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26 October 2014 01:18 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

The age of smear politics

  • Ivo Vegter
Ad hominem attacks, guilt by association, and other rhetorical vilification strategems ought to signal a puerile, unsophisticated, and frankly, losing argument. Why is it so popular – and effective – to stoop to petty insults?

Crude personal attacks and contrived smear campaigns are nothing new on puerile, partisan blogs, where emotional but intellectually stunted opponents exchange views in simplistic and hateful terms.

Occasionally, one expects the letters pages of the more populist tabloid papers to descend to this level.

However, there used to be an expectation that basic civility and a willingness to play the ball, rather than the man, was a prerequisite for serious public policy debate.

Yet a serious newspaper, the Sunday Telegraph, not only sent a reporter to ask the famous atheist Richard Dawkins about his slave-owning ancestors in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, but an editor allowed this crude and gratuitous smear to be published.

A more intelligent editor would have thrown the copy back at the reporter and demanded that he confront Dawkins with the far more embarrassing truth that almost all his ancestors professed religion.

An honest editor would have spiked the copy as ad hominem trash. And fired the reporter in question – Adam Lusher – as a childish troll.

On Sunday, the Twitter followers of CNN contributor and editor of BigJournalism.com, Dana Loesch, could watch her give battle against a description of a new Virginia law that requires women to undergo ultrasound examinations before electing to have an abortion. The argument that offended Loesch was that the law is equivalent to mandating rape, because for a week or so in the early stages in pregnancy, using an intra-vaginal probe is a better way of obtaining an ultrasound image than the more familiar external scan.

The claim that a vaginal ultrasound constitutes 'rape' is itself symptomatic of the crude level of political discourse. Loesch disputed this characterisation.

Whatever the merits of her argument, it soon degenerated into a vitriolic hate-fest, with random strangers denouncing Loesch in the most offensive terms.

“I have been reviewing your videos and comments and it is abundantly clear that your looks exceed your intelligence six fold,” wrote one critic.

“We all know the only sex you get is from inanimate vaginal probes. Some women prefer real sex,” wrote one particularly offensive Daily Kos blogger, who seldom appears to rise above childish name-calling.

Besides being deeply offensive, the attacks ignored the substance of Loesch’s argument. Even if she were a sexually frustrated airhead, it wouldn’t have made her argument false. Conversely, the moral high ground those attacks gave her did the same: that she was the victim of such despicable vitriol didn’t make her argument true.

The merits of the opposing views were lost in the puerile fight.

When I wrote last week about the risk of fracking earthquakes, it elicited a response from travel photographer Jonathan Deal, who runs what he describes as “the foremost of those ‘anti-fracking lobbies’ in South Africa”, the Treasure the Karoo Action Group.

He spent a day and a half engaging in condescending and purely personal attacks. This wasn’t the first time that he stooped to personal insults, either. In defence of calling me a sycophant, he said that my Twitter biography describes me as such. I had to point out to him the rather obvious point that I don't routinely insult myself, and my bio is “user-generated content”, written by critics who, unable to play the ball, played the man.

Other readers soon began to take Deal to task, pointing out that his insults and refusal to engage with the facts undermined his own credibility instead of mine. Well into day two of the argument, he caved. Adopting an exaggerated tone of politeness, no doubt meant sarcastically, he attempted a partial reply to some of the points I had raised. It seemed to me that he capitulated on almost every one of them, confirming that ad hominem attacks and guilt-by-assocation slurs are pure bluster, obscuring an inability to challenge an argument on its merits.

This sort of vindictive rhetoric is not only common, it is deceptive and corrosive.

An alleged "leak" from a US think tank and free-market lobby group, the Heartland Institute, reveals details of its funding, as well as a supposed strategy to influence how climate science is taught in schools.

This plays into a number of convenient narratives that many observers – including the New York Times – appear to uncritically accept, without even bothering to question the authenticity of the documents. Here’s why they should have done so: Heartland Institute responds to stolen and fake documents.

The first of these narratives is that simply by being funded by like-minded individuals or companies, a group’s actual positions are invalid. Instead of evaluating the argument on their merits, critics only need to say who funded them, quoted them, or approved of them.

Of course, this logic makes no sense. Why should people who have an interest in it not support a particular line of argument? Why should that support imply anything about the merits of the argument itself? Who else will fund particular lines of research, if not people or companies who are interested in it?

One simply expects disclosure when financial ties imply vested interests, much like reputable media organisations have a clear policy separating editorial from advertising. Heartland’s policy of protecting the anonymity of its donors is merely a reason to find independent corroboration for its factual claims.

Too often, however, these alleged links are just guilt-by-association smears.

One of the first comments on last week’s fracking column asked how much Shell paid me for it. The implication, of course, was that I was corrupt, and all that remained of interest was whether my perfidy was worth my while.

No evidence of this grave accusation was forthcoming, which did not surprise me since it has no basis in fact. I rejected it with the contempt it deserves and concluded the critic was an idiot who couldn’t argue the point.

