There’s a particular rhetorical maneuver which is often used to discredit specific arguments which is especially popular on Twitter. It’s an approach which effectively shuts down dialogue on important but contentious subjects.
Someone will make a very valid point and someone else will point that, elsewhere, the writer or speaker has made a questionable remark, supported someone they find distasteful or even engaged in conversation with someone of whom they disapprove. This is then used as a reason not to engage with the specific point made or idea expressed. One recent example of this I’ve noticed is the dismissal of Asra Nomani’s decades of valuable work towards Muslim reform because of her support for Trump. While I could not disagree more strongly with Asra’s party political affiliation, she is one of only a few courageous activists advocating a more humane approach to Islam and I wholeheartedly support her in that enterprise.
I’ve also noticed that many people are unwilling to engage with Douglas Murray’s recent book The Strange Death of Europe because of their dislike of Murray’s support for right-wing politician Geert Wilders and his defense of the Christian church. And yet the book contains invaluable, careful, detailed, well documented descriptions of the ways in which European geography and politics and Schengen zone bureaucracy have led to a large number of unvetted immigrants, with serious negative impacts for their host countries. I disagree with many of Murray’s views, particularly with what I regard as his romanticization of Judeo-Christian culture. I am also personally unconvinced or even repelled by some of the politicians he has endorsed and thinkers he supports. But none of that negates the fact that he is raising issues of crucial importance which we must address head on.
In Nomani’s and Murray’s cases, we are dealing with different aspects of their political views. But these kinds of personality-based criticisms can also work in more indirect ways, too, tarring people by their associations with those we dislike. I’ve heard Maajid Nawaz’s libel suit against the Southern Poverty Law Center – a suit which, whatever its legal merits, clearly has moral justice on its side, since the Center have been persistent and shameless in their fictions about him – dismissed for the sole reason that he announced it on Bill Maher’s show and Maher angered many by uttering the N-word on television. Similarly, Bret Weinstein has been demonized for appearing on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show: not for what he said in his own interview but for opinions Carlson, not Weinstein himself, has expressed on quite different occasions. We must judge public figures on their words and actions, not on the track record of the presenters who interview them.
These purity pogroms thin the ranks of those of us with progressive ideas, a small enough group as it is. They prevent us from making valuable alliances to bring about change on specific issues or to further individual causes. And this attitude also obscures our view of the issues involved and obstructs our ability to weigh and judge ideas. Both online and in real life, it’s extremely important to take views and opinions on a case-by-case basis. The Quaker motto truth from any source is an especially valuable reminder of a fundamental fact about human nature. We are inconsistent beings: often wrong, sometimes right. It is possible to acknowledge that a person’s concerns (immigration for example) are valid and legitimate even if we disagree with their proposed solutions (such as supporting a far-right party). Someone may raise a point for disingenuous reasons or have reprehensible motivations for doing so and that point may still be both perceptive and valid. I feel this personally about people who critique misogynistic practices within Islam out of anti-Muslim bigotry or Hindu nationalist zealotry. They are still correct, in my opinion, about the profound sexism at the heart of that religion.
Even when we are talking to people whose general stance we despise, we need to take the time to trace their ideas back, to find the last point at which we can agree with them, to, as the telling phrase puts it, understand where they are coming from so we can offer a different path from there. Very few of our fellow human beings are motivated by pure evil or ignorance. Very few are always and irrevocably wrong. We need to do the work of sifting out the good ideas from the bad and for that we will have to be willing to examine ideas, not personalities, to look not simply at the character of the speaker but at what is actually being said. When we are in the voting booth, we have to choose between people in their totality – between Trump and Hillary Clinton, for example – or we have to declare an allegiance to a party’s entire platform. We don’t have granular choices; we can’t vote for some Labour policies and some Tory ones. But in our political discussions, we do have that freedom.
A few days ago, I found myself in conversation with a feisty Trump voter, here in ultra-liberal Portland, Oregon. It would be impossible for me to be less enthusiastic about Donald Trump. I believe he is the worst possible president the United States could have. But, at the end of our talk, she told me “this is the first time a Democrat supporter hasn’t just dismissed me out of hand.” I took her seriously because this battle isn’t tribal. It’s not about the good people fighting the bad. We need to lose some of our obsession with personalities, biographies, labels and try to spread the benign infection of good ideas instead.