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August 28, 2014 10:25 AM The Limits of Shaming and Guilt-induction as Argumentation Tactics

By Keith Humphreys

Kevin Drum has written a doleful, observant pair of posts about certain argumentation tactics he observes among leftists. In the first he addresses guilt:

let’s be honest: We really do rely on guilt a lot. You should feel guilty about using plastic bags. About liking college football. About driving an SUV. About eating factory-farmed beef. About using the wrong word to refer to a transgender person. About sending your kids to a private school. And on and on and on.

We all contribute to this, even when we don’t mean to. And maybe guilt is inevitable when you’re trying to change people’s behavior. But it adds up, and over time lefties can get to seem a little unbearable. You have to be so damn careful around us!

In his second post, Kevin discusses the “brutal” intersection of shaming and social media. He quotes Freddie deBoer:

If you are a young person who is still malleable and subject to having your mind changed, and you decide to engage with socially liberal politics online, what are you going to learn immediately? Everything that you like is problematic. Every musician you like is misogynist. Every movie you like is secretly racist. Every cherished public figure has some deeply disqualifying characteristics. All of your victories are the product of privilege. Everyone you know and love who does not yet speak with the specialized vocabulary of today’s social justice movement is a bad, bad person.

I am grateful to Kevin for having the integrity to bring this problem up, not least because in doing so he risks being exposed to the shaming/guilt-induction tactics that he is describing. The norms under which we engage each other in debate matter enormously for the health of our democratic republic. If it’s okay for liberals to reflexively accuse everyone who disagrees with them of being insensitive/racist/sexist/a bad person etc. then it’s also okay for Sean Hannity to label everyone who disagrees with him an unpatriotic, freedom-hating terrorist stooge.

Across the political spectrum, we are capable of better than this. We can make arguments for why we believe what we believe without resorting to the non-argument that our personal opinions and moral worth are isomorphic. Accepting that truly good people can disagree with you is part of becoming a contributor to civil society. It’s also part of growing up.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

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