Monday, January 10, 2011

The grisly incident this weekend in Tucson, Arizona has sparked a row about extremism in political discourse, particularly violent rhetoric. The following is clipped from an article written by me for The Wooster Voice in April 2009:

Laird Wilcox is a specialist in political extremism, drawing up some time ago a list of specific traits that extremists use. He identifies 21 of them in total; its versatility is very broad. I’d like to go through them point by point — which should help us in our everyday filtering of valuable information from the bullshit.

1. Character assassination. Extremists care not at all for the merits of the argument before them, and instead will savage the personality or “associations” of the one making the argument. This serves to throw red herrings in our path.

2. Name-calling and labeling. In a recent episode of “The O’Reilly Factor,” radio/TV personality Bill O’Reilly declared that once someone resorts to calling people names, they’ve “lost the argument.” QED.

3. Irresponsible sweeping generalizations. My favorite. Wilcox writes that extremists “tend to make sweeping claims or judgments on little or no evidence” — facts are for the weak, waffling types.

4. Inadequate proof for assertions. This is similar to generalization, but the difference is that, to extremists, standards of evidence are so weak that they collapse upon rational inspection.

For the sake of space, here are the rest: “advocacy of double standards”; “tendency to view their opponents and critics as essentially evil”; “Manichaean worldview”; “advocacy of some degree of censorship or repression of their opponents and/or critics”; a tendency to “identify themselves in terms of who their enemies are”; “argument by intimidation”; “use of slogans, buzzwords and thought-stopping cliches”; “assumption of moral superiority over others”; “doomsday thinking”; “belief that it’s okay to do bad things in the service of a ‘good’ cause”; “emphasis on emotional responses and … less importance attached to reasoning and logical analysis”; “hypersensitivity and vigilance”; “use of supernatural rationale for beliefs and actions”; “problems tolerating ambiguity and uncertainty”; “inclination toward ‘groupthink’”; “tendency to personalize hostility” and a belief that “the system is no good unless they win.”

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