Rhetoric. Rhetorical devices. Politics.
There’s been a discussion of free speech and censorship lately, falling into the usual camps of, “It isn’t censorship unless a government does it” (clearly nonsense), and overblown statements calling any criticism an attempt at censorship. My issue isn’t with either of these, it is with the language used.
A few posts back I did a post in which I discussed various political camps using curing cancer as a metaphor. Most people, I think, got what I was doing (a few didn’t, but that always happens). But when you do something like that, you aren’t trying to convince anyone of your position on the major issue. What I mean is, anyone who read that and had the reaction, “Oh, gee, he’s right. I’ll become a socialist now,” isn’t someone I want on my side.
The point of something like that is to draw some distinctions. Ideally, those who read it, while still not agreeing with me, went, “Okay, now I’m a little clearer on how he views the difference between a liberal and a pseudo-leftist.” I consider that valuable. If someone who reads that finds himself, because of events in the real world, questioning his basic assumptions, then maybe some of that will come back and help clarify a few things. And there’s a second purpose: to help things become more sharp and clear in my own mind. And a third purpose: it is an argument with those who are in 95% agreement with me for the purpose of making it 96%. (Also a fourth reason, because it made me smile, but let’s skip that one for now.)
The object of the exercise can be stated as follows: To make distinctions and differences in our minds accurately reflect, as much as possible, the differences and distinctions in the real world. I oppose liberals every bit as much as I oppose conservatives; but they aren’t the same. I oppose pseudo-leftists as much as I oppose Libertarians; but the differences between them matter.
With that in mind, take another look at the second paragraph above. In it, I say, “overblown statements calling any criticism an attempt at censorship.” The trouble with that is, it is exactly what I ought to be showing, rather than simply stating it. And by failing to do that, I pretty much remove all value from it. The question is, where are the lines between criticism that attempts to clarify and sharpen issues, and an attempt to shut someone up, and when does the latter become censorship? Now that is an interesting question, and one I’m going to ignore, because I want to talk about the more general case.
When does one refer to another by a derogatory label? That is, when is it correct to refer to someone as an imperialist, as a reactionary, as a pseudo-leftist? When two conditions apply: 1) it is accurate, and 2) the other is not whom you’re trying to convince of anything.
Were I to try to convince someone that his position was that of a pseudo-leftist, I would explain what I meant by the term, discuss the implications of it, and attempt to show how that person’s positions fit into that category. When I, in another discussion, refer to someone as pseudo-leftist, I’m not trying to convince that person; my agenda is to make distinctions in the context of another discussion. Does that make sense?
As part of the conversation mentioned above, some of the more extreme opponents of censorship (which is not, mind you, a bad thing to be) will refer to those who differ with them as “anti-speech” or “pro-censorship.” What this tells me is, those people are not the intended audience. They are not who you are trying to convince of anything. If your argument takes the form, “By taking position X, you lend support to excessive censorship because of Y,” then there is an effort to convince those people. If your argument takes the form, “The reason I object to the pro-censorship people is,” then you are attempting to make a different point, aimed at different people.
I bring it up because I sometimes see people using a derogatory label for positions they oppose, and then, apparently, trying to argue with those who hold those positions. This makes nothing more clear or sharp for anyone. Following a friend’s Tweet, and then link to link to link, I recently came across some Men’s Rights Activists. Seriously, I have nothing to say to those people. I don’t want to convince them of anything. We have no common basis for action or discussion. But if I did want to argue with them, I wouldn’t say, “The trouble I have with you sexists is…” because convincing them that that label applied would be exactly the goal.
Bottom line point: Do not enter into political discourse without knowing what you want to accomplish and why, after which you can give some thought to how. “Because he’s wrong,” is not a sufficient reason. Now, if I can just remember to apply that rule to myself, all will be well.