Recently when I posted a few sentences on Facebook voicing disappointment and discouragement at seeing so much public name-calling there, particularly coming from liberal friends (I mean that I find it particularly disappointing and discouraging from these people, not that they are doing more of it than the opposition), those people whose general politics are in line with my own, one friend commented that he didn’t understand me at all. Was he advocating that we only talk sweetness and light? How can we voice opposition, make political points and arguments, and state strong positions without being all namby-pamby and fake-“nice”? In particular, how can he express his opposition without name-calling?
Let me say first, that yes, we have freedom of speech and are absolutely free to rage and whine, complain and blame, and to call our political opponents vile names. Examples of that kind of speech are before us daily, coming from the highest office in the land. But that very kind of talk is one thing (although minor compared with far more damaging executive assaults on environmental and worker and consumer protections) my friends and I strongly detest in the current national administration, so why would we let ourselves fall into similar inarticulate rants?
If someone claims to despise incivility and then engages in it, what am I supposed to make of the claim? It’s bad if someone I don’t like does it, okay if I do it?
Sorry, but that’s another attitude coming out of Washington that we have no ground to gain by imitating! If, in criticizing certain kinds of behavior and speech, I use the same kinds of behavior and speech myself, I destroy the very basis of my position. There are other ways to make objections. That is my point.
So how can I criticize without name-calling?
(1) Name the behavior. Instead of calling a job applicant a “filthy liar,” say “He misrepresented his experience. His resume listed positions he never held.”
Okay, you’re thinking, but this is just plain boring! Where is the outlet for my cleverness? For my astonishing rapier wit?
(2) The argument called reductio ad absurdum was famously used by Jonathan Swift in his satiric essay titled “A Modest Proposal,” and if you’ve never read the essay, do that now, and learn that, contrary to current practice, truly effective (3) satire is much more than just saying mean things about someone.
And really, the most biting satire these days often consists of not much more than (4) reportage. I wish I could find again one cartoon I saw. Six panels quoted Republican defenses, in chronological order, coming out of the impeachment hearings and Senate trial. That was the whole thing — nothing added. Cartoons are great, aren’t they?
(5) Quote what you want to criticize! The stock phrase for a State of the Union address is a president’s statement that “The state of our union is strong.” We heard it again last week, and I’m afraid I can’t find a way to criticize the statement in any way that would make it amusing, but I do have to ask — "Union? Strong? Have the meanings of those words been turned on their heads since I last looked? I don't think this country was as divided during the Vietnam era as it is today." There, no name-calling.
I do not oppose strong criticism! See this post for evidence. Again, though, I repeat, (1) — the behavior, not the person.
Does this help?