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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.)

By |2013-11-03T17:13:37-04:00April 13th, 2012|Party Politics|Comments Off on When All Else Fails Attack and Belittle the Messenger (Update)

Obama at Notre Dame

From Obama’s speech:

The question, then — the question then is how do we work through these conflicts?  Is it possible for us to join hands in common effort?  As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate?  How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without, as Father John said, demonetizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?

And of course, nowhere do these questions come up more powerfully than on the issue of abortion.

As I considered the controversy surrounding my visit here, I was reminded of an encounter I had during my Senate campaign, one that I describe in a book I wrote called “The Audacity of Hope.”  A few days after I won the Democratic nomination, I received an e-mail from a doctor who told me that while he voted for me in the Illinois primary, he had a serious concern that might prevent him from voting for me in the general election.  He described himself as a Christian who was strongly pro-life — but that was not what was preventing him potentially from voting for me.

What bothered the doctor was an entry that my campaign staff had posted on my website — an entry that said I would fight “right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman’s right to choose.”  The doctor said he had assumed I was a reasonable person, he supported my policy initiatives to help the poor and to lift up our educational system, but that if I truly believed that every pro-life individual was simply an ideologue who wanted to inflict suffering on women, then I was not very reasonable.  He wrote, “I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words.”  Fair-minded words.

After I read the doctor’s letter, I wrote back to him and I thanked him.  And I didn’t change my underlying position, but I did tell my staff to change the words on my website.  And I said a prayer that night that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me.  Because when we do that — when we open up our hearts and our minds to those who may not think precisely like we do or believe precisely what we believe — that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground.

That’s when we begin to say, “Maybe we won’t agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casually, it has both moral and spiritual dimensions.”

So let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions, let’s reduce unintended pregnancies.  (Applause.)  Let’s make adoption more available.  (Applause.)  Let’s provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term.  (Applause.)  Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded not only in sound science, but also in clear ethics, as well as respect for the equality of women.”  Those are things we can do.  (Applause.)

Now, understand — understand, Class of 2009, I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away.  Because no matter how much we may want to fudge it — indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory — the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable.  Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction.  But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature. (more…)

By |2009-05-18T20:57:11-04:00May 18th, 2009|Domestic Issues|Comments Off on Obama at Notre Dame
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