Dumbing down debate with ad hominem attacks is not helpful

Debate Cartoon
Debate Cartoon

The ticket price for joining the mainstream debates on many topics these days seems to be ritual ad hominem attacks.  Besides being unhelpful, this is evidence of profound societal illness.

The phenomenon isn’t confined to the left.  We see it more and more frequently from the right-that-ought-to-know-better – or, perhaps, the right-that-ought-to-have-more-backbone.  I wrote about one major instance of it last year during the crisis at the Bundy ranch, when conservative pundits whom we have counted on to bring logic and intellectual courage to public issues suffered “CLIF”:  complete loss of intellectual function.  They went from being able to talk about things like government limits and property rights to being unable to do anything except rail against Cliven Bundy.

The same thing is cropping up from too many on the right – along, of course, with the left – in the matters of Pamela Geller and her “Mohammed cartoon” contest, and the Jade Helm 15 exercise.

It isn’t actually necessary to spit out derogatory adjectives in order to address either subject.  In fact, it’s a huge waste of time.

And it’s no surprise that when the public debate is preoccupied with disparaging Pam Geller, or calling the residents of Texas towns harsh names, the debate itself becomes stupid.  Nothing useful gets said, and no one makes a point worth making.

The Mohammed cartoon contest and (earmuffs, kiddies) Pamela Geller

Let’s start with Geller.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard from conservatives in the last several days some version of this plaint: “I certainly don’t like Pamela Geller; I think she’s a buffoon/cretin/nickel-plated bee-yotch who does over-the-top stuff; but hey, free speech is important.”

Sure.  The free speech part is definitely what people hear when you put it like that.  But it’s equally important that when you default to an ad hominem drive-by against Geller, you’re wasting an opportunity to make a point that matters.  It’s a mere social ritual – a way to establish P.C. bona fides in certain circles – to say negative things about Pamela Geller.  You don’t convey anything useful to the debate by doing so.

Instead of chanting rote language about Geller, talk about the thorny problem of how to square our principle of free speech with our genuine, good-faith desire to not go out of our way to offend our fellow men.  I believe that’s what people on the right are really getting at when they utter the “phooey-on-Geller-but-free-speech” platitudes.

So why not just SAY THAT?  Saying it doesn’t complete a useful argument, but unlike rote anti-Geller attacks, it at least starts one.

Maybe the argument goes something like this.  I don’t have any personal desire to draw cartoons of Mohammed, and I’m ambivalent about the utility of making a point of it.  But I can see clearly the connection between having the freedom to do it, without being intimidated by the heckler’s – or assassin’s – veto, and having the freedom to say that Jesus and not Mohammed is the finisher of God’s revelation and purposes.  The latter I do very much want to do, and live by.  I want others to have the freedom to say what they believe on those matters – and live that way.

I also see clearly that the law, which is a blunt and rather stupid tool, can only work in certain ways.  It’s not a magic wand that can transform our world.  It can only enforce and punish.  Sometimes it does things that depress us, as when the campus police at Valdosta State University recently wrestled an Air Force veteran for an American flag she had just rescued from desecration, and handed the flag back over to a group of protesters so they could resume desecrating it.  That was a proper and faithful execution of the law as we understand it, but it probably made some of the campus police as sick to their stomachs as it made the rest of us.

The same principle is at work with free speech in Garland, Texas.  Of course it doesn’t make me happy that two men decided to bring guns and try to attack the Mohammed cartoon event, or that they had to be killed to defend the people who were there exercising their right to free speech – an exercise that didn’t represent my sentiments about what I want to be free to say.

But that’s what a “right” is:  an inherent entitlement so overriding that the government must not take sides against your exercise of it, and indeed must protect your exercise of it if someone attacks you.  The uncompromising nature of rights in this regard is why we should be very selective about what we call a “right.”

The way law enforcement works, in turn, is that when you and your rights need protecting, someone who’s trying to shoot you will probably get shot.  Human life will never be any other way; the weapons may change, but the principle won’t.  It would be lovely if no one ever wanted to attack us for exercising our rights, thereby setting off a law enforcement sequence with an inevitable logic of its own.  But that’s not the world we live in.

