Thursday, July 31, 2008

In defense of name-calling

You'll notice that I don't have a problem calling somebody a "creep." Now, lots of people will immediately accuse me of name-calling or "ad hominems." They'll say I'm not objective or fair.

Well, that's just confused. My background is in Philosophy and Ethics. I believe in truth and I believe in moral clarity. And so, to my way of thinking, it's important to call a spade a spade. You're not being more accurate or objective when you call the My Lai massacre an "incident." You're not committing a fallacy when you call Stalin a tyrant or a murderer. To refuse to call a massacre a massacre or Stalin a tyrant is to engage in some kind of spin. It's to be Bill O'Reilly.

I think we can all agree that some people are creeps, i.e., detestable persons. We might disagree about some attributions (Donald Trump?) but there are many about which we'll find agreement (Lee Atwater, et al.). Some people are detestable, and, generally, we do best resisting the temptation to just say they have "a bit of an edge."

Naturally, it won't do to just call somebody a creep (aka a detestable person) when it isn't clear what the basis is for their creepitude, their detestulosity. Logically speaking, that's getting ahead of yourself. Now, on my other blog (with Rebel Girl), I often call people detestable. But regular readers of that blog (unless they're knuckleheads, which is possible) are very familiar with the basis for the attribution. The facts have been identified, over and over, man. I mean, it's like listening to Britney Spears and pronouncing her goofy. You don't have to explain it to anybody except cave dwellers.

People like to throw the term "ad hominem" around. In logic, it has a narrow meaning. One commits the "ad hominem" (i.e., "to the person") fallacy when one makes a particular mistake of relevance. It is the mistake of saying that a person's view should be rejected (or embraced) owing to some fact about that person—for instance, that they're hypocritical or, say, metrosexual.

Now if I start talking about "the dictator Adolf Hitler," I'm not committing the ad hominem fallacy. I'm not really reasoning; I'm making an assertion, and the assertion is, as we say in the philosophy world, "true." It's also negative, but attributing something negative to a person is not ipso facto a fallacy.

We're often told that we should not engage in "personal attacks." If what is meant by this is only that one errs if one supposes that an opponent's view is undermined by a criticism of him, then fine. Accordingly, personal attack=ad hominem.

But, clearly, sometimes people use "personal attack" to mean: criticism of a person. I have at times been "charged" with personal attacks when I've noted that the Chancellor of my college district is dishonest or conniving. (The grounds for such charges are overwhelming. Calling Raghu Mathur a schemer is like calling fish wet.)

But criticizing a person, if the criticism is fair, is not only defensible, it can bring moral clarity to a discussion that desperately needs it. For instance, lots of people insist on respecting George W. Bush, and part of that is an unwillingness to view him as deceitful. Too bad that, five or six years ago, more people didn't point at the guy and state the obvious truth: "Given what we already know about this man and his crew, we'd be fools to accept his assurances!"

In a certain sense, the world needs more disrespect.

George W. Bush is a liar and a lout. I hereby place my moralist hat upon my head and declare: get with the f***ing program.

1 comment:

Matthew Snope, Editor said...

Great article/argument, Roy!