A regular reader of this blog posted a reasonable–albeit uncomfortable–question the other day. How can someone (me) who regularly inveighs against incivility and ad hominem argumentation routinely “disparage” (his word) others? Is there not an inconsistency–even hypocrisy–there?
Fair question. And if I’m honest, I do go over the line–a line I set–every so often. Sometimes, the urge to engage in snarky characterizations is just too tempting.
The question made me think about what’s fair and what isn’t. Where is “the line”? Certainly, criticism itself is not only inescapable, but often appropriate–as I tell my classes at the start of each semester, reasoned argumentation is expected. Debate and deliberation is a tool that–properly deployed–moves us toward truth.
So how do we distinguish “reasoned argumentation” from the sort of incivility that moves us not toward truth, but further into our warring factions?
I think the first rule is that criticism must be grounded in specifics. There is a difference between saying “this person/these people are wrong because” and simple name-calling. It is perfectly acceptable, in my view, to say “I think Obama has been a lousy leader because he didn’t accomplish XYZ.” I may disagree with you about the desirability of XYZ, or whether Obama was responsible for its failure, but I understand the grounds of your disagreement. It is not acceptable–again, in my opinion–to say “I hate Obama because he’s a socialist/Muslim/gangster.” Not only are these accusations demonstrably untrue, they give those who disagree no clue to what the speaker actually dislikes about the President. They encourage listeners to draw our own conclusions, and those conclusions are likely to be unkind.
Similarly, if criticisms of particular groups are based upon behaviors–living in the suburbs, voting for particular candidates, whatever–they may be intemperate, or may be over-generalizations, but they are specific enough to be countered with logical or factual objections. When groups are disparaged because of their identity–gay, Christian, African-American, etc.–there’s not much room for discussion or nuance.
Readers may be able to flesh out these “rules of the road,” but that’s my first effort. What do you all think?