When All Else Fails Attack and Belittle the Messenger (Update)

Many years ago, I had an opportunity to take debate in high school. Yes, I admit, I was/am a nerd. But that’s not the point of this tale. Instead, this is about the art of debate. When you’re discussing a specific topic, in theory, you rebut whatever your opponent is saying with data. Use cold hard facts in order to win the argument. Now, if you’re clever, there are ways to win the argument (persuade listeners) without winning the debate. It is possible to overwhelm your opponent with a barrage of facts which really did not address the central argument. It is also possible to misrepresent the facts. One popular method for “winning an argument” is to attack the messenger and not to attack the central question. Of course, you actually aren’t winning the argument. You’re not really addressing the fundamental logic or facts of the debate.

This brings me to Virginia Speaker of the House William J Howell. First of all, I love his name. I’m not sure that there is any name that exudes aristocratic pompousness more than this name (see Gilligan’s Island). But, I digress. Speaker Howell is introduced to Anna Scholl from Progress Virginia. Here’s the encounter –

Basically, as I see this encounter, Anna Scholl, the Executive Director of Progress Virginia, has Speaker Howell in a position that he does not want to be in. Speaker Howell appears uncomfortable in spite of his “warm greeting.” He begins to attack immediately. Yes, he is smiling, but he initially takes out his verbal sword for combat. “I’ve been on your website. There’s nothing there.” Really? Nothing there? There may not be anything there that he wants to read. There’s plenty of stuff on the Progress Virginia website. So, from the initial opening greeting, the attack starta. Anna Scholl redirects the conversation to try to discuss some inaccuracies or conflicts that the website has produced on the American Legislative Executive Council (ALEC). (Speaker Howell served as the national chairman of ALEC in 2009.) Instead of answering her question directly, he throws out some meaningless stat. Notice, he’s on the defensive. He never really makes eye contact. The stat that he is quoting is that over a ten-year period the Commonwealth of Virginia spent over $230,000 to send legislators to ALEC conferences. He never presents any data to refute the central point. While this is not a huge amount of money compared to the state budget, Speaker Howell basically concedes this fact. He tries to use a verbal jujitsu in order to get Anna onto another subject. Then, when that doesn’t work, he decides to attack (verbally) Ms. Scholl by using the belittling phrase, “I guess I’m not speaking and little enough words for you to understand.”

Progress Virginia website

There are ways in our society to carry on a civil debate. Then, there are ways in our society to belittle constituents and not to address their underlying claims. Now, I readily admit, in this post, I have belittled House Speaker Howell by talking about his name which resembles the Gilligan’s Island character Thurston Howell, III. This was my attempt at tongue-in-cheek humor. Yet, the overall point of this post is that, in a debate, in a discussion, belittling your opponent does not win the argument. It makes you look like a pompous fool. In today’s environment, it would seem to me that belittling women would not be a winning strategy.

What are your thoughts?

Update: Virginia House Speaker William Howell has apologized. From his press release – “After the news conference, I responded to a series of questions from Anna Scholl, Executive Director of ProgressVA, in a manner that was not consistent with my own standards of civility or reflective of the way I believe discussions over public policy disagreements should be conducted. I have since called Ms. Scholl and offered my sincere and heartfelt apology for my comments to her.”

Personally, I’m happy to see that Speaker Howell has apologized. Now we can move on to the main issue. ALEC is bad for Virginia and bad for America. Legislators that don’t understand that aren’t standing up for the American people. They are standing up for corporations which are lying their pockets. WE, the American people, need to be vote for congressmen who vote for the American people and against those that side with corporations. (Oh, the other issue which is just as important the belittling of women. Somehow, Congressman Howell has not taken this issue off the table. His contemptible treatment of Ms. Scholl was reflective of a disdain which bores deep into his soul. I’m not gonna sit here and try to psychoanalyze Congressman Howell. I hope progressive Virginians band together and vote him out of office.)