Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Discussion on Civility in Public Debate — Or Not

This morning, the Carmel section of The Indianapolis Star included an interesting editorial “Sadly, civil debate is a thing of the past” by Mo Merhoff, the president of the Carmel Chamber of Commerce. Let me excerpt the most interesting parts of the editorial (but the whole piece is worth reading):

It wasn't argument; it was mental sports. I might not have liked some of Dad's viewpoints, nor he mine, but that was never a threat to our strong relationship.

I miss that kind of debate. The kind where you have at the issues and not the people. When at argument's end, someone says, "I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree" and both sides head to drinks or dinner together.

What happened? Perhaps after years of watching public figures and commentators label anyone opposed to their own point of view as everything from communist to anti-American to heathen, we're choosing to follow suit. What's happened to our reasoning ability?

While there are many fallacies in formal debate, my teacher drummed what she called the "seven deadliest" into our heads in debate class. These days, they're all on broad display in public speeches, radio commentary, television talk shows and meetings. Hasty generalizations, straw-man arguments, begging the question and bandwagon appeals abound.

My two personal favorites make virtually every political advertisement — post hoc ergo propter hoc (just because something came before something else doesn't necessarily mean it caused it) and the ubiquitous ad hominem attack (argument against the person, not the idea)…. In today's interpretation, anything coming from (insert the name of your least favorite politician here) has to be ill-advised, stupid, self-serving or a lie. That's not just faulty reasoning, that's ridiculous. And sad. …

Those who've spent more than a few years in government complain about the loss of camaraderie. The evenings when after strong debate on the floor of the House or Senate, representatives from both sides would repair to dinner and continue the discussion, sometimes coming up with a better solution, but almost always able to enjoy friendship if not total agreement.

That's not possible today, when even being seen with "the opposition" is dangerous. Are we reaching the point where our friendships will be predicated on our opinions? Will we be unable to enjoy the company of anyone who doesn't see eye to eye with our views?

I sincerely hope not. It's time for bright citizens in positive communities like ours to stop the polarization and embrace enjoying fair argument on the issues….

Note that at no point in the editorial did Merhoff discuss any particular issue, any particular current commentator or politician, or indicate that her thoughts pertained to Carmel, in particular, rather than to American politics in general.

Now, before moving on to what prompted this post (beyond wanting to link to this editorial), I want to repeat one portion of Merhoff’s article:

the ubiquitous ad hominem attack (argument against the person, not the idea)…. In today's interpretation, anything coming from (insert the name of your least favorite politician here) has to be ill-advised, stupid, self-serving or a lie. That's not just faulty reasoning, that's ridiculous. And sad.

So, with that in mind, let’s look at the comments to this editorial posted on the website of The Indianapolis Star. The very first comment comes from “CarmelParisRome”, a frequent anonymous poster who, I think it’s fair to say, does not care for Mayor Brainard:*

Interesting that Mo, a major Brainard supporter ( I believe that she introduced Jim at his 2007, swearing in ceremony), someone who wanted to eliminate the public option to speak at Carmel City Council meetings (blue card), yet someone who never fails to use her “position” as a member of the Chamber to “represent” business interests, stand up and pens an article on the deteriorating nature of public debate.

Mo, It’s your man Brainard, who has taken in, and spent to his political consultant - Alan Sutherlan- $750,000.00 since 2003 in an attempt to control the debate ..... Brainard (and Carter) who sees a political motivation, in anyone else’s actions ..... Brainard (and Carter) who like to label those who do not share the “vision” as “Malcontents”, “Naysayers”, NIMBYS - or long term residents, who should just leave Carmel ..... MOVE

Yes, that’s right. To answer Merhoff’s discussion of the lack of civility in public debate (including a particular emphasis on the use of ad hominem attacks), the very first post is … an ad hominem attack. Now what is the motivation for someone to ignore the core thesis of an editorial with no specific target other than a broad public goal and then twist that into an attack on the author and on a particular politician? What kind of animus motivates such a response?

