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Daily Archives: May 3rd, 2018

A while ago I reluctantly gave up communicating with a Facebook friend. He’s a socialist and has interesting things to say but he has a dismal view of human nature which prompts him to think that whatever a person says, it’s not an honest expression of their view. He is one of a number among my FB friends who resort to this form of ad hominem attack. No, on second thoughts, they don’t resort to it; that suggests a chosen tactic. Rather, they really do believe that everyone is dishonest in argument, that everyone makes their points not because they’ve thought about them but because they serve some hidden purpose or some organisation with which a speaker is associated.

Over the years I’ve grown weary of this nonsense. I’ve concluded that there’s really no point in talking to people who dismiss me as dishonest, accuse me of saying things not because I’ve thought about them but because I am a member of the Labour Party, or had worked for RTE, or had lectured in UCD, or I’m a man, or am nearing seventy etc. etc.

However, it’s not simply a matter of walking away from a small number of grouchy cynics. Their view is widespread. It is considered normal and is not challenged.

When Simon Coveney, Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister of Ireland) recently changed his position from one of outright opposition to abortion to a position favouring a change in the Irish constitution to allow the Dáil (parliament) to legislate on abortion, he presented his reasons, his line of thinking. He was plausible. The response from those opposing change was not to address what he said but to discredit him as insincere, dishonestly making points to cover up a volte-face so as to serve the Government.

Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? No, they wouldn’t – not if they were decent people who had no evidence to support that view. More seriously, they were allowed to say it without challenge. The reaction of radio journalism was placid, as if something entirely uncontroversial had happened. A person had just been called a liar on national radio and … well, and nothing, just accordance with a dominant way of thinking.

It might be said that calling out ad hominem argument is best avoided during a contentious amendment campaign, that balance is best achieved by letting everyone say as they wish while according equal time to both sides. This would be both a perverse misunderstanding of balance and a suggestion that journalists at other times challenge shoddy debate. They don’t; they tend to report it faithfully.

Here’s the problem: It’s no wonder that cynics think they are normal when mass media permit – even, encourage – people to make up stories about a parson’s motivations. Media – journalists – should be more concerned about their stewardship of public discourse. They should give the cynics a choice: talk about the topic or get off the programme. That might demonstrate that many people have higher standards. It might also encourage citizens in ordinary conversation to say something explicit to their cynical friends: “You reveal a lot about your own motivations when you make assumptions like that.” Thinking citizens might be even more blunt: “Just because you think like that, don’t assume that the rest of us do. You’re not normal.”*

Getting back to journalists, they have to decide on their audience: are they serving gossiping cynics or citizens who want to hear from those who talk about the point?

 

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* Increasingly I’m of the view that the defence of public discourse is down to the citizen: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/11/04/day-to-day-conversation-and-the-struggle-for-decency/

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