The Importance of Dehumanizing Your Opponents

Let me preface this by saying, as an LSAT instructor, I teach argument for a living. (And if you follow the Bar Chaplain blog, yes, this is going to be another one of those posts.)

I’m a big believer in always paying attention to both far right and far left media and then doing a ton of my own fact-checking. On a regular basis, partisan news sources selectively omit details, cite statistics without context, or cherrypick portions of quotes, so whenever a photo or number or quote seems shocking, it’s usually a good idea to google it and make sure it’s real. Even after they’ve been discredited, these stories continue to circulate because, for many, they present a more appealing version of reality. Nowhere is this clearer than with the recent shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. In fact, most of the media and social media responses to this event and its aftermath seem to revolve around one rhetorical falsehood:

It’s not enough just to disagree with people;
you should also dehumanize them to explain why they could never be right.

Case in point: David Hogg.
One of several survivors to speak out about gun legislation, David was targeted with a fairly extreme disinformation campaign. Commentators like Sandy Hook denier Alex Jones suggested the 17-year-old was a paid “crisis actor” being bankrolled by left-leaning billionaire George Soros. The conspiracy theory gained enough traction that it briefly slithered onto YouTube’s trending page before YouTube removed it as propaganda. Several people I know and love bought fully into this narrative and quickly shared the hoax on facebook, but why would reasonable people believe such an outlandish story?

The people who shared this story weren’t necessarily stupid or gullible; more likely, they faced a difficult moral dilemma: Either I need to look a grieving teenager in the eyes and tell him I disagree with him, or there must be some other explanation for what happened in Parkland. An overwhelming number of Americans, rather than accepting that their pro-gun stance pitted them against a group of teenagers, opted for another explanation: you can’t be real, so your argument isn’t real either. While this “crisis actor” narrative is certainly the most extreme example, pro-gun Americans aren’t the only ones committing this fallacy.

In the wake of the mass shooting, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and pro-gun politicians have come under extreme scrutiny. In particular, Marco Rubio (R-FL) was called out by the Parkland students for his stance on guns and the contributions he’s received from the NRA— both of which he sidestepped in a somewhat infamous town hall shortly after the shooting. Left-leaning commentators quickly embraced the narrative of Rubio as either corrupt or cowardly or both, explaining his position with a steady flow of cash:
Gun manufacturers pay the NRA.
The NRA pays lobbyists and runs attack ads.
These lobbyists and ads convince politicians they can’t win without pro-gun voters.
And that’s the only reason politicians like Marco Rubio defend semiautomatic rifles.

Now, listen. This flow of funding and fear is dangerously reductionistic, but it’s the only way many people can wrap their minds around this debate: To look grieving high school students in the eyes while continuing to defend guns, these politicians must be on the take or else utterly terrified of losing the NRA’s support. But what if the truth doesn’t fit this narrative? The NRA’s finances are a pretty deep rabbit hole, and with campaign finance laws being what they are, the flow of money could never be this neat. There’s actually a much simpler (if less emotionally satisfying) explanation: maybe pro-gun politicians really believe what they’re saying. But until we talk to each other instead of relying on tweets and attack ads, we may never know.

My point here is this: in order to explain away how people can disagree with us, we’ve all had to invent some pretty elaborate ad hominem attacks (with some even inventing full-blown conspiracy theories).
The Parkland kids MUST be paid actors.
The pro-gun politicians MUST be in the gun lobby’s pocket.
And since these people aren’t real, their arguments MUST be invalid too.

This logic is flawed on two levels. First of all, discrediting your opponent does not negate his/her argument; even the most horrible or dishonest person can still occasionally make a good point. Second, simply negating your opponent’s argument isn’t sufficient to prove your own. An argument must have substance— a conclusion backed by reasonable evidence. Even if the facts were correct, “David Hogg is a crisis actor” is not a valid argument for guns, just as “Marco Rubio is in the NRA’s pocket” is not a valid argument against guns.

It’s easy to go on the attack and promote conspiracies, but this ultimately accomplishes little. Instead, state your viewpoint and provide evidence. When you attempt to discredit and dehumanize, you don’t bolster your viewpoint; you just do more harm. So always think before you click “share,” and if the news you’re seeing seems overly reductionistic or consistently demonizes one person or viewpoint over another, it’s time to do some fact-checking.

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