Shawn Kelley | Civility under fire


A Vet-ted Mind | The profusion of personal attacks in public forums needs to end




S ince coming to Penn, I’ve been a fairly frequent reader of The Daily Pennsylvanian. Last year I joined the paper as an associate copy editor and began reading the paper every day — not just for my job, but to support my colleagues as well. This summer I took on the task of being an opinion columnist. The experiences have been rewarding, but they have also made something glaringly obvious — that informed debate is taking a backseat to blind disparagement.

This is an issue that has been brought up a few times in the past couple of years, especially in regards to online publications. While I know the DP has a broad reader base, Penn students, faculty and alumni make up a large majority of it. As educated people we are taught and understand that informal fallacies — also appropriately called irrelevant appeals — have no place in intellectual debates.

Yet read any comments section of nearly any column in the DP, and there you will find a plethora of argumentum ad hominem attacks. As a journalist, it’s expected that what you write will be scrutinized and come under attack. This process of criticism is also part of what makes things like doctoral dissertations so important. However, you’ll never find a member of a doctoral committee discredit a Ph.D. candidate because they believe the candidate is “part of what’s wrong with the Ivy League” or is “unaware of what happens outside of [his] yacht club suburbia.” Yet those are two exact comments I’ve seen used to criticize DP columnists.

I have a special dislike of ad hominem fallacies because they are assaults on individuals without basis. The people who make the accusations more often than not do not know the person whom they are bashing. This reflects poorly on the accuser because it demonstrates laziness and a weak premise. Degrading the composer of a piece does not disprove the validity of their statements.

True discourse can only be achieved through rational arguments and counterarguments. While we can feel strongly about a topic, it is imperative that we always speak from a firm foundation of reason. Former Texas politician Barbara Jordan is a prime example of this. As a leader of the civil rights movement, she had a lot of passion for what she did. However, as a lawyer and educated woman, she knew that proof and facts were required to make persuasive arguments. At the end of her opening statement to the House Judiciary Committee regarding the impeachment of Richard Nixon, she said, “It is reason, and not passion, which must guide our deliberations, guide our debate and guide our decision.”

I don’t always agree with my colleagues; however, it is these disagreements which lead to lively debate. I believe I speak for all of my colleagues when I say we would love to debate our stance on an issue. By holding open forums and discussing topics, we open ourselves to many points of view, some of which we may not have considered. When those points of view are strengthened by sound arguments and proof, we are able to affect the knowledge of both parties, as well as audience members.

As Penn students, faculty and alumni, I believe we are all well-educated, which is why it saddens me to see attacks on authors rather than their ideas. There are some commenters out there who provide detailed accounts of why they believe an argument is wrong. These are the people setting an example for the rest of us. I consider the DP to be a public forum for the exchanging of ideas. Instead, though, I get to a comments section and discover an elementary schoolyard. We are better than petty name-calling.

It is time to take a stand against the debasement and trolling that has been gaining popularity in online forums. It is time we stopped the verbal battery of others because we disagree with their opinions, and instead tackle the ideas with which we take issue. Civility is just as important in the world outside of academia as it is within.

Shawn Kelley is an LPS sophomore from San Diego studying English and Japanese. His email address is skelley@sas.upenn.edu.

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