I had an interesting exchange a few days ago in a political discussion group, with a self-identified liberal who took issue with an off-the-cuff characterization I made about “rabid” and irrational Bush-haters. The context of the conversation was about the nature of the lies and inaccuracies of politicians.
My gentle interlocutor seems a bright enough fellow, with more understanding of the principles of critical reasoning than most I’ve encountered in my online travels. That credit ascribed, however, he insisted that I had committed an ad hominem, and that a “generous debater” would engage the substance of the argument assuming the best of intent on the part of the other.
Well, OK. On a technical level, he is right that I dismissed out-of-hand the claims of what I’ll call, for the sake of this entry, the “Rabid Left.” But it’s not clear that the Rabid Left actually presents an argument of intellectual substance worthy of reasonable engagement.
We all know that there are a number of smart, informed, passionate people who inhabit all parts of the ideological spectrum. We also know that the spectrum contains people who are, to put it bluntly, dumb as rocks but don’t quite realize it.
Any reasonable person is worthy of civil discourse, conducted in a spirit of good-faith inquiry. Unreasonable people aren’t, by virtue of their dismissal of sound thinking.
Consider the case of the Rabid Left. Many of these people hate George W. Bush with passion. They repeat the same claims as if they’re engaging in heroic truth-tellilng: Bush is an idiot, Bush is a liar, Bush is a war criminal, Bush is a monkey, Bush is a puppet of the Evil Overlord Dick Cheney.
Do these people provide anything other than vitriol? Rarely. When they do defend their points, they often resort to assertions ungrounded in fact (e.g., “Bush lied about WMD”) or based on a most unkind character assassination (e.g., “Bush only attacked Iraq because Saddam tried to kill his daddy”).
How is a reasonable person to respond, short of dismissal? Debate requires conformance to the basic principles of logic. Things like the law of non-contradiction, the law of the excluded middle, syllogisms, the principles of valid inference — each of those things, employed in the analysis of objective fact, contribute to a coherent conversation. A sequence of wild assertions does not.
It is both a strength and a weakness of contemporary liberalism that it remains committed to some sense of process fairness. A strength, insofar as multiple perspectives are welcomed. A weakness, insofar as most ideas are considered inherently equal and therefore equally entitled to consideration. It is this weakness — this tendency to drawing moral equivalence — that has so confused much of the post-9/11 discourse in the West.
I have yet to decide whether I will attempt to rationally engage the Rabid Left in the future, or to just steer them a wide berth. In the meantime, I can only pray that we move ever closer to a day when reason and not vitriol becomes the trump card in ideological disputes.