How We Dismiss People in Intellectual Arguments

March 28, 2011

Yesterday morning, on one of the Sunday morning TV news programs, I caught a clip of John Bolton talking about U.S. policy towards Libya.  Bolton is a former George W. Bush-appointed Ambassador to the United Nations.  I don’t remember which program it was, but Bolton has begun a run for the Presidency and he’s been appearing in various Republican and conservative forums.  You can see similar clips of him arguing against the Obama administration approach to Libya here and here.

The argument he was making was far more an argument against President Obama as not a right person to be leading the country than it was a substantive critique of our Libya policy.  Bolton dismissed Obama on three broad grounds.  (a) He asserted that Obama lacks proper credentials or expertise to be leading the nation’s foreign policy.  (b) He asserted that Obama and his administration lack integrity in the way that they carry out foreign policy (e.g. they don’t tell the truth).  And (c) he asserted that Obama has bad faith: that he doesn’t, deep down, have the right values and purposes to be trusted with U.S. foreign policy (he cares too much about the welfare of people in other countries and thus insufficiently about the welfare of the United States).

There was more assertion than substance to these claims even though vigorously made.  But I was struck at how much these were dismissals of a person rather than engagement with arguments.  Bolton said very little about Libya or U.S. foreign policy.  Bolton is starting a run to replace Obama as President, so I suppose that’s all fair in politics, but I wanted to hear more discussion and argument about Libya, and so I moved on. Nevertheless, the three kinds of dismissal — bad credentials, lack of integrity, bad faith — lingered in my mind.

Over the past few days at Earlham, on the faculty list serv, we’ve been having a spirited discussion of the recent visit of Charles Murray to the campus and the disruption of his lecture by someone pulling a fire alarm.  I think we’ve had about 25,000 words shared with one another so far.  A good deal of the discussion has been focused on whether Murray should have been invited at all: whether he was an appropriate for a speaker at a college of liberal arts and sciences.  He gave, by the way, a version of the honorary Irving Kristol Lecture he gave at the American Enterprise Institute on March 11, 2009, entitled “The Happiness of People.”

In the 25,000 words, there has been very little said about the substance of Murray’s lecture.  (There have been references to arguments made elsewhere against The Bell Curve, a book Murray co-authored in 1994).  Those who have argued that Murray shouldn’t have been invited have, however, largely dismissed Murray on the same grounds that Bolton dismissed Obama.

That is, they have asserted: (a) Charles Murray is not really a scholar (he doesn’t publish in peer-reviewed scholarly journals).  (b) Charles Murray lacks integrity in argument (he misuses data, for example).  And (c) Charles Murray lacks the right purposes or values (he is a sexist and a racist because he argues that there are long-standing differences among human beings).  These, again, have been more asserted than argued, and no reference has been made by the critics to his words that evening.

More to the point, they have been put forward to dismiss the person rather than to discuss his ideas.  So that’s how you dismiss people: attack their expertise, attack their integrity, attack their good faith.  Or don’t: far better to discuss the ideas.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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One Response to How We Dismiss People in Intellectual Arguments

  1. Kristin says:

    Regardless of where one falls on a political spectrum, I think, we are subject to the same human strengths and weaknesses. For another interesting discussion, see “The Practice of Ritual Defamation: How values, opinions and beliefs are controlled in democratic societies” by Laird Wilcox,

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