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Sticks and Stones...

By Donald Phillipps in All Sorts

replacing name-calling with rational argument

Calvin and Hobbes is a must each morning.
Their names suggest a world where inescapable logic controls every action. Calvin is destined to do the opposite of everything that authority figures – his parents, Miss Wormwood his school-teacher, Mr Spittle the headmaster, and his long-suffering pediatrician – want him to do. He is also destined to wage eternal warfare, in his version of the battle of the sexes, with Susie Derkins. Almost invariably he loses, but not before he has engaged in some loud-mouthed name-calling.
One strip I remember came as part of his regular winter occupation – creating a vast arsenal of snow-balls to throw at Susie, preferably to catch her unawares. She outwits, or out-flanks him, every time. Though she wins, Calvin’s words sometimes do get under her skin. In this particular strip she is standing in the snow, looking very self-righteous, saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me!” Then she comes across a used snowball and is tempted – but that would be a step down from her moral high ground. In the last frame her head is down – “Yeah. Right.” - she says.
Susie’s little verse, which we’ve known all our lives, is of fairly recent origin in fact. Its first recorded appearance was in the 1860s, in The Christian Recorder, a publication of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, where it, or something like it, is presented as an "old adage". Afro-Americans knew all about name-calling – they had been dismissively labelled for centuries. They still are, in some places.
Name-calling is a fact of life. It’s not a game, however, and the adults who engage in it aren’t to be excused for allowing the immature Calvin in each of them to surface. Name-calling is the very bottom level of what has been called the ‘hierarchy of disagreement’, and some people (politicians?) never rise above it. Is that too harsh?
To say something like - “You are an idiot” - and go no further is contemptible. To attack the integrity or personality of your target without addressing the substance of what they are saying or doing, or to criticize the tone of the words written or said without addressing the substance of an argument, is worthless. To contradict without providing supporting evidence is a fatal sign of weakness. I imagine we’ll have any amount of this over these last weeks of the election campaign. But politics doesn’t have to be like this.
Why not logical counter-argument, which contradicts, but which backs up the contradiction with sound reasoning and supporting evidence? Why not a balanced refutation that identifies the error, explains why it is mistaken, and backs up its case with words of authority? Why not objective debate, using rational (and humane) logic, to refute the basic tenets of the opposition’s position? Politics can be like this.
It would, of course, be cynical in the extreme to assert that these latter questions will always be answered in the negative. There are women and men standing for election who have the character and the abilities to do these things. The sad thing is that humane reasoning, and respectful dialogue have little place in electioneering. They are not, for sure, to the taste of a media dedicated to confrontation and large black and white headlines.
Remember: “Happy are you when people abuse you and persecute you and speak all kinds of calumny against you on my account ....” Jesus knew all about name-calling. They pinned one on the cross.
To be in the right is to speak with authority, not to exercise power over others – it is to listen, rather than to talk down. What would happen if we were to choose our candidates with such a standard in mind. It might be worth a try.
Donald Phillipps