Thursday, February 03, 2005

Bad Rhetorical Habits

I have written before about how so much of today's political discourse degenerates into practically meaningless labels. To listen to the rhetoric these days, one could easily conclude that America is indeed a divided nation, cleanly split into "blue" and "red", with each side believing itself to be locked in a good-vs-evil battle with the other. Fortunately, the assessment of uncommonly sensible political analysts like Matt Miller and Morris Fiorina is that this "culture war" is largely fictitious, and there is a lot of common "purple" ground among Americans. But all this polarizing rhetoric has got to have a corrosive effect on our society. How can we restore the nearly lost art of honest rational discourse (helped along by a healthy practice of the virtue of charity)? We should identify our bad rhetorical habits and try to break them.

Here is the piece of rhetoric that inspired me to this particular rant:

Liberals so hate President Bush that their values have been distorted. Ordinarily, liberals support humanitarian intervention, especially when United Nations resolutions have been flouted. Ordinarily, liberals celebrate the flowering of democracy. Ordinarily, liberals are happy to see women liberated. But if President Bush is involved in any of these events, they must be opposed. It’s not just sad; it’s sickening. Hatred is a vile, disgusting emotion. It is also one of the most powerful. Unless and until liberals escape its influence—and they show no sign of doing so—they will be politically impotent.
This is from Professor Keith Burgess-Jackson, who founded the excellent Conservative Philosopher blog, and who ought to know better than to write such things. The first bad habit exemplified here is undue generalization. Is the good professor so overwrought by Democrats not unequivocally cheering the elections in Iraq that his normally good color vision sees only red and blue? "Liberals so hate President Bush," he claims. All of them? Does he tar Senators Lieberman and Feinstein with the same brush as Senators Boxer and Kennedy? Is The New Republic indistinguishable from The Nation, or Andrew Sullivan from Robert Scheer? Are liberal philosophers as guilty as the Democratic leadership? Such broad-brush pronouncements are always highly suspect. While these statements may well be true of particular people or particular organizations, it does no service to rational discourse to leap to such sweeping generalizations.

The second bad habit shown here is psychologizing. (A discussion about pernicious psychologizing was raised in a thoughtful post by Jim Ryan.) There is no argument here, no discussion of any position on its merits, but merely an uncharitable analysis of the mental state of "liberals". By immediately psychologizing his opponents, he moves to discredit them without even allowing that they may have had reasons for being less than celebratory about the elections. (To his credit, he followed up his own post with a link to a stern rebuttal by the Liberal Avenger. Arianna Huffington also offers a panoply of reasons why one might not be so elated.) Psychologizing is particularly pernicious because it moves away from the merits of an issue, shifting the discourse from reasons to motives. It becomes personal, and the quality of the discourse only goes downhill, leaving behind any hope of thoughtful persuasion. To sustain a healthy and useful public debate, we should endeavor to remain charitable, giving others the benefit of the doubt about their motives.

The third bad habit shown here is imbalance. Before making such charges as these, the virtue of modesty would require that we consider that we might be wrong or inconsistent or hypocritical. Before throwing the first stone here, it would have been good to consider whether "liberals" have any monopoly on such hate, or "conservatives" might be just as guilty? Insofar as this generalizing and psychologizing has any truth to it, could not an equally true statement have been made about conservatives when President Clinton was in office?

Let's all endeavor to keep our arguments to specific merits and reasons, our claims honed to specific persons or organizations, and our practice of charity toward our fellow partners in this democratic republic.

1 comment:

john said...

Here, here.

I have been meaning to look up some old transcripts from the Clinton Administration to see the "temperate" language used by Repubs then. Should be interesting to see the rational and measured tones of Newt and Pat Buchanan. (And trying to find if there were any blogs active back in 1998-2000 whose archives could be perused).