Intellectual Thugs

 Posted by on 24 September 2008 at 11:01 pm  Abortion, Activism, Culture
Sep 242008

Over the past week, I have been absolutely horrified by the venomous hatred expressed by those supposed lovers of life, peace, and mercy: the fundamentalist Christians committed to strangling America with the law of God.

Undoubtedly, the ugliest examples are the myriad death threats e-mailed to Nick Provenzo for his defense of the morality of aborting a fetus diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome. The various responses of right-wing bloggers (and their commenters) was little better. They grossly misread Nick’s remarks, then refused to consider any correction.

One might hope for better from the intellectual leaders of this movement. After all, they earn their bread and butter by argument: they seek to persuade others that their views are correct. So even if hopelessly wrong, they must maintain some semblance of rationality, right?


Catholic talk show host Barbara Simpson said on the air that “there was a day when someone would take somebody like this Provenzo guy out in an alley and beat him beyond whatever. He deserves it.” Nice.

Yet even worse was Laura Ingraham’s interview of Nick: she failed to conduct anything remotely resembling a fair debate, yet her methods were more subtle than Simpson’s explicit appeal to thuggery.

To understand the problem, let me explain how to respectfully argue with someone who disagrees with you.

You allow someone to explain their views. You ask them tough questions about the reasons for and implications of those views. The whole time, you allow them to speak for themselves. You represent their views fairly. And then you crush them with your own devastating criticisms, always politely given. You allow them to reply, and then you crush them again. That’s what any decent radio talk show host — and any respectable intellectual — does in debate.

That’s not what Laura Ingraham did. She made no effort to understand Nick’s position. Despite his protests, she refused to focus on the actual intellectual disagreement between them. She refused to consider his reasons for his views. Worst of all, she attributed a variety of morally repugnant ideas to Nick, purely of her own invention. Then she refused to allow him to reply, choosing instead to pontificate to her listeners.

Her method of debate was that of a gang leader seeking to impress her minions by intimidation, not that of a respectable intellectual concerned with airing out ideas in pursuit of knowledge. Given that, Nick deserves a good bit of credit for conducting himself as well as he did.

As Objectivism makes ever-greater inroads into the culture, some people will behave like civilized adults in debate. And others will use whatever dirty tricks they can muster to misrepresent our views. We’ve just seen a taste of the latter. I must admit, I’ve grown accustomed to civilized discourse between reasonable adults — or at least the appearance thereof. So this week has been a bit of a wake-up call for me. I expect that I’m not alone in that feeling.

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