Dishonest Argument: the Social Divider

Bill Clinton with Ross Perot, Independent, and...
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The other day I mentioned the argumentative reversal in debate, when one party makes use of the argument against it to try to turn the tables, sort of the way in Aikido, one does not directly counter the opponent, but redirects his attacking force back against him. The party implicitly accepts an argument – without acknowledging that acceptance or the foundation the acceptance could provide toward some measure of agreement – only for the purpose of using the underlying principle behind it to launch a mirror counter argument and put the other party on the defensive.

A variation of the argumentative reversal uses the “I could argue” rhetorical ploy. Professional political spinmeisters use this technique frequently. Make what argument you will, say that WI Governor Scott Walker has, in the jargon of the day, “overreached” by pursuing a policy – public sector union busting – not supported by the voters, and the counter claimant will respond, “I could argue that Barack Obama did the same thing by pursing healthcare reform not supported by the majority of American voters.”

Leaving aside the embedded claim about what the majority of American voters support, this counter move is completely devious. Has the person making it accepted the claim about Walker? Has that person agreed to the questionable principle that governmental chief executives should govern according to changeable poll results? Is the person praising or rejecting both claims? None of these. The individual has only attempted to shift the ground and place the attacker on the defensive. It is a move made only to obscure the truth, fool the audience, avoid giving ground and appear to win the argument. Neither truth nor agreement is an object. In this case, one obscured truth is that Barack Obama ran very openly and assertively on his desire to reform healthcare policy in the U.S., whatever the details. In contrast, Scott Walker did not run on – there is no record of his ever once affirming – a policy of eliminating collective bargaining rights for public sector unions. And many an interlocutor, not wanting to grant that distinction, for fear of giving any ground to the opposition, will respond, “I could argue….”

You often hear these days some formulation of “I could argue” regarding rhetorical excess and abusive demonization of Presidents. Conservatives attacked today for their treatment of Obama will call up the Left’s hatred and abuse of George W. Bush. Liberals will in turn reach farther back to the charges against Bill Clinton. “I could argue” is no more than an adult version of the eight-year-old’s “She did it too!”

This kind of dishonesty in debate poisons social relations. There are authentic and respectable philosophical differences to be understood and managed within the general political framework of a liberal democracy. Negotiating often dramatically different world views is difficult enough even when there is respect for the sincerity and good will of the other side. When people come to believe, in addition, that those of contrary views will dishonestly maneuver to avoid any concession in understanding, even before compromise in policy, difference in point of view deteriorates into an abiding animus.

In the current conflicts (nothing in the public discourse bears any resemblance to actual, honest argument) over the rights of public sector employees to unionize and bargain collectively, a dishonest representation less apparent than the argumentative reversal is the simple mischaracterization. The mischaracterization is different from misreporting details or the suppression of contradictory information. In a mischaracterization, an element in a debate is inadequately – not fully – explained. The element is often, then, named or labeled deceptively. What purportedly really is at issue in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee, and more states – according to Republican governors – are budgetary problems. Within that framework, public sector unions are criticized for their overly generous “benefits,” including, in some cases, “free” benefits.

Now, Webster’s, first, defines “benefit” in the way it used here as a service (as health insurance) or right (as to take vacation time) provided by an employer in addition to wages or salary.” The truth is that most unions – public sector or private – negotiate salary, health insurance, and pension coverage as “total compensation,” compensation meaning remuneration: payment for services. Most unions (I can hardly speak to all) make trades in the bargaining process among salary, health coverage costs, and pension contributions.

I served on the two contract negotiating teams for the Los Angeles College Faculty Guild, and as a member of the Guild’s executive board was knowledgeable about the negotiations of other contracts. We accepted lower salaries than we would otherwise have sought (and increases in pension vesting time) in order to have the value of those salary increases fund health coverage. It was all compensation for services, and we negotiated the direction of that compensation into different areas of the package. These “benefits” are not benefits in the sense of any extra gift of kindness from the employer. Whatever “contribution,” is made by the employee toward health care or pension, that is, “contribution” as deduction from salary or copay or deductible, is not, by these terms, an employee payment toward the benefit, while the rest is gifted to the worker: it is a modification of the compensation that was negotiated. The total not paid for directly by the employee is not a gift to the employee from the employer or the taxpayer – a category of stakeholder, when speaking of public sector unions, that includes the employee – but is part of compensation. It is no more “free” than is salary, which also – curious, and obviously absurd, to note – does not come out of the employees paycheck as a deduction.

It might at any time, given circumstances, be appropriate to renegotiate some elements of such packages up or down. Those are reasonable and fair discussions and debates to have, whatever the positions and outcomes. But mischaracterizing the terms of the debate in order to mislead less knowledgeable segments of the public about the nature of the situation and the position of union members – something that elected and unelected Republicans know well they are doing – while it may sometimes succeed in gaining policy victories, only, in its dishonesty, rips the social fabric in ways that recent decades suggest cannot be mended.


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