sake of a more civilized culture. So here are a few quick suggestions I humbly submit to help all of us detoxify today’s political rhetoric.
First, when in a political argument, give the person you are debating the benefit of the doubt that he is arguing in good faith. The chances are good to excellent that he is not a member of some sinister cabal out to brainwash the masses with his political agenda any more than you are. For example, if you happen to be either a left-liberal Democrat or a right-wing conservative Republican who happens to find himself in an argument with a pro-free market libertarian, it is a bit uncharitable to simply assume that the libertarian is a cold, heartless tool of capitalist pigs who cares not one whit if all the poor and elderly of the country were enslaved forever by corporate mega-conglomerates hellbent on eternal world domination. Such an unproven presumption is an example of what is called the argumentum ad hominem, or argument “to the man”—personal attacks that have nothing to do with the truth or falsity of a person’s specific claim. Keep in mind that even if the libertarian is some kind of willing corporate tool, he is not in any position whatsoever to actually deliver humanity to the bloodthirsty clutches of global corporate slavery so long as he is not one of the many agents or officials of government, who are the only people to enjoy the privilege of forcing their political agendas on others.
Second, be sure of the facts you are citing. For example, is the Cordoba Initiative’s Park 51 project really a “mosque” and is it really right at Ground Zero? Is there any evidence that the Tucson killer had any sort of association with the Tea Party or Sarah Palin at all? Remember that we now live in an age of nearly instantaneous information distribution thanks to the Internet. It can come to light pretty quickly that it’s actually a community center containing a Muslim prayer space with general membership open to people of different religious faiths, or that the assailant is simply a very confused young man who was into something called “conscience dreaming” and bizarre New Age conspiracy theories. A nice byproduct of keeping your facts straight is that heated accusations that you are cherry picking facts out of context or outright fabricating them are easily avoided, keeping the dialogue at a calm, civilized level.
Third, back up your argument with coherent logic. Even if it really were a mosque being built right on top of Ground Zero, it would not be anything akin to Nazis protesting near the Holocaust Museum. Furthermore there is no basis in law or reason for 9/11 survivors, the families of 9/11 victims, or any other non-owners to decide what happens to the property in question. Or, to use the more recent controversy as our context, even if it could be shown that the Tucson shooter was an avid online follower of Sarah Palin’s website, you should probably be aware that the extent to which any kind of violent media content can actually cause or influence violent behavior is still very much in dispute among psychologists. This should show the easy certainty of politicians and their partisan supporters to be highly questionable, to say the least, especially after they’ve just lost an election. The point here is that when you don’t continuously insist on asserting non-sequiturs, “begging the question” or other logical fallacies in your arguments, you then go a long way toward heading off some very uncivil language describing you as dishonest, willfully ignorant, or both. The tone of the debate therefore has a much better chance of remaining polite and courteous.
These are but a few simple suggestions to help keep our “national discourse” sane, rational and calm. However, I am not about to hold my breath that most people will do their utmost to studiously avoid making unseemly insinuations about people with whom they disagree, fact check their own arguments, or refrain from logically unsound assertions, at least not when it comes to debates over politics. The reason for this is quite clear. What is at stake is getting the biggest, costliest, most powerful, furthest reaching government in human history to do what people in different competing factions want it to do.
Perhaps, then, we need debates that focus on that essential truth rather than on the mere etiquette of how we conduct our debates.