November 16, 2018

Dear Drama Observers,

Most everyone has heard about the recent kerfuffle between Pete Davidson, a Saturday Night Live cast member, and newly elected Republican congressman and combat veteran Dan Crenshaw.

Here’s a quick recap: Davidson made disparaging remarks about Crenshaw on the show two weeks ago. Many were outraged at his ridiculing of a combat veteran’s war injuries. On last week’s show, Davidson apologized followed by Crenshaw’s surprise appearance in which he, as part of the skit, made disparaging remarks in jest about Davidson. He also complimented Davidson’s father who died as a first responder on September 11th.

It was all good fun, but far more importantly, it stood in stark contrast to today’s political environment in which opponents trash and demean each other and would never, under any circumstances, forgive each other. Writer David French called it “an act of grace heard ‘round the nation.”

This all got me thinking about the distinctions between those who insult and those who persuade. I came up with a list so long that I decided to give it to you in parts rather than in one fell swoop. This will be Part 1 of 3. Heck, by the time we get through, there may even be a Part 4.

Insulters act like children.

Persuaders act like grownups.

Children start out in life dominated by their primitive impulses, but become—or should become—more civilized as they make their way to adulthood. As adults, we learn to constrain our impulsive reactions and replace them with chosen responses. Insulters eschew such constraints and say whatever they think whenever they think it. That’s a bad thing. But in today’s political climate, it’s sometimes bizarrely applauded as a good thing. It’s like rewarding the class clown for disrupting the class.

The exchange between Davidson and Crenshaw was a rare display of adulthood in which two grownups countered their tit-for-tat impulses and rose above the fray. They chose to be “bigger persons” and reminded a watching nation that such a thing can be done. They’re on opposite sides of many issues but for that moment, got along nonetheless.

Insulters take short cuts.

Persuaders play the long game.

We should argue more. By that, I mean we should construct arguments for our deeply held ideas and persuade others with the strength of those arguments. People who don’t share our ideas have counter arguments that first need to be heard and understood. Argument construction and refutation of counter arguments takes work.

Insulters don’t want to work that hard. Insults are lazy substitutes for well-constructed arguments in the exchange of ideas. Insults are rhetorical shortcuts, bypassing the hard work of argument construction. Zingers motivate insulters while ideas motivate persuaders. Insulters are more interested in scoring points than making points. They’re motivated by winning the moment more than winning the argument.

How many times have you seen someone preen with self-satisfaction after sticking it to an opponent on a cable talk show? I always think,

“If cute-insult-delivery was your objective, congratulations, you won. But if persuading skeptics was your objective, I hate to break this to you, but you lost. The people behind you—those who already believe like you—are cheering your insults. But those in front you—those you’d like to persuade—are jeering at your insults. Is that really all you want?”

Insults never change minds; they only strengthen resolve.

Insulters play to the crowd.

Persuaders appeal to the individual.

Crowds, as we know, have tremendous power. They can be forces for good (think, Civil Rights marches) or forces for evil (think, lynch mobs). We say things in crowded stadiums we would never say to individuals. For instance, I’ve never said to a friend of mine who supports an opposing team, “Hey, Dude, I’m gonna push you back, push you back, way back.”

As many cultures do, we have a long history of demagogues, firebrands, and provocateurs whose influence derives from the power of crowds. And insults seem to be their stock in trade. They seem less interested in persuading listeners than in stoking the masses.

Recently deceased theologian, Eugene Peterson, once observed:

Classically, there are three ways in which humans try to find transcendence—religious meaning—apart from God. Through the ecstasy of alcohol and drugs, through the ecstasy of recreational sex, and through the ecstasy of crowds. Church leaders frequently warn against the drugs and the sex, but at least in America, almost never against the crowds.”

Again, crowds aren’t always bad. But sometimes, a crowd is like a petri dish in which the bacterium of insults multiplies.

Insulters attack the person

Persuaders attack the ideas

Insulters care more about being abrasive than persuasive. They consider it a job well done when they “make the right people mad.” But contrast the asininity of that method with the approach of Dan Crenshaw as stated in his Washington Post op-ed:

How, then, do we live together in this world of differing ideas? For starters, let’s agree that the ideas are fair game. If you think my idea is awful, you should say as much. But there is a difference between attacking an idea and attacking the person behind that idea. Labeling someone as an “-ist” who believes in an “-ism” because of the person’s policy preference is just a shortcut to playground-style name-calling, cloaked in political terminology. It’s also generally a good indication that the attacker doesn’t have a solid argument and needs a way to end debate before it has even begun.”

Next week, we’ll continue this discussion in Part 2.

4 replies
  1. Adele
    Adele says:

    Yes, good points. People also need to have the courage to share their positions openly and put these out for discussion. Unfortunately, sometimes this courage is in short supply. When people have a basic respect for their fellow human beings, it sets a culture of respectful exchange. Everyone’s input is valued.

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