You really should not go around insulting those who take an opposing viewpoint in public debate. The ideal is clear. You treat opponents with respect. You take seriously what they are saying. In responding, you do not cheat, you do not unfairly sum up or characterize what they are saying. You acknowledge facts; you are not entitled to inventing your own facts. Above all, as much as possible, you avoid logical fallacies. You argue logically and cogently. For, that is the only way that the search for truth is advanced, and it is the only way that informed public opinion created. In short, abuse is no argument. Civility in public discourse is a great and worthwhile ideal.
Much of public debate and discussion takes the form of invective. It was always thus; and it seems it will always be thus. The culprits, I suppose, are human passions; those self-same unruly horses that carry us to great heights when we want to achieve something worthwhile. We often become so convinced that we are right that we cannot imagine how anyone would disagree. And when we confront opponents who are as certain as we are that they are right something seems to snap. Faces contort. Abuse and spit fly. No matter how often people are told to calm down, commit to logical reasoning, respect facts… nothing seems to work. A huge chunk of public debate on the great issues of the day is characterized by the trading of insults.
Insults must serve a purpose, otherwise how come all public political cultures have them?
For instance, the immediate instigation for this blog post is this piece from OxfordWords Blog: ‘How to insult your political opponents like an American’. According to the blog, “American English has a specialized vocabulary of insults based on party affiliation”. The Oxford Dictionary folks have researched this. Here are the Top 10 insults that conservatives direct at liberals: hack, troll, idiot, moron, loon, elitist, extremist, shill, radical, and fool. And here are the Top 10 insults that liberals direct at conservatives: extremist, ideologue, nutjob, idiot, nut, radical, lunatic, hack, thug, and zealot.
Boy, it can get ugly out there!
Thinking about all this earlier this week, I recalled that in my undergraduate days at the University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria (where I was a University debater) we had a lot of Marxists-Leninists on campus. What I remember the most about debating them was how quickly they would start hurling insults like ‘capitalist roader!’ at you. I had no idea what the term meant. So, a few days ago, I asked a Chinese friend of mine to help me find the insults that people hurled in public debate in the heydays of Chinese Communism. She sent me enlightening sources. Apparently, during the Cultural Revolution (1965-1975) those who seemed to favor capitalism and were not fans of collectivization were called – you guessed correctly – ‘capitalist roaders’. They were also known as ‘rightists’. In fact, the book, Rhetoric of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, reports that there were two crucial categories: Five Red Categories (all good!) and Five Black Categories (all bad!). In the latter were: landlords, rich peasants, counterrevolutionaries, criminals and rightists.
So, all public political cultures traffic in insults. Human beings, it would seem, tire of the norms of civil discourse and just go right at one another. We readily resort to verbal violence, and we are also often mentally lazy. As a result, most insults are lazy, silly labels vigorously spouted. No thinking has gone into electing or inventing them.
Therefore, my plea is this: if you are going to insult an opponent, if you really, really must, then do some work on the insult; make it an elegant, memorable put-down. For, the best insults are like the best aphorisms: they pack a punch, they sparkle, and they carry a sting in the tail. Such insults explode in the mind… and linger. Above all, they define the target of the insult powerfully and durably.
Let’s toss in a few examples as we close.
- In 2007, Prime Minister Tony Blair described the new, frenzy-inclined 24-hour news media as follows: “In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits”.
- In 1997, a Conservative Member of Parliament, Ann Widdecombe described a fellow minister, Michael Howard, as follows. She said there was ‘something of the night’ about him.
- Winston Churchill: ‘Mr. Attlee is a very modest man. Indeed he has a lot to be modest about.’
- Vice President Spiro Agnew of the US once said the following about the press in 1970: ‘In the United States today, we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism. They have formed their own 4-H Club – the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.’
So, if you really must insult your opponent, why not show some class?
Photograph of by Jessica Eldredge, via Flickr
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