To disagree with dignity, we must “play the ball, not the man”

I recently joined Twitter. While I’ve observed some enlightening and respectful debate, much of what I saw was indignant self-righteousness from both sides of many disagreements. I’ve witnessed grown adults of all ages tweeting schoolyard slurs in response to those whose beliefs and arguments they disagree with. I wondered whether many come to Twitter to exchange thoughts or ideas, or whether most come to assert their own ideological orthodoxy and attack all who don’t share it.

I’m no saint here. I occasionally wrote nasty things about elected representatives in my younger years, although I’ve since grown out of it. While my opinions overwhelmingly tend towards the left, particularly on social issues, I’ve found myself exasperated at the spectacle of fellow lefties, many well into adulthood, tweeting vituperative insults to those whose ideology and opinions they disagree with. While people from all points of the left-right spectrum do this, I find it most disappointing to see those with socially liberal views doing so, as the same people often tweet regularly about the importance of kindness and mental health.

There does seem to exist a belief among all too many of us that the perceived moral rectitude of our opinions gives us a right to deride, mock, attack and defame those who hold opinions we see as objectionable. The internal monologue, if ever there is any, may be something like this: “I’m morally virtuous/I’m in an oppressed minority, thus I could never be a trolling bully. They hold regressive/oppressive views, thus they could never be victims. Therefore I can say what I like to them.”

And they do. I’ve seen well-known figures from the local “Twitterati”, who have massive followings and whose views I broadly share, target their ideological opponents with derisive, disgusting and often defamatory statements about their physical features, their private lives, and even their sex lives.

How is it okay to speak/tweet to others in a way in which, if you were on the receiving end, would have you tweeting your indignation, blocking your opponent and telling everybody you need to take a “mental health break”?

You may think that, as a leftist or as a member of a minority which has or does face prejudice, you can justify targeting those you regard as agents of your oppression with vitriolic attacks to restore the balance. It may even make you feel better and attract extra followers. But it doesn’t help your cause. In fact, methodologically speaking, it makes you as bad, if not worse, than your ideological opponent. More importantly, it debases your entire argument.

By attacking somebody’s attributes, their appearance or their life outside the debate at hand, you’re straying into the territory of the ad hominem attack. Ad hominem attacks don’t rebut the substance of the opposing argument; in fact, they aren’t arguments at all. They amount to fallacies that undermine your argumentative credibility and thrust you off the moral high ground into the murky, bile-filled swamp below. They make you appear like you have nothing of substance to offer. Moreover, they deprive you of any virtue in expressing outrage when others attack you in a similar fashion.

They also undermine any talk you utter about the importance of kindness or of promoting good mental health. We’re all human, even those of us who hold what many would regard as conservative, prejudiced or regressive opinions, such as those who oppose same-sex marriage or abortion. As such, we can all find ourselves feeling hurt as a result of ad hominem attacks. Nothing gives you the right to say something to somebody that you would find grossly hurtful if it was said to you.

Even if your opponent attacks your attributes, it isn’t edifying to respond in a similar manner. It only toxifies the situation further. Of course, pointing out hypocrisy on your opponent’s part may be perfectly acceptable if it’s germane to the topic at hand i.e. reminding somebody who describes LGBT people as an “abomination” that their own behaviour falls short of the biblical standard they claim to uphold. But beyond this, attacks upon the attributes, appearance, character and private lives of your ideological opponents are never acceptable.

Your adversary may be an obnoxious individual who’s impervious to the opinions of others. They might even be fairly described with your choice of expletive. But their attributes, appearance, character or private lives are not legitimate targets for attack. Attacking somebody on those levels deprives you of any rectitude you might otherwise have, and it debases your argument. The righteousness or otherwise of your opinions does not give you a licence to depart from standards of mature and decent behaviour, whether in the flesh or on social media. Wise up. Play the ball, not the individual.



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