Battling Racism and “Strawman Arguments” in the Wake of Charlottesville

Gentle Friends, right and left, let’s talk about HOW we talk to each other.

The events in Charlottesville, and the discussion that has followed, have demonstrated how woefully ill-equipped most folk are to engage in productive debate. We have used debate tactics that are harmful to relationships and that don’t advance the conversation. I’m going make some observations over the course of several posts (maybe over a week or so) about the discussion that has followed Charlottesville, because I’d like to encourage you in two ways: 1) be on the lookout for these debate TACTICS so that you can understand what they do and do not communicate, and 2) avoid using these tactics inappropriately in your own discussions. If we can accomplish those 2 goals, I believe we can have fruitful discussion about important topics, like the realities of racism in our society as displayed last weekend in Charlottesville.

To get to my point, let’s set the stage. I’m going to characterize the structure of some of the arguments I’ve seen from friends on the left and friends on the right. To do that, let’s consider the image I’ve inserted above.

Imagine the political spectrum, from left to right. Farther left on the illustration means more “left-leaning” politically (i.e., generally speaking more “liberal’). Farther right on the illustration means more “right-leaning” politically (i.e., generally speaking more “conservative”).

For purposes of the discussion, I’m dividing the spectrum into 4 groups – A, B, C and D. A and B are on the left side. C and D on the right. Most of us fall into groups B and C – the average, reasonable left-leaning folks and average, reasonable right-leaning folks like most of you reading this. Together, we are the broad center, even though we hold a spectrum of views on political issues. To the far left on the illustration is group A, which includes “extremists” on the left. To the far right is group D, which includes extremists on the right.

The focus of recent conversation following Charlottesville started with group D. In that group are the KKK, the white supremacists and Nazis, among other wacko bigots.

What I heard being voiced by the initial articles and posts about Charlottesville were comments from group B (the centrist left) voicing condemnation of group D’s beliefs and tactics. I often heard group B writers inviting group C friends to unite in condemning group D.

A lot of group C folks have, in fact, joined in condemning group D. I’ve been pleased to see the loud and clear statements by, e.g., Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Tim Scott, Lyndsay Graham and Bob Corker in which they’ve made abundantly clear that, from their perspective, group D seeks things that are contrary to American values. Though in milder fashion, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has also voiced similar concerns and criticism.

But there have been some puzzling responses to the group B outrage about group D.

First, of course, there have been some horrific responses from group D authors. When a friend of mine shared an article by a neo-Nazi, I read it only to find that, yes, I could still be surprised by the depth of hate among human beings. I thought I had seen it all. I hadn’t. When group D tells you about the hate they embrace, take them at their word. I don’t expect to convince members of group D to change their minds to become less hateful. I do, however, fully expect that groups B and C can work together to persuade group D that its values are out of the mainstream and will never be acceptable to the great majority of us.

Other responses have also been troubling. Again, while the substance of the responses can be debated, if there’s a public service I can do it’s to encourage you to think about the WAY, the TACTICS, that we use in our conversations. In some forthcoming posts, I plan to talk about tactics like false equivalencies, over-generalizations, slippery slope arguments, and the pernicious talent of many politicians to change the subject. But right now I want to talk about “strawman arguments.”

Lawyers are taught that, when crafting an argument for a court battle, we must come up with an argument that views the opponent’s position in the light most favorable to that opponent. When a lawyer files a “motion to dismiss,” we are often saying something like this: “Even if my opponent’s allegations are accurate, he still doesn’t win the case because…”. If we twist the opponent’s argument into something he/she isn’t really saying, the court will deny our motion to dismiss (and will likely be annoyed at us for not taking the opponent seriously – i.e. wasting the court’s time). A “strawman argument” is the opposite of taking your opponent’s argument seriously.  A strawman argument is an argument in which someone mischaracterizes the opponent’s viewpoint, often describing it as a caricature of the opponent’s real position. That “strawman” is easier to argue against, but if it isn’t the opponent’s real point, then you’re arguing against something irrelevant.

Since the fall of 2016, I’ve seen one consistent use of strawman arguments by group C.  Here’s how it happens:  First, someone in group B says something like “Those Republican voters who are in group D are advocating something that I find morally objectionable.” In response, someone in group C alleges that the first person thinks ALL Republicans are morally objectionable. Of course, making generalizations about all Republicans is usually inappropriate. (I say “usually” only because some generalizations are normal and fine, like “generally speaking, Republicans tend to vote for Republican candidates.”) If the group C critic were accurately describing the original group B position, that group B position would indeed be easy to criticize, and should be criticized. But in this example, the group C response is a straw man. The person in group B was talking about group D, not group C. So the group C response, while complaining about something worthy of criticism, isn’t actually responding to group B’s comment. In this example, the response never gets around to agreeing or disagreeing with whether group D’s conduct or philosophy is morally objectionable (the original point from the group B critic).

A similar straw man response has been observable since Charlottesville. Over and over I’ve seen persons complaining that critiques of white supremacists are actually critiques of ALL white people, and that the critiques are therefore racist. Criticism of all white people simply because they are white is surely bad, but I haven’t heard anyone doing that, certainly not any serious social critic, and certainly not any political leader. (I try not to read non-serious social critics, and if you’re seeing over-the-top rhetoric that criticizes all white people, I respectfully suggest that you should start reading different, more serious media.)

