Write trash

It's hard to have a conversation when some people don't follow the rules.  If your conversation is about, say, which things ought a rational person assent to, then indeed there are certain rules.  One can disagree about these rules, but the rules say you have to state the grounds for the disagreement and those grounds have to be good grounds.

Here's one rule.  If you offer up a point of view in a public forum, you should expect criticism.  Some of this is probably going to be dumb and uninformed, some of it relevant.  There's a rule that says you have to focus on the relevant criticism.  Pretending that the only criticism you get is of the former variety breaks a rule.  Here's Amity Shlaes, a kind of conservative author, talking about George Will:

So Michele Bachmann’s version of history is “from another planet.” Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana, is “chronically stupid.” And Eric Cantor of Virginia, the second-ranking Republican in the House, is “busy lying constantly.”

That at least is according to posts on three left-leaning blogs.

Writers who are not pro-Barack Obama are suffering character assassination as well. George Will of the Washington Post, the nation’s senior conservative columnist, has been so assaulted by bloggers that his editor, Fred Hiatt, recently wrote, “I would think folks would be eager to engage in the debate, given how sure they are of their case, rather than trying to shut him down.”

The disconcerting thing isn’t that the bloggers or their guests did this slamming. We’re used to such vitriol in campaign time. What is surprising is that the attacks are continuing after an election.

In the past, politicians and policy thinkers tended to be magnanimous in victory. They and their friends focused, post- victory, on policy and strategy — not on trashing individuals.

I didn't know the nation had a "senior conservative columnist."  But anyway, George Will has been criticized for the inadequacy of his ideas (see here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here)–and a person of Shlaes's very expensive education ought to know that.  She at least ought to be able to distinguish between "trashing" and saying, "hey, that conclusion doesn't follow!" (even if she doesn't think that conclusion doesn't follow).  If she isn't aware of this criticism (use the Google!) she ought not write about it, if she doesn't know the difference between "trashing" and "argument analysis" she ought to return to ask for her college tuition back, and finally if she does know the difference (and I suspect she does) but this is how she plays the game, then I say she's not playing by the rules.  That's not fair.

It's not fair because the discussion is about a topic, someone has offered up a view of that topic, and rather than discuss that view, we have to spend all of our time explaining how challenging someone's view in a public forum does not amount to trashing that person.  And when we do that, we don't get to have a discussion.

12 thoughts on “Write trash”

  1. blog: a Web site that contains an online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer ; also : the contents of such a site

    I don’t understand why she would even bring this up. I guess she needed an introduction to her main point: ” more leadership, less bloggership”. But even that sounds like a false dichotomy.

    It’s true that Obama’s administration has done/said plenty of dumb stuff; however, if people want to blog about George Will’s column, it’s their right. However, a good journalist should look through the crap and respond to the reasonable objections raised. 

    For me, however, more disturbing is to see this kind of “ignoring the reasonable objections” happening in our government.

  2. The stimulus package is the perfect example. And I don’t want to point fingers only at the Democrats here. Both sides are just playing dumb. There were reasonable objections raised by both parties and by media in general, but very little dialogue. Just a lot of name-calling : pork-this, pork-that, irresponsible …

    Here is one explanation. Are things just that simple?

    Demagogy is the ultimate “quality” in our politicians. And unless we start keeping them responsible for their actions, we’ll never get anywhere. Now, I’m talking like one of them …

    I honestly think Obama and his administration are well- intended. But that does not mean that any reasonable objection needs to be shut down just because “(they) are watching certain news channels on which I(Obama)’m not very popular”.

  3. Maybe–but I think as you probably know there are reasonable critcisms and unreasonable ones.  The charge of socialism, etc., so frequent on Fox isn’t really reasonable and Obama is right to ignore it.  Granted the fact that he’s a politician, you have to hand it to Obama for making an effort to communicate with those who disagree with them.

  4. Odd thing you’re describing (in the original post)…challenging Will’s view, as many have done, constitutes the discussion, the discussion or debate that Hiatt says Will’s critics are unwilling to have. Hiatt and Will just refuse to acknowledge that Will’s views have fared poorly in the public debate that has already taken place, that Will lost.

