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. Either way, I don’t mind engaging in a spirited debate. After all, Thomas Jefferson did say, “It is the duty of every American citizen to take part in a vigorous debate on the issues of the day.” This is one of my favorite quotes. I reason that if people can’t take part in debates, at least they could be aware of issues of this day and time. But I digress.

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 to close in on the knockout.

“Hook him with your left! Go after his birth records! Make ‘em think he’s an alien!”

“Pound him 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.”

“Fake it! Give ‘em a low punch then give interviews after the bout making ‘em think HE was the one who punched low. They won’t know the difference. Tell folks something long enough and they’ll believe you.”

“Use misspeak. Change words to make your argument. Say ‘abortion rights’ not ‘women’s health rights’ or ‘privacy rights.’”

Go after him where it hurts. Let’s swift boat his war record. That’ll knock him out.”

Truths became lost. Miss-speak, doublespeak, and deflection became the norm, carried out by propaganda shows masquerading as news programs.

When someone follows this line of thinking and pulls me into a debate, 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, if ever challenged by misbehavior or error, 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.

Nowadays, my siblings and I don’t engage in debates that do nothing but divide. We have great relationships and choose to love each other in ways that keep differences of opinion aside. Needless to say, we don’t discuss politics or religion.

There are names for my sister’s and brother’s tactics, though I didn’t know it then. 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. Below are a few examples, taken from Propaganda and Debating Techniques, by A. Orange (see http://www.orange-papers.org/orange-propaganda.html#hit_and_run):

  • Obfuscation: Confusing and clouding an issue, so that the original point gets lost. Either stick with the original topic or leave the discussion, and for heaven’s sake, don’t highjack my Facebook thread with every sin known to man committed by liberals.
  • Sarcasm, Condescension, and Patronizing Attitudes: Saying “You liberals are all cowards. You run from an argument once you know you are caught.” No, some of us just won’t debate with someone who can’t debate fairly and without vitriol. I choose not to beat my head against the wall. I am not using the Hit and Run (another tactic) by launching an attack on an opponent and then running away before the opponent can counter-attack or ask for proof of accusations. The reality is that I am not afraid to refute, be challenged or anything of the sort. I am perfectly capable of backing up each and every statement with fact, case law, or whatever. I simply will not engage with people who cannot or will not use sound logic or reasoning.
  • Double Standards: 
This is 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 oneself. For example (and this is my favorite), saying “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.’”
  • Uneven Standards of Acceptance
: Demand very different standards of acceptance and tolerance for statements and beliefs from opposite sides of an argument. This is a variation on the technique of demanding an uneven burden of proof. For example, demand that your opponents accept your statements and illogical beliefs in the name of open-mindedness and tolerance, while simultaneously attacking and shredding your opponents’ statements and beliefs, and being very intolerant of other peoples’ opinions. Also, call other peoples’ criticism of your policies and attitudes “prejudiced, narrow-minded, and intolerant,” while freely criticizing your opponents’ policies and attitudes.

I might add that I will not engage with someone who can’t acknowledge mistakes or errors by their side (for example Weapons of Mass Destruction) or uses terms of which that someone knows nothing. 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.

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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