I know you are but what am I?: How to highjack a good debate

Because I am an op-ed writer, I am constantly drawn into political debates. Some are my fault; when I post a provocative meme on Facebook challenging some law or politician, I pretty much know I will draw ire from the other side. I don’t mind engaging in a spirited debate. After all, Thomas Jefferson said, “It is the duty of every American citizen to take part in a vigorous debate on the issues of the day.”

At one point in our nation’s history, debate and compromise were possible. Men and women in Congress could thrash each other on the Senate and House floors then compromise over drinks and meals afterwards. Somewhere along the line, however, something else became infused into the political conversation, pushing elected officials to one side or another like boxers punching and dancing around each other then retreating to their own corners for their managers to whisper fighting words to pump up the adrenaline.

“Hook with your left! Go after birth records!”

“Pound with your right! Keep him deflecting and don’t let him get a swing in! Make sure he doesn’t get one piece of legislation passed.”

“Use misspeak. Say ‘pro abortion’ instead of ‘pro choice’ and ‘abortion rights’ not ‘privacy rights.’”

“Hit a low blow. Swift boat his war record.”

When someone follows such lines of thinking, I am reminded of arguing with my siblings as children. My sister just liked to argue. About anything. We went round and round until I was worn down, spent. My brother would always just retort, “You’re just jealous!” That stance worked; I felt like my head was going to explode, so I left, knowing I could not win. Those two were good. Very good.

There are names for such tactics, though I didn’t know it then. Though my siblings grew out of them, they were clever in using them way back when and gave me practice in knowing how not to debate as an adult. When people use these and others on me now, I walk away or run, depending on the situation.

For example, if someone uses obfuscation by confusing and clouding an issue so that the original point gets lost, I won’t engage. Either stick with the original topic or I will have to take my leave.

Condescension and patronizing with such comments as, “You liberals are cowards. You run from an argument once you know you are caught,” will cause me to skedaddle not because I am using hit and run. No, I won’t launch an attack and then run away before my opponent can counter-attack or ask for proof of accusations. The reality is that I am not afraid to be challenged; I am perfectly capable of backing up points with fact or even case law. I just choose not to beat my head against the wall.

Then there is the double standard, a well-known propaganda and debating technique. One standard or set of rules applies to one group, and a very different set of rules applies to another group (also known as hypocrisy, when the easier, looser, standards apply to only one side). For example (and this is my favorite): “Poor people who get money from the government are ‘takers,’ and ‘leeches getting handouts,’ but rich people who get millions or billions of dollars from the government are ‘smart businessmen.’” This one tires me enough that I simply yawn and then scoot.

Uneven standards of acceptance and intolerance for statements and beliefs from opposite sides of an argument won’t fly either. This is a variation on the technique of demanding an uneven burden of proof. For example, if someone demands that his or her opponents accept statements and beliefs in the name of open-mindedness and tolerance (e.g. Confederate flag = Southern pride), while simultaneously attacking and shredding the opponents’ statements and beliefs (e.g. Not identifying with Confederate flag = hatred towards rednecks), I will hightail it.

I might add that I will not engage with someone who can’t acknowledge mistakes or errors by his or her side (e.g. Weapons of Mass Destruction) or uses terms or historical references of which that someone does not understand. When I hear, “Unconstitutional use of Executive Orders” I cringe. Not only is the speaker unaware of the constitutionality of Executive Orders but also the use of said orders by former presidents with no issue. Ditto comparing our president to Hitler or other tyrants or despots.

So, go on, give debate a whirl, but if what I hear sounds like: “I know you are but what am I?” I’m outta there. Vamoosed. Gone.

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