One day someone with more time than me will write about the various forms of meta debate. By "meta debate" I mean, of course, discussions about the various forms and rules of "debate" (a word I don't like so much) or "discussion." Here's an example of a particularly pernicious form of meta debating (courtesy of Sadly,No!):
Pointing out that both sides engage in the same tactics, and that, in this case, one set of tactics seems to be unrelated to a substantive policy outcome neither presuppose the truth of one side of the debate nor does it presuppose that one side of the debate isn't actually, ultimately, right. In the same way, it is illogical to assume that because one side distorts the debate far more than the other side, the debate itself ought to turn out in any prescribed way. When I write things like this, it drives some partisans absolutely crazy. They don't like where the I'm drawing the "truth" line, and instead of reading the judgments that I've made — the Right is appealing to anger and fear and is distorting the debate more — they focus on the link that I won't then make — the link that I have no expertise to make — the link that, if I were to make it, I would be guilty of an offense against democracy — the link between what IS and what OUGHT to be.
This is not actually that bad of a disclaimer (save for the confused "is-ought" business at the end. Nonetheless, where this fellow's observations fall on rocky soil (I just heard that phrase the other day) is earlier in the piece. He writes:
The field of cognitive neuroscience has all but given up trying to distinguish between emotion and reason, but political debate evidently lags far behind the science. Some observers of health care politics, particularly on the left, tend to accuse their opponents of trying to trigger emotional panic points rather than argue dispassionately about the facts. The implication is that the Right doesn't have any facts, so it looks to exploit voters' fears. There is something to be said for this argument, but it's not what proponents would have you believe. In policy debates where the target voter claims an independent identity, the side that's proposing something usually has a set of normative facts, and the side that's against something always appeals to that which most powerfully undercuts a fact. Democrats and Republicans both use emotion, but they use it differently, and use it to achieve different goals.The pro-reform side is appealing to emotion, too — albeit a wholly different emotion — the self-satisfaction one feels when one believes one has rationally deliberated something and meaningfully contributed to an important public debate. This is called a solidary incentive. It's a powerful — and often completely ignored — sentiment, one that the Obama presidential campaign found, capitalized on, and won the election by exploiting.
As an empirical matter, I think this observation is just plain false. Both "sides" (there are more than two for Pete's sake), appeal to facts. The screaming Mimis at the town hall meetings (who are largely opposition types) come harmed with "facts" that have produced "emotions" although emotions of a decisively negative kind (relative to the things being proposed). Let me put that another way: given the facts as they know them, they really hate the proposals. The degree of their hatred of the proposals does not (for a careful observer) accentuate or diminish the basic factual assertions some of them seem to make. In other words, they're not wronger or righter because they're screaming. Maybe they're just jerks for that. But that's a different question.
The real idiocy here of course consists in the claim that the side whose appeal is primarily factual (in the silly description offered here) is also appealing to emotion–the satisfaction one gets from doing the right thing. I mean, again, for Pete's sake. This is the lowest form of ad hominem argument: attacking someone because they're eager to have the correct position. There's no defense against this.
I don't mean to allege that the screaming Mimi opposition doesn't have the right answer. I think they think they do. This author's analysis here is too shallow and too facile to bother with such weighty questions. Instead, we are treated to the silliest form of meta debate analysis. Everybody poops.