Civility for jerks

Mallard Fillmore’s got a nice way to capture the civility problem — with a straw man followed by a  tu quoque!


If President Obama charged the Republicans with wanting to kill the elderly and starve the poor, I don’t remember it.  In fact, the only kill the elderly lines I remember were the old ‘death panel’ charges a few years back. (This, then, is more likely a hollow man.) So a hyperbolic line of argument to begin, but doubling down with the fallacies is… well… uncivil?

A few months back Rob Talisse and I took a shot at making the case that civility wasn’t a matter of being nice and calm, but a matter of having well-run argument.  That sometimes requires goodwill, but more importantly civility is a matter of being able to argue appropriately when everyone in the conversation hates everyone else.

7 thoughts on “Civility for jerks”

  1. Awesome. Had Fillmore (where do you find this stuff anyway) been a bit more charitable in his description of Obama’s actual argument, he’d be “crying scarecrow”.

  2. Your post reminds me of a recent attack on the President by Steve LaTourette of GOPAC. Avella complained that the President was calling for civility but was engaging in “name calling” toward Republicans. When pressed for examples, he produced – as his only example – the fact that the President had referred to certain Republicans as “right-wing Republicans”. (LaTourette argued that Obama should have said “Republicans in the House”, “conservative”, “my friends on the other side of the aisle,” or no adjective at all.)

    Which is to say, it’s a theme the right is pushing and, whatever the facts, it appears that we should not be surprised when we discover a new hack jumping onto the bandwagon.

  3. Hey Aaron, You’re right that this is a regular occurrence – Republicans calling foul, and when pressed on where Obama draws blood, they are flummoxed. That said, there are some straw men in Obama’s repertoire (and he used to weak man a ton, if you remember how he used to try to spar with Limbaugh). The problem is that when, for example, Karl Rove tries to articulate the reasonable alternative to the straw men, they sound worse than what Obama attacked.
    Here’s my attempt at interpreting the line we’re observing from the Republicans: Obama uses a dogwhistle code just like we do, so when he says ‘conservative,’ it’s with a wink to his lefty friends, who interpret it as ‘starvers of the poor.’

  4. Hey Scott,

    My sense is that Limbaugh too central to the GOP to be considered a weak man–if that’s what you’re suggesting. Also, I think the recent Ryan example (the flopper or scarecrow) uncovers the extent to which Obama is using dog whistles. When asked to differentiate their view from the straw man of their view, they too often can’t.

  5. Hey John, So the centrality is the question for whether one’s weak-manning, isn’t it? If the view is less defensible than the alternatives, it’s a weak man. But if it’s the representative view, that is, the one most widely held or the one that those who hold the views hold first, then it’s not vicious to go after it. But I worry about this concessive criterion – if we start with a rebuttal to the weak man, that’s fine. But if all we’ve got is a response to the weak man, that’s not. Weakmanning is propaedutic, not the full monty.

  6. Good points Scott. I wonder, however, how much iron manning one ought to do in politics. Imagine the majority of people in the GOP are Rushites. Imagine also that you have limited time and space to craft a response. Going after their argument might be all you have time for. It might also secure you the greater number of converts to your position, etc. Having a carefully crafted response to stronger views held by fewer people might be a waste of limited resources.

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