Tag Archives: name-calling

The Rebirth of A Logical Fallacy

If Trump’s words were matched to the right setting, we might need to find an abandoned schoolyard somewhere.

Most students of argument learn early that among the many kinds of common fallacies we inflict on each other, the most egregious is the Ad Hominem argument.  The term designates a simple but reprehensible pattern: denigrating or criticizing an advocate rather than their ideas.  It’s essentially a smokescreen used by someone who is lazy or mean-spirited. The form usually comes in the form of a counter-argument of sorts, but it follows an illegitimate path.

You already know where this is going. While students rightly recoil at the mere suggestion that they might use this form, we can’t say the same for a leader who should be setting an example for the rest of us. This once rare infraction in public discussion it is now on its way to becoming the default mode of response.  And our President should get most of the blame.

Somehow this elemental lesson on the ethics of argument is lost on Mr. Trump.  His daily rhetorical output almost always include at least a few barbs and personal slights directed to those he disagrees with.  Every day is yet another example of how to obfuscate an issue behind a blitz of name-calling.

No insult comedian can touch Trump’s streak of meanness.  Favorite pejoratives directed to people include “loser,” “bad,”  “dishonest,” “clueless,” “low class slob,” “phony,” “a zero,” “a weirdo,” “a clown,” “ a dummy,” “a flunky,” “sloppy,” “gruby,” “a spoiled brat,” and so on.  The New York Times has counted nearly 600 discrete pejoratives  with like these, most substituting for what should be more substantive counter-arguments. Interestingly, his kind of talk would have him ejected from a lot of deliberative bodies in most other democracies.

It’s another reason to lament the loss of a figure like Congressman Elijah Cummings.

One suspects Trump lacks even the elemental will to engage with an idea by arguing a well-formulated position supported with evidence. Apparently, the easiest simple-minded alternative is to call his opponents names: a pattern that is still jarring to hear in the confines of the White House.

Given the pervasiveness of this style, our public rhetoric will pay for this race to the bottom. And it’s another reason to consider what it means to lose Congressman Elijah Cummings, who passed away a few days ago. The eloquence of this important leader in the House of Representatives graciously celebrated the values of integrity and decency.  A practitioner of the spacious old rhetoric of inclusion, most Americans felt better for having heard his affirming words.

Cummings’ style was a long way from the trash talk of the current President.  If Trump’s words were matched to the right setting, we might need to find an abandoned schoolyard nearby.  Then the President could utter his tantrums where they belong: somewhere between the broken chain-link fence and the graffiti-laden basketball court.

Offensive and Random Discharges

If traditional rhetoric has rules and assumed courtesies, a verbal spew just happens.  Rhetoric is the product of adaptation and thought.  But spew never passes near the centers of intelligence.

I had a classmate who could empty the contents of his stomach on cue.  On a moment’s notice he could produce  a gross  barrage of undigested material that was never meant to pass a person’s lips. It didn’t matter that this childish gesture could be inconvenient to demonstrate on your mother’s new living room carpet. He didn’t have much sense about when to pick his moment. It was part of the unfortunate grade school freak-show that he had perfected.

This chunky kid was one of several characters at my hardscrabble school located a few blocks from runway 17R at Denver’s old Stapleton Airport. Planes would scream over all day. if the noise or cement playground didn’t nick you up, there were classmates who could do the trick. Happily, most later re-joined the human race in high school.

This kid reminds me of the President. I think of Donald Trump as just a larger hulk of gracelessness: a screamer of sorts, to be sure, but mostly a person who disgorges undigested gut reactions with no apparent shame.  Had he known him, Mark Twain would have gladly written about this curious figure, bloated by self importance and clueless about the rules of civil discourse. I suspect Twain would have tired of him, preferring his presence to be confined to the pages of his satire on manners.

All of this is made worse, of course, by others who work for Trump or his party. Like many unsteady grade-schoolers, they pretend not to notice  bully who could turn on them.

Our most damaging cultural rhetoric now appears at both the top and bottom of our national discourse.

My memory of this kid came to mind a few months back after seeing one of many tweeted insults from the President, this one referring to “a third rate reporter named Maggie Haberman, known as a Crooked H flunkie who I don’t speak to and have nothing to do with. . .”  Never mind that Haberman knows how to use language with precision, and that she shares a Pulitzer Prize in Reporting with several of her colleagues at the New York Times. By his standards, this was hardly the worst of nearly 600  insults that have come from the President since taking office.  But the ad hominem attacks continue to pile up. Against Trump, no insult comic could ever stand a chance.

Traditional rhetoric has rules.  Verbal spew just happens.  Effective public rhetoric is the product of careful adaptation and thought, even when coming from people we might otherwise disagree with.  In every case we have a right to expect a speaker has has at least some capacity to measure the effects of their words.

The presence of this continual vitriol has softened us.  We’ve grown accustomed to graceless verbal gestures.  Indeed, Twitter has perfected them.  We are getting used to putting our nation’s presidency alongside the trolls and dystopians who populate the fringes of the internet. It means our most damaging cultural rhetoric now appears at both the top and bottom of our national discourse. And like adolescents trying to fit in, we mostly marvel to the spectacle in silence, knowing that the nation’s chief executive seems incapable of much more than mimicking the kind of coarseness not seen since our days in grade school.