Ouellette: A Tactic of Deception

by Torrese Ouellette | 2/1/12 11:00pm

Following the publication of Andrew Lohse's recent column ("Telling the Truth," Jan. 25), many critics decided not to focus on his actual arguments or experiences but instead chose to rehash the mistakes he made in his past or attribute the abuse he claimed to suffer in the Greek system to his own weakness of conviction. Instead of raising strong rebuttals against Lohse's critique of Dartmouth's Greek culture and administration, they resorted to ad hominem attacks, a form of argumentation symptomatic of a society that would rather blame the victim of a structural problem or destroy the messenger who raises awareness about a social ill than come to terms with the possibility of their own potential culpability. Perhaps we resent those who remind us of our complicity in society's failings. Perhaps we despise those who make mistakes because we see similar mistakes in ourselves. Whatever the reason, the tendency to resort to ad hominem attacks is a powerful and destructive tactic that silences rather than enlivens needed dialogue.

At their worst, ad hominem assaults distort the facts and focus of a debate on important issues. Personal attacks are usually the weapon of choice of poor debaters or of individuals who, for whatever reason, simply have a stake in preventing the sort of reforms that might result from the speaker's original message. Even more ominously, ad hominem assaults are the bully's final, brutal act of desperation. They are an act of silencing that aims to destroy not only the speaker's character, but also his or her ability to speak at all. But if our personal failings, large or small, truly disqualified us from giving voice to our experiences about the world around us, no man or woman would ever have the right to speak. When the character of the individual messenger becomes the most prominent element of the debate, it absolves the rest of us from coming to terms with how all of us might play a role in the social problem that the messenger sought to bring to light. Every attempt to discuss a social ill would cease then at its very inception. No progress would occur.

The specifics of Lohse's past should not detract from his right to voice his perspective. His complicated history with the Greek system might actually prove to make his view especially valuable. We also must understand that crimes committed in a community are of a social character, and we are all collectively responsible for their occurrence. At the very least we all have an interest in understanding the sources of the problem and in developing solutions.

It is important to note that there is a difference between opening a discussion about an issue or problem and then resorting to accusation to divert the audience's attention from the speaker's original grievances. The distracting emphasis on Lohse's personal life is irrelevant to his views on the Greek system. A woman's sexual history is irrelevant to whether or not she deserves justice for alleged sexual assault. An inmate's criminal record has no impact on the veracity of his complaints against the justice system. An Occupier's employment status has no bearing on the legitimacy of his or her arguments against income inequality or the capitalist system.

Why should the unemployed protestor not be able to criticize the system that left him jobless? Why should the woman whatever her sexual history not have the right to seek justice if she feels that she has been violated? Why should the inmate not be given voice to criticize the system that oppresses him? If the unemployed protestor wishes to critique capitalism, why shouldn't we listen to her? And why should a student with a complicated relationship with the College not be allowed to raise awareness about the ills he perceives within the institution?

So let us be rid of this idea, once and for all, that personal mistakes or vulnerabilities real or perceived should disqualify anyone from voicing their concerns. Let us be rid of the pettiness so that the conversation can begin. Everyone deserves the chance to give voice to what they believe, particularly if they have the courage to speak out in spite of the assaults of deception and distraction that are likely to follow.