Sunday, February 5, 2012

Attacking the messenger, not the message

(image from Muniland)

Here's an interesting post at the Atheist Experience:
JT Eberhard decries the despicable bullying that Jessica Ahlquist has received for her role in getting the prayer mural taken down at her high school, and expresses concern for her safety.

[Michael] Egnor accuses Eberhard of “using a schoolgirl as a human shield.”

Now, I’m not sure if I actually agree with JT that the school has grounds to stop something that is essentially passive-aggressive behavior on the part of hostile students (wearing t-shirts), and Egnor may or may not be on the right side of that issue… but that’s not my point here.

What’s interesting to me is that Egnor has gone for a particular line of response that involves snidely insulting Jessica herself — dismissing her as an irrelevant pawn in this story, manipulated by the evil atheist community who merely wants to use her as a buffer against criticism because she’s a teenager. In other words, he’s attacking her character with ageism while pretending to be defending her virtue, all in the service of minimizing the criticism against the bullying itself.

This is pretty rude, especially from my perspective since I’ve talked to Jessica Ahlquist on The Non-Prophets, and she was a great conversationalist. Extremely bright, fully self-aware of what she was getting into, and coolly analytical about the constitutional issues involved. Quite possibly my favorite guest of the last year.

Egnor’s on the attack, and instead of dealing head-on with the real issues of a school that deliberately pushed religion on its students and then looks the other way while someone is harassed, he chooses to piss and moan about how unfair it is that Jessica’s age somehow makes her a “shield” for adults who have the same concern.

Of course - unless you've been living in a cave recently - this is all about this issue. :)

(Note that the link to Michael Egnor's post is actually where he's just replying to an anonymous internet commenter. Here's his post about JT Eberhard's comments.)
This reminded me of something I once noticed about Ann Coulter — who, big surprise, is apparently a hero of Egnor’s. I dug up the post. It’s political, so it turned out to be something I wrote on my personal blog in 2006 when she was touring around to hype that bile-storm of a book she called “Godless.”

Ann was, at the time, incensed about a group of 9/11 widows speaking out against the Iraq war. She said, “This is the Left’s doctrine of infallibility. If they have a point to make about the 9-11 Commission, about how to fight the war on terrorism, how about sending in somebody we’re allowed to respond to? No, no, no, we always have to respond to someone who just had a family member die.”

But as I pointed out, Coulter doesn’t really know what it means to “respond to” someone. In her view, “responding” is essentially identical to “attacking the character of.” And what she was really complaining about, in the end, was that if she slings petty insults at a group of widows, she looks like a loathsome, morally retarded harpy. And that’s totally not fair!

Egnor here is pulling a line out of the Coulter playbook. He’s upset that he can’t very well deploy an ad hominem against Jessica directly, because he’ll wind up sounding like a total douche-nozzle for throwing in with the bullies. (Not that this stopped her state senator from doing it.) So he attacks Jessica — not for what she did, but just for being the kind of person that most people are sympathetic to. And he does it by proxy, by pretending to attack people who are mainly concerned for her safety and well-being.

Good point, don't you think? Jessica Ahlquist is only 16 years old, but she seems to be very bright and quite capable of thinking for herself. Did you see, at the end of my previous post, how she replied to an unexpected question from the New York Times? That was impressive.

At the same time, she's only 16, so she hardly deserves to be attacked personally for sticking up for the U.S. Constitution. But then, does anyone deserve that? And why would that be necessary, anyway?

Ann Coulter could have disagreed with those 9/11 widows. Why not? If you disagreed with them about the Iraq War, why not say so? You could give your reasons without sounding like a harpy, couldn't you? Well, you could. But as this post indicates, Ann Coulter responds to people by making ad hominem attacks. Typically, she doesn't reply to the message, she attacks the messenger.

This is the same way. So what if Jessica Ahlquist is only 16 years old? You can still disagree with her. And you'd be just as wrong to attack her - herself, not her ideas - if she were 60.

I think it's insulting to say that adult atheists put Jessica up to this. After all, she was raised Catholic, but she's been thinking for herself long enough to become an atheist, despite all she was told. Clearly, she's not so easily manipulated.

But what if they did? Obviously, you want a sympathetic plaintiff  in any legal case. It might not help, but it can't hurt, right? (I believe she was just one of the plaintiffs. That's usually how it's done. And as a student herself, she clearly had standing in the case. That's a legal necessity.)

But what difference would it make if adults did put her up to it? What, you can't argue that a 16-year-old might be wrong? This makes no difference at all, unless your idea of arguing a position is to attack the person on the other side of the debate.

Jessica Ahlquist probably is getting some sympathy because religious nuts are threatening her. I'm guessing - I'm hoping - that these threats are mostly from kids themselves, and not from adults. But you have to wonder, because Michael Egnor seems to be complaining about the PR difficulty in attacking a 16-year-old.

Well, I have no sympathy for that at all. You shouldn't be attacking her, regardless of her age. If you have a rational argument against her position, which was, after all, determined in federal court to be the correct interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, then let's hear it. For that kind of argument, it won't make any difference at all that Jessica is just 16.

No comments: