From the dumb and silly to the outright paranoid and pathological, America is awash in Dumb Arguments (DAs). The constant swirl of dumb, deranged, and dangerous arguments are not only a measure of the low level to which public discourse has sunk, but they displace serious communication and analysis, thereby keeping us from addressing our most important problems.
Case in point. Rep. Michele Bachmann said recently that she is "sorry" that Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a controversial bill in Arizona that, because of their religious beliefs, would have legally allowed businesses to refuse service to same-sex couples. As Rep. Bachmann put it in her own indubitable words, "I believe that tolerance is a two-way street, and we need to respect everyone's rights, including the rights of people who have sincerely held religious beliefs."
Rep. Bachmann's muddled thoughts are a perfect example of a DA. Apparently, Ms. Bachmann is totally unable to grasp the fundamental idea that religious tolerance does not entail a blanket endorsement of every wacky and evil idea that tumbles out of the mouths of religious adherents no matter how "sincerely" those ideas are held. Religiosity does not confer the right to endorse bigotry in any way, shape, or form. Everyone needs to be held accountable for actions and statements that restrict the basic dignity and humanity of others. Isn't this the true basis of respect and tolerance?
Consider another: Former Arkansas Governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee produced immediate, strong howls of protest when he said recently:
"And if the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government, then so be it. Let's take that discussion all across America because women are far more than Democrats have made them t"o be [sic]. And women across America have to stand up and say, 'Enough of that nonsense.' [sic] "
Huckabee remarks were not only dumb, but they were one of the classic forms of a DA.
First of all, Democrats never said that women couldn't control their libidos and that they therefore needed the government to step in and help them. So this part of the "argument" -- if it can be called that -- was plainly false. Democrats merely wanted to help women have access to birth control so that it was available if they wanted it. Democrats were acting in support of women, not as their dire enemies or opponents. Republicans on the other hand have repeatedly opposed any form of birth control assistance. Even worse, their proposals to inspect and control women's bodies have been downright draconian.
Second, the argument was dumb because it insulted women under the guise of helping them. As Huckabee put it: "The fact is, the Republicans don't have a war on women. They have a war for women..." In other words, women needed men to wage war for them. This was the second way in which women were offended.
Third, Huckabee's remarks were dumb because they completely reversed the roles between good and bad guys. According to Huckabee, Republicans are really the "good guys" while Democrats are clearly the "bad guys." This followed because Republicans basically trust women to manage their own bodies and sexual urges whereas Democrats do not. Huckabee's remarks would be utterly laughable if they weren't so transparently dumb.
None of this is meant to establish that DAs are exclusively in the hands of the right. Nothing could be further from the truth.
On Sunday, December 29, 2013, Melissa Perry-Harris, host of her show on MSNBC, stepped into a DA of her making. At one point, a panel of comedians were putting humorous captions to notable pictures of 2013. One picture in particular showed the Romney clan with an adopted grandson who was black. Off camera, in a singsong fashion, comedian Pia Glenn began mouthing, "One of these things is not like the others!" The intent was not just to call attention to the obvious fact that except for the adopted grandson, the entire Romney clan was white. The real intent was to mock the Republican Party for its underrepresentation of blacks and Hispanics.
The very next day Melissa Perry-Harris apologized profusely and tearfully on camera for the inappropriateness of the segment. Nonetheless, the damage was clearly done. The segment couldn't be taken back anymore than Mike Huckabee's words could be retracted.
An unstated premise of the bit, and therefore part of the underlying but unspoken DA, was that comedians have a "license" to do and say things that the rest of us can't. After all, "It's all in good fun; what's the matter, can't you take a joke?" This too is one of the classic forms of a DA: making fun of someone or something that isn't funny.
This is not to say that ridicule is never warranted, but that one should proceed with caution, especially if one is mocking young children, the disabled, the elderly, pets, etc. The moral is that no political party, group, ideology, etc. has a monopoly on DAs and dumb actions. DAs are perfectly democratic. They are freely available to all.
I have no illusions whatsoever that we will ever be free of DAs. We must not only be forever vigilant, but do everything in our power to point them out -- yea, ridicule them -- as forcefully as we can. In the constant battle against DAs, that's our only defense.