This morning, Gracy Olmstead of The American Conservative published a blog post entitled, "Have Conservatives Lost Their Compassion"? In it, she argues that too many conservatives, such as Matt Walsh have obvious contempt for the rioters (situation?) in Baltimore; that they "use the crimes of the rioters to excuse the crimes of the cops. And this is an atrocious double standard."
I have a bone to pick with Olmstead, and it the same one I usually have to pick with many progressive arguments. My main concern is with her logical approach in general, which I believe is flawed.
Let me begin with her characterization of Walsh. Olmstead begins not with what Walsh says, but who he is. This is generally considered to be a logical fallacy, called ad hominem. Olmstead seeks first to discredit Walsh, but in ways that have nothing to do with what is in his column. As noted in the link above:
Ad hominem attacks are popular in online discussions, especially when tempers flare. “Well, you’re wrong because you’re clearly an idiot!”
Well, Olmstead does not quite say this. Rather, she says that "Walsh is writing dogmatically about a situation in which he has little to no authority," which she fails to define in any way. However, perhaps one can guess based on her next lines:
Perhaps he grew up in Baltimore, but sounds like his growing up years were not all that difficult. His greatest personal complaint in the article is that his wife and kids were unable to go to the zoo on Monday, due to the riots, and that he had to stop frequenting the mall growing up, because of gang activity. Those tribulations seem relatively mild.
Walsh cannot speak because he has had an easy life, and therefore, he has no credibility on the issue.
So, this is a classic circumstantial ad hominem attack. It's an attack on credibility of the individual, without linking in some way to the argument. If one reads Walsh's column, one should be able to agree or disagree with the ideas expressed therein without knowing anything about Walsh - as noted in the link, "arguments can and do stand or fall on their own merits."
In other words, the ad hominem statements are completely gratuitous and unnecessary, unless they happen to bear directly on the argument being made, but that's seemingly not the case in this discussion. Why Olmstead uses them is up to interpretation, but perhaps she feels that she needs to establish a certain rapport with the reader, and bolster her own credibility. Because, after all, Olmstead could hardly go on to deal with the remainder of her own questions if she is similarly (or completely) unaffected by the riots. Her statement seems to be, "Well, Walsh has no bona fides to speak on the issue, and I do not have to provide any of my own because...." She later states, speaking for Walsh and herself, that it is too easy for those "who grew up outside such communities, to wonder and shake our heads at the unemployment and crime, the 'lack of initiative' demonstrated by its inhabitants." So...she undermines Walsh's credibility, then lumps herself in with him and his credibility, which seems quite curious.
Olmstead goes on to say that two excerpts she uses which were written by Walsh:
[P]rove what is perhaps most frustrating about many Republicans’ response to the riots in Baltimore, and to the police brutality situation as a whole: many use the crimes of the rioters to excuse the crimes of the cops. And this is an atrocious double standard.
Does Walsh's article fit Olmstead's complaint? Well, turning to his blog post (which is, indeed, an angry vent - not that there's much problem with angry rants, per se), I see that Walsh states:
We still don’t know the circumstances surrounding Freddie Gray’s death (but obviously we should assume, because our assumptions have always been proven correct in the past). We only know that he was arrested and while in custody he was fatally injured. It certainly seems possible, even likely, that something illegal happened on the part of one or two or several officers. If that is the case, the perpetrators should be brought to justice.
Walsh also later states:
If they prove anything, it’s that cops tend to get rough with guys who demonstrate a disregard for the law. Does that justify it? No, but it does take the racial component out of it.
Walsh also states that:
And in a small minority of that minority, the cop is killing unjustly. When that happens, the cop should answer for it.
So, we know now that Walsh's article does not particularly evince a double standard, insofar as he is arguing that both sets of lawbreakers should be punished, unless we are prepared to simply say that Walsh's statements concerning illegal activity on the part of the officers are some sort of pretext, and that Walsh simply wants to excuse the officers. And Olmstead agrees with this, saying "While it is true that violence and crime are deserving of punishment, it is also true that the rule of law must prevail." (Curious that she divides "violence" and "crime..." but it is true that not all violence is crime.)
Which is, of course, what Walsh appears to be saying. But Olmstead has another problem. Walsh "is certain that, merely by showing some initiative ( “Get a job. Get a vacation.”), the communities of Baltimore can quickly and easily fix themselves. " Now, the question is whether Walsh's article supports that point. That is, does it support Olmstead's point that Walsh believes in a "quick and easy" fix to their problems by showing some initiative, and that such a belief "seems to demonstrate an incredible lack of empathy and ignorance of life’s difficulties?"
I do not believe so. Walsh states near the end of his article:
You want to lash out against what’s happening in your neighborhood? Good. You should.
So get a job. Get an education. Get married before you have kids, and then stay and raise them. Move forward. Work for something better. Work.
Walsh's tone is not the best at this point, and Walsh is certainly being summary, and perhaps a bit pedantic. However, his summary is accurate and however he sounds, Walsh never says that change is easy, and does not suggest we should not show compassion.
Olmstead's major point appears down near the end of her article. She states:
Olmstead's major point appears down near the end of her article. She states:
But it seems that, despite all this, we often lack the imagination and compassion necessary to understand why people in our own backyard may riot in anger, why injustices may in fact be taking place next door, why people in our towns and cities may struggle to procure jobs or finish high school. We don’t seek to understand the difficulties that arise when strong communities deteriorate, when justice is obstructed, when violence is brushed over and ignored. We don’t seek to understand what it would be like to see a police officer and instinctively feel—not safety and comfort—but sheer terror.So, for all of that, Olmstead seems to be saying that the problem that Walsh has, along with any others who argue like him, is that he simply refuses to exercise his imagination and compassion for those who experience daily injustices, who experience "sheer terror" when confronted with police, who fail to obtain education.
But Olmstead offers not her own ideas on change, only calls for greater understanding. She never offers to explain how she knows about experiencing police presence as "sheer terror," never really gets around to dealing with Walsh's arguments in and of themselves, but is content to condemn by association ("condemn and vilify, like Walsh and his commenters"), by station in life (see ad hominem, above), by imputation of cold-heartedness ("lack of empathy") and by lack of education ("ignorance").
Olmstead seems to be saying that, if only Walsh had these things, he wouldn't go around condemning the rioters and their destructiveness, but would instead...what? Have compassion? And this is Olmstead's final error - this false dichotomy. But there is no dichotomy here - it is perfectly acceptable to both have compassion and understanding, and yet still condemn the actions of both the officers and the rioters. Furthermore, it behooves conservatives not only to have compassion for the victim, but the officers who pay the price for maintaining order; not only for the rioters, but for the church shelters burned to the ground.