Wednesday, August 13, 2008

It Works!

Negative ads: They really do work.

This is what a former political advisor to Hillery Clinton tells us in an editorial in Political titled, "Negative ads: They really do work."

However, there is an important fact that we need to keep in mind any time we hear somebody claim that "It works" (for any given 'it'). This is the fact that the phrase assumes a set of goals or objectives. If you change the background assumptions regarding the goals and objectives, the phrase changes from being true to being false (or vica versa).

For example, a hammer 'works' if your goal if you have a sack of nails to put in a board. Less so if you have a pack of screws. A wrecking ball 'works' if your objective is to bring down a building. Less so if your objective is to remove somebody's appendix.

To say that something works is to say that it is useful in bringing about some assumed goals. This type of phrase is only concerned with a descriptive cause and effect. However, when we go further and endorse the use of the tool that ‘works’, we are also going further and endorsing those ends.

It is one thing to say that potassium cyanide will work as a way of silencing an obnoxious neighbor’s noisy pet. This statement is true – a descriptive fact about the world.

It is quite another to endorse the use of poison to silence a neighbor’s noisy pet. This statement endorses being a certain type of person – a person willing to do such a thing.

When somebody uses the phrase "It works" to endorse a practice, this tells us something about his values – what his goals and concerns are. This tells us what type of person we are dealing with – his moral character.

Mark Penn represents one of the most vile and destructive forces in America today – a group of people for whom "it works" exists in an almost complete moral void.

The tactic meets with media and pundit disapproval and spawns accusations of negativity, but the reality is that a clever negative ad can be devastatingly effective.

Penn does not seem to realize that he is talking about two different things there. There is no contradiction in disapproving of something that also happens to be "devastatingly effective". Shooting somebody with a shotgun multiple times is "devastatingly effective" when it comes to killing him. This does not say that it is anything wrong with expressing disapproval over those who use such a system.

Of course, voters publicly condemn negative advertising and suggest they would never be swayed by it.

The fact is, if negative advertising were not effective, there would be little reason to condemn it. We do not waste our energy condemning the person who thinks that he can teleport money out of the bank vault and into the shoebox under his bed. His insanity proves that he is not really a threat. We will save our energy for those who rob banks using guns or by hacking computers.

It is because negative advertising is effective, and because it exhibits a set of values that are so destructive to the country and the political process that it deserves our condemnation.

Later in the article, Penn states that negative advertising can be unfair. However, he argues, positive advertising can be unfair as well. He brought up the example of John Edward's claim that he would deny Congress its legislative package unless it passed health care reform for everybody else. A President has no power to do such things.

However, these claims about morally faulty positive advertisements are completely irrelevant. They are like trying to defend the act of robbing people with a gun by saying, "Well, you can rob a person with a knife as well." In order to have a relevant argument, you have to have an implication such as, "Since robbing people with a knife is legitimate, robbing people with a gun is legitimate as well." Yet, once we admit that lying in a positive advertisement is also immoral, it is also irrelevant.

An argument can be made that we should pay attention to the fairness or unfairness of an advertisement, not whether it is positive or negative. Penn's last statement suggests that fairness is a moral constraint on both positive and negative advertisements.

This year, you can expect a tough political season and plenty of negative ads. Done fairly, they serve a legitimate role.

However, it would have been instructive if Penn had said something about how to distinguish fair from unfair arguments. As it stands, the article that Penn authored does not contain a single example of an argument that he would not support. It never gave a single standard for distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate political advertisements except for an undefined reference to what is 'fair'.

Apparently, Penn thinks that it would have been ‘fair’ to release an advertisement that cast Obama as being ‘foreign’. Penn proposed an advertisement that pointed out that Obama was the child of a Muslim from Kenya who later became an atheist, and that his mother was an atheist. The ad would have included the fact that Obama spent much of his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia. All of this was meant to support our claim that we should not have a candidate that was foreign to American values in this time of war.

To mention that such an advertisement would have been effective is to describe the world, and perhaps to describe it accurately. However, to endorse the use of the advertisement is to endorse the values expressed by having such an advertisement.

The advertisement endorses and promotes the idea that somebody who comes from Muslim parents or atheist parents is unfit to rule the United States. The advertisement does not stop at merely stating these claims about Obama and his family. The advertisement goes on to endorse as if to recommend the attitude that it is inappropriate to vote for somebody who has Muslim or Atheist parents. It promotes the bigotry that such people are unfit for public office.

"Don't vote for him. He's the descendent of Muslims and Atheists" is substantially the same as "Don't vote for him. He's black." It is an invitation to use an irrelevant criteria as a standard for determining who may or may not hold public office.

Penn apparently thinks that this type of behavior is 'fair' – that it is legitimate – and that it is permissible to encourage these types of attitudes among the population in general.

Penn not only sought to endorse and promote attitudes of bigotry against others, he also embraced and promoted the trait of being willing to promote bigotry. Penn's moral flaw is not only the fact that he stood ready to promote an attitude of bigotry towards Muslims and atheists. He also supported the act of promoting bigotry in order to win political elections. He promoted the attitude that, "A good person will employ techniques that promote bigotry and injustice as a method of winning public office."

So, his moral failure carries through on two levels. He promotes an attitude of bigotry against Muslims and atheists, and he promotes the attitude that it is legitimate to promote bigotry as a means of winning public office.

In both of these cases, Penn is guilty of an egregious moral failure.

Yet, when it comes to answering the charge that this type of behavior is wrong and worthy of our condemnation, the defense that Penn offers is to say that "It works."

So, we are apparently to believe that whatever works is morally legitimate.

"Hey, it worked, so it can't be wrong."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Once again you manage to cut to the heart of the matter. Well written.