Sunday, January 29, 2017

Check the label - ad hominems and labels in political discourse

Have you ever checked the label on a product? Maybe you're health conscious, carbon miles sensitive or boycotting for whatever reason. We expect the labels to be accurate in whatever case. When it comes to people and the discussion of politics, religion or ideology, we need to be more careful that the label truly represents what's in the box.

I see things people post and wonder how often I've done the same. One might choose the most outlandish of things and use this to represent the whole. Sam Harris would call moderates hypocrites and say only the extremists are true to the faith. Or those who see one act of violence and paint the whole as the same. As one meme goes, if you can distinguish between the KKK or Westboro Baptists and most other Christians (and in the vein of this post I'll say either can be), then you can tell the difference between ISIS/ISIL and the majority of Muslims.

So, when we see someone engaging in reductio ad absurdum arguments (reduction to the absurd) by showing something patently ridiculous or easy to ridicule yet attacking the whole spectrum of a group, we should be able to see through it.

You see this in the way in which the idea of triggering is used in humour. To be sure, some of what I have read on micro-aggressions and a certain fragility of modern thinking deserves critique. However, trigger warnings for those who've been the subject of sexual assault for certain news articles, or for cultures that have sensitivities around seeing footage of people who are deceased is another order altogether. Likewise, you might find some obscure YouTube rant by a 'triggered feminist' and think all feminism is like that. But this is unfair to an idea that has given women the right to vote, equality in employment, and unlike Russia, sees domestic violence as a crime.

So always check the label and think it through. Voting for Trump doesn't make you a racist even though racists voted for Trump. And Trump doesn't represent all Republicans. Believing in social security and health care doesn't mean you'd like to move to China or North Korea! Satire has its place, but it's not the only rhetorical tool we have in discussions, so let's drop ad hominems and always wanting to reduce our opponents to some straw man or lowest common denominator. In a so-called post truth world of alternative facts, we need to do better.

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