Persuasive Communication and The Drive To Discredit

by Dr. Rick Kirschner on May 15, 2009

You’ve seen it before.  No doubt, you will see it again.  I’m talking about how a persuasion campaign is set into motion with one aim:  To undermine and discredit a particular individual,  group,  idea, or  set of choices that threatens the status quo.  

More often than not, the drive to discredit does not have social good as the objective, although that is always the claim it leads with.  In fact, it’s a favorite trick of the idealogue. 

Case in point:  Rush Limbaugh (and the rest of the far right commentators like Michael Savage and Sean Hannity)  who aim to discredit anyone who holds a different opinion than his own.   The facts are spun to meet the desired appearance, which is labeled and then the label attacked.

It’s a favorite tool in politics. The demagogue demonizes an opponent so that others decide to steer clear.  You saw it recently with the Republicans and Arlen Spector. Instead of taking his change of party as feedback about how far off course they’ve gone, they impugn his motives.  

Hitler did this with the Jewish population of Europe,  and while he was at it, with his political enemies and other groups he disliked, as a prelude to his attempt at systematic destruction of life and reason. 

We saw it in the last Presidential campaign. McCain and Palin tried it as a campaign strategy in the 2008 election (and look how well that worked out!)  It’s apparently a popular political tool.  The Republicans (with the help of their hired guns at FOX News) are still trying doing it to Obama (communist, socialist, fascist) and the Democrats (socialists, the word liberal used as an epithet).  Oh, and lets not forget that the left did it through the Bush years (though far less coherently and effectively) and continues to do it with Bush and the Republicans.  

Chavez of Argentina tried to do it to America, and Achmadinejad of Iran is driving to do it to Israel.  Dick Cheney did it to discredit former Ambassador Joseph Wilson for publicly criticizing the Bush administration’s intelligence on Iraq, and currently to discredit any attempt to get to the truth of his administration’s torture policies. 

We saw it in the buildup to the war in Iraq, when all conversation about it assumed it was only a matter of time, and those who spoke out against it were kept in ‘free speech zones’ away from cameras and reporters, labeled unpatriotic or incapable of thought throughout the mainstream media, and were in many other ways marginalized so as to keep from having any kind of national discussion about the rightness or wrongness of starting a war on a second front.   

We’ve seen it with government whistleblowers and corporate whistleblowers. I even had someone try to do it on my blog, which is why I now have the guidelines for commenting posted in an obvious place on every page. (He’s the only person I ever banned from my blog.  It broke my heart to do it.  I offered him the opportunity to make any case he wanted as long as he did it persuasively, but he was unable to make the distinction between persuasion and the drive to discredit.  

I’ve been paying attention to this for a long time.  In part, because I’m a Naturopathic Physician by training, and the effort to discredit my profession and the complementary and alternative medical approach it champions has been ongoing and intense at times.  

Recently, I found a blog that seems to exist for no other purpose than to discredit the credible alternatives to conventional medicine.  The claim is that conventional medicine is self-correcting and scientific, and that other approaches are not.

The authors seek out positive news coverage of CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) and launch an attack, then make sure it is widely distributed across the web.   If you read the rants the blog owner and his allies make, you’ll find that their favorite tools are clever insults, pejoratives and ugly insinuation.

The blog in question, we’ll call it the woo blog, demands evidence then dismisses it when provided, but fails to provide evidence for a single claim that the authors make.  They attack anyone who speaks up with a different point of view as a moron.  And get this.  The blog ironically hosts a ‘guide’ about how to tell when something can’t be backed up with logic and science.  (One of their commenters actually went through the guide and pointed out their transgressions – his argument was summarily dismissed, deserving only of scorn.  Not even the smallest attempt to deal with the substance of it.)  

This kind of behavior is actually common to all such drives. 

Now I’m all in favor of examining people, groups and events with an eye towards finding the truth. But I know that the drive to discredit isn’t interested in the truth.  It’s interested in winning by making someone lose.  It is polarizing and polluting to real discourse. 

But so what? I’m not afraid of these dirty campaigns, at least not directly.  Unless and until they gain momentum.  Because the drive to discredit can, unchecked, do damage, even irreparable harm, when left unanswered and allowed to proceed apace.  When these campaigns work, it’s because they leverage existing biases, claim virtue as their motive and then promote fear as the virtue (we are designed to heed our fear!)  They build upon our worse instincts, on unspoken assumptions and presuppositions, and package them up in personal attacks, slander and stereotypes of an often vicious nature.  

They don’t often work, though, because they provoke a similar response from the group under attack.  (Best defense is a good offense, and the drive to discredit is always offensive!)  When both sides of an issue do it, it neutralizes or blunts either side’s attack. 

But when a dirty campaign does work, it usually succeeds by working against change.  And as you know, I’m all about creating positive change and not a fan of the drive to discredit.

Here’s my view:  People can agree to disagree.  I have no problem with that.  There’s more than enough room for more than one opinion on anything.  I love a vigorous debate between opposing sides of an issue, when both sides have as their interest getting to the truth or arriving at a more honest understanding of their legitimate areas of disagreement on a particular issue.

But there’s a difference between having a difference of opinion and trying to discredit someone for having an opinion or disagreeing with yours in the first place. The drive to discredit seeks to undermine the foundation, or call into question, the very right to exist of a person or group or point of view.   It is an attempt to irreversibly tarnish something so that no reasonable person or group will want to associate with it.   The drive to discredit thrives on double standards and casting aspersions. Call the people out who are doing it and they will ignore what you say and attack you for saying it.   Offer evidence and they insult you.  Ask for a reasonable dialog and they insult you.  In other words, disagree and you deserve their scorn.

In my next post, I’ll offer some questions you might ask the next time you observe someone’s drive to discredit, and I’ll tell you how to counter it if it ever happens to you or to a cause or group you support.  Meanwhile, your comments are always welcome.  

be well,


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