of the most commonly employed tactics in election campaigns and in the
Culture War in general is name-calling. People and ideas are branded
and dismissed summarily rather than being the target of reasoned argumentation.
Yes, it’s an ancient practice, a staple of American politics from the
beginning, but venerable or not, name-calling is among the lowest substitutes
for civilized discourse.
Left today is particularly good at heaving this type of mud: Michael
Moore, Maureen Dowd, Al Franken, and Paul Krugman are major league
pitchers. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are world series players.
On the Right, Ann Coulter, R. Emmett Tyrell, Jr., and Glenn Beck have
based their careers on name-calling, and Bill O’Reilly is an active
of uncivilized blather abound. For example, if one has serious
objections to the public display and approval of sodomy, one is called
a “homophobe.” Opponents of racial preferences are branded
“racists.” (Blacks who find special favors demeaning
and patronizing are called a variety of vile names.) To believe
that a pregnant mother bears a person rather than a thing is to be labeled
a “religious extremist.” The same label is applied to
people who believe that organized religion should participate in the
you object to even one feminist dogma, you’re a “sexist.”
Support efforts to purge the public airwaves of obscenity and violence
and you’re a “bigot,” just like the “dummies” who
believe in objective right and wrong. (Comedian George Carlin,
a pioneer in public obscenity, said that all censorship is a function
of “religious superstition.”) Those wishing to restrain
propagandizing in the classroom are called “right wingers,”
and are often shunned by colleagues. Those who oppose the nanny
state are labeled “uncaring,” “inhumane,” and the
like. Using the “n” word is one or another brand of
racism—unless, of course, the word is used by African-Americans themselves,
which it often is. Spending huge sums of tax dollars to save the
economy is labeled Socialism. And on and on.
short, Alberlour’s Law number 19: “One’s ideological opponents
are always stupid, and worse.”
course, it is possible to actually be an ignoramus, a racist, a political
extremist, a religious bigot, and all the rest. But the validity
of a derogatory label should depend upon solid evidence, not just the
animus of the accuser.
is akin to hitting your opponent over the head with a club, an approach
to issues that should have been left with the cave dwellers. Rational,
fact-filled argumentation is one of civilization’s greatest achievements.
And it is in very short supply, especially as the Culture War heats
up in a period dominated on the national level by the Democratic Party.
The snippets of angry confrontation featured on television talk shows
rarely spread either knowledge or understanding. PBS, the Fox
News Network, and C-Span have their bipartisan moments. But a
shouting match between, say, Eleanor Clift and Sean Hannity is more
the norm. On many radio and television outlets, especially the
major newspapers, ideological monologue is the norm. And that
inevitably means name-calling.
are often dismissed instantly with the label “right wing,”
which means, in the major media and on campus, narrow, mean, and ignorant.
The opposite, very frequently, is not “left wing” but the
more positive sounding “liberal” and “progressive,”
which means enlightened, far-seeing, and in tune with change.
In fact, name-calling usually reveals little about a person and even
less about his or her ideas. Howard Dean branded George W. Bush
an ideological radical, well outside the mainstream of American thought.
True? Well, all the polls tell us that this is a Center-Right
nation, and thus Dean himself is out of the mainstream.
also the derogatory language being aimed at the recent Tea Party movement.
Rather than deal with the serious issues being raised, the media tend
to reject participants and sympathizers with name-calling. Oh,
the horror expressed by so many at the sight of so many
common people being concerned about the future of themselves and their
constant recourse to obscenity, especially blasphemy and “potty
words,” is on the same level. Rock stars, stand-up comedians,
and movie and television shows have spread this tawdry practice throughout
our culture. Many young people, aping the standards of the media,
think it’s “cool” to employ the “f” word in every
other sentence, and think it hopelessly “outdated” to write
or speak a coherent, grammatically correct sentence. The most
common exclamations in films today are “Oh, my God” and “Jesus
Christ!” What’s wrong here, aside from the offensive treatment
heaped upon believing Christians and Jews, is again the substitution
of banalities for thought.
constant reliance on generalities is only a half-step higher in the
ranks of civilized discourse. Politicians are all in favor of
efficient government, low taxes, justice for all, full employment, and
a strong military. College presidents are for free speech, high
academic standards, and intellectual excellence. Speakers at graduation
exercises on all levels tell their captive audiences about positive
thinking, hard work, and ultimate financial success (the sin of avarice
having been long forgotten). Preachers and priests are all for
love, humility, prayer, forgiveness, and goodness. But what about
me precisely what steps you have taken to raise academic standards.
Tell me exactly what taxes and welfare benefits you will eliminate or
expand. Tell me specifically who should be favored in college
admissions and why? Spell out in detail what America’s role in
the world should be and what countries deserve our immediate military
and financial attention. Tell me exactly how to be “not of
this world” and to love my disgusting neighbor. Be frank
about your motives while attempting to rid America of Christianity.
democracy requires its citizens to think rather than simply obey.
All people in a free society benefit when discourse is civil, which
means that it should be reasoned, fact-filled, specific, and respectful
of the highest moral standards the country has traditionally embraced.
Let us think and speak clearly and with the best of intentions.
will almost always reveal our partisanship, of course, for total objectivity
is impossible. But let us rise above rancor whenever possible,
eschewing that sort of blind nastiness, for example, that passes a mammoth
and major bill in Congress few have read on a party-line vote.
Let us listen to one another, calmly and thoughtfully, rejecting the
easy temptation to see an opponent as evil. After all, the opponent
may be right, and in demonizing him we will have done harm to ourselves,
our neighbors, and perhaps even our country.
Thomas C. Reeves writes from Wisconsin. Among his dozen books are
Twentieth Century America: A Brief History, and biographies of John F.
Kennedy, Joseph R. McCarthy, Fulton Sheen, Walter J. Kohler, Jr and
Chester A. Arthur.