If you have failed to respond to group B’s criticism’s of group D, because you have misunderstood group B (maybe you’ve been misled by some of the unscrupulous media), then I encourage you to hear this clarity: In the context of Charlottesville, group B’s first criticism is about group D. Group B critics are pointing out the bigotry of group D. They are not calling group C bigots. If you feel personally targeted, remember that you yourself get to decide whether you want to be associated with group C or group D. To the extent group B members ARE criticizing members of group C, it is only that they want you to be louder in your criticism of group D, but they are not equating group C with group D.

Please also recognize that there are unscrupulous media personalities who have an economic interest in stirring the pot. Just this morning a friend shared Rush Limbaugh’s latest nonsense alleging that people like me are calling everyone in group C a racist. He’s just wrong. He likes to sensationalize hot topics because he’s trying to drive ratings. But he doesn’t get to define me. He doesn’t get to decide what it is that I mean. I’m calling out group D, and all the group B comments (by serious people) that I’m reading are calling out group D.

If you are in group C and think that we are calling you a racist, we are not. If you want to be sure about that, you can simply make known your point of view and clarify that you are part of group C, and that you do not approve of group D any more than we in group B approve of them. Just like Rush Limbaugh doesn’t get to decide what I think, we don’t get to decide whether you personally want to reside in group C or group D.  If you’re a racist, you are in group D.  If you aren’t, you can easily tell us so, just like you can tell the racists what you really think.  You get to decide that, but we’d probably all avoid some of the bickering if you claimed your place out loud.

The tougher question, of course, is whether any of us are complicit in group D’s racism. By our acts or non-acts, by our words or our silence, are we encouraging group D? Or are we perhaps failing to do what we can to prevent group D’s expansion?

For example, I know we all love our crazy great aunt (or crazy uncle or distant cousin or…) – the one who’s “just old-fashioned” and “stuck in her ways,” the one who just happens to think persons unlike her are inferior, sub-humans who don’t deserve all the rights and benefits that this society offers. She’s family, and we love her despite her racist views. You probably won’t change your crazy family member’s worldview, that’s true. But when she gets airtime at the Thanksgiving table and influences your young cousin, do you take a few minutes after lunch to gently share your counter-view with that cousin, or do you let your crazy [aunt/uncle, etc.] be the only teacher?   What are the ways we, in our personal lives, are complicit? While complicity with racism isn’t quite the same thing as racism itself, the outcome is the same – racism grows.  Let’s not be complicit.

Right now, when the President is trying so desperately to change the subject – to talk about “both sides” having responsibility for the violence at that particular rally in Charlottesville, or to talk about whether Confederate monuments should be relocated, are we taking the bait and forgetting to think about the big picture? The alt-right drew strength and encouragement from last weekend’s rally, and right now they are recruiting your neighbor, attempting to persuade him/her that white supremacy and racism should be considered mainstream positions that belong within group C.  If we fail to make our voices heard, are we complicit in racism’s rise?

Dear friends in group C, please don’t get confused or distracted – we in group B are condemning group D, not you. Each of you gets to decide whether you want to be part of group C or group D. We aren’t targeting you, and you shouldn’t allow yourself to be deceived.

WHAT WE ARE REQUESTING IS SIMPLY THIS: Since both group B and group C are generally supposed to be on the same page about the notion that racism is contrary to our values (to American values, as well Christian, Jewish, Muslim and most people’s values), let’s speak in unison to tell group D to buzz off.

Will you join us?

 

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Note 1: I realize that there are “extremists” in Group D who aren’t the alt-right. For example, there are extreme libertarians who are practically anarchists, and in that case they are very similar to some of the extremists on the left. The group B criticism I’m describing above isn’t targeting the group D folks who are just out-of-the-mainstream non-haters.   Furthermore, I’m fully capable of criticizing the ideas of group A folks, but, generally speaking, the group A folks are not motivated by racism and are instead motivated by extreme philosophies like anti-globalism (which, again, starts to look a lot like the non-hater, economic extremists in group D). I mention this only because I anticipate you comments will ask about group A and/or about innocent group D folks. But let’s not change the subject and miss the big picture – all of us in the broad B/C center need to condemn, marginalize and diminish in the impact of racism in our society. Let’s work together.

Note 2: If there are some upset people in group B who cross the line with their commentary and wrongly accuse all of you in group C, I suggest that they are NOT representative of most of us in group B, and aren’t serious writers or thinkers, so you might want to look at different media. Also remember that even comparatively mainstream media, like Fox News, will be more likely to report only those group B comments that do cross the crazy line, but they won’t report the ordinary group B commentary, because the ordinary group B thinkers aren’t news. So if you’re watching only Fox, maybe ALSO watch another news source? I try to read from multiple papers, multiple TV news sources (including left- and right-leaning perspectives), serious bloggers, thoughtful essay magazines, and United Methodist resources like MinistryMatters.com.

 

 

 

 

 

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