When you’re engaged in a contentious conversation or assessing the merits of an argument, there should be one simple question you ask: Are we talking about the issue we sought out to talk about? If the answer is no, please move on; I can tell you with absolute certainty that the rest of the conversation will be a waste of time.
This question is meant to emphasize and simplify a point I made in a previous post: bad argumentation is a crisis that is literally destroying this country. In particular, red herrings, or attempts to redirect an argument to an issue to which you can better respond, are killing all sorts of public dialogue on arrival. The red herring is quite simple but can actually be difficult to identify, so let me just highlight some examples in the zeitgeist:
|Popular Issue||Real Issue|
|Is Hillary Clinton a crook?||What are Hillary Clinton’s positions as President of the United States?|
|Is Donald Trump problematic in his personal life?||What are Donald Trump’s positions as President of the United States?|
|Should Colin Kaepernick sit during the national anthem or is the wording of “Black Lives Matter” appropriate?||Are black lives in America systematically depreciated?|
|What do we have to sacrifice in order to live a more sustainable lifestyle?||Is climate change happening?|
|Does the government have the right to take away our guns? (see below)||Would gun control result in fewer deaths?|
I can relate to the urge to rely on character attacks in lieu of real arguments. Donald Trump is a good example why; his flaws, which are egregious, seem to be proxies for his arguments. How can someone so racist and misogynistic create anything but racist and misogynistic policies? But I beg of you: resist this urge. There is enough ammunition in his actual policies, or lack thereof, to last the election cycle, and you’re not going to win anyone over, except those who already agree with you, by attacking his character.
Why is this as big a problem as I’m making it out to be? The short answer is it’s killing people. Black people continue to die in America at the hands of law enforcement, and an actual conversation about their grievances has yet to even start. With every new form of protest, critics have found new ways to talk about how it isn’t the most productive vehicle of change (and hijacked the national conversation accordingly), all while ignoring the motivation of the movement in the first place.
The dangers of red herrings do not stop there. At the risk of sounding overtly partisan, the Republican Party and aligned judges have masterfully transformed the U.S. Constitution into the world’s largest red herring. I point to D.C. v. Heller, which made a rather large appearance in the third presidential debate, as the perfect example. The case concerns D.C.’s Firearms Control Regulations Act of 1975, an admittedly sweeping piece of gun control legislation, but that’s a discussion for another day. The more relevant issue is the decision, which Adam Freedman summarized as follows (for reference, the 2nd Amendment reads, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed”):
The decision invalidating the district’s gun ban […] cites the second comma (the one after “state”) as proof that the Second Amendment does not merely protect the “collective” rights of states to maintain their militias, but endows each citizen with an “individual” right to carry a gun, regardless of membership in the local militia.
That’s right, an ambiguous comma is essentially what struck down the law. Of course, constitutional legalese often treats red herrings as legitimate points of contention, but the point remains: rather than focusing on the need for regulation to protect the “security” of the United States (because, you know, people are being senselessly murdered at rates unheard of in the developed world), the rationale depended on a technicality in a document written during a time when (a) militias were a thing in the U.S. and (b) commas were used rather haphazardly (just look at the third comma; what exactly is it doing there?).
This is how change doesn’t happen America. This is how countless lives end from gun violence, not with a bang but with a comma.