March 14, 2009

Why Aren’t We Standing Up To Ad Hominem Attacks?

Posted in Public discourse tagged , , , , at 11:42 am by Maggie Clark

In the wake of the Jon Stewart / Jim Cramer controversy, which I feel was not so much overly hyped as, in its polemic framework, erroneously hyped, a striking point remains unmade: Where was the condemnation of mainstream ad hominem attacks?

Specifically, Joe Scarborough of Morning Joe, by launching a heated attack on Stewart on his show, provides a good example of the kind of argument held by Stewart’s critics all throughout the week of this controversy: Many called him on being a comedian, and condemn him for having critical opinions in this capacity about the statements of others.

People have responded to this condemnation, yes. They have done so by arguing Stewart isn’t just a comedian, noting his strong history of media criticism and notable appeals to journalistic ethics. Not one person in the mainstream media has said, however, “Even if he were just a comedian, would that make his criticism any less valid?”

And that’s a problem. It’s a problem because while many fallacies are very difficult to police (being of the subtler variety), ad hominem attacks are pretty straightforward. Moreover, the ad hominem fallacy in this case is an attack on freedom of speech (in the U.S.) and freedom of expression (in Canada), because by its very nature it implies some people’s arguments are less valid simply because of who is making them, and yet it’s made by people in positions of power — people who, as members of the media, should be empowering everyone to hold them accountable for failure.

So while Scarborough was attacking Stewart for daring to make a critique of CNBC while simultaneously being an entertainer, he (and others like him, in print as well as on TV) was also encouraging the unquestioned use of this fallacy. And that’s dangerous, because Scarborough has privileged access to both the airwaves (which gives him access to millions) and, from his association with notable news organization, a measure of legitimacy (which gives him an edge over pundit bloggers). He is part of a system which sets a standard for casual, daily discourse in North America — and he, like many of the people in these roles — is failing to promote fair, reasoned, empowering conversation in this realm.

The ways in which print, TV, and online articles have used this fallacy are often indirect: Headlines reading “the clown won” after the Stewart/Cramer conversation on The Daily Show are as damaging to the cause of coherent, empowering media discourse as any direct, unchecked statement of “What right does a comedian have to criticize?” could ever be.

And that’s where things get confusing: Why on earth are these statements going unchecked? Where is the dominant culture of critical analysis that curtails, both institutionally and on a case-by-case basis, statements that feed into this “dis-empowerment” of individual viewers?

There was a time when we had few on-air personalities: now we have an excess of them, and the depressing catch-22 is that if the bulk of these personalities don’t regularly remind their viewers about formal argumentative structures, fair comment, and journalistic ethics (which they don’t), said viewers will come to view the kind of argument that exists instead as the right one — fallacies and all. And why should these on-air personalities do otherwise? They were hired because their companies know that entertainment sells, but don’t grasp why Jon Stewart is so successful providing both entertainment and analysis; so these companies treat their forms of entertainment with all the gravitas of serious journalism, even when they’re not. And if a comedian — someone who readily acknowledges that he’s doing entertainment, but maintains a core sense of journalistic right and wrong distinct from his role as entertainer — calls them on it? Well, they’ve got ample public access where they can condemn him for speaking in the first place, instead of addressing his comments, to their hearts’ content. And no one will call them on it, because they’re the ones setting the discourse in the first place, and the discourse they’ve set is of refusing the legitimacy of a comment on the basis of the person who makes it.

… Except that there are people who do ostensibly toil for the protection of U.S. citizens in relation to media abuses. The FCC is vigilant about calling out “public indecency” as it (or rather, the loudest of the interest groups that pressures the FCC) perceives these instances to be. And so we see justice meted out swiftly when a woman’s nipple is shown on national prime-time television, or a children’s cartoon has a character with two moms, or an expletive is used in the wrong time-slot. In all these ways, the general public is kept safe from the excesses of media.

But the unchecked use of fallacies that, by implication, strip an awareness of power from viewers by pushing the essence of American discourse away from what was said, to who said it, and encouraging others to do the same? These are let stand.

I’m not saying the FCC should fine people for unsatiric use of ad hominem fallacy. I’m just saying, Christ, wouldn’t it be great if someone in a position of media authority at least condemned it?

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1 Comment »

  1. Mark Z said,

    This is spot-on. I was fortunate enough to catch the Mad-Money slaughter from the daily show, but not the ensuing media backlash. So many news networks are just full of shitty journalism and horribly swayed opinions. Just the other day, I caught the introduction to a report on ABC (damned if I can remember what-on), and I came close to gagging on the bullshit they were smearing. Kudos to Stewart for holding the whip, and shame on those who are flogging his platform.


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