Monday, August 10, 2009

Political Capital and the New Age of Irrationality

It's occurred to me, and very specifically over the last few months, that there is something off-kilter about the leveraging of political debates as of late. It's certainly not a particularly new phenomenon, but what was once the ephemeral mind-creep of the fringe in political dissertation has quickly become the heart and soul of the debate to many Americans. What I'm talking about is the nearly reflexive cries of hypocrisy by those on the left towards those with dissenting views. And it's not even the cries themselves, which in many cases espouse truth, that worry me, but instead the portrayal of such accusations as logical and just affirmations of, and even supporting evidence for, their own political views. So my question becomes, "How does a faction of society become so irrational that mere hypocrisy on the part of their opponents becomes not only forceful justification of their own beliefs, but additional political capital to successfully leverage the public?"

It's something I've quite honestly never been able to fully understand. And for those who may be a little lost on my accusations, the incidence usually unfolds something like this: Person A makes an argument against the idea(s) of Person B. Person B, maybe even rightfully so, accuses Person A of being hypocritical because Person A has supported or stood behind people who upheld said ideas. Person A fumbles to excuse himself. Public sees the hypocrisy in Person A and therefore justifies support of Person B. But what happened to the argument at hand? Surely the hypocrisy of someone's support or defiance regarding any given issue doesn't affect the deductive capabilities of the average person to critique ideas. But time and time again, and as of late in ever-increasing frequency, I see this very thing take place.

This behavior is particularly apparent concerning debates in the national political arena. I cannot even begin to count the number of times I've personally engaged in an argument in which I've been critical of the current administration's stance in which the FIRST retort was something to the effect of "Well, Bush did it too!" or "Name one thing Obama has done that Bush didn't do!" If this was a response that I'd received from a small number of people, I know I could just dismiss these people as being irrational. But this isn't a problem that's plaguing only a nominally fractional portion of supporters of the current's widespread. It's even more frustrating in the wake of the fact that I would most prominently describe myself as a libertarian. You can imagine, of course, the reflexive animus a true-blue neo-conservative Republican might feel if a leftie kick-started the attacking of Bush all over again, but just imagine my personal befuddlement when someone draws that political implication from MY critical examination of the Obama administration. In context to a conversation with me, attacks against the former administration aren't only irrelevant, they are nonsensical!

What's even worse is that I believe they make a fair point about many Bush supporters. There are certainly many policies Obama has endorsed that have merely been carried over from the previous administration. Whether it's support of the War on Terror in the middle-east, huge budget deficits, increased national debt, or Keynesian stimulus packages and bailouts to supposedly stifle economic degradation, Obama seems to be merely walking in the steps of Bush in an even bigger way. So their point, in calling out Republicans as hypocrites, may be appropriate in a general sense. But there are two looming logically irreconcilable faux pas which the left is fervently embracing with this tactic.

The first point, which I believe has been overlooked to a large degree, is that in accepting that Obama and Bush have been largely akin in taking very similar stances and actions regarding various issues, would that not make the Obama supporters who spent eight years criticising Bush hypocrites of the same magnitude? Is it not illogical to criticize a person, and then justify the candidate you supported by claiming he's doing the same things as the person you were criticizing? I think on even the most elementary levels of logic, that line of thinking shouldn't follow suit...for anyone.

The second point is probably the more pressing one, and I believe the one that should be addressed; What do ad-hominem attacks against the hypocritical nature of any group or faction have to do with whether a particular policy is right or wrong? This is at the true heart of the logical fallacy being perpetrated by so many of this administration's supporters. I understand that they hold their opponents in contention for being hypocritical...but that doesn't make their opponents' arguments simply disappear. There's an analogy (albeit a moral one) that was made a while back that really opened my eyes to that line of thinking (because it's a trap I'm probably guilty of falling into in the past myself). Typical is the story of a man of the cloth who delivers sermons about the immoral nature of adultery on Sunday mornings who is later found to be hypocritical given his own moral infortitude. Now surely his rapport with his parishioners and followers may be greatly weakened or even broken at that point. I think that's rightly justifiable. But what concerns me is that people who were predisposed to dislike these particular people will find their hypocrisy just cause to NOT ONLY disregard them personally, but to disregard or discredit anything that person was preaching. To a man of reason, the first and second reaction do not follow. If a parent teaches a child that it is not right to steal, and then commits grand theft auto, we can certainly call her a hypocrite. But then to simply disregard what she has said as being as equally inept as her own conscience would be a pretty big mistake to make in logical terms.

The point here is simple; clearly it's a good thing to point out true hypocrisy where you see it. But it's equally important to understand that simple ad-hominem attacks against your political opponents don't destroy or negate the criticisms they have of you. If your views are logical and consistent, you shouldn't have to resort to such tactics to get your point across. If your opponents' arguments are so feeble and illogical, and you feel you have the higher ground, then what greater measure of their fallibility could there be than to simply unravel it before their very eyes. On the contrary, to simply engage in personal attacks in response to what may be meaningful criticism is to admit one of two things; that you have an irrational partisan hatred of that person or group that retards your ability to engage in rational conversation with them or that you feel your position is so weak that you have no real answer to their criticisms. About the only thing more sad than seeing a political faction embracing that kind of stance is seeing the general public's apparent willingness to embrace it in lockstep.

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