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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Fighting Fire with Flames: Only Compassionate Conservatives Can Exacerbate Forrest Fires

Fighting Fire with Flames: Only Compassionate Conservatives Can Exacerbate Forrest Fires
Image © Austin Cline
Original Poster: National Archives
Click for full-sized Image

If "blaming the victims" were a sport, conservatives like Glenn Beck would be world-class stars. As it is, they are just world-class stars of America's conservative movements — which these days seems to be about the same thing anyway, right? Beck had already made a name for himself for his earlier attacks on both families of the victims of the 9-11 terrorist attacks and the victims of hurricane Katrina; now he has attacked victims of the wildfires in California. I don't see much condemnation from the right, so it's hard to regard this as just one lone nut spouting off.

What is it about the victims of circumstances or tragedy which seems to attract such viciousness from so many conservatives? We could see a similar process at work when conservatives attacked the Frost family on account of their support for S-CHIP: people who were victims of circumstance and tragedy speaking out on behalf of social policies which conservatives disagree with. Is that the key factor, perhaps? Victims are OK, but only so long as they stand silent in their suffering and avoid taking any position which might conflict with the conservative agenda?

People react to personal stories much more strongly than they do to abstract arguments, so if you want to convince someone of a position, you're better off with a story and characters they can personally relate to rather than cold logic. That's only to be expected with social animals, and I think it's an important factor here. Even if they don't understand it consciously, conservatives surely recognize that their agenda is in trouble if sympathetic people with tragic stories are allowed to influence the national debate. They apparently don't have any counter-stories, so their only tactic is to harm the people involved: the politics of personal destruction.

Granted, personal stories, personal tragedies, and anecdotes aren't necessarily good reasons for adopting a particular policy position. If otherwise sound, empirical, and logical arguments exist, however, then it's justified to employ stories as a means for getting attention and attracting a sympathetic hearing to an idea. Conservative attacks are thus not really an effort to thwart fallacious arguments, yet neither are they themselves just ad hominem attacks.

By engaging in destructive, personal attacks, they may actually be undermining the ability of people to connect to and empathize with each other. These attacks on individuals are, in a sense, attacks on the basis for human community. Conservatives claim to represent the interests of traditional community values, but they can't do that if they aren't supporting the foundations of community. This isn't the nuclear (one man + one woman) family, nor even Christianity; instead, it's the ability and willingness of different people to come together despite differences because they are able to empathize with each other and take on burdens together.

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