  5. “In the past, politicians and policy thinkers tended to be magnanimous in victory. They and their friends focused, post- victory, on policy and strategy — not on trashing individuals.”

    When were conservatives (or any any politicians, really) magnanimous in victory the past 12 years? I seem to recall a fair amount of “trashing of individuals.”

  6. John, that’s the perfect example of name-calling. Bush was a socialist too, to some degree. And yet, Fox is bashing Obama about it.  But, trying to defend Fox is like trying to defend OJ Simpson … oh well … bad analogy.
    My whole point, if there was one, is that we’re too quick to discredit any criticism, too quick to ridicule any opposition.  That’s Amity’s problem, George Will’s problem, Biden’s problem, Obama’s problem and so on …
    Here’s Amity :”That at least is according to posts on three left-leaning blogs.
    An argument/objection should be taken at face-value. Who cares if it’s left-leaning? It could be far-left, if the arguments make sense, listen and respond.

    I’m sure that in your everyday profession you see this more than any of us could. The way your students respond to the your criticism tells you more about their character than anything else they do.

    “Whoever loves instruction loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid”

  7. Yes BN I’m the first to agree that many engage in straw manning.  However, I think it’s proper to make careful distinctions about the when, the where, the how and the why.  A bit of straw man in a political speech is to be expected, unfortunately–at least in the “energize the troops” type of speech.  I’d say we should expect less of this in actual Presidential addresses, as the Pres represents all of us and has an obvious duty to be fair.  By any fair account, Obama has been better at Bush in this regard.  He has described differences with Republicans as “genuine philosophical differences.”  His minions (the official and unofficial ones)  have not, at least to my knowledge, questioned the sexual orientation or the patriotism (or citizenship) of the Republican opposition.  The same, however, cannot reasonably be said of them.  

    Now that’s politics.  Commentary, on the other hand, ought to play by different rules.  The aim of commentary, I think, is rational persuasion.  Such tactics (as the one used by the clueless Shlaes) do not constitute rational persuasion.

  8. Hi John,
    A great post, one that brings me out of my lurkitude (if that’s not yet a word, let me stipulate that it is an adjective that denotes the state of preferring to lurk on blogs, instead of contribute).
    I have two thoughts on this.  First, if Shlaes’ worry that critics of Obama suffer ‘character assassination’ is simply the charge that the defenders of Obama only use ad hominem abusive argument, then certainly this is a sampling error on her part.  You rightly point this out, and it shows how one can mis-represent a dialectical situation by selecting only stupid opponents.
    Second, I am not convinced that the character assassination on offer is sufficiently ad hominem, anyway.  Or, more weakly, that overt negative assessments of character necessarily mean that one is using ad hominem abusive argument.  Take the Bachmann case — if her claims are roundly refuted and seem to have no plausible explanation beyond her mendacity, then why is it inappropriate to say so?  Calling someone a liar about X is argumenatitvely vicious only if it’s a premise in an argument against X.  If you can show that the person is not only wrong about X, but also knows better, and is motivated to dissemble, then the conclusion that she’s lying is legitimate and perhaps pressing. George Will, I think has such properties in spades. This is one useful feature of argumentative exchange — we not only assess each others’ claims for their truth, we assess each other as those worthy or unworthy of serious consideration.

  9. jcasey, thank you for the explanation!
    I never got that nuance between doing politics and doing commentary. I thought that both are about rational persuasion. But you’re right, they are not the same.

  10. Casey,

    The aim of politics and commentary (in this century at least) is not rational persuasion, but simply persuasion. Alasdair MacIntyre has a whole polemical book on this issue.

    What you are arguing is that politics, and commentary, ought to be based on rational persuasion. If people weren’t persuaded by Shlaes and other hucksters like her, then they would stop writing crap like this. The fact that people are persuaded by crap like this is the problem.

    Dewey was right…

  11. Hi All–

    Scott you make an excellent point (one I could probably stress more here).  There are legitimate uses of ad hominem: when people are obviously crazy.  On account of some kind of twisted sense of balance or broken notion of charity (or perverse sense of entertainment) people keep putting up with the purveyors of crap (like Bachman).

    And Jem, you’re right–ought.  I said it once, I should say it again.  Ought.

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