February 09, 2005

Cardboard Enemies and Strawmen Opponents

For a variety of reasons, I've found through my experience at online political debate that people like stories and narratives to accompany their beliefs and arguments. I used to do a lot of AOL chat room debates (which is now all but pointless) and I've had my share of MSN chat debates. I have been a member of any number of online political simulations and of course a wide variety of discussions boards and blog comment sections. The experience is different in each, since a recurring chat room crowd has some knowledge of its membership - and their views and weaknesses - than say a hugely populated discussion board or a blog comment section. A comparatively small (no more than 100 or 150 people in any given week) political simulation board offers a much longer view of the situation, as the same people interact repeatedly over the course of weeks and months and are able to post back and forth on literally any subject unconstrained by time (unlike a chat or a blog comment section).

What's interesting about all of them is that, though the knowledge of opponents may change, the pattern of some people to add a narrative to their world-view is immutable. There are simply certain people, a not-insignificant proportion of any political ideology, for whom The Enemy must be caricatured as part of an argument.

Debating an opponent of affirmative action? He must be a secret racist, who pretends to be okay with minorities but in reality he's scared of them and just won't admit it to himself. Obviously no educated person could have a fair-minded reason to oppose affirmative action, so your opponent must be a racist.

Debating a strong supporter of Israeli security? Your opponent is almost certainly a right-wing religious zealot who believes that the wars in the Middle East will hasten the Rapture and the Armageddon, and he probably likes to arbitrarily call you an anti-Semite even though he's probably the one who really doesn't like Jews.

Debating on behalf of increased welfare and entitlement spending? Your opponent must be a rich boy who got welfare himself in the form of his parents' money but he hypocritically rejects it in the form of government welfare for the poor.

Debating an opponent of abortion? Your opponent probably has unresolved issues toward his mother and all women, and he wants his wife to be supportive and submissive and never question him because he has such horrible identity issues.

I could go on and on, since I've just scratched the surface. I have seen all of these used, and more. Most of them have been used on me (the girlfriend/wife thing on abortion was especially humorous after my girlfriend joined the simulation board and was more aggressive than any of them).

Sometimes they get very expansive and graphic, and fall just short of smearing all businessmen as grave-robbing, earth-raping oil barons, or all people who disbelieve creation theory ('Intelligent Design') are pot-smoking, gay-sex-having atheists. Why do people do this. I refuse to believe that it's all just a shrewd PR trick, because in many cases it seems too heartfelt to be real. In the first level, it's believing your own propaganda. On a deeper level, it helps to believe what you believe if all your opponents are liars, hypocrites, violent or selfish.

This viewpoint is effective because it completely quashes the idea, not that a viewpoint is valid, but that people could hold it in earnest; your opponents know you're right or would know it if only they weren't deranged or high or psychologically obstructed or making loads of money. Your way is so OBVIOUSLY right that people could never entertain otherwise without some horrible, gaping personality flaw that gets in the way. This is a very attractive way to see everything, because it reinforces your world view. Instead of bad opinions earnestly held, they are bad opinions fraudulently held. In the more advanced instances, your opponent secretly agrees with you but denies it due to X personality flaw.

So now that you see how other people do it, what is our reaction? Hopefully, the first reaction is to see it for the flawed argument and self-serving perception that it is. The second reaction ought to be to look for it and recognize it in yourself. Everyone does it to some degree, and it is not always incorrect or without merit to believe so. But watch yourself that you do not fall into it too quickly or too easily.

A handy rule of thumb when you start smearing an opponent in words or in your thoughts is to stop yourself and then ask, what would I do if my boss, my friend or my relative held this opinion? Would I so easily smear a good friend as a Fascist or a Communist due to his views on the Head Start program? Can I truly determine that someone is a murderer or a traitor because of her views on military scholarships? Sometimes harsh language and harsh views are unquestionably warranted (I'm looking in Hitler's direction right now) but other times it only serves to confuse the situation, obstruct the logical perspective and burn bridges with someone who might have been persuaded by us on other subjects.

Of course, I'll continue to point out and laugh at all you pot-smoking, Gaia-molesting, dolphin-hating, God-bashing hypocrites and liars as much as I want, since I'm the only one who never does this. Ever.

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