Proof By Intimidation

When I was in college, a very dry math professor of mine was discussing deductive proofs vs. inductive proofs. He blandly commented that if we didn’t do things exactly the way he said to do them, he would flunk us… and that, he said, was proof by intimidation.

Proof-by-intimidation seems to be the favored technique in political discourse these days. I don’t spend a lot of time listening to the “entertainment as political opinion” from either the left or the right, since there is rarely anything of value. The modus operandi of opinion commentators like Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage is to offer calm, deliberate opinion when solo, but when placed in a situation where they have to engage with an opposing opinion, the approach looks a lot different.  When there is a challenge to those ideas and for which there is no rational counterpoint, they resort to proof-by-intimidation. The volume and the insults ramp up and the most common reaction of the opposing opinion is to be quieted or ratchet up the rhetoric. At that point, there is no discourse, just Jerry Springer-like “entertainment”. It’s sad.

Michael Savage appeared on NPR’s Talk of the Nation on May 5, 2009 to discuss his being placed on a terrorist watch list in Britain which banned him from entering the UK. A caller from Iowa called in.  Let’s look at the transcript:

CONAN: Let’s see if we get a caller in on the line. 800-989-8255, email: talk@npr.org. Our guest is Michael Savage, the host of “Savage Nation,” learned earlier today that he’d been banned from entering the United Kingdom.

Jeffrey(ph) is on the air. Jeffrey calling from Des Moines, Iowa.

JEFFREY (Caller): If you listen to Michael Savage – if every time he says Islam or Muslim, you insert either Jew or Christian, he would be off the air in one day. I’ve had…

Mr. SAVAGE: Wait, I don’t want to listen to this foaming lunatic. I came on the air to give you my opinion, not to listen to someone in pajamas in a mental asylum in Iowa. So if…

(Soundbite of laughter)

JEFFREY: You know…

Mr. SAVAGE: No, no, you listen to me. You’re a nobody.

JEFFREY: (Unintelligible)

CONAN: Michael Savage?

Mr. SAVAGE: You’re nobody and I’m not going to talk to you. Now, Neal, if you’d like to continue the discussion, I’ll do so. Otherwise, I have more important things to do than talk to someone in pajamas in an institution in Iowa.

CONAN: Then go do them, please.

Mr. SAVAGE: Thank you.

CONAN: Michael Savage, hanging up on us from his office in San Francisco.

We clearly have someone in Michael Savage who is uninterested in anyone’s opinion other than his own. In my experience, people who exhibit that sort of behavior intrinsically understand that their point-of-view is difficult to support intellectually.  I’ve seen Bill O’Reilly use the same technique many times, one of the most memorable on the Oprah Winfrey show years ago.

Policy matters. Words matter. We can’t get to good, moderate public policy until we start to engage in intelligent discourse with intelligent people. We have to start with a genuine desire to understand and appreciate – but not necessarily agree with – people on the other side of the political divide. We need people like William F. Buckley. Some of the conservative points-of-view have merit. At the very least, it helps to moderate an over-reach by the left. That is particularly important given that the Democrats have control of the White House and both chambers of Congress.

Our national policies will be suboptimal until commentators like Keith Olberman, Bill O’Reilly, Rachel Maddow, Michael Savage and Rush Limbaugh no longer have an audience because we have less of an appetite for this garbage and start to have an appetite for resolving the challenges that this country faces.

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