One of the treasured objet d’art in my home in Austin is a little clipping from the Advocate that hangs on the fridge. It’s a letter to the editor, from Tim Grant of Berndardston, and it’s headlined “Stop Oppenheimer” (I call it the “Stoppenheimer” letter).

Grant was upset by a column I wrote in which I attacked conservative talk show host Bill O’Reilly—of whom Grant is apparently a fan—for being typical of the corrupt institution of television punditry.

I wrote:

In many cases, and this is actually quite fascinating to think about when you’re watching, their souls are so putrid that it’s visible in their faces. [Bill] O’Reilly’s not even the worst of them, though he is breathtakingly grotesque. ? Larry King is such a scarecrow of a functioning human brain you can almost see the wind whistling through him. If you daubed some war paint on the faces of Sean Hannity and Joe Scarborough they could pass for genengineered, fighting super-orcs of the Uruk-Hai. And I can’t even begin to conceive of a category into which to slot the oozing puddle of smarm that calls itself Donny Deutsch.

Tim Grant (of Bernardston) wrote:

Daniel Oppenheimer is a classic liberal: hateful, shallow and proudly juvenile. Of course he detests Bill O’ Reilly, best-selling author and host of the blockbuster program “The O’ Reilly Factor,” whom he calls "breathtakingly grotesque," while claiming that "everything he says reinforces the sadistic and macho chorus of the conservative movement." According to Mr. Oppenheimer, the CNN, Fox News and MSNBC networks are "repulsive, vulgar and corrupt" (which actually sums up Bill Clinton rather nicely). He goes on to say that the hosts of these cable news programs are "ghouls" and "space-wasters," "…their souls so putrid that it’s visible in their faces." Sean Hannity says that liberals are unhinged, and I couldn’t agree more. I will give liberals credit, though, for being experts at name-calling. They do know how to get the attention they so desperately crave, which is why they’re also experts at losing elections.

I mention all this because underneath the name calling, there’s a serious question of political ethics involved in the dispute between Bernardston and me. How should we, as politically-minded citizens, deal with those people whose politics we find not just wrong but offensive and destructive?

If we disagree with each other about health care policy, we try, even if we don’t always succeed, to treat each other respectfully (‘I think you’re mis-characterizing the French system, Jim. It allows for individuals to supplement their basic government-provided care’). Doing so seems essential to being a good citizen in a pluralistic society. We don’t have to agree, but we should listen, we should take the other person’s perspective seriously. And we should respond with logic, thoughtfulness, reason.

But what about when we’re dealing, publicly, with people who seem not to operate by those rules, who seem driven by resentment and fear and prejudice? Or people who just seem too stupid, ignorant or shallow to justify the influence they have and dthe amage they do (I’m looking at you, Tim Russert)? What about when we’re dealing with sadists like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity? What about racists, misogynists, anti-Semites?

Does there come a point at which it becomes appropriate to stop treating what the other person says as meaningful communication but instead as a political act—an expression of power—that needs to be met with an equal or greater expression of speech as power? Does there come a time, as Patrick Swayze suggested in “Road House,” when it’s time to not be nice?

When I make the deliberate choice to publicly call someone a name—ghoul, space-waster, breathtakingly grotesque, racist, misogynist, anti-Semite—I’ve given up on arguing with that person. I’m hoping to degrade their credibility, diminish their influence, and attach a stigma to them. I don’t want other people to listen to them anymore, but rather to just avert their eyes and walk away.

The idealist in me shies away from doing this. It seems anti-intellectual and cynical. I was taught that when someone makes an argument, even a stupid one, I should try to respond to it, try to persuade them that they’re mistaken.

The amateur psychologist in me also doesn’t like it very much. Scratch a misognyist and you’re likely to find a wounded boy, whose parents didn’t love him well enough, underneath (I wrote about this recently, in a post on the Men’s Rights Advocates (MRA) movement, which seems to embody both misogyny and authentic hurt and grievance).

The realist in me, however, watches an episode of Hannity& Colmes and cringes every time Alan Colmes responds with a reasoned argument to the insults and baiting of Sean Hannity. By treating Hannity as a reasonable person, Colmes is legitimating him, when what he should be doing is trying to de-legitimate him.

We stigmatize people, and certain kinds of behavior, because we believe, ultimately, that society can only function well if certain kinds of behavior, and certain people who exhibit too much of that behavior, are scorned rather than engaged. And we practice politics—which often treats truth as instrumental—because we don’t believe, in the end, that taking the high road is the highest value.

And what is the high road, anyway, when dealing with bullies, hate-mongers and know-nothings? Is it to talk to them like intelligent adults? Is it just to walk away? Is it call them names in the hopes that, by doing so, you’ll make them less appealing to other people?

I don’t know. It’s something I struggle with.

–Daniel Oppenheimer, Writer