The Difference Between Attack and Criticism

Posted on January 25, 2011

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I’ve been hearing a lot of chatter from both liberal (small l) and Conservative circles that the recent slate of liberal ads are attack ads, and should be viewed as a tactic identical to the fallacious nonsense that the Conservatives recently vomited forth. Let’s have a look.

Despite the cliched choice of voice actor, these are really not attack ads in the same way as their conservative counterparts. The most succinct reason from this comes from the Liberal party itself:

“While Stephen Harper attacks people, the Liberal Party attacks problems.”

I’m sorry that the best hard-hitting analysis I can offer is to simply agree with a party that might be little more than the lesser of two evils, but the Grits are right on this one. There really is a difference between pointing out problems with policy and trying to suggest that the leader of a federal party is somehow unCanadian (TM).

Theoretically, democracy is supposed to produce a substantive debate which allows the people to collectively decide on the best policies. Everybody knows that this almost never happens. Emotions, group-think, nepotism, blind traditionalism, simple stupidity and other forms of irrationality have a nasty habit of getting in the way. Given that these things are, for better or worse, a permanent fixture in the political process, it is a regrettable but probably inevitable reality that political parties, who are themselves a regrettable but inevitable reality, will exploit them. Combine this with individual ambition, lobbyists, and other factors, and suddenly that substantive debate becomes an ideological, overconfrontational clusterfuck.

Both sets of ads leverage emotion to make their point. Both are unnecessarily ominous. Both exaggerate and oversimplify the issues. But the Liberal ads constitute actual criticism of actual policy, while the Conservative ads rely mainly on fearmongering and irrelevantly attacking the character of their opponents. In short, the Liberal ads are pulling us closer to the substantive debate, while the Conservative ads are pulling us ever deeper into the clusterfuck.

Over their last five years in office, the Conservatives have taken their weak mandate and managed to do a lot of really shitty things. Should the same hypothetical rule which prevents the Tories from running ads that border on xenophobia also prevent the Liberals from honestly pointing that out?

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