Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Place: The Land of Ad Hominem

St James's Palace. Image: British Monarchy Society

This post isn't about pretty snaps of places I've been or where I live. Place posts should be about more than that. This post is about the world we live in. Not all of it, that would be impossible, and pretentious. It's about one aspect of modern society- more specifically, one aspect of the way modern society likes to argue and to comment. I suppose it is an inevitable place in which we've ended up, but I definitiely do not like it. This post has been brewing for a while, but a media/Twitter tsunami yesterday had me at the point of raging. Hopefully I've calmed down enough not to rant.

Hilary Mantel. Photo (c) The Week

So, yesterday, if you didn't already know, some remarks made by Hilary Mantel, one of the most important writers yet living, given at a lecture six days ago, were published. They commented on the hypocrisy of the press, the public interest in the monarchy and bravely considered the author's own reaction to meeting the Queen. They also made historical connections between current Royals and their (sortof) ancestors. So far, so good. What stirred up the press to outraged self-defence masked as defence-of-the-realm was a few comments on the public perception of the Duchess of Cambridge. It was very clear that these remarks were based on the way Kate is perceived, and were not comments on her personality or personal life: just her public persona. They were a central part of an argument about the continuing interest in and role of the monarchy. The attack was firmly on those who whip up that interest into obsession, with tragic consequences in very recent memory. The predators of the press did not like this exposure. Not at all. So they turned upon the author who gave the lecture, presenting her remarks as a vicious personal attack, reducing a well balanced lecture to a cat fight, and finally dragging in the author's weight and own childlessness as proof of her jealousy and vindictive nature. The Daily Mail were the first (and worst) offenders. They were quickly followed by other sections of the press, who began reporting on the media storm itself, repeating the same details over and over. Other groups, particularly on Twitter, rose to the author's defence. The PM got involved. It all got very silly, very quickly.

Some people, including the author of the Guardian's lead on the story, consider the ensuing fuss to be the result of paternal media trying to diminish a strong female voice to heap praise a conformist obedient role model. I think that they've missed the point: a man would not have got away with such a strong attack on the press either, and the gender argument would be being used against him. Male or female, the problem is that it has not been, and would not be, the words and argument under scrutiny. Instead, it is the speaker themselves. Their views, their points, their logic are all useless in the face of personal facts. Mantel is childless and overweight. In another context, David Cameron is out of touch and upper class. Ed Miliband is a champagne socialist. In yet another, more horrible context, the attacks on Mary Beard a few weeks ago were shameless examples of this, as are almost all works of internet trolls. The same phenomenon lies behind comments on the horrific events surrounding the death of Reeva Steenkamp: her beauty and the combination of disability and fame in the person who killed her have become central to reporting of the case, even though they are irrelevant to the arguments about what happened that night. It has become the person, and not the argument, which is under scrutiny. You hear this every day- try getting through half an hour of the Today programme without hearing this tactic employed. You will see it in the newspapers, see it on the TV, see it everywhere that debate takes place. It has filtered down to become everyday usage. And this is shocking.

Reeva Steenkamp. Image: Yahoo.

It is shocking because the use of a person's opinions, social position and identity against the logic of an argument is one of the most classic fallacies identified by critical thinking. It's known as "ad hominem"- taking a debate "to the man." The point is that it doesn't matter who the speaker is or what they believe- the cold hard logic of their case is what counts towards the strength or weakness of their argument. In the rush of post-structural desires to recognise biases, to be aware of our own subjectivity, to recognise the potential for prejudice, we have forgotten the centrality of logic to argument, the need to be critical, impersonal. Many of the people who were so offended by the attack on Mantel are those who have contributed most to the creation of this atmosphere of hyper-subjectivity. We have collectively made a world in which ad hominem attack is the norm. Now we have to live with it.

1 comment:

  1. Hey there is Latin in your post! :P

    Hope everything is going well, Ciao


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