But it didn’t end there. Following several more anonymous attacks either on Merhoff, Mayor Brainard, and/or Democrats and liberals, I decided (probably, unwisely, but what the hell), to offer my proverbial two cents:

A few things of interest to note here. First, note that one of the things that the author talked about was the ad hominem attack. Yet a quick review of the comments reveals an almost complete lack of any discussion of the merits of the article itself but, instead, ad hominem attacks against the author along the lines of “Gee, we don't have to take your argument seriously, because we think you've been nasty in the past.” The article isn’t about Mayor Brainard or Carmel or even Indiana politics. It is about the lack of civil discourse and debate within our political system. Is the author correct that civil debate is a thing of the past? I hope not, but I think it is.

Next, I note that CarmelParisRome has taken yet another opportunity to criticize Mayor Brainard (or anyone who supports him). One thing is for sure: CarmelParisRome certainly never misses a chance to spew vitriol. But query this: Why does CarmelParisRome refuse to reveal his/her identity? Why can’t CarmelParisRome stand up and take responsibility for her comments and views? Part of a fully functioning democratic process is the exchange of ideas, but when people feel emboldened to fire off criticism anonymously that they wouldn't say publicly, then the process is damaged rather than furthered.

So what of it, CarmelParisRome: Are you willing to step up and take responsibility for your comments and let your community know who you are or are going to continue your pattern of harsh criticism from behind a veil of anonymity?

To which CarmelParisRome responded:

This is true, we have had this debate before....usually on twitter.

I choose to not post my real identity, because I have seen how, such individuals are attacked (by Mayor Brainard’s supporters - may of whom, are doing business either with or in the City of Carmel). Following people in vehicles, posting photos of drive ways, etc.

Sorry .... But I choose to not do something stupid. The fact that you choose reveal who you are ... well that is your choice, I choose otherwise.

Do I think that the topic of discussion of the article has merit?..Of course, but to have someone (Mo in this case) or the Mayor stand up and be sanctimonious as if they have never participated in such activities .... well, in my mind, that is hypocrisy.

The Mayor, spends hundreds of thousands of dollars - in a hidden fashion, to attack those who see things differently.

To say that my points are invalid, because I choose to hide my true identity .... well that may be convenient for you, so that you can try and disregard what I write ..... but there is a historical precedent... I know that you are an intelligent person .... google Silence Dogood or other nom de plumes.

As for the content of my writings ... please note.... that the substance of your initial writings, was about ad hominem attacks ..... and yet what do you proceed to do, but to attack me.....pot .... meet kettle!

The reality is that we have different opinions on the City of Carmel's current “leadership”..... you have yours, and I have mine ... mine just does not pass through the lens of who is signing checks for my company.

In response, I offered two comments:

I note that you still haven’t discussed the issue at hand from the original article; to-wit, the decline of civility in debate and discourse. The article has absolutely nothing to do with Carmel or Mayor Brainard or any other specific issue or event. It is a much broader discussion of the level and nature of our political discourse. So bringing in any historical precedent vis-a-vis Mayor Brainard and Carmel is wholly irrelevant to the point of the author’s article.

Just for context, civility is a frequent topic on my own personal blog. It has found its way into many of the things that I’ve written about (though I’ve only tagged a handful of posts with the “civility” tag: http://blog.wallack.us/search/label/Civility). But anyone who reads my posts on a regular basis will know that civility and the nature of political discourse are frequent themes and concerns.

Finally, I understand why you might choose to remain anonymous, but I don’t think that it is good for political debate.

And:

Incidentally, CarmelParisRome, I neglected to mention that I take great offense to your statement that my opinions “pass through the lens of who is signing checks for my company.” Can you back that allegation up with evidence or are you just making a baseless charge? I’ve lived in Carmel since 1974 (leaving only for my time in college and law school). I'm a graduate of Carmel High School (as is my wife) and my children presently attend Carmel schools. I have run for office in Hamilton Country (as a Democrat) and I’ve never been shy about my politicial ideologies or beliefs. But whether I agree or disagree with Mayor Brainard and whether I agree or disagree with his policies has nothing whatsoever to do with what I post here or on my own blog. But the sanctimonius, holier-than-thou attitude that you display, willing to make baseless allegations from behind your veil of anonymity, is truly sickening. If you want to express anonymous opinions, then fine. Do so. But when those opinions turn to charges of wrongdoing or conflict-of-interest, then stand up and take responsibility for your actions and statements. I express my thoughts and my thoughts alone. Whose thoughts, we must all ask ourselves, are those of CarmelParisRome? Of course, now that I note the pattern of charge and allegation in your posts, it’s no wonder that you want to keep your identity hidden. It’s easy to attack anonymously; it’s much, much harder to do so openly, especially when the attack is baseless.