Likewise, the long-awaited scandal about Heartland’s anonymous donors didn’t hold much water. The conspiracy theory about global warming scepticism – that it’s all just a propaganda campaign lavishly funded by Big Oil – was unsupported by the Heartland documents. The closest they got to the oil industry was a donation by Koch Industries, which turned out to be for healthcare, not an environmental programme.

Heartland’s tiny budget of a mere $7.7 million pales in comparison with, for example, Al Gore’s $300 million campaign to promote the fear of man-made global warming. Combined, environmental groups account for billions in spending to try to influence the mainstream media, public perception and government policy.

Do the funders of environmental campaigns get a free ride on this point?

The New York Times report on the Heartland “leak” raises another rhetorical fallacy: that a sceptical approach to climate science is comparable to the fight over how evolution is taught in schools. Variations on this theme say that climate sceptics are akin to those who once denied smoking causes cancer.

Of course, the issues are entirely independent. What position someone has on one does not imply anything about whether they’re right about another.

Now, if guilt by association were a valid argument, then my own climate scepticism stands discredited because some people who agree with me are also creationists. But if so, should those religious conservatives not accept that global warming is a grave crisis requiring urgent dismantling of free-market capitalism, on the basis that I happen to be an atheist?

Should I disbelieve a mechanic about the trouble with my car because he wears a Power Balance bracelet? Should I believe a Power Balance bracelet works because he was right about my car’s solenoid?

Should I doubt a doctor, because he is a Christian and thinks I’d have less trouble quitting smoking if I went to church? Should I accept he is right about religion because he is a doctor?

You see how silly this gets? And how hypocritical?

Many environmentalists seem happy to appeal to the lore and mysticism of ancient tribes and religions, while denouncing the equally mythical lore of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Why the beliefs of Mayans, Khoi-San, Ancient Egyptians, Native Americans or Buddhists are any more valid than the myths of Christians is beyond me. Conversely, there is no reason to dismiss a view simply because it is informed by a religious ethos or tribal lore. Some of it is total rubbish, and some of it is perfectly valid.

If guilt by association works, should I point out the distinct green cast to Nazism? After all, environmentalists do that too. The term “denier”, so freely bandied about to refer to sceptics, overtly invokes Holocaust denial.

Or can we agree that people on both sides of the debate who stoop to invoking Nazi comparisons without substantive justification in the context of a historical analysis are probably incapable of arguing the point, and are merely trying to smear their opponents?

The attack involving creationism is particularly low, not only because it does dismiss an argument without reference to its merit, but because it actively tries to justify doing so, by implying that climate scepticism is somehow unscientific.

A striking example is a phrase in one of the “leaked” documents, the 2012 Heartland Climate Strategy, which uses the term “anti-climate”, and says that it aims at “dissuading [teachers] from teaching science”.

Such phrases might not seem odd to environmentalists looking for confirmation bias, but they seem exceedingly odd to a climate sceptic.

You see, those who are sceptical that urgent action is needed to combat man-made global warming would never use the term “anti-climate” to describe themselves. I don’t think I need a show of hands to say we’re pretty much in agreement that climate is real and isn’t going to go away soon, whether anyone is opposed to it or not.

Climate sceptics also do not believe themselves to be opposed to science. Quite the contrary, in fact. They strongly believe in the scientific method, and believe that they have the scientific facts on their side.

Now, they might well be wrong, as any scientific claim might be, but sceptics would never say they oppose teaching science. They would phrase the issue as aiming to “teach science, instead of the cult of man-made climate change”.

True enough, the document did turn out to be forged, in what appears to be an attempt to smear the Heartland Institute in particular and climate sceptics in general.

In the Atlantic, which is not notable for its reactionary right-wing content, Megan McArdle raised the fakery in a pair of articles on the subject.

The “anti-science” rhetoric was merely an underhanded fraud perpetrated by opponents who would love their audiences to believe that their own opinions and prescriptions for the world are the only ones worthy of the halo of “science”.

True science respects disagreement. It respects people who argue the point, rather than attacking the person who makes it. It respects evidence, falsifiability and rigorous reasoning. It does not respect those who vilify and caricature their scientific or political opponents just because they can play on the prejudices, fears and conspiracy theories of their audience.

Dawkins might be wrong, but not because his great-great-great grandfather supposedly once owned slaves in Jamaica. I might be wrong, but not because I’m supposedly too young to share Deal’s wisdom. Loesch might be wrong, but not because she’s supposedly sexually frustrated. Heartland might be wrong, but not because it’s supposedly anti-science.

Valid points, worth debating, are lost in the noise of vicious smear tactics. Not only does such lazy rhetoric dodge the issue, but people who resort to ad hominem attacks all too often go on to demonstrate their inability to support a reasoned debate on matters of fact.

When someone does it to me, I assume it is deliberate. I take it as conceding the argument, and I wear the insult as a scalp. DM


  • Ivo Vegter
IvoVegterBW

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He approaches issues from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He grew up in the deep south of Johannesburg, and learnt his politics reading the Weekly Mail and Vrye Weekblad at Wits University during the early years of the country's transition to democracy. He recently left the city for the lower cost of living of Knysna, where he continues to write about everything under the sun. He is always right.

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