Moreover, the more you try to split hairs on what’s covered under a “right,” the less of a “right” it is, and the more it becomes someone’s arbitrary opinion on what you should be allowed to do.  Advocates of unrestricted abortion certainly see things that way.  “Rights” themselves are subtly denatured as soon as we start agreeing that one group after another can have a preemptive veto over them.

There is zero value in lambasting Pamela Geller instead of holding the debate in terms like these.  We just dumb ourselves down when we resort to ad hominem incoherence.

Jade Helm and the Embarrassing Texans

The Jade Helm “debate” has likewise been poorly framed, with pundits and politicians waving their “embarrassment” about skeptical Texas townspeople around like a totem.

For the record, I think some of the most vocal townspeople are on the wrong track, but I’m not embarrassed by them.  I think they’re smarter in some ways than pundits who dismiss the whole Jade Helm issue.  The concerned Texans at least get what really matters, which is that Jade Helm is going to put military special forces on the ground in their communities, running around practicing warfare skills.

I’ve already clarified twice (here and here) that I am confident Texas is not being invaded, and that Jade Helm will not have anything to do with Posse Comitatus or forcible collection of firearms from citizens.  I’ve made the point, in fact, that small groups of special forces operatives are ill-suited to such tasks, and wouldn’t deploy to carry them out.  Please read those earlier posts if that’s what you want to focus on.

But for a more important focus, consider this question – which I’ve also raised before.  When, before this time in our history, have military forces deployed into our towns to practice warfare skills on our streets and our property?  What is the precedent?

If we have ample warning that they’ll be there, moreover, and will be identifiable the whole time (see my earlier posts), what is the necessity?  Keep in mind, Jade Helm is not about counterterrorism training.  Its purpose is to practice “unconventional warfare”: support to local insurgencies in hostile foreign territory.

If the live-play troops won’t even be covert – an important aspect of unconventional warfare – what is the point of training in Texas towns and on Texas ranches, instead of on federal land?  For what overriding national purpose should we become accustomed to something our military never did until about 10 years ago: deploy special forces – or any other troops, for that matter – into our communities to roam visibly among us, holding exercises?

Suppose there is a point to the training that we would find satisfactory.  Does that make it a good idea for such drills to become commonplace in our communities?  It’s a major change, after all.  America has done extremely well for more than 200 years without allowing such an obtrusive military profile to develop.  In fact, resistance to that kind of profile was a key justification for waging our war of independence from Great Britain.  The U.S. military doesn’t deploy among the people to hold drills in offensive warfare.  We have a long tradition of thinking that’s a good thing.  Why should we let the military do it now?

Instead of cataloguing their embarrassment about rural Texans, the pundits who are dismissive about Jade Helm 15 should answer that question.

We should be debating this issue in policy terms, not lobbing ad hominem zingers at each other.  The left and right actually have some common ground here, if we dispense with the hyperventilation over conspiracy theories.  Which we are perfectly at liberty to do.  It’s OK to talk about this as if the conspiracy sites aren’t even discussing it.

We can stipulate up front that there’s no one with fell intent in the Oval Office or the Department of Defense, but that’s not actually the point.  The point is that it’s bad policy to let military training activity become commonplace in our communities, because that’s not what living in American freedom is supposed to look like.  It’s dangerous to our mindset and expectations about what government and the military should be doing.

Maybe the Texas townspeople haven’t articulated that specific case, but they’ve still raised a valid alarm.  Making such distinctions is the foundation of the mind of liberty: being able to get past the ad hominem to the principle.  If you’ve been frustrated and annoyed by both of these current debates, I submit that their failure to get past the ad hominem level is a big reason why.

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Author J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, The Weekly Standard, and Liberty Unyielding.

Reprinted with permission from Liberty Unyielding via Liberty Alliance.

Photo credit gova-lhs.wikispaces.com

NOTE: Passages bolded for editorial emphasis.

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