Keith Boyea's Blog

Notes & Commentary on National Security, Current Affairs and Bourbon

Civility and Identity

Thesis: When it comes to argumentation, civility is probably impossible because our ideas define us.

The recent contentious but entertaining exchange between Carl Prine and David Ucko got me thinking about the nature of civility in argumentation.  I think the goal of civility is a noble one–keeping debates respectful is something we should strive for.  Usually calls for civility include a desire to not name call, refrain from ad hominem attacks, and to keep the language PG.  That’s all well and good, but I don’t think that following those rules can prevent anger, contention, or frustration among competing rhetoricians.

I think that because I don’t think one can completely separate an idea from a person.  In the Prine-Ucko case, both men have spent a large part of their life studying insurgency, albeit in different ways.  Their ideas on the subject are arrived at with careful consideration of the evidence available.  Their ideas on the subject become part of their identity, so when one or the other attacks the other’s ideas, it becomes an attack on their identity.  I think that is borne out in the Ucko-Prine case given the accusations of manipulation and ill-will that eventually flew between the two.

In my case, some of the ideas I have arrived at with the most careful consideration are atheism, non-interventionism, COINtra-ism, and the need for empathy.*  If you were to attack atheism, especially as it relates to me, you’d be attacking something that partially defines me.  Unavoidably, it hurts and might compel a counterattack.  The logic goes like this: You attack atheism, atheism identifies me, thus you are attacking me.  You, of course, are not intending to attack me directly; it just seems that way to me.  (It works the other way too–try pointing out Christian inconsistencies in a group of Christians and see if they separate the attack from their identity.)

I suspect the problem is worse for men of letters like Prine and Ucko.  The write about their ideas professionally.  Their living is made by coming up with new ideas and defending them in the public sphere.  They are prolific writers, and I suppose they develop a certain callousness to attacks on their writing because of that.  But I detected a certain emotion in their exchange that led me to believe that both felt their identity under attack. (This is pure speculation. I could be very wrong.)

A final example:  I written some angry “COINtra” blog posts that accuse “COINdanistas” of ignoring their own doctrine.  Here’s something I’m not accusing COINdanistas of–laziness.  I think that many, many of the COINdanistas spent months, years, or decades studying counterinsurgency, many of them from a ground level view during an insurgency.  They didn’t arrive at their Afghan COIN recommendation without a ton of research and thinking.  The most extreme example, John Nagl, made his career almost completely on counterinsurgency theorizing.  Thus, I should not expect Nagl, or any other COINdanista, to respond to my attacks on their intellectual baby with civility.

* Empathy: Something I recognize the need for, but also something I’m almost always deficient in.  It is, for me, a work in progress.


Written by keithboyea

December 20, 2011 at 6:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Great post. After the week we’ve had at On V, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. We got a lot of blowback on one of our posts last week, especially from Gulliver at Ink Spots, (I’m not trying to self-promote, this just directly applies to the post.) and this post basically covers the issue I’ve been thinking about all week.

    My issue is that writers make it personal. Take these comments from Ink Spots and Prine, respectively.

    From Ink Spots “The post is filled with generalizations, mischaracterizations, and the spurious received wisdom of second-rate popularizers and third-rate social scientists” or “Semantic carelessness is often the sign of poorly-formed ideas”

    From Prine, about Evans, “is one of those tedious ripostes. You know the kind. It concedes numerous errors of fact and judgment before invoking credentials to salvage what is left of a muddled argument that should’ve been made better in the beginning.”

    Writers should take the personal out of it. We–My brother and I at On V–try to only quote from other people to provide proof that we’re not offering a straw man; we don’t personally attack other writers based on their ideas. Except for one big exception, we try not to attack people personally.

    It seems like by attacking the writer–and including snappy retorts about their rhetoric–writers think they make their argument better. Instead, I think they come off as petty, self-righteous and egotistical.

    Eric C

    December 26, 2011 at 12:47 pm

  2. Eric,

    I tweeted out the other day that I thought the Evans-Prine thing was getting too personal. But the point I was trying to make here, probably inartfully, is that even if someone is attacking my ideas–leaving the personal completely out of it–it is still a personal attack. It’s personal because ideas define me.

    That’s not to say that name-calling or ad hominems are fair, they aren’t. But any deconstruction of a person’s considered argument is going to sting. So any calls for civility are going to ring empty, because if I’m right (questionable proposition of course) civility isn’t possible.

    (That said, I do think Gulliver was a bit unfair to you. But that’s just me.)



    December 26, 2011 at 12:59 pm

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