Issues are issues because of people who make judgments.
This is why Ad Hominem attacks, dishonest and ‘fallacious’ they may be, are powerful and disarming. At the end of the day, decisions on whether to wage war, provide for free college tuition, increase the coverage of healthcare, build this bridge over these houses — and a million other policy choices — are subject to human judgement and error, especially error.
So in anger over those ‘stupid’ errors we call them names and nicknames (ie. adultress, kalbo, Tuta ng Kano), we call them out on their personal hypocrisies to put into question their ability to make sound and fair judgments. That’s really the purpose of personal attacks, true or otherwise: to weaken the moral authority of another in order to rob them of their argumentative and, ultimately, political power.
This is why, when under attack, imploring to ‘stick to the issues’ or to ‘debate the program not the person’ are truly the first lines of defense. They seem intuitive enough: let’s not talk about me, I’ll not talk about you, and let’s instead focus on the ‘issues’ that ‘matter’. Never mind that how we frame an issue is a function of our own subjective lenses. Never mind that what comes to matter is a product of individual systems of assumptions and beliefs. Taken to its extreme, ‘sticking to the issues’ can be dehumanizing and in itself be a trick to deprive the other of power just because they’re not on the level.
My realization in our era of acidic debate is that it has become quite impossible to separate message from messenger, that the openness of social media and the Internet demands a certain categorical consistency between brand and being — either you’re all of you or you’re none of you. Because if it were really only the issues that matter, then Clinton would have locked up the Presidency of the United States months ago.
Moreover, there is a certain asymmetry that’s naturally built in to our discourse that makes it tempting to slide into personal attacks — we don’t all have complete information. I’m not even referring to education: that series of competencies that are predetermined to define the civility and merit of individuals and groups. Just knowledge and information in a pure economic sense, as currency in the intellectual market.
The classic case of where information asymmetry occurs to the benefit of those who know more is in the stock market. This is why insider trading has been outlawed (and yet persists): because it puts those with more, privileged information at a better position to exploit the market and extend their gains.
In our modern online debates we, too, make certain bets on the positions (judgments) we take on the issues and controversies of the day. We can change our minds when the facts change. But we can also raise new facts to bolster and strengthen our position. Both are skills, and our ability to do either or both can definitely increase with education, experience, or time. The system can be gamed however, just like the stock market, by introducing new, speculative positions that can tilt the gains one way or another. The information need not even be true to make a difference, just real enough to drive real speculation that would lead to anywhere from intransigence to surrender to panic.
It is this speculative behavior that lies at the heart of our debates now. And as much as we aspire to ‘stick to the issues’ or to ‘debate the program not the person’, there exists an imbalance, an asymmetry in information, that makes such calculating analytical debates impossible, if at all they were even ever possible. It is from this power imbalance then that the debates can become personal, and at this point the response can range from the Ad Hominem attacks we now see too often, to an articulation of one’s values to reset the terms of the debate.
That last point is something for us to ponder — giving voice to values. This is actually the key to transcending conflict and finding common ground. (For more on this, if you have read up to this point, I’d recommend the work of Mary C. Gentile or Theory U by Otto Scharmer.)
It is a level of discourse that is all but impossible in the context of social media, but think Humans of New York if it were a conversation. Can we find the space, online at least, to encounter others as genuine persons, not merely avatars or bytes? After all, issues are issues because people care; to debate them on the merits, we’ll have to meet them there.