I Know You Are but What am I?: How to Highjack a Good Debate

This article was published in the July 15, 2015, issue of The Lawrence County Advocate.

Because I am an op-ed writer, I am often drawn into political debates, and I usually don’t mind. In fact, I instigate some of them. Sometimes I come away with a newfound understanding of a person and his or her beliefs, as I did recently when each side decided our friendship was worth more than winning a debate. Though bruised, we participated in something vital to our country’s conversation. 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.” While most folks would disregard debate as a “duty” (I even chuckle at that imperative.), it can be quite healthy for the nation as a whole.

At one point in our nation’s history, debate and compromise within our government 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.

“Hook with your left! Go after birth records!”

“Pound 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.”

“Use misspeak. Say ‘pro abortion’ instead of ‘pro choice’ and ‘abortion rights’ not ‘privacy rights.’”

“Hit a low blow. Swift boat his war record.”

This vitriol filtered down to everyday citizens via the media, especially talk radio. When I hear such lines of thinking, I am reminded of arguing with my siblings as children. My sister just liked to argue. About anything. We went around and around until I was worn down, spent. My brother would go a few rounds then 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.

There are names for such tactics, though I didn’t know it then. Though my siblings grew out of them, 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. For example:

1. Confusing or clouding an issue so that the original point gets lost. Either stick with the original topic or I will have to take my leave.

2. Condescending or patronizing with such comments as, “You liberals are cowards. You run from an argument once you know you are caught.” No, I won’t launch an attack and then skedaddle (hit and run) before my opponent can counter-attack. The reality is that I am perfectly capable of backing up points with facts. I just choose not to beat my head against the wall.

3. Using double standards where one 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 only one side). For example (and this is my favorite): “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.’” That double standard is also used in the push for drug testing for “takers” of federal money (i.e. the poor vs. corporations).

4. Using uneven standards of acceptance and intolerance for statements and beliefs from opposite sides of an argument. For example: demanding that opponents accept statements and beliefs in the name of open-mindedness and tolerance (e.g. Confederate flag = Southern pride), while simultaneously denouncing the opponents’ statements and beliefs (e.g. offense over flag = too much sensitivity).

5. Making up laws. 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.

6. Disregarding mistakes (e.g. weapons of mass destruction) and rewriting history. Comparing our president to Hitler or other tyrants and despots is profoundly lowbrow. I won’t engage.

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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