Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Labels in Arguments

Labels are so often used to scare or force people into silence. Average, everyday, run-of-the-mill conservative Republicans have been silenced for years by being vilified as racists and as heartless—as cold, brutal, bigoted and closed-minded, and indifferent to the sufferings of the less fortunate. The labels did nothing to address the arguments of the conservatives which, on the whole, were most often made in the service of fairness and the inherent equality of the human person, of the desire to see justice done in a fair and impartial way, and from the impulse to protect human society, from the weakest to the strongest, from at least some of the dangers and untoward influences that the popular culture, as it evolved into what it’s become, has been able and willing to threaten it with.

And although the labels did nothing to address the arguments, they did cause, to some degree, some people to stop making any arguments at all in certain company. After all, no one likes being called a racist or bigoted or closed-minded or heartless or cold or brutal. And no one very muck likes to be interrupted at every turn and corner in his argument by being forced to defend himself from baseless charges.

And of course this has tended to stifle debate, discourage discourse, and increase misunderstandings.

I’ve admittedly been the recipient of my fair share of labels over the years. I think maybe I’ve heard them all. At various times I’ve been called closed-minded, bigoted, heartless, homophobic, sexist, and even racist. All those various labels have been subsumed in the one word “conservative” or, worse, “Republican”. But I’ve also been called “liberal”, which is almost a worse word than “conservative” in its connotations, for, rather than “heartless” it is often understood to mean “brainless”. I suppose it is because, as the most common stereotype on the right is concerned, the liberal is convicted of his arguments through nothing but naked emotion. The thrust of calling someone a liberal is to imply that they haven’t taken the time to think through their arguments but have come to their conclusions just as a six-year-old might conclude that his teacher is a “bad teacher” because he didn’t like the grade she gave him (but which he nevertheless deserved).

Unfortunately, I think it a fair assumption that a number of people in both camps—both conservatives AND liberals—have come to at least some of their intellectual conclusions through emotion mixed with some very paltry amount of carefully chosen “facts”. But because of this reality (and it is a reality) it is then too often the case that when someone presents an argument with which we disagree, we dismiss their argument on the assumption that the person with whom we disagree is one of those who has reached that conclusion because they so obviously were unable to see through their emotions, their biases, and their preconceptions. This must be so (we think) because if they had really come to their conclusions after a careful examination of the facts they would necessarily have come to the same conclusions that we did. Since their conclusions not only differ from ours but may, in some cases, be diametrically opposed to them, and since we’re certain that we, of all people, have NOT been afflicted in our minds by too much input from our hearts, it necessarily stands to reason that either they haven’t examined the same facts as we have or else they haven’t examined the facts as carefully as we have, and the most probable reasons they haven’t examined the facts carefully (or disinterestedly) is because they’re either, a. not as smart as us, or, b. they’re blinded by their emotions.

Thus the gun-hugging bible thumpers of eastern Pennsylvania that Obama was so insensitive to during the 2008 campaign were only hugging their guns and thumping their bibles because they were scared. If they were smarter, or could be reasonable rather than emotional (so the theory went) they would certainly turn their guns into plow-shares and their bibles into pruning shears. It couldn’t possibly be the case that Obama found himself in intellectual disagreement with those eastern Pennsylvanians because, apparently, intellectual disagreements don’t exist—not so far as conclusions go, at any rate.

I read today that many on the left think Obama’s turning out to be a poor spokesman for his policies. But what can one honestly expect. Obama, like most people who share his world view, really, truly believes that the case for each of his policies is so nakedly self evident that their desirability, their necessity, and their utility is as clearly obvious to all people of good will as they are for him.

Instead, what differences of this sort usually amount to are a difference in the number and quality of the facts and, above all, the interpretation of those facts according to the sum total of all of the facts that person happens to have accepted up to that point in his life. That isn’t to say that either party has gone out of its way to omit certain obviously relevant facts. Just that some facts are accepted as relevant and some as irrelevant usually based on criteria other than naked, raw emotion.

In the heat of disagreement, labels are as often as meaningless as they are unhelpful. That isn’t at all to say that ALL labels are meaningless or unhelpful. Just that, used the wrong way—that is, used to avoid any serious consideration of the arguments being advanced by the other party—they are always meaningless and always unhelpful. Saying, “Well, you only say that because you’re a Democrat,” or “You only say that because you’re a Lakers fan,” isn’t meeting any argument head on. The Lakers, for example, may or may not be a good team, but dismissing the arguments of someone insisting that they are on the grounds that he happens to be a Lakers fan is never helpful and, ninety-nine point nine-nine-nine percent of the time, is wrong.