Being a country parson who writes on politics and religion is a sure way to invite challenging insults. We live in a social media environment where disagreement is often expressed through emotionally driven attacks on one’s person rather than informed conversation about the issues. “You left wing socialist, you libtard.” It’s one of the nicer things I’ve been called as Facebook and Twitter have have become factory outlet box stores for obscene, insulting rhetoric. From the other side of the political fence come return shots demeaning every conceivable personality trait. I call it insult pingpong. It’s a game that descends with increasing velocity through the usual crude comments to each other’s scatology, anatomy, and sexual practices, after which it becomes nasty.
Ad hominem attacks are as old as human language. It’s bar room talk, coffee klatch talk, break room talk. Just for the record, it’s seldom men’s locker room talk. I have no idea what goes on in the women’s locker room. It can even be funny in the hands of a comic master like Don Rickles. For the rest of us, it’s just a cheap way to dismiss an issue as unworthy of further conversation because the other is unworthy of further conversation. It’s used to cover up our own embarrassing ignorance while demeaning the other to assert superiority over them. It’s cruel sarcasm. While there are many citations about sarcasm as “the last resort of…”; they all come down to it being bereft of anything helpful to say. Sarcasm clothed in obscenities and humiliating crudeness simply puts an exclamation point to it.
We’ve all fallen into the trap at one time or another, but thanks to social media, what was once an emotionally charged semi private ejaculation has become a publicly broadcast personal insult aimed at anyone who says anything one doesn’t like. It submerges important issues needing informed discussion into the muck. It isn’t hate speech. We’ve reserved that for racist and sexist attacks that incite discrimination and violence against whole populations of persons. I guess it’s speech protected by the first amendment, but it’s juvenile, degrading the already tattered reputation of the American character.
That said, there’s a fuzzy boundary between ad hominem attacks and observations about verifiable behaviors that are the issue, or essential to it. For instance, I’ve been hard on our current president about the way his egoism, racism, lack of empathy and integrity, combined with unrestrained disregard for truth have eroded the dignity of the office and the reputation of the nation. That’s not ad hominem. That’s the issue. They’re statements about plainly observable public behavior and their impact on our nation. His defenders, however, hear that as a personal attack, hatefully disrespectful of a man doing everything they hoped he would. Trump’s political staff understands well how that works. The other day I got a fund raising letter from them pleading that, in the face of all the hateful contempt for the love of nation Trump and his supporters share, would I please send a few dollars to help fight agains the lies and distortions disrespectfully leveled against him by the (lying) liberal press and extreme left wingers.
One Trump supporter demanded to know how I could write about Jesus and love in one column, and in the next say such awful things about the president. It was shameful that I could even call myself a priest. It’s a fair question. On the one hand we are commanded to let nothing evil come out of our mouths, but only what is useful for building up that which is good. On the other hand, we are commanded to stand boldly against injustice and oppression wherever it is found. Like fuzzy boundaries, there’s a thin line between being forcefully truthful about behaviors and policies that threaten the well being of the people, and succumbing to the temptation to make ad hominem attacks as an easy substitute for saying what needs to be said.
Contentious issues will always elicit emotionally charged responses. Right wing talk radio hosts have honed the art of framing everything in ad hominem terms that incite their listeners ire. It’s a tool they’re not giving up. But for the rest of us, moving toward more civil conversation about issues would be helped if popular television and radio hosts would clean up their acts to get rid of pointless obscenities as part of their schtick. As Jake Tapper told Colbert on air a few weeks ago, “Stephen, you don’t need to go blue.” Their popularity is part of what makes obscenity laced insulting language appear normal and acceptable in every day public speech. It’s part of what makes Rosanne and Samantha believe they can safely push the envelope of acceptable public speech further into humiliating degradation of the other.
So am I engaging in humiliating degradation of Trump when I say something about his megalomaniac behavior? Not if I’m describing what is easily and publicly observable that has a direct impact on matters of importance to the well being of the nation. I have no illusions about my sparsely read offerings influencing his behavior, but I hope they might cause a few others to recognize the damage done to the nation, give serious consideration to workable alternatives, and bend the arc of justice toward the most vulnerable among us. Constructive interplay in good faith between conservatives and liberals can make that happen, but good faith interplay has no place in it for ad hominem attacks.