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Canada Closed for Debate 2: Vilify Your Opponent

This post is Part 2 of the Canada Closed for Debate Series, a four-part exploration of argumentation in Canadian political discourse. For Part 1, click here. Read Part 3, Carrying a Concealed Motive or Part 4, What to do about Bad Arguments?

This is part two of a series on the types of bad arguments frequently found in the Canadian public sphere. The purpose of this series is to provide a taxonomy of demagoguery and to see how these arguments (as put forward by such polarizing campaigns as ‘Ethical Oil’) are harmful to our democracy. The first part concerned topic laundering.

The topic launderer puts a stop to open debate by refusing to answer questions and then changing topic to confuse everyone as to what the debate is really about. This part is about reductio-ad-villainum (reducing your opponent to a villain) in which a peculiar form of libel puts on the cloak of rational argument.

Reductio-ad-Villainum: This style of arguing consists in recasting an opponent’s position to make it look morally bankrupt. It is a curious species of character assassination. You do not have to dig up any dirt on your opponent (that after all requires some research). All you have to do is reframe their position to make the argument itself look dishonourable.

Take the reaction surrounding Thomas Mulcair’s ‘Dutch disease’ argument last May. The leader of the NDP claimed that the Federal government was not enforcing environmental legislation when it came to the Alberta tar sands so that the oil sells cheaper. This over-inflates the worth of the Canadian dollar, which then harms manufacturing exports in other parts of the country (as economists observed in the Netherlands after it found natural gas in the 1960’s). 

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It is a controversial argument that has economists divided, which is all the more reason that it should be debated in parliament, especially after the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) released a report finding that the Harper government’s policies are creating an uneven economy across the provinces.

What response did Mulcair receive?

A chorus of conservative MPs claiming that he was trying to pit the West and the rest of the country against each other. What this response boils down to is that the ‘Dutch disease’ argument is not good because it makes Canadians dislike each other. This isn’t very likely to convince anyone once the veil is pierced.

The MPs no doubt wished to vilify Mulcair but what is especially sinister is that they vilified the argument itself. This fine specimen of the reductio-ad-villainum creates an easy talking point so that anyone who subscribes to the Dutch Disease hypothesis can be accused of hating Albertans. Anyone who rejects the hypothesis is a defender of the prairies.

We go from having a situation where we can debate the causes of manufacturing decline and natural resource development to a situation where anyone who makes the villainous claim is trying to divide the country against itself. Although, it's not likely that advocating strict enforcement of environmental regulations on tar sands development will lead to our nation's first civil war.

The reductio-ad-villainum consists in making an opponent’s argument sound as though it were mean-spirited and then rejecting it on moral grounds. By parodying a rational argument and providing a sound bite, this style of argument appeals to what is worst in us: we get to ignore an opposing argument while feeling a sense of moral superiority.

This bad argument does not foster debate; it shuts debate down.

It is bad for our democracy – it drags down the level of discourse and makes people afraid of holding an opinion after it has been slandered.  The reductio-ad-villainum is a way of silencing an argument rather than a person. It has been used time and again concerning the tar sands by the Conservative government and the Ethical Oil campaign so that, instead of discussing the environmental and economic impact of the oil industry openly and honestly in parliament, most MPs hold their tongues for fear of alienating voters in resource rich provinces.

We have lost sight of the goal of open debate: to get at the truth, not to win at all costs.

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Patrick Eldridge is a researcher and writer at DeSmog Canada. He joined the team in February 2013. His research focuses…

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