Sunday, February 7, 2016

Attack v. Critique

This blog is called Chasin' Jesus. That's because, while it is easy being the kind of Christian who blindly follows a set of propositions, discerning how to actually follow Jesus is a different matter altogether. And I'm terrible at it. It requires loving your neighbor, and when asked what 'neighbor' means, Jesus told a story about someone establishing a risky friendship across an established social boundary. It requires, alas, loving your enemy; and when Jesus explained that, he said to be perfect as God is perfect - not perfect like an essay with no typos or grammatical errors, but perfect in love without conditions. God's rain falls (rain was a blessing for a bunch of Palestinian sharecroppers), Jesus explained, on the just people and unjust people alike. At the same time, Jesus was quick to rebuke wrongdoing, especially the kinds of wrongdoing that involved violence, deception, and blind arrogance.

The love of God is unconditional, but 'love' in the Scriptures was not the same sentimental gush of emotion we attach to the term nowadays; it was facing someone. To turn toward someone was to 'love' and to turn away was to 'hate.' Again, hate doesn't mean the kind of emotional seething we think of today. He said in Matthew 10:34-36, "Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household." While this quote is used out of context to support warmongering, it metaphorically emphasizes a split between generations. Son against father. Daughter against mother. Etc. Understanding 'hate' to mean 'turn away from,' he is criticizing the most basic unit of social organization - the (patriarchal) family; and he is saying his way (the way of the cross) is a break with everything in the past.

I won't belabor this, but the point is, you can turn your back on a person, a group, or a system on account of its injustices, without foreclosing the possibility of reconciliation. Love and critique co-exist. I'm headed down this road, Mom and Dad, and it leads away from your way, but if you want to join me, come on. Things will be different, though. I am thinking now of gay children who come out to homophobic parents, as just one example I have witnessed - from that first shock through reconciliation.

It seems to me that the distinction between attack and critique is that the former aims at foreclosing reconciliation, while the latter does not.

So . . . 

This election campaign between Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders. Election campaigns are manipulative affairs. Persuasion and manipulation are not identical. Manipulation is persuasion that attempts to bypass reason. Manipulation is a form of persuasion; but not all forms of persuasion are manipulative. In the heat of debates, however, this distinction can evaporate pretty quickly.

Emotivism entails the obliteration of any genuine distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations.Alasdair MacIntyre
Emotivism is the metaphysical claim that every moral position rests ultimately upon a pre-rational prejudice, an attitude, or an emotion. It is a cornerstone of modern society, because it is the basis of our tolerance, as far as it is not constrained by bureaucratic prerogative, for pluralism. It is, however, no basis for discerning right Christian practice. We ought to differentiate between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations. We oughtn’t, as Christians, set out to deceive or obfuscate, to mobilize the emotions or prejudices of others for gain. The history and practice of public relations is important for Christians to understand, because we are living in a society that is shot through with the influence of this manipulative practice. (p. 299, Borderline)

The problem in industrial nation politics in the 'information age' is that the velocity of the exchange of communication has increased the velocity of argument. This, in conjunction with a generalized unfamiliarity with the most basic forms of fallacy, and even with the law of noncontradiction, has led to widespread psuedo-debate - calling verbal food fights, shouting contests, name-calling or the exchange of soundbytes, debates.

I watched the Clinton-Sanders 'debate' last week, and I've flagellated myself watching other televised 'debates' before. It is actually a formal setting for candidates to use their 30 seconds of talk-time behind the podium to score points with the audience with soundbytes. If I recall correctly, Rachel Maddow introduced the 'debate' by saying something like, "this is where we go deep, beyond soundbytes," whereupon she instructed the candidates to limit their replies to thirty seconds.

It reminded me of that scene in Raising Arizona, where the bank robber shouts, "Everyone freeze! Everybody down on the ground!" An old man at the bank, hands up, then asks the robber, "Well, which is it, young feller? You mean I should freeze or get down on the ground? If'n I freeze, I cain't rightly drop, and if'n I drop, I'm a gonna be in motion."

On the other hand, there are real differences between Sanders and Clinton, as well as similarities. In determining who will do the least damage to the nation and the world as head of the hegemonic state, these differences matter.

One obfuscation of these actual differences and of reason itself is loss of the distinction between a critique and an attack; and this distinction is related to that lost distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative speech. In fact, one of the political stunts that is being deployed in this contest is to characterize critiques as attacks, and concomitantly confuse attack with critique. If you criticize me, I can call it an attack as a way of flipping the script to make you the bad-guy.

This reminds me of an old sign they had at Camp Mackall when I attended (in a long ago life) the Special Forces Qualification Course: "Rule #1, there are no rules. Rule #2, obey the first rule."

Jesus called some people 'hypocrites.' Let's remember the Gospels were written in Greek, where the term hypocrite meant a play-actor on a stage, not someone who says one thing and does another (today's understanding). Is this a legitimate critique, or is it an ad hominem attack? That depends on whether the claim that someone is play-acting is supported by evidence. If someone can be proven to put on a role and recite lines to manipulate others, then this is part of a critique.

If I say Secretary Clinton is a war monger, can that be supported by evidence from the record? Yes, but is there another way to say it without the pejorative connotation of the term "war-monger"? If I say she has consistently voted for every war and every escalation of war, that she has made warlike statements (like her claim once that she would, under some circumstances, attack Iran with nuclear weapons), that is more clearly not an attack. If I say Secretary Clinton is a 'harridan' or a 'bitch,' that is pretty clearly an attack.

If we are discussing campaign contributions, we may not be able to make a prima facie case of quid pro quo, but when we ask the corollary question, why does Goldman-Sachs or Exxon-Mobil or Raytheon give substantial sums of money to political campaigns, we raise a legitimate question for which the only logical answer is that they seek influence. In light of this, the video clip of Senator Elizabeth Warren  (D-MA) being interviewed by Bill Moyers in 2004, in which Warren explains how Clinton as a civilian opposed bankruptcy legislation and convinced her then-President husband to veto it, then as a Senator voted for the same legislation (as one dependent on campaign contributions), then this is credible evidence not of any acute quid pro quo, but of real and intended influence. We are not in court. Circumstantial evidence is often the best we have, particularly with the relation between money and politics, because the system has evolved through a pretty obvious and disingenuous end run around existing law.

Formal logic is important, but it is only one (essential) piece of critical debate. Contexts and histories matter, when the larger question is, should I or shouldn't I vote for X.

One way to get on the right side of this distinction, easily, is to refrain from name-calling. If you can't make your case without calling names, you either have a pretty crappy case or you are insufficiently familiar with the pertinent aspects of your case.

As a Sanders (critical) supporter (and yes, I am against Secretary Clinton), I would again appeal to Sanders supporters, knowing that most of us are supporting Sanders for good reasons and opposing Clinton for good reasons, to police yourselves and others and refrain from the kind of 'debate' that generates more heat than light. One thing the Clinton campaign has proven is that they will employ deception, like the still-stated lie that Sanders' single-payer proposal means "dismantling the Affordable Care Act and starting over." You can win this on the evidence, so stay away from attacks. Then you can point to the distinction between critique and attack when the other side tries to muddy the waters.

And I will continue to support Sanders and pray for Secretary Clinton, who seems to me like a child of God lost in the amoral wilderness of ambition.

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