Friday, 11 May 2012

Uncivil Wars

It's already been recalled due to the massive (and entirely predictable and warranted) outcry, but Kate Sheppard thought it worth a little time to talk about the American Heartland's latest billboard:

As I say, a lot of people were pissed as hell about this.  Quite a few other people seem to be mainly amused that anyone could be so stupid as to have conceived of this as an ad campaign - the national multi-million-dollar equivalent of the drunk guy at a party shouting "You know who else was a vegetarian? Motherfucking Hitler!"

Sheppard's take on all this is interesting, and ties into something I've been thinking about for a while: how does something as pointlessly offensive and stupid come out the same offices that just a few months ago was complaining that those who accept the existence of global warming don't want to have a respectful and honest debate on the issues.

The fact that places like Heartland are disgracefully hypocritical isn't particularly surprising, of course.  But these constant calls to "civility" - which you'll find in almost any political or cultural debate of any real degree of contention - should always be considered in the wider context.  There's no doubt that sometimes it's necessary to tell people to sit down, stop shouting, and take a few deep breaths.  That's not what Heartland (or David Brooks, or George Will, or the late David Broder, or...) is aiming for.

The "incivility" approach is just one more arrow in the quiver of those people who don't actually want - or realise they can't afford - to actually craft a coherent and robust argument.  It's one of a great number of lazy debating techniques that together form what I call "minimum-effort arguing."  The commentator knows what they want to say, then chooses the fastest way of getting there in a way that isn't obviously stupid to just about everyone.  If that means stating their opponents are too loud and aggressive (or even worse, "shrill") to talk to, that's what they'll use.  If that means suggesting there isn't really a problem here at all, or that both sides are pretty much in agreement, they'll stick that in instead.

If those can't quite get them to the finish post, they'll try the next easiest approach.  George Will demonstrated this in epic style a couple of years ago, when he argued that because 1998 was the hottest year on record, there couldn't have been global warming since then.  This isn't just an obviously stupid statement, it's an obviously stupid statement that, were you to slightly re-jig it and play it back to him, Will wouldn't buy for a second.  If you told him Babe Ruth's home-run record proved every new batting technique since the '30s has been a waste of time, he'd laugh you out of the room.

But the objective isn't to craft a position using logical planks that they'd consider firm in all circumstances.  Just as when they complain their opponents are being too mean, the only aim is to put as little effort as possible into dealing with an argument they want to avoid, but don't want to look like they're avoiding.  Sometimes it's a Catch-22 like "civility" (Catch-22 because any argument that can't be dismissed as uncivil can be taken as evidence that the topic of discussion can't be all that important), and sometimes it's pretending that scientific concepts as advanced as variance don't exist.  Sometimes it's to point out the opponent has an ideological bias, as though that alone means the arguments being put forward can't be valid.  Sometimes, you get someone like Ross Douthat, who's at least clever enough to ensure his arguments are locally sound, and only fall apart when you compare them over, say, a whole book.

But it all comes from the same place, a desire to justify what one believes - or more often, what one is selling - using the quickest method you can expect the rubes to swallow.  The fact that these people keep pushing this crap isn't remotely surprising (which isn't to say we should stop pushing against it), but the willingness of people to internalise this endless wave of ad hominem crap is a shame they must bear for themselves.

PS: someone should really write up an online Heartland Billboard Generator, like someone did with the Tory election ads last year.  Think of the fun we could have with history's greatest monsters:

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