Wednesday, February 27, 2008

On Manners, Evidence and Politics

In the course of writing and speaking about various things - for example, the stolen elections of 2000 and 2004 and about impeachment - I've on a very few occasions come up against individuals who contact me to express their disagreements with me. Or I should say, more accurately, most of these few people have hurled invective.

In response to my "No Paper Trail Left Behind: the Theft of the 2004 Presidential Election," which was published online at Project Censored in August 2005, I received scores of supportive emails and about six hostile emailers. Not a bad ratio.

When I respond to these hostile emails, which I almost invariably have done, at least once and in a very civil tone in order to explore whether or not a civil, evidenced-based dialogue can actually ensue, what is striking about this exchange has been the kind of debate style that the hostile ones employ.

(I should point out, however, that even hostile critics can sometimes have a point. Indeed, our critics can at times be our best tests for the strength of our argument. Truth emerges through struggle and it helps, not hurts, to have a debate, even with people who are difficult to take. In my case, two critics DID point out a couple evidentiary issues about which they were right and I accordingly deleted those points from my case.)

Some people write merely to say things on the order of "Bush won! You lost! Ha Ha Ha!" as if this was some kind of argument. But a few have actually at some point or another cited what they present as evidence and in some instances there is actually a fact or two there. The problem, however, is two-fold. One, the evidence they cite is generally - actually I'd have to say, almost invariably - flawed in any number of ways. Evidence is good and when someone puts some forward, I'm actually quite pleased.

The ones who DO offer evidence might, for example, cite a single poll from a specific source that they say contradicts my polls. What they don't do, however, is take the sum total of the evidence, their's and mine, and then weigh them against each other. You also need to weigh the source's credibility. Is this a poll from a reputable pollster with no particularly striking ax to grind (such as John Zogby or Gallup) or is this some conservative think tank's poll? The fact that it's a conservative think tank's poll doesn't necessarily rule it inadmissible, one needs to consider this and then look at other polls taken by others measured against this. (Ad hominem arguments won't do, after all. But I'd have to say that none of my handful of angry critics have any idea what an ad hominem argument is. I even used the term once or twice with a correspondent and he heatedly denied he was one - on principle- while at the same time engaging in it as he was writing! It was if he knew enough to know that saying that something was ad hominem was a bad thing, but he didn't know what it actually meant.)

You also need to take into account trends and motion and a number of other factors when you consider polling data. I had one guy who I engaged in a lengthy exchange with who claimed, for example, that just because polls on the eve of the 2004 election were showing a dramatic shift of momentum away from Bush and in favor of Kerry, and that polls that close to the actual election (in addition to what the exit polls stated before being "adjusted" by the pollsters to conform to the official tallies) have never been wrong, meant nothing because, according to him, "past practice doesn't predict future performance." Now, the phrase is in the abstract true as, in for instance, the warnings given to investors in companies on the stock market. But the phrase is inapplicable in the case of polls on the eve - i.e., e.g., the day before - an election.

You're taught in graduate school in the sciences to weigh evidence and how to develop evidence and so on, and most people haven't learned this practice. They think that if they can cite one fact that fits their viewpoint that they have defeated your argument. So that's on the one hand.

The other thing, which is actually the main point I want to make in this essay, is the strikingly incivil nature of the dialogue from many of these folks. I blame this on the Karl Rove's, the Bill O'Reilly's, the Rush Limbaugh's, the Ann Coulter's, and their imitators who have made their careers by employing insult, invective, exaggeration and sheer fabrication of "facts." O'Reilly, for example, was so upset when GOP Representative Mark Foley got caught in a sex scandal that he made him into a Democrat! The people who have been or are currently (and hopefully not forever) fans of these purveyors of untruth and distortions have, at least the ones who have communicated with me and who I've on occasion read in blogs and so on, adopted the same style of "argument."

There was this one guy who started out our exchanges with insults and continued to use them even after I sent him back a couple or so very civil responses asking him for evidence. I finally got frustrated and sent him a final email asking him if his "Momma ever taught him manners." He wrote back apologizing for his tone and saying that indeed his Momma had taught him manners. Which was nice. I didn't expect it. I thought, that's good and that's that.

But then, right after that, within the next hour, I get another email from him hurling the same insults that he had been engaging in previously. It's as if he knew enough to know that when it was pointed out to him that one should have manners and be civil, that he was supposed to have good manners (and supposed to defend his momma), but when he resumed arguing his case, he couldn't help but fall into a pattern of invective.

I noticed today, in another example, a posting from someone calling himself, right wing nut, or something like that, who was complaining about the orange ribbons at the Oscars. After attacking the ACLU for their role in this, he went on to say that I was an "alleged Associate Professor of Sociology," as if I am claiming a job title that I don't have, and then that I said that the ACLU had "stolen" the orange ribbon idea from me.

I never said anything of the sort.

I am glad that the ACLU has adopted the orange idea and the ribbons. The more the better - although I intended with the orange that it stand for all of the outrages of the Bush regime and not just Guantanamo, which is the much narrower tact the ACLU is taking. (It's in the nature of political movements that people who join a movement do so from varying perspectives and with varying objectives, united behind a general stance. The larger a movement becomes, the more likely this becomes.) I did say that the idea was something I started back in the summer of 2007, which is so. Whether or not the ACLU knew this before or not, I don't know, but that's all I said. But somehow this gets converted in the right wing nut's mind and on his blog into my claiming that the idea was "stolen." Go figure. (It's also revealing of this poster that he automatically translates what I said into a complaint about theft, as if I have a product and someone else is stealing my profits! Tells you something about his ideology.)

The larger point I'm trying to make here, however, is that this coarsening (degradation is probably a better descriptor) of the public and private dialogue is really destructive to people being able to think and consider evidence and reach logical conclusions. If you can heap calumny on those who disagree with you, and you can't use arguments and facts, if you can just shout people down or call them, this is one of their favorites, "America haters," then you have created a situation in which dialogue is virtually impossible. Which, of course, is their objective. As Mark Crispin Miller points out very well in his chapter in my book, "Bush and Cheney's War on the Enlightenment," they are at war with reason itself.

No comments: