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Personalities the Digressions of Debate

Controversy, though the pathway to truth and final test of it, is an unwelcome word in many ears. This is because it is so often protracted and unsatisfactory. It is protracted through digression, and unsatisfactory, being so often disfigured by personalities, which mainly cause digression and ill-feeling. Things evil, as well as things good, do not come by chance. Disease as well as health has its conditions; and personalities, however capricious and irregular they may seem, have their laws. St Jerome said: 'If an offence come out of the truth, better the offence come than that the truth be concealed.' There is no natural offence in truth. The offence is generally put into it by personalities, which cause digressions from the truth into hateful and dishonoring imputations.

The Edinburgh News lately turned to the file of London papers as they existed in the pure and happy days of a fourpenny stamp, and found a license of speech quite edifying. Thus the Times calls its neighbor, the Morning Chronicle, 'that squirt of filthy water,' and the Chronicle, not to be behind, calls the Post 'that slop-pail of corruption.' The Standard describes the Globe as 'our blubber-head contemporary.' The Morning Herald accosts its neighbor, the Courier, as 'that spavined old hack,' while the Morning Advertiser hurls its wrath against the Times as 'that bully of Berkshire and braggadocio of Printing House Square.' The Times, not to be outdone, commenced one of its leaders on the 13th of June 1835, with' The Liberal liars, and then turning on the Chronicle, continues, 'A disgraceful morning print, which actually feeds on falsehood and lies'; then going into the subject, it adds, 'The smaller rascal, Mr. Gingall, copies the paragraph from the larger blackguard.' The Times of the same date, elsewhere referring to its opponent, says, 'The community must be shocked to know that there are such beings as these scribblers out of the treadmill, and because every exposure of the ragamuffins gives to foreigners an additional proof that there have crept into the press of this country a number of scoundrels, who not only are unfit for the society of gentlemen, but who would be a disgrace to the vilest coteries of Europe.' To this the Standard retorts, 'It can scarcely be doubted that the habits of writing down to the ignorance and below the brutality of the rabble, which the Times has acquired by long experience, acting, of course, upon original ignorance and intuitive brutality, has rendered this journal a more powerful organ of excitement than a whole workshop of railers.'

This was the way in which 'gentlemen wrote for gentlemen' in those days; and all agreed in one thing, that the abolition of the fourpenny stamp would lower the press, as though it could fall into a lower depth than that in which the fourpenny stamp writers burrowed. The press has been freed from all taxation, and the standard of the cheap press is far higher than in its dearest days. The working-class have found a better way of expression. Nevertheless, the political and ecclesiastical controversy of our 'betters' still presents samples of the old manner.

Literature has not always had a civil tongue in its head, and was ready to assist political animosity. Bute pensioned Dr. Johnson and Dr. Shebbeare, which caused the wits to say he had pensioned a He-bear and a She-bear. Dr. Shebbeare had been in the pillory and lost his ears, which was the point of these lines—
Witness, ye Hills, ye Johnsons, Scots, Shebbeares,
List to my call, for some of you have ears.

Byron and Shelley disagreed widely on several questions, but that made no difference in their regard for each other. Byron had hatreds—Shelley had fanaticisms. Vegetarianism was one. Byron did not hesitate to deny outright Shelley's coreal ideal. Byron sang—
Man's a carnivorous production,
And must have meals; at least one meal a day.
He cannot live, like woodcocks, upon suction,
But, like the shark and tiger, must have prey;
Although his anatomical construction
Bears vegetables in a grumbling way,
Your labouring people think, beyond all question,
Beef, veal and mutton better for digestion.

Shelley, walking down Bond Street, composing a poem and munching a new roll for his dinner, would be likely to produce dyspeptic verse that day. Shelley wrote no line of malice in reply to Byron. But then these poets were gentlemen.

One way to disarm personalities when they come is to brave them. To court them is fatal to yourself; to retaliate fatal to union. The partisan of a cause ought to be able to dare all opinions. And all opinions might be dared by those in the right. There can be no quarrel unless two parties engage in it. And it is always in the power of one party to make a quarrel difficult by refusing to be a party to it. No man can quarrel with another without the other's consent. Hence the veto of peace, if not of amity, is always in the hands of one of the disputants. It is often a duty; it is often indispensable to notice individual error. But the discharge of such a duty would not be so distasteful to the public as it now is, were it not for the personally disparaging manner in which it is generally done. If, when objections to a public man must be made, the points were fairly selected and urged, without ill-will, the criticism would be felt to be useful and tolerable. Instead of this course a miscellaneous fire is often extended to every imaginable fault, and conjectures called in when facts are exhausted, until what was, or should be, public instruction becomes a gratification of private resentment.

Malevolence is not necessary on the platform, nor in the press. Canadian journalists told me that Mr. Goldwin Smith, by showing in his own writing how a man of genius could be effective without employing dishonoring epithets, had raised the character of the whole Canadian press.

It is not just to refer to a man's lameness of body; but lameness of mind may be complained of, because that is remediable. A lame man would not enter himself in a public race with agile men, and if he enters into public controversy he must be assumed to have mental nimbleness. But, if he is always behind in his argument, his deficiency in pace may be ascribed to natural causes—to lameness of understanding. Misfortunes of nature are indefensible allusions. Canning has not been forgiven for alluding to a political opponent as the 'revered and ruptured Ogden.' The permanent reason for avoiding outrage is that the mugwumps who can imitate nothing else, can imitate unpleasantnesses.

The debater should keep a sharp eye on an opponent who introduces personalities. It is the device by which an astute adversary allures his assailant from his gun—so that he is not at hand to discharge it—when the enemy is in front of it.

Civilization has imposed laws on contests, and even on war. An invading army must not poison the wells of the enemy; a duelist must stand at the assigned distance before he fires; a prize-fighter is forbidden to hit below the belt; neither man, nor horse, nor boat is allowed to foul a competitor in a race. But in controversy there is no law, save that of honor, to prevent an adversary assailing an opponent by dishonoring imputations.

Once, in the United States Assembly, a member in audience, being weary of listening to the member in possession of the floor, rose and said, 'Mr. Speaker, I should like to know how long that blackguard is to go on tiring me to death in this manner.' In the Irish House of Commons, Mr Grattan said of Mr. Corrie, 'I will not call him villain, because he is a Chancellor of the Exchequer; I will not call him liar, because he is a Privy Councilor; but I will say of him, that he is one who has taken advantage of the privileges of this House to utter language to which, in any other place, my answer would have been a blow.' A duel was the immediate result. And if a duel was intended the language was well chosen for the purpose.

De Morgan relates that the late Professor Vince was once arguing at Cambridge against dueling, and someone said, 'Well, but, Professor, what would you do if anyone called you a liar?' 'Sir,' said the fine old fellow, 'I should tell him to prove it, and if he did prove it, I should be ashamed of myself, and if he didn't he ought to be ashamed of himself.'

The obvious laws to be observed in controversy seem to be these:—
1. To consult the improvement of those opposed to you, and to this end argue not for resentment, or gratification, or pride, or vanity, but for their enlightenment.
2. When surmising motives do not surmise the worst, but adopt the best construction the case admits.
3. To distinguish between the personalities which impugn the judgment and those that criminate character, and not to advance accusations affecting the judgment of an adversary without distinct and indisputable proof; and never to assail character (where it must be done) on suspicion, probability, belief or likelihood.
4. Never make an incriminating imputation unless some public good is to come out of it. It is not enough that a charge is true, it must be useful to prefer it before it can be justifiably made.
5. Be so sure of your case as to be able to defy the judgment of mankind, and when assailed, maintain self-respect in reply, not forgetting justice to those to whom you are opposed.

Leigh Hunt prophesied long ago that the old philosophic conviction would revive among us, that 'the errors of mankind arise rather from the want of knowledge than from defect of goodness.' Stupidity can be informed, ignorance can be enlightened, but the collision of interest, passion and self-will, can destroy association, until men acquire justice in speech, and equity towards others.

The necessity of enforcing this most practical part of rhetoric (the Rhetoric of Dispute), which is taught in no School, Mechanics' or Literary Institution, is evidenced in the fact that an impartial, impersonal and dispassionate tone is in many eyes almost fatal to prosperity in newspaper and periodical literature. To the uneducated populace nothing that is just seems spirited. He who is not offensively personal is pronounced tame. The rancorous are most relished. The reason is that most men, when stung by a sense of injury, are naturally precipitated from extreme to extreme. Their opinions, when sincere, are not produced by the ordinary law of intellectual births, by induction or inference, but are equivocally generated by the heat of fervid emotion, wrought upon by some sense of unbearable oppression. But all this changes with the growth of knowledge. Art discards the gaudy colors of the savage; so rhetoric discards savage invective. Civilization implies a sense of proportion.

Personalities, even those which relate to defects of understanding, are allowable within the limits of not impugning sanity; but not personal allusions which relate to defect of honor, or veracity. If you call a man an idiot, you pass the limit of allowable personalities of the mind. He who thinks another an idiot, should be silent with regard to him. If a person be an idiot it is of no use arguing with him. He is incapable of reasoning. To use such a term towards an adversary is to stop debate—if you believe what you say. The moment this word is said the friends of the alleged imbecile are up in arms to resent the insult to his understanding, and probably the 'idiot' himself leaps up to retort upon his accuser. Then there is an end of the subject in debate. Partisans digress from it to join in the vindication of the assailed, or of the assailant.

The moment one person accuses another of want of honor or veracity, the reply is a blow, or a duel, which are held to be justifiable. If the term is believed it destroys the accused, and he feels justified in destroying his accuser. Dishonoring charges should properly go before a magistrate. A charge of personal dishonor is a breach of the peace, and the law court, and not the platform, is the more fitting place to make it to introduce offensive accusation is to terminate debate by a pernicious digression, and arouses recrimination and passion, through which the rays of truth penetrate not. This consequence is so well understood that he who causes such digression may be suspected of intending it.

The mischief of personalities which offend is that persons who cannot argue can recriminate. A hundred persons can make imputations for ten who can reason. The discovery of truth in the maze of words and diversity of view requires concentration of attention. But irrelevancies require no thought and are popular with the majority of hearers who have not reflected on these things, or to whom, irrelevancies are a relief.

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George Jacob Holyoake

  • Born April 13, 1817 in Birmingham, UK and died on January 22nd, 1906.
  • Was a British secularist, co-operator (The English Leader), and newspaper editor (Reasoner).

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