An interesting question came up in a writing workshop: What needs to die, and what ought to live in the context of the things you write about. Since politics have been on my mind too much these days, it inspired a few thoughts. What needs to die, but won’t, is our determination to use straw men and red herrings as introduction to the points we want to make. When I say our determination, I mean it in the broadest possible sense because that’s the way it’s used by too many of them when they make a point about what they and them think, or do, or say, or believe, before launching into their argument for what is better, or more right, or just, or good.
Not long ago I wrote and article on leadership that began with a modest chastisement of a young essayist who asked for some help, and had started her piece by saying that society had forgotten what leadership is, but it could be found in the military. To begin an argument by putting down others, particularly entire classes of others, or, in her case, all of American society, is more than classic straw man and red herring trickery, it’s morally unacceptable. It’s morally unacceptable because it attributes moral culpability to whole groups of others, often with determined conviction but little evidence, and then indicts each person deemed to be a member of that class as personally guilty, liable for damages, and worthy of punishment. In a sense, it’s the reverse dynamic often heard in coffee conversations where the shortcomings of one or two persons are attributed with emphatic certainty to the whole population of people like them.
The problem goes beyond individual behavior. Over the years, I’ve written several articles criticizing our current menu of anti-racism training that falls into the same trap. Racism is a real and present danger in our society. It’s a complex issue hard to understand, even harder to fix, whatever fix means. Ignoring that complexity, most of the training programs assert that Americans of European ancestry are the source of racism, therefore each “white” American is a racist who must accept the burden of their guilt, confess it, and stand properly ashamed until told otherwise. Well intentioned, the result has been an abysmal failure. The defensive hackles are raised among those most in need of honestly facing the issue of racism, and nothing much has been accomplished. The swift move from a broad social issue to particular accusations of guilt is no more legitimate than having experience with one or two persons and generalizing to the entire class of people who are like them. There needs to be a better way.
Begin with the affirmation of your argument, and the evidence to support it. If there are those who must be identified as the deserving opposition, know who they are with enough specificity to stand up to probing cross examination. Are there exceptions? Yes, at the Kenyon College writers conference I attended, the keynote speaker began with a withering condemnation of demagogues who are public purveyors of public lies as he encouraged conference participants to become courageous defenders of the truth. What made the difference? He focused on particular behaviors of demagogues and their ways with artful specificity that made it clear he was not condemning whole classes of society, but only those who practice public lying with malice aforethought. As polemics go, in the hands of an expert it was effective, but I don’t recommend it for most of us. It can come off as exceedingly self righteous, and if you don’t have personal experience with the behaviors you are intent on condemning, it’s just hearsay barely one step removed from backyard gossip.
So much for what needs to die. What ought to live? It’s not must live, or needs to live, but ought to live? It implies a moral right to live, but leaves open the question of whether it will. Consistent with the argument so far, and reaching back to an old metaphor, for some people, Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame ought to live. Logical rationality is sometimes cast as a minor character when issues of strong emotional content dominate the scene. When an emotionally charged position is justified by an emotionally charged demand that “I have a right to tell you what I feel” I’m suspicious that Mr. Spock has been relegated to the back corner, if not confined to quarters. Why? Because it implies that the strength of one’s moral position justifies one’s claim for moral righteousness. Mr. Spock ought to live! Live not as the ruler, but as the mediator whose voice has a place at the table challenging emotion to be examined by the evidence.
Decades ago something called Transactional Analysis was the hottest fad in pop psychology. Using Jung as a starting place, it described each person as having three basic parts to their personalities: child, adult, and parent. Every transaction with another person was described as communication between them, originating from and responding to any of the three parts. Very convincing; it never stood up to close examination, but the idea had merit as a metaphor. In this case, Spock is the adult speaking from experienced, evidence based rationality, but not as a commanding parent. That, in a sense, is what needs to live, must live, ought to live. It doesn’t displace emotion. It gives verifiable credence to emotion.