I don’t know precisely when the practice of using real verifiable facts as a basis for argument began to disappear but it appears to have two possible sources. The first was the advent of 24-hour cable news followed by talk radio in which huge amounts of time must be filled with commentary; facts seemed to become optional when speculation, predicting the future, mind reading and ideological purity became popular. The second was probably the expansion of professional wrestling and NBA basketball, both of which began to gain audience based on thuggish behavior, gratuitous insult and vulgar wit. Politicians became masters of the sound bite, knowing it would get more attention than complex reasoning. Then, the citizen partisans on both sides of the political spectrum started following their sport, media and political idols.
Now, it seems that many people are convinced that ad hominem attack is proof of flawless reasoning. Whereas reasoned argument used to be judged by the marshalling of facts leading to conclusions, current fashion appears to give more weight to innuendo, suggestion and fallacious opinion unsupported by facts. A few examples from recent Letters to the Editor illustrate this point: primal scream, entrenched incumbents, unconstitutional laws, in-their-pockets media, SEIU, NEA, trial lawyers, George Soros, ABC, CBS, leftist mass media, rubbish and scare tactics, blithering ignorance, hypocrisy, totalitarian Democrats, Dear Leader’s party, screaming, totalitarian left, liberal Democrat talking points, etc.
I couldn’t object to many of these terms if they were used with some actual factual support rather than serving as a kind of rhetorical Kool-Aid. They are designed to add heat rather than light and elicit a visceral response. Trial lawyer, for example, refers to a necessary and honorable profession many of whose members go to church, belong to both political parties and pay taxes. However, to a certain political faction, it has become an insult to be used as political shorthand; saying that someone is supported by trial lawyers is supposed to make them look bad. Most of these terms, like totalitarian, actually mean something, but they have now become simply verbal rocks totally divorced from any real-world meaning.
Finally, I don’t mean to suggest that any one set of ideologues has a monopoly on these fallacies of relevance. The willful blindness of ideology infects those on both ends of the political spectrum and discourse cannot remain civil when ones’ opponents are seen as maleficent and stupid. Nothing is gained by asserting that millions of our fellow citizens are suffering from a mental illness or are ill-designing traitors. If we could simply back up our opinions with facts and evidence, the sine qua non of reasoning, then we might stand a chance of talking to each other rather than at each other.