Monday, March 10, 2008

Caricature and Distortion

It is, unfortunately, very common for people to misrepresent the political and moral views of their opponents. (Sometimes this is unintentional, and sometimes it isn't.) If I can caricature and distort what you believe into something that everyone disapproves of, then I can undercut support for you and your agenda. Plus, it is easier to argue against a fake opponent -- a "straw man" -- than a real one, which means I don't have to work as hard to beat you.

Such a tactic, though, distracts us from what those involved in the debate actually believe. It is also likely to create resentment, as people are -- quite reasonably -- insulted when their beliefs are caricatured and they are presented as supporting something that is morally objectionable.

For instance, there is a lot of distortion in the debate regarding abortion, so I will use this topic in order to illustrate the right and wrong way to debate. Those who oppose some or other case of abortion are often caricatured as believing that women have no right to control their own bodies whatsoever. Those who approve some or other case of abortion, on the other hand, are often caricatured as espousing infanticide or the killing of anyone whose life is an inconvenience. These distortions only create animosity, and do little to help us understand the moral issues involved in abortion.

This is not to say that issues such as infanticide and a woman's rights over her own body are irrelevant to the issue of abortion. But they can be raised without simply misrepresenting the views of those with whom you disagree.

For instance, someone who opposes some or other case of abortion can rightly be asked: "You are saying that a woman shouldn't be allowed to do what she wants with her own body, which is a significant constraint on her autonomy. How do you justify that constraint without eliminating a woman's right to control her own body altogether? Is your view on abortion consistent with allowing people significant personal autonomy?"

Likewise, someone who supports some or other case of abortion can rightly be asked: "You are supporting the killing of a human being. How do you justify such killing in a way that doesn't permit the killing of any human being whatsoever? Is your view on abortion consistent with the view that taking a human life is wrong?"

It is entirely acceptable to challenge a person's moral views, and to ask how they justify them and whether those views are logically consistent with other accepted moral values. But this is a far cry from distorting someone's position.

Caricaturing an opponent's beliefs is sometimes difficult to distinguish from other harmful practices in political debate -- such as exaggerating the consequences, name-calling, and ad hominem argument -- though they are all distinct. Sometimes a person will make a statement that multitasks, and engages in, say, both caricature and name-calling at the same time. The abortion examples noted above probably fit this description, as they caricature a person's beliefs while at the same time amounting to verbal abuse.

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