RODNEY KING MEETS RALPH KRAMDEN
Respect and civility seem to be in as short a supply on the web as they are anywhere else these days. There was a time between the turbulent sixties and the mid-nineties when we weren’t all spoiling for a fight. Now we’re divided into "red" and "blue," and we’re all too busy talking to listen.
Most of us recall 1992, when the Los Angeles area erupted into riots after some policemen were acquitted of beating an African-American by the name of Rodney King. In the midst of violence born of frustration, Mr. King appeared on live television and pleaded with his fellow citizens: "Can we all just get along?" Oddly enough, even that simple but eloquent statement became a source of division between those who thought Mr. King made a comical figure and those who were touched by the humanity of his gesture.
I’ve been thinking about Rodney King’s plea a lot lately. It seems that everyone is frustrated and angry about something. Cable television and talk radio fan the flames with harsh rhetoric. And the only reason some people engage in any discussion of a given issue is to hurl insults at someone who may think differently.
When I first started getting my feet wet in the bloggosphere by leaving comments on various sites, I found myself drawn into the middle of some terribly harsh and mean-spirited discussions about the causes of autism. I guess that can be expected given the passion that resides within the very being of anyone who lives with the reality of autism on a daily basis. We lost parts of our kids and, dammit, we want to know why and what can we do to make them whole again! It’s a passion that cannot come from greed. I understand that passion all too well, and I too feel the anger and frustration. That being said, I roll my eyes when I see anyone who expresses a different view stand accused of being a "shill for big Pharma" regardless of an absence of evidence to that effect. I wince when I hear of someone’s home number being published on the web for the purposes of harassment. Still, I understand where the anger comes from. It comes from being called a greedy plaintiff, an anti-vax wacko, a conspiracy nut, or just plain stupid.
I have no doubt that people on both sides of the thimerosal issue will claim that they didn’t start the harsh war of words. It’s all a matter of one’s perspective. I try to keep that in mind when I see comments or blogs by the self-appointed guardians of science. I often wonder about the source of their passion for debating against the thimerosal-autism connection. It’s hard to believe that they all could be shills considering the relatively wide range of topics they cover in their own blogs, but their zeal for debating "our" issue makes them easy targets for the label. Of course, the fact that they refuse to reveal their identities makes it even easier to believe there might be a connection to the vaccine industry. If you ask these anonymous defenders of thimerosal, they say that they are only interested in good science. But does a good scientist dismiss a theory just because it is still in the process of being proven or refuted by the scientific method?
Maybe I’m just naïve, but I tend to think those folks with the cute cybernames are just a bunch of guys and gals who are terribly impressed with their own intellects, and they think we’re an easy outlet for showing off how clever they can be with words. They bait people like me by articulating the apparent stupidity of our opinions, which of course implies the stupidity of anyone who would hold such an opinion. But if anyone dares to use equally harsh rhetoric or, even worse, question the integrity of one of the epidemiological researchers working for the CDC or vaccine manufacturers, they cry out "ad hominem" at the top of their lungs. When one of these fellows gets really wound up, the phrase is repeated several times in a paragraph. I always get a mental image of Ralph Kramden, of Honeymooners fame, putting an angry spin on his classic sputtering: "ad homina, homina, homina."
The hypocrisy of the ad hominem protests is best illustrated on one of their blogs. Skeptico, on July 29, 2005, wrote a fairly interesting and well-written commentary on ad hominem arguments. I’m not sure, though, if he realized the irony in writing that "people on both sides of the political spectrum criticize the other side for this method of debate, and yet they don’t realize they do it themselves." The "comments" section of the blog includes a lively and unusually well-mannered debate that reveals a great deal about folks like Skeptico. In Skeptico’s opinion, it is acceptable debate technique to call one’s opponent an idiot if it’s in the context of criticizing the opponent’s position with particular facts and figures. Although Skeptico correctly refers to the definition of ad hominem arguments as attacks on an adversary rather than an appeal to logic, he ignores the current usage of the phrase that includes any personal attack regardless of its use in an argument. Moreover, even if we refer to the name calling as just plain rudeness, the harshness of tone serves the same purpose as the traditional ad hominem attack: i.e, a tactic to distract from the deficiencies of one’s own argument by baiting the opponent into a personal attack. All a personal attack really accomplishes is a slap on the back from others of like opinion; it will never convince anyone who might otherwise have an open mind.
As usual, I’ve gone a little overboard on making what should have been a couple of simple points. You’re welcome to leave a comment, but please keep it clean and civil. I promise not to call you a shill (unless, of course, you’re Paul Offit). But don’t expect me to take you too seriously if you’re not willing to sign a real name.