07/01/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Fighting Fair

Battle not with monsters, lest you become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.

--Fredrich Nietzsche.

Like many of you, I am a political junkie--so I spend a lot of time on-line, and I read a lot of BS. Like some of you, I also teach rhetoric & writing, and I also see a lot of BS there--more from their sources then from my students, thankfully.

So, part of my professional mindset, as well as part of my "civilian" mindset, is deeply concerned with how people argue and what they can achieve based on how they go about it.

By way of full disclosure (something that I think is critical if you're even gonna attempt the high road)...I have posted anonymously on message boards, I still do. Sometimes, when I've done that, I've used unfair methods of argumentation--because they work. & hell, I wanted to win, right? I would also like to report that I try very hard today, even if I am anonymous, not to argue in these particular ways.


I can answer that in two words: Karl Rove.

Karl has taken techniques that (mostly & imho) the right has been using for decades and refined them to the point of absurdity--more importantly, he's managed to permanently poison the well for all of us--witness some of the ugliness of the recent democratic primary. In many ways, I don't think this can be fixed--the can of worms is open, the djinn are out of the bottle. Having said that, perhaps we can, with continuous effort, maintain a parallel dialog, a separate process, and those who want to see a discussion of the issues, and the logic & the evidence, can choose to, and the mud fight can continue elsewhere.

Is this a fundamentally naive position for me to take?

Sure. If my goal is to make sure I win at any cost. But maybe that shouldn't be my goal.

Look--I know how important the upcoming election is gonna be. We have to win. We will. Many people, here & elsewhere, will fight like badgers for Obama--and they may very well need to--the slime pumps will be running full tilt, you can be sure. But maybe we don't all have to choose to "fight fire with fire." Maybe some of us can take the high road--we can take a Christian or Buddhist approach to the whole thing--"I will fight fair, I will look for compromise & connection with my opponents. Perhaps they will join me. Perhaps they will fight dirty, and feel ashamed, and teach their children to be better than they are. Perhaps the weight of public opinion will shame them into silence."

I'm not holding my breath, but a fella can dream.

So, what's involved in fighting fair?

Knowing the Truth

This is certainly a tricky one, but there are rules of thumb that can help:

1. Look at several sources, including some you probably won't agree with. For all your sources, look for people who are well respected and, ideally, people whom you've seen engaging in bi-partisan dialog. As my 9th grade history teacher Mr. Black said several times, "No source is free from bias."
2. Quote, paraphrase, and summarize fairly. If you distort your opponents' positions & build straw men, you will only be preaching to the choir--you'd like to convince somebody, right? Don't lie about what they (or people they admire) say--they're much more likely to listen.
3. Realize that "the truth" can change with new (well sourced, reputable) information--you need to change with it--don't stubbornly cling to yesterday's talking points--nobody will be listening.

Attack the Message, Not the Messenger

1. Ad Hominem ("To the man," today we would say "To the person") attacks are not always poor form and unfair, but they usually are. If you have, say, a candidate that votes against measures moving homosexuals closer to having the same civil rights as everybody else (because it is in his own best interest--politically and/or financially), but that same person is soliciting blowjobs for $20 at a highway rest stop--more than likely a charge of hypocrisy is called for. Beyond that very specific type of response, it's generally considered to be an irrelevant distraction to talk about someone's personal life, if, in particular, their logic is unimpeachable & they're presenting accurate facts fairly.
2. Tarring people by association is almost always poor form. If people judged you now, based on who you ever knew (or hell, who you ever respected), or every personal decision you ever made--how would you come out? Be honest. (See "Casting First Stones.")
3. Insulting people's appearances, making fun of their way of speaking, comparing them to ridiculous characters, all of these are Ad Hominem attacks. They may be funny--but that's actually part of what makes them unfair.
4. Don't demonize. Once you paint someone as the Son of Satan, it's very hard to cooperate with them later. Really.
5. Don't act like you've got telepathy if you don't. Look, I have issues with John McCain, and I was not entirely happy with the campaign Hillary ran. Do I doubt that their motives were always pure? Yes, I do. Do I know it--no, I don't. If I try to extrapolate their motives, the best I can do would be to project why I'd make those same choices--a chump's game, and it tells your audience more about you than your target.

There are lots more, but those are the highpoints.

Don't think it'll work?

Honestly, I doubt it will either--but I can't change you, and I certainly can't change that guy over there--all I can do is change myself.

I think it's worth the effort.

Next week--why our students are failing--or why we're failing them.