(Note that I thought there was yet another post from CarmelParisRome worth reprinting, but it appears to have been deleted from the comment system. Right now, if you go to the comments page, the system says that there are 14 comments, yet I only count 11…)

Why am I posting all of this? Actually, I’m not quite sure. I found the original article on civil debate to be very interesting and I was frankly quite angry (though not terribly surprised) at the comments to that editorial. So, following along with the subtitle to this  blog — “A chance for me to share my thoughts (or, maybe just vent a bit)” — I guess this post can be seen as a wee bit of venting.

Update: After finishing this post, but shortly before publishing it, I went back to the comment page as a part of my proofing process. And lo and behold, CarmelParisRome responded:

Wow....sorry I had not realized that you are so sensitive ..... I thought that from our previous discussions, that you acknowledged that you and your firm benefit from the work that your partner, Mr. Haas does for the Carmel Redevelopment Commission.

As for your political affiliation, interesting that you are able to support, and jump to defend Mayor Brainard ..... there are quite a few residents, who feel that Mayor Brainard is little more than a RINO - Republican in Name Only.

Glad to hear that you have lived in Carmel for 37 years ..... almost as long as the infamous Brainard supporter Jack Badger (what's he up to now 43 years), I guess I'm a relativity newcomer ...... only moved here in 1984 - only 27 years..... although, I I will say, I did so, as an adult .... none that urban school flight that occurred in the mid to late 1970's when IPS was desegregated..... and with no children of school age, it was not for the schools.

To which I replied:

Wow. You really do have a proverbial axe to grind, don't you. Yes, I've acknowledged that my firm (in particular, one of my partners) works for Carmel. But I also noted, during that previous Twitter exchange that my support for Mayor Brainard was on the basis of what he's done, rather than our firm's relationship with Carmel. Yet, you, without evidence make allegations of conflict-of-interest. Moroever, I'm not sure that it is accurate to say that I "jump to defend" Mayor Brainard. This particular editorial had nothing to do with Mayor Brainard. My "jumping in" was for the purpose of noting that your criticism of Mayor Brainard had nothing to do with the subject of the editorial.

One other observation: You seem surprised (or perhaps you're expressing irony) that I am "able" to support Mayor Brainard given that I'm a Democrat. My politicial affiliation has nothing to do with it. I support candidates, be at the level of mayor, state legislature, president, or whatever, on the basis of their ideas and actions. Thus, my support for Mayor Brainard, as I told you previously in a Twitter exchange, is based on what he has done. You go on to note that "quite a few residents" believe that Mayor Brainard is a RINO. You fail to note that Mayor Brainard won the REPUBLICAN primary with more votes than all of the rest of the Republican candidates combined. So, while "quite a few residents" may think he's a RINO, "quite a few" also apparently like him enough to re-elect him with a very large majority.

-----

*I had my first run-in with CarmelParisRome the weekend before May’s primary election. One of the candidates trying to unseat Mayor Brainard mailed out a stunningly appalling and vile flyer comparing Mayor Brainard to Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, Hosni Mubarak, and Rod Blagojevich. I (along with many others) expressed outrage over this flying on Twitter. In response, CarmelParisRome tried to argue that my outrage over the flyer had to do with the fact that my law firm represents Carmel: “As CRC Att. Haas' Partner aren't you biased?” and later claimed said, “I was stating, w/ bias comment,  that you may have a fin. interest in status quo/cont. spending…”. In response, I noted: “Fair enough. But you'll have to trust me when I say I like Brainard for what he's done and detest Accetturo for that flyer.” But it appears that CarmelParisRome has decided to continue this baseless line of attack.

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