We’ve got a problem in talking to each other. It’s an old problem, codified on the right by David Horowitz in his The Art of Political War. It has been turned into armor by far right crazies who deflect criticism and even attempts at friendly discussion by calling their words “irony” while the subtext battles on. Today, we step on each other willy-nilly and publicly as Alex Jones did when he crashed a Marco Rubio interview on Capitol Hill yesterday. Hell, as when Jones opens his mouth (he would take that as a compliment). Or we insult privately in emails, as Tucker Carlson did to Erik Wemple of the Washington Post recently:
You are a dishonest hack and also kind of an idiot, but since you asked, I’d never heard of any of this until Rosie’s piece.
Please print my entire quote. Also, please consider another profession. I realize you’re deep into middle age but it’s not too late. You’re not suited to this.
Useful. And oh, so professional, not to mention diplomatic.
All of this follows the lead of our president, though he’s only a manifestation of what’s being going on at least since the time of Joe McCarthy (never forget that McCarthy’s chief strategist Roy Cohn was later a mentor to Donald Trump).
Some people revel in this, even convincing themselves it is, somehow, good. Graham Peterson, a former Sociology student at the University of Chicago, former Mercatus Center Fellow and former employee of the Foundation for Individual Freedom in Education, wrote on a blog called Sweet Talk: Putting the Soft in Soft Science on April 19, 2016:
Allow me [to] propose a hypothesis: all argument is a fight and that the goal is to win, but it is a fight more like economic competition than a street fight….
Both sides of an exchange, even an aggressive exchange, in the marketplace of ideas inevitably concede points in order to gain others….
Not every argument can or should be polite and disinterested. In fact if we take the metaphor of market exchange seriously, when we put people to debate who have no interest in the outcome, and who want to avoid high stakes exchange, we impoverish everyone….
Offending people is a skill and an important one….
We cannot achieve an intelligent and empathetic society without stomping on nerves. We need to be badgered and insulted and zinged into accounting for ourselves. From insult there results understanding.
The equivalency between argument and fight doesn’t hold up (for one thing, we argue, often, to learn from our opponents; we fight simply to defeat them). And, well, Peterson might want to refresh himself on the basics of linguistics, starting anywhere from Noam Chomsky to B. F. Skinner: It doesn’t matter who he reads; he will even discover anywhere that argument and commerce have as little in common as argument and fight.
Be that as it may, what we really have in Peterson’s blog is an attempt to pin an intellectual argument to the willingness to be nasty that has grown even more prevalent in the two-plus years since he wrote. To say that being cruder, louder and meaner is somehow a prelude to intellectual victory is, well, vacuous. (If saying that also seems mean, please remember that coddling can be a problem, too.)
Real argument occurs among equals. One can’t argue with a child, nor can one argue with an adult with the mentality of a child. Nor can one argue with someone who uses a child’s tools. The solution isn’t to act childish as well (look at the failures in this regard of the crowd of candidates Trump defeated in the primaries) or to ignore the childish behavior (as Hillary Clinton tried to do in the debates). The solution is to step back from argument and address the child/childlike forthrightly, firmly and without rancor. If Clinton had turned to Trump and said directly, “We can’t go on until you stay still. When I am speaking, you wait quietly—and I will accord you the same courtesy,” she might be president today. If Rubio, instead of snapping at Jones when Jones inappropriately touched his shoulder, had turned and faced Jones, saying, “If you want to speak to the press, go ahead. When you are done, they can return to questioning me,” the incident, which made both men look small (which is fine with Jones, who relishes all attention), would never had been all over the media. If Carlson had simply replied to Wemple, “I was not aware of the situation until reading the article you refer to,” he wouldn’t now look like such a mean-spirited and callow fellow.
We all blow our stack now and again. It’s easier to do so in public today—in part because of the ubiquity of social media and in part because it has become so commonplace. There’s not much we can do about the former, but we can change the latter–if we are willing to refuse to accept anger as an appropriate argumentative tool (instead of trying to justify it) and recognize that our opponents aren’t even involved in real argument in the first place, but are fighting for dominance through petulance.
Remember the old “count to ten before you respond”?
Resolving our problem might be as simple as starting with that.