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Separating Ideas from Individuals

Daniel O’Connor
Campaign For Liberty
Oct 27, 2010

Ideas change the world, not people.

Throughout the centuries, people have exchanged ideas. Some ideas have brought benefits to the world. Other ideas have been damaging. While certain ideas are constantly expanded upon. Throughout history, many of the well-known philosophers engaged fellow citizens on ideas such as religion, god and the proper role of government in society. Even as philosophers and various religious figures no longer exist; it is their ideas that are very relevant to this day and are topics in books, documentaries and everyday discussion.

Chinese Communist Party Chairman, Mao Ze Dong could not have succeeded in maintaining power for so long if he did not control the ideas that circulated in society. The government controlled the media, education and communication lines. The idea that permeated society was that of communism — all things are done for the greater good of the community. If people held the idea that Mao ruled for his own personal interest the entire base of Chinese society would have been completely different during his time in rule. Mao did not create the idea of communism. If he did not utilize the idea of communism it is very possible that another Chinese person would have. This is only one example of the countless ways that people have used ideas in order to affect society.

We currently live in a world where people often associate ideas with people. They often state that figures like Stalin and Hitler were evil because of their acts of genocide, rather than condemning genocide itself. They condemn Thomas Jefferson for having immoral views on slavery in his early years while discrediting all of the positive ideas that he upheld and fought for throughout his lifetime. In fact, many of the ideas that Jefferson promulgated were not even his own but derived from other figures such as John Locke.

John Locke was one of the pioneers in framing the concept of a Constitutional Republic. The basis of this philosophy assumed that those in power have a tendency to abuse their power. Therefore, the government shall be restrained by the people through a Constitution. The Constitution is an agreement between the people and the government. If the government violates this agreement the people must hold the government accountable. It is a rather simple concept and in no way should be interpreted as a reflection of John Locke, as an individual.

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Locke also emphasized the importance of protecting liberty. Many of those in modern-day society who do not value liberty as highly as Locke have a tendency to attack individual proponents of liberty rather than attacking the idea itself.

This common argument is a logical fallacy known as argumentum ad homine.

Argumentum ad homine is the error of attacking the character or motives of a person who has stated an idea, rather than the idea itself. The most obvious example of this fallacy is when one debater maligns the character of another debater. The relevant question is not who makes the argument, but whether the argument is valid.

Unfortunately, much of our modern-day media and publications are plastered with this type of logical fallacy. One MSNBC pundit, Keith Olbermann, is notorious for attacking individuals rather than ideas. He regularly hosts a skit entitled “The Worst Person in the World” during which he perpetually attacks individuals rather than having any sort of discussion about the ideas at hand. In an early July 2010 episode [3], he drew attention to Rand Paul’s criticisms of Medicare and Social Security, in 1998. Rather than discussing Medicare and Social Security as an idea, he merely states “anti-social security, anti-medicare; nice Rand — bye!” and then concludes by labeling Rand as “The Worst Person in the World”.

Many flawed methods of argumentation are used by the modern-day opinion leaders. Bill O’Reilly justified [4] his support of bailouts because “The bush administration supported bailouts” (3:50) which is called the “appeal to authority” fallacy. Many of those who follow O’Reilly then go on to take the same flawed rationale a step further: “O’Reilly supported the bailouts. Therefore, so did I”. The proper question should not be “who supports what”; but rather “which decision best reflects the role of government as per The US Constitution”.

Another MSNBC pundit, Ed Schultz, brings attention (once again) to Rand Paul’s criticism [5] of the Department of Education by drawing a linkage between Paul and someone else with a similar statement. Rather than discussing the necessity for a centralized educational system as an idea he preferred drawing attention to who purports the idea while labeling the discussion as “Psycho Talk”.

Although there are many logical fallacies committed throughout our media, academia and everyday life; this particular logical fallacy is perhaps the most damaging. As political debates become logically sound, there will then be actual change in policy. Unfortunately our modern-day political debate is dominated by blame game politics [6] — “the democrats initiated this horrible program; the republicans committed that evil act”. It is this incessant focus on individuals (or groups of individuals) that draws attention away from the real issues — the ideas.

As debates have been ridden with blame game politics and personal attacks; falsely linking freedom with “radicalism” or “racism” has also become both commonplace and accepted. Although the debates are sophomoric indeed; the ideas of freedom and The Constitution have recently resurfaced and become a major aspect of the nascent tea-party movement. As often as tea-party critics attempt to draw attention to individuals or groups, they fail to acknowledge that recent political discontent is a movement based on ideas — not individuals. Americans are increasingly fed up with an abusive and out-of-control one party [7] government which is an idea or sentiment that has existed all throughout history and all throughout the world.

“An army of principles can penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot.” – Thomas Paine