One of the more alarming trends of the past year and a half has been the increasingly-contentious divide between Americans of differing political ideologies.
The divide itself is not new, mind you; people on the left and the right have debated for decades about the best course of legislative or social action in America. But – and this may sound Pollyannaish – in decades past, there was at least an attempt to consider and respect opposing views. Even in cases where this respect was nonexistent, we at least maintained the façade that those with whom we disagree had worthwhile ideas.
But in the months leading up to Trump’s 2016 election victory, a new form of debate took hold, and it’s continued ever since: arguments made in deliberately bad faith. And they need to stop.
In the simplest terms, bad faith requires one or both participants in an argument to intentionally interpret everything their opponent says as having the most negative or malicious intent possible behind it. For example, if I say “Inglourious Basterds, while a great movie, was too violent,” someone arguing in bad faith might reply “So you believe that people are needlessly cruel to Nazis and that Nazis deserve better treatment; in other words, you sympathize with Nazis.”
It’s a particularly frustrating form of argument, most often deployed by those who are smart enough to know when their position is indefensible but are too bullheaded to admit it. Rather than admit defeat, these people instead seek to win the argument by casting their opponent in the worst light possible.
Take, for example, an article by Caleb Hull for the Independent Journal Review titled “Writer Calls For Conservative Students’ Heads to Be Held ‘Under Water Until They Stop Breathing’.” The title sounds scandalous; alarming, even. A writer is advocating for the death of those who do not share his political views?!
The article then cites this exchange between writer Jesse Farrar and Trump fanboy Charlie Kirk. (Kirk is the founder of Turning Point USA, a bastion of right-wing morons routinely debasing themselves online in pursuit of “owning the libs.”) Take a look:
Even if you don’t know Jesse Farrar – and a brief look at his Twitter account would offer more than enough context – you’d have to work pretty hard to assume that he is earnestly calling for the mass drowning of conservative students. For the sake of fairness, it’s theoretically possible (if not at all likely) that Farrar made his comments in earnest, especially if you view them without the aid of any context.
Hull, however, sought context. As Farrar’s bio lists him as “Deadspin’s Beer Idiot,” Hull reached out to Deadspin editor Barry Petchesky, asking if Farrar was still employed by the site and, “if so, is this kind behavior tolerated in your organization?”
See that? That’s how you know this is a bad-faith argument. Hull is presenting Petchesky with a choice: publicly repudiate Farrar’s statement (which would be one kind of feather in Hull’s cap) or publicly align a media outlet with the proposed drowning of conservative students across the land (which would be another kind of feather). If he were genuinely curious, Hull could have said “Do you believe Jesse was serious about these comments?”
Hull didn’t ask those questions, but Petchesky nonetheless made it clear that Farrar obviously wasn’t serious:
Print my answer in full you cowards pic.twitter.com/i6joOTKJt0
— Barry Petchesky (@barry) February 8, 2018
Hull’s initial story only showed part of Petchesky’s answer; namely, that “Farrar no longer writes regularly for Deadspin.” After being called out for it on Twitter, Hull printed Petchesky’s answer in full (at the very end of the article, of course).
As Petchesky noted in his reply, it is telling that Hull implies in his first email that Deadspin as a media entity would do well to publicly distance itself from Farrar or face the consequences. By that point, it had been made abundantly clear that Farrar’s initial tweet and subsequent reply were sarcastic; nevertheless, Hull pressed on.
I’ve never met Caleb Hull, but I can say with a fair degree of confidence that I don’t think he’s nearly as much of a credulous idiot as would be required to misread Farrar’s comments so badly. That, in part, is what’s so frustrating about these arguments: they require the person deploying them – a person of otherwise-adequate intellect – to feign an obtuseness bordering on some form of spectrum disorder in order to make them.
This is only the most recent example. MSNBC contributor Sam Seder was fired by the network after alt-right trolls pointed to a clearly satirical tweet from nearly a decade ago about Roman Polanski to argue that Seder was a rape apologist. (Seder was later given his job back, and MSNBC president Phil Griffin told The Intercept that “sometimes you just get one wrong.”) And in 2014, Gawker writer Sam Biddle was the center of a similar controversy when “Gamergate” trolls organized a mass campaign calling for his firing.
Once again, conservatives – those staunch defenders of (parts of) the First, Second, Fourth, Fifth and, depending on the weather, Tenth Amendments – are attempting to disrupt Farrar’s livelihood for what amounts to an expression of his right to free speech. But I digress.
While the attempts to ruin Farrar, Biddle and Seder have not succeeded, bad-faith arguments remain a valuable weapon in the conservative and alt-right arsenal, and it’s a near-certainty that they will attempt to utilize it again the next time they’re criticized by a public figure.
But here’s the good news: we don’t have to fall for it.