From Jane Friedman:
We need more debate.
I’m a firm believer that one of the biggest issues in our society—especially politically—is that people who disagree spend a lot less time talking to each other than they should.
Earlier in June, I wrote about how the two major political candidates are dodging debates. The next week I wrote about how a well known scientist (or someone like him) should actually engage Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on his views about vaccines.
In both cases, I received a lot of pushback. There are, simply put, many millions of Americans who believe that some minority views—whether it’s that the 2020 election was stolen or vaccines can be dangerous or climate change is going to imminently destroy the planet or there are more than two genders—are not worth discussing with the many people who hold those viewpoints. Many of these same people believe influential voices are not worth airing and are too dangerous to be on podcasts or in public libraries or in front of our children.
On the whole, I think this is wrongheaded. I’ve written a lot about why. But something I hadn’t considered is that people are skeptical about the value of debate because there are so many dishonest ways to have a debate. People aren’t so much afraid of a good idea losing to a bad idea; they are afraid that, because of bad-faith tactics, reasonable people will be fooled into believing the bad idea.
Because of that, I thought it would be a good idea to talk about all the dishonest ways of making arguments.
The nature of this job means not only that I get to immerse myself in politics, data, punditry, and research, but that I get a chance to develop a keen understanding of how people argue—for better, and for worse.
Let me give you an example.
Recently, we covered Donald Trump’s fourth indictment, when a grand jury in Fulton County, Georgia, indicted former President Donald Trump and 18 others over allegations of a sprawling conspiracy to overturn Joe Biden’s election victory in Georgia. As usual, we got some feedback and criticism from our readers—which we welcome. A couple people asked why Hillary Clinton isn’t also getting indicted, since she also has disputed that she lost a fair and open election.
This, of course, got me talking about the differences in these cases. Clinton conceded the election the night it was called, Trump didn’t. Clinton’s supporters didn’t swarm the Capitol hoping to overturn the results while she—as president—was silent. Trump’s supporters did, and he was.
Then we started having a conversation about what Hillary Clinton did do. She did say that the election was illegitimate and that Russia tampered, and continues to. She did use a private email server…
And now the topic of conversation has changed, from “did Trump deserve to be indicted” to “should Hillary Clinton have been indicted?”
This is an example of “whataboutism,” where the person you’re talking to or arguing with asks you about a different but similar circumstance, and in doing so changes the subject.
This is probably the argument style I get from readers the most often. There is a good chance you are familiar with it. This argument is usually signaled by the phrase, “What about…?” For instance, anytime I write about Hunter Biden’s shady business deals, someone writes in and says, “What about the Trump children?” My answer is usually, “They also have some shady deals.”
The curse of whataboutism is that we can often do it forever. If you want to talk about White House nepotism, it’d take weeks (or years) to properly adjudicate all the instances in American history, and it would get us nowhere but to excuse the behavior of our own team. That is, of course, typically how this tactic is employed. Liberals aren’t invoking Jared Kushner to make the case that profiting off your family’s time in the White House is okay, they are doing it to excuse the sins of their preferred president’s kid—to make the case that it isn’t that bad, isn’t uncommon, or isn’t worth addressing until the other person gets held accountable first.
Now, there are times when this kind of argument is useful, and sometimes even enlightening. If we are truly asking where the line for prosecutable conduct is for a presidential candidate, it’s useful to find precedent and see where it is being applied inconsistently. If we’re asking “is the government consistent,” comparing Clinton, Trump, Biden, Nixon—it’s all on the table. The same is true if we’re asking about the bias of media organizations, and seeing if they cover similar stories differently, if the subject of the story is the major element that’s changing.
But if I write a story that says your favorite political candidate answered a question in a very poor way, and you respond by saying, “Well, this other politician said something bad, too—I think even worse. What about that statement?” That wouldn’t be helpful, or enlightening.
Furthermore, context is important. If I’m writing about Hunter Biden’s business deals I may reference how other similar situations were addressed or spoken about in the past. But when the topic of discussion is whether one person’s behavior was bad, saying that someone else did something bad does nothing to address the subject at hand. It just changes the subject.
Link to the rest at Jane Friedman
The OP is more political than PG’s usual selections. He requests that any disagreements in the comments not involve any personal attacks against anyone, candidate or not.