Thursday, July 29, 2010

New rules

“Jane, you ignorant slut.” Dan Akroyd.
“Dan, you pompous ass.” Jane Curtin.
Weekend Update, Saturday Night Live, 1977-78
Over at Post Talk, the message board for the Post Register’s web site, we’re engaged in a brave experiment.

The question: Can a message board survive – thrive, even – if it doesn’t allow personal insults, assertions of falsehoods and the use of timeworn but flawed rhetorical devices?

Of the latter, there are two particular favorites. One is known, in Latin, as argumentum ad ignorantiam, or “argument from ignorance.” Put simply, it’s the idea that something must be considered true until it is proven false.

This approach takes on many guises. For example, a popular debate on some web sites lately is the claim that the Obama Administration is creating a Gestapo-like security force designed to establish a dictatorship similar to that under, well, Adolph Hitler. No, really. Here’s an excerpt from an Associated Press article:
“A Republican congressman from Georgia said he fears that President-elect Obama will establish a Gestapo-like security force to impose a Marxist dictatorship.
"It may sound a bit crazy and off base, but the thing is, he's the one who proposed this national security force," Rep. Paul Broun said of Obama. "I'm just trying to bring attention to the fact that we may—may not, I hope not—but we may have a problem with that type of philosophy of radical socialism or Marxism."
Broun cited a July, 2008 speech by Obama that has circulated on the Internet in which the then-Democratic presidential candidate called for a civilian force to take some of the national security burden off the military. The speech has been widely taken out of context. A review of the entire speech makes it clear that Obama did not have designs on a dictatorship, but the conspiracy theory persists.

When challenged, proponents of this theory like so say some version of, “Well, prove us wrong.” That’s not how this works. It’s your theory, you prove it.

Of course, the long-time standby favorite in rhetorical circles is the ad hominen attack, in which a person’s arguments are cast into doubt by belittling or insulting the person making the argument. For example: “So and so went to Harvard, of course he’s going to be a liberal, and we all know that liberals are crazy.” There are a million versions of this one.

These, and other tactics, have long been used on Post Talk, the message blog on the Post Register’s web site. We’re now testing to see whether a message blog can be free from such blather by instituting what one participant calls “Draconian” measures. He’s probably right but, frankly, Post Talk had sunk to such depths that drastic measures were necessary.

I’ll keep you posted, or you can go to Post Talkand watch the fun yourself.

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