Intellectual Thugism: The Art of Unilateral Name-Calling
By Maureen A. Roe
August 3, 2006
Self-proclaimed liberal Alan Colmes made an interesting statement to David Horowitz the other evening on FOX News channel’s Hannity and Colmes concerning the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict. “Just because I may disagree with the policies of Israel,” he said, “doesn’t make me an anti-Semite.” That certainly seems like a reasonable claim. In other words, we can disagree with someone without hating him. I may not have liked following many of my parents’ rules, but no one would have called me a parent-hater, “patriphobe” or “matriphobe.” I might not be thrilled with how the government spends my tax dollars, but, in saying that, I wouldn’t likely be named a traitor. In fact, disagreement can be healthy and productive—as long as both sides play fairly. I wouldn’t accuse Mr. Colmes of being anti-Semitic. However, why--when I express views about the need for the United States government to change and fortify its illegal immigration law, when I disagree with these policies—am I immediately given the label “racist,” “supremacist,” or “Hitler”? Or why, if I disagree with the lifestyle of homosexuals, am I said to be gay bashing or—worse—“homophobic”? Last I checked, a phobia was an irrational fear; I’m not afraid of homosexuals. If I am an arachnophobe, does that mean that I disagree with a funnel web spider’s viewpoints or that I am simply scared sick about the possibility of finding one in my bed? Clearly, there is a difference. Why does Mr. Colmes have the right to disagree without being called a name, but I do not? Why are certain words restricted from my vocabulary (I couldn’t call a black person “racist” or a gay person “heterophobic”) but not from another’s?
A few years ago, I tried to organize a faculty colloquium on my campus where professors could meet to discuss current controversies affecting our college. Given the enormous influx of illegal immigrants into California every year (estimations of 3,000-4,000 per day), a portion of our student population is undocumented or descendants of undocumented parents. I also have had students studying here legally with green cards from Romania, Greece, Brazil, and Vietnam. I figured this issue was relevant enough to warrant a discussion. I called the colloquium simply, “Legal and Illegal Immigration.” Within a few hours of sending out the campus-wide email to announce the upcoming event, I received a full-page reply from a fellow faculty member—whom I had never met before and who is Hispanic—urging me not to facilitate this roundtable. I was accused of being “mean-spirited” and “divisive.” Huh? The flyer promoting the event said nothing more than, “Please join us for our 1st Faculty Colloquium. The topic is Legal and Illegal Immigration. Come to share your ideas and opinions in a respectful, collegial forum.” How exactly was that “mean” or “divisive”? I did not say, “Only come if you own a white hood or if you are a card-carrying member of La Raza.” The flyer gave no indication of whether I was arguing for or against immigration. I was just stating the issue—using words to clarify an idea. Now if this disgruntled colleague did not like my word choice, then she needed to come up with something else that retained the meaning.
“Immigration” is the act of moving from one country to another. That term is not problematic. “Legal” means allowed or permitted by official rules. It is legal to drive with a license at sixteen and to drink at twenty-one. Anything prohibited by official or accepted rules is “illegal.” I drive at thirteen or drink at fifteen, I get in trouble with the law and rightfully so. We look back to the colloquium title and not much could be misunderstood or even controversial in and of itself. “Legal immigration” applies to those who are permitted entrance into the United States—about 50,000 with green cards every year. “Illegal immigration” occurs each day at the California/Mexico or Arizona/Mexico border when three to four thousand people who are prohibited by law from entering the U.S. do so nonetheless. Our roundtable was simply going to discuss the reality of what happens at our borders, the impact of the illegal immigrant influx on border states, and any foreseeable resolution to the ongoing debate. However, because I used the word “illegal” (apparently another term I am denied if it refers to any action that a liberal would deem acceptable—illegal immigration, reverse discrimination, 2nd Amendment rights violations), I was assigned my own words (“mean-spirited” and “divisive”). Ultimately, since I was not tenured at the time and did not want to stir up too much controversy, I caved by agreeing to rename the colloquium just “Immigration.” That appeased my accuser. And after all that hoopla, the colleague, by the way, did not even choose to attend the gathering.
Despite Jacques Derrida’s attempt to convince us with his deconstruction theory that speech and writing are too imprecise to represent reality because words merely refer to other words, most of us can see the futility of that philosophy—we realize that, indeed, words do mean something. It is cowardly to shut down an argument with name-calling. I oppose affirmative action; therefore, I am racist. I support the war in Iraq, so I am a warmonger. I oppose abortion—I must be anti-woman. I support the private ownership of guns by responsible citizens; thus, I am a vigilante. I oppose Hezbollah and Al-qaeda, so I am an Islamophobe. Indeed, such names are meaningful because they are words, and words mean something. However, to hurl words as a substitute for critical thought and dialogue and as nothing more than quick, cheap shot ways to quiet an opponent is intellectual thugism—especially when it is only allowed by one side.
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