The Rhetoric of Disrespect

In a few weeks, I'll be posting about the Republican and Democratic Conventions. So this seems an appropriate time to discuss my political perspective. I am technically a registered Independent. When asked directly, I usually refer to myself as a Conservative Libertarian.

Politics makes me wary--in the same way that people selling toner over the phone make me wary. I think this is true for a lot of people: there are so many issues and opinions and so much seemingly contradictory evidence. It is possible to parse through all this stuff (I'm not advocating relativity), but since it is so much, most people rely either on their "gut" or on experts, such as pundits, politicians, or analysts.

I'm not entirely comfortable with this approach, however. The "gut" is notoriously unhelpful except in fight or flight situations (and on NCIS). And all experts are fallible: when do an expert's political ties/decisions begin to negate his or her credibility? How can a voter be forearmed against that expert's loss of credibility? In the last four years, I've changed mechanics three times. I've had material justification for each switch. This isn't always possible in politics.

Consequently, I've developed my own criteria for judging a political argument. I will acknowledge upfront that this criteria has its flaws, namely a variation on the ad hominem fallacy: just because people sound crazy doesn't mean they are. But it is fairly effective in winnowing out the chaff.

My criteria:
  • I ignore rhetoric that tells me America is doomed due to a person or group (Obama, George W., Clinton, gays, the NRA, teacher's unions, Big Business, Democrats, Republicans, commies, etc. etc. etc.).
  • I ignore rhetoric that insists that I must make an either/or choice (a fallacy itself) immediately to prevent the aforementioned catastrophe.
  • I ignore rhetoric that aggressively and constantly focuses on defining and attacking an opposition.
I realize (1) there are problems in America as well as in any other country/civilization, and specific groups often do have a hand in creating these problems; (2) to an extent, this language is the language of politicians and their cohorts; it's how they communicate with each other.

Still, in my experience, the downsides of the rhetoric outweigh its benefits since (1) it is possible to discuss problems and advocate a positive conservative or liberal vision without resorting to the rhetoric; (2) or, at least, toning it down. 

Downsides of this rhetoric:

(1) It makes people stupid. 

I'm not saying that people who use this rhetoric ARE stupid. I'm saying it makes them stupid.

Life is complicated. People are complicated. Except when life is pretty straight-forward and people are too. Whatever the case, this rhetoric almost always seems to descend into a kind of partisanship where people can say things like, "Well, my friends tell me that George W is the worst president since Reagan," and "I'm so glad I belong to a tolerant party; I'm so sick of Christians in the political arena" and  "She's saying she likes that book about the slave-trade because she supports affirmative action."

The people who made the (real) above quotes without irony are not intrinsically dumb people, but the use of rhetoric made them say rather appallingly stupid things.

(2) It promotes disrespect.

In Maine, Governor LePage removed a 11-panel, 36-foot mural from the Maine Department of Labor because it was pro-union.

It is. And I'm not. But he had it removed over a weekend, without prior announcement or plans to move the mural elsewhere (it has now been placed in the Maine State Museum, a wise choice). He basically had it taken down and stuck it in a closet to encourage the Department of Labor "to be focused on the job at hand."

Setting aside the ridiculousness of supposing that a piece of artwork from 2008 (which, by 2011, would have become merely part of the decor) was solely responsible for influencing the attitudes of the Department of Labor (and doubly supposing that anyone had noticed the content), the mean-spiritedness of the act leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

How hard would it have been to explain the artwork's partisanship and why it isn't, to borrow a term, "politically correct" to leave it where it is; to announce plans to move the mural to the Maine State Museum; to plan a commemorative gala on the day of the move with the artist present, giving the governor an opportunity to congratulate her on winning the Maine Art Commission award that led to the painting and installation of the mural in the first place?

Answer: Not hard at all.

But when this type of rhetoric becomes ideological, every inconsistency, every signal of disagreement, every attempt to suggest an alternative, every piece of artwork or music or gesture becomes a battleground. One of my fellow instructors who practices a liberal academic version of this rhetoric walked into one of my classrooms last semester and openly mocked a topic written on the board (my students had been brainstorming). Thankfully, the student who suggested the topic had already left the room. But it was more important to the instructor to make his cruel, little comment than to respect the students, me, or the educational setting.

(3) It ignores the evidence of one's eyes. 

Before I continue, I should point out that I do realize that not all proofs are material in nature and that my experience is limited. The United States is in debt. I can't see it, but that doesn't make it untrue. And the ramifications of that debt appropriately trouble people who know more about finances than me.

What I'm referring to is the strange disconnect between people's actual, everyday experience and their view of the immediate physical world. I sit at my desk, typing on a computer that I bought with my own money. I am on the Internet, able to access documents from all over the world as well as my local government without any censorship or monitoring. I look out the window and see a bright, humid day. No smog. No collapsed buildings. No mobs. No riots. No nuclear mushroom clouds. I go to the store, and the clerk accepts my cash as legal tender without any question. The goods I want are on the shelf. I can vote. I walk around during daylight hours without being accosted.

By any historical standard, I am living in a wonderland land and so are many other people. 

To accept the rhetoric that I hear from many political pundits, I would have to literally ignore the evidence of my own eyes. I would have to pretend that none of these privileges are true. I would to pretend that things are happening to me that aren't and vice versa. I would have to hold my own experience hostage to what the "experts" tell me.

The world of psychology tells us that people do see what authority persuades them to see. Or perhaps they just see their own desires. Perhaps LePage looked at the mural and didn't just see a rather ordinary, biased piece of art but a whole network of conspirators. Maybe my fellow instructor walked into the classroom and saw a world of uneducated rednecks threatening his security.

I'd rather trust the evidence of my own eyes.


Kezia said...

Your criteria seem reasonable to me.

One of my favourite lines from Mary Renault that I'm always reminded of in political discussions is:
"Half the world's troubles come from men not being trained to resent a fallacy as much as an insult." (from The Last of the Wine) Being able to cut through the us versus them mentality and personal attacks that often characterise the extremes and instead focusing on logical reasoning and our shared humanity would do much good.

Mike said...

Thanks for the sensible word Kate. I am so sick of the "rhetoric of disrespect." It seems hardly anyone can stand for an issue without resorting to blasting the opposing view coupled with character assassination.