In last night’s show of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart spent a segment laying into Keith Olberman, host of MSNBC’s Countdown. He is the liberal equivalent to Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, and he used to be a host of ESPN’s Sports Center. He’s known for his quick wit, fast-talking diatribes and punchy rhetoric. I don’t watch him, but apparently he’s been doing his fair share of ad hominem attacks lately — instead of engaging in idealogical disagreement, he’s just attacking character and doing a lot of name-calling. So last night, Stewart called Olberman out.
What I find interesting is how universally common this is — it’s so easy to think that name-calling is actual argumentation. One doesn’t have to be a national broadcaster to be tempted to engage in ad hominem attacks though. Anytime we find ourselves disagreeing with someone else, it’s hard to remain engaged at an issue level. It’s hard not to give into just name calling when someone at work, in our family, a spouse, or a friend disagrees with us or challenges us. In the political world, Olberman uses his position of media power to tear down those with whom he disagrees without engaging them in idealogical discourse. I’m guessing a lot of that is just because it’s really hard work. Thoughtful and articulate engagement at an issue level is hard for the writers. It’s much easier to just call someone a “fat-a**” because you think their politics are bad and you’re too tired to explain why you think so.
The same principle applies to our relationships. When I’m in an argument with my wife, it takes real work to resolve our conflict. We need to spend time to lovingly wade through our disagreement. If I’m too tired to do this, I can be tempted to resort to name calling. I can try and easily win the argument by brining up a past grievance. I can resort to a sort of ad hominem attack that is really just a lazy cop out of the argument and the relationship. Listening to Stewart tear into Olberman was more than just entertaining for me, it was good commentary on the temptations we all face when we are engaged in an argument. And it’s a good reminder why it’s important to work at our disagreements whether at a national level or in our homes.