You’re Stupid, I’m Offended! Argument in the Age of Political Polarization

The state of political discourse in America is no better than watching a Jerry Springer show. We have known that for years. Rush Limbaugh dropped that bar more than three decades ago by reducing political argument and persuasion to insulting others. Since then the tone of much cable news and social media has degenerated into nothing more than name calling. All that was bad enough, but now we have a president who manages with each statement to reduce the quality of political rhetoric even further. Referring to Haiti and African counties as “sh-thole states” is the latest low. With that statement, and the media actually using the word on air, the seven dirty words that you are not supposed to use and for which Pacifica Radio was fined when it aired George Carlin’s famous routine, was reduced to six.

The point is not about the word itself but about how the president confuses logic with profanity, reason with outrage, and argument with insult. But guess what? He is only the personification of what culturally so many others are doing–both politically right and left–in America.

I am a professor with a Ph.D. in political science. But I am also a law professor with a J.D. and have a masters degree in philosophy. My world is one of evidence and logic. It is a world where, as I originally learned from my sixth grade teacher Grace Dale, that name calling is not the way to win an argument. She used to say you can make any argument you want but once you state your claim the beginning of your next sentence must start with the word “because.” This next sentence must provide the evidence–logical or empirical–to support your claim. Simply saying “I feel” or “you are stupid” are not arguments. Both are just examples of emoting, not thinking, and asserting or declaring either of them are not persuasive to getting others to changing their mind of supporting your argument.

In philosophy there is what is called logical fallacies–argumentative techniques that are not valid. Among them are the concept of ad hominem or calling people names as a way to try to win an argument, and ad motum or the appeal to emotions to win an argument. These arguments often are accompanied with red herrings or shifting the argument to something else that is irrelevant, false moral equivalence or equating two events as being of the same degree, and either/or arguments or forcing people into thinking the only choices are binary. None of these from a logical point of view are logically valid ways to argue, yet they seem to be the basis of so much political argumentation today, starting with Donald Trump all the way down to simple Facebook postings.

Political discourse and debate seems one big logical fallacy. Too much of political debate is concluded with someone simply saying “Your stupid or Trump’s supporters are stupid, or racist, or sexist. Even if true, do you really think you will win an argument by calling someone else stupid or racist? Long ago Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People pointed that out too, offering great advice from a tactical and not logical perspective on how to persuade people. Similarly, arguments also seem to be concluded with someone pulling out their Ace card by saying they are offended. Point out in a tough argument that someone may be wrong and the retort is “I’m offended.” Again, that does a lot of good in terms of resolving a dispute. But it is not enough simply to call someone stupid or say you are offended, everything seems to be of the most extreme moral equivalence–thereby equivocating everyone to the level of being a Hitler or racist for whatever they did or said.

Now take all of the above fallacies and combine them with the political and cultural bubbles we live in, and the difficultly of some of the political choices we have to make and the problem is compounded. Surround ourselves only with those who share our views, reinforcing and egging on beliefs until they become extreme. Every little slight, every effort to engage in tough talk or debate becomes an us versus them, good versus evil, an epic manichean battle where there can be no political compromise or middle ground and where even the thought that the other side might have a good idea is wrong. “You are either with us, or against us,” as Joseph Stalin used to say.

This is not another essay pleading for civility in politics. Emotion and passion are okay, we are not robots. Philosopher David Hume was perhaps right in arguing that “reason was a slave to the passions” and that emotion cannot be stripped from persuasion. We should be passionate about our beliefs, but passion is not argument. It is also okay to engage in difficult debate and argument; we live in an adult world with adult problems and need to have thick skin at times. But if the goal is to persuade and reach agreement and not simply insult or emote there are better ways to persuade, and simply saying “You’re stupid” or “I’m offended” is not going to do the trick.

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