These days, argument ad hominim is, unfortunately, how work gets done in the realm of debate. It’s been around forever, and our ability to disguise it with reason and rhetoric has outpaced our ability to recognize it. In order to work, ad homonims must not be recognized, for as soon as they are, they lose their force.
A textbook case comes in Joshua Cox and Sharifa Love’s editorial “White Yalies in blackface reveal racism on campus” (11/1). What makes this case so tragic is that the general message — that blackface is offensive — gets overshadowed by poorly constructed debate from the opposition.
The strategy of the article is simple (and effective, if you’d rather castrate your opponent then reason with him). Cox and Love seek to disqualify positions that differ from their own rather than engage them in logic. Instead of identifying counter-arguments to their position (answering charges that blackface is, in fact, inoffensive), they seek to show that anyone who holds a different view doesn’t count. After all, why would you listen to someone who is unqualified to speak on the matter?
We demonize our opponents by diagnosing some mental defect that prevents them from being completely rational. Often, we borrow medical terms, like “phobia.” Labeling someone as “phobic” paints them as being mentally diseased: xenophobia is like claustrophobia, homophobia like arachnophobia. If someone else’s opinion disgusts you, don’t treat it as an opinion at all, but as an illness. If it’s an opinion, they are entitled to it, but if it’s a disease, we can (in fact, we are morally obligated to) cure it.
The sneakier thing is to call your opponents ignorant. It is completely condescending to say, “well of course if you knew everything there was to know, you’d agree with me.” In this way, it seems as if you are giving your opponent the benefit of the doubt. His reasoning is invalid not because he suffers from impaired reasoning skills, but because his perfect reason operates on imperfect data. It seems kind, but it’s really “I’ll call you uneducated rather than stupid.” The effect is the same: Your views simply don’t count. The commonality of these cases is that rather than answering the argument, we simply dismiss our opponent as incapable of valid reasoning. The only difference is whether we look on that cognitive defect with scorn or pity.
With this in mind, Cox and Love’s article seems more devious. If you don’t agree with us, we’ll make you look uninformed, stupid, Pollyannaish or cognitively deficient in some other way. While the historical information may in fact alter someone’s opinion, to say that it must is to rob one of the ability to choose his own values (it is no longer about values at all, but cognitive defects). The fact that the authors give a taxonomy of ignorance is very telling. If you disagree with us, your particular mental defect can be scientifically categorized based on your knowledge and emotional disposition. Creating a systematic way of classifying error is yet another attempt to move the dialogue away from personal opinions and toward diagnosis, rendering any perspective different from Cox and Love’s as something to be cured, not something to be taken seriously.
The interesting thing is the third category of the taxonomy: purposeful ignorance. This includes people who commit offenses knowingly and deliberately. Ignorance has been emptied of its meaning (it’s important that Cox and Love avoid rigor at all costs) and only retains its stigmatizing emotional effect. The words they really mean instead of “ignorance” come later in the article: “tasteless” and “despicable.” These words reveal that this issue isn’t about cognitive defects (which the “ignorance” would entail if used properly), but about taste and individual values. In using these words, the facade of psychological objectivity slips away and the true meaning becomes clear: personal opinion.
It’s confusing why Cox and Love reverse their “diagnose-the-enemy” strategy in their last sentence. By saying “the divide between black and white” will remain until the opinions of the “majority” change to be “the same as the minority,” they contradict everything else they have said. It would be more coherent to say “until the majority has been cured.”
The most tragic part about all of this is that I agree with Cox and Love. I think blackface is offensive through and through. But calling things disgusting isn’t politically correct, so Cox and Love have to use the back door because they can’t get their opinion through the front. They disguise subjectivity by calling it scientific. I just wish they would be honest and direct with their true feelings, rather than pathologizing those who disagree with them.
Michael Wayne Harris is a junior in Branford College.