Against attack ads in politics

(This blog first appeared in the Waterloo Region Record, June 1, 2009, p. A11, while I was serving on the Community Editorial Board.  Newspaper title:  “Political attack ads are an affront to our society”) 

Once again the Conservative party is using attack ads against the leader of the Liberal opposition.  These ads have prompted a spate of critical editorials (and columns) in the Record. But to my mind they don’t go far enough.

The current attack ads against Michael Ignatieff might not work as they did against Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, it has been argued.  These attack ads might backfire.  To describe Ignatieff as “arrogant and elitist” resembles “childish name-calling.”   One editorialist has described the Conservative advertisements as “the most offensive smear ads I’ve ever seen,” appealing to some of the worst prejudices in this country – anti-Americanism.  Another has highlighted how this “gutter campaign” will only foster more disrespect for politicians.  Why would anyone want to make the necessary sacrifices to enter politics “only to have your character sullied and your motives misrepresented.” 

I agree with all of this.  But, we need something more than a clinical analysis of attack ads.  To analyze their effectiveness, or to assess whether they might backfire is not enough. We need to question the very use of attack ads in politics.  We need a critique of smear campaigns, period.  While these editorials (columns) sometimes hint at this, they fail to explicitly address the much more important question  – is it right to use attack ads?  I believe there are four reasons why the use of attack ads in politics is very wrong.

First, such attack ads represent a failure in logic.  Any student who has taken an introductory logic course knows about the ad hominem fallacy.  Never, never, attack the person with whom you disagree.  When critiquing someone, you must be careful always to focus on the issues themselves.  A person’s motives and demeanor in delivering arguments are completely irrelevant to the arguments themselves.  Conservative hucksters need a lesson in logic.

Second, attack ad campaigns debase politics itself.  They reduce politics to propaganda.  They put the citizen at the mercy of the hired manipulator.  Image is what counts, not a party’s political platform. Elections are now won by the party that runs the most vicious smear campaign.  This is a betrayal of deliberative democracy.  Conservative campaign managers need a lesson in democratic politics.

Third, attacking persons is immoral.  Ignatieff is described as “In it for himself.”  Who isn’t?  How about Harper?  But, more importantly, questioning a person’s motives is terribly wrong, unless his/her motives are directly relevant to the issue being discussed.  Distorting the truth is morally wrong.  Character assassination is wrong. The people behind these Conservative attack ads need a lesson or two in morality. 

Finally, these Conservative ads campaigns represent a failure in faith.  Harper should know better.  He is, after all, a self-declared evangelical Christian.  A fundamental tenet of the Christian faith is to treat people with respect.  Each person is after all, made in the image of God.  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  “Get rid of slander of every kind.”  I am not suggesting that Harper himself invented these attack ads.  But they had their origins in the party that he leads.  He is ultimately responsible for them.  Harper needs a lesson in basic Christianity.

These attack ads are an insult to all rational, democracy-loving Canadians.  The very idea of using smear campaigns in politics should be vigorously denounced by anyone having a political or moral conscience. 

The citizens of Canada deserve better.  We need a “politics of civility” as has been suggested by Ignatieff.  We have the power to raise politics to a higher level.   The citizens of Canada need to punish the Conservatives at the next election for daring once again to run a gutter ad campaign.


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