Getting Sidetracked: A Lesson from Lincoln

by Jay Johansen
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Abraham Lincoln knew a little someting about debating.

I was reading over one of Lincoln's debates on slavery recently, and I noticed a point that Lincoln handled very well, but which is the type of point that frequently trips people up in debates.

Stephen Douglas was arguing the pro-slavery side. He ridiculed Mr Lincoln's idea that blacks and whites were equal, pointing out the "obvious" inferiority of blacks.

Now, you must understand the context of the times. Even many people who opposed slavery nevertheless believed that black people were intellectually inferior. They would point out that black people had made few significant contributions to art or science or literature. It doesn't seem to have occurred to them that a slave who wanted to create a great sculpture or write a novel or do scientific research might occassionally have some trouble getting the plantation owner to let him take time off from picking cotton to pursue such endeavors. Or that slave quarters rarely included libraries of classic literature or art supplies or well-equipped laboratories. They didn't see any of this. They simply observed that there were few great works of art or science produced by black people. Therefore black people must be less intelligent than whites.

I don't know if Lincoln realized the flaw in the prevailing wisdom of the time. Maybe he was too close to it himself to see it, and he just had a "gut feel" that all men are created equal. But even if he had seen this and pointed this out, he would then surely have been mired in argument trying to prove that all differences in achievement between blacks and whites could be completely explained by the disadvantages black people sufferred. This would be very difficult to prove. Even today, over one hundred years later, this subject is still debated. If a pro-slavery person could have shown just one point on which an argument for complete equality of abilities between the races looked weak, Lincoln's whole position could collapse.

So when Douglas ridiculed Lincoln, asking if Lincoln really thought that a mere "negro" could be his equal, Lincoln very wisely replied,

I agree with Judge Douglas, [the black man] is not my equal in many respects -- certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral and intellectual endownments; but in the right to eat the bread without leave of anybody else, which his own hands earn, he is my equal, and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.

Do you see what he did? He didn't bother to rebut the factual claim. He didn't concede it -- he carefully said "perhaps" black people are not equal in intellect. But then he promptly dismissed the whole question as irrelevant. Even if it is true that Smith is more intelligent than Jones, that doesn't give Smith the right to make Jones his slave. In some other context, it may be important to debate the intelligence issue, but that wasn't relevant here. It was just a smoke screen to distract from the real issue: Does anyone have the right to make another human being his slave?

Douglas was trying to distract attention from the real issue by bringing up an irrelevant objection. He would have liked nothing better than to debate the relative intelligence of blacks and whites. Indeed, the way he framed his comment, he was probably hoping that Lincoln would react angrily to the "insult" of he himself being compared to a black person. If Lincoln had fallen for this, angrily rejecting any comparison between himself and a black person, he would have looked like a hypocrite. (Indeed he would have been a hyprocrite.) But he didn't fall for it.

When I am engaged in discussion or debate, I frequently find myself falling into exactly the same sort of trap that Douglas tried to set for Lincoln. Someone will bring up an irrelevant objection, and instead of pointing out its irrelevance, I allow myself to get bogged down refuting the objection.

For example, I was once debating educational issues, and an opponent accused me of being "associated" with a certain conservative education organization in town which he considered disreputable. What I should have said was, I'm not a member of that organization, but tell me what positions they take that you disagree with and I'll tell you were I stand on those issues. Instead I want into a long meandering talk on, well, I'm not a member of that organization, but I do have some friends who are, and I did go to one of their meetings a while ago, but I never did anything for them, etc etc. Not only did this get us off the topic of the real issues to be debated, but I'm sure it came out looking like I was a member of this organization and I thought it was something to be ashamed of so I was trying to be mealy-mouthed about it.

Another example: A friend of mine was debating abortion, and she showed pictures of developing babies in the womb. Her point was that no reasonable person could look at these pictures and say that this was not a living, human baby that was being killed. Someone in the audience stood up and objected that the ages she claimed for these babyies were wrong, that they were really much older than she said. And so she got bogged down defending the ages she had given, and, as she related the incident, she believed she came out looking pretty bad, because she really had no documentation or other evidence to back up the ages she gave, while the critic claimed to be a doctor and spoke with a tone of authority. In retrospect, the "right" answer to this objection would be to simply say, I believe that the ages I have given for these children are accurate. But let's suppose for the sake of argument that they're not. Do you believe that it should be legal to abort this baby? If so, then what difference does it make how old he is?

In a debate, when your opponent brings up an objection, ask yourself, Is this point relevant? That is, even if what my opponent says was absolutely true, would that affect the real argument? If the answer is yes, then of course you must deal with it fairly. But if the answer is no, then even if what they say is an absolute lie, don't get bogged down debating it! Simply state that it is not true (lest there be any confusion), but then point out why it is irrelevant and get back to the main issue.

Not only does this free you from spending all your time refuting the particular point, it also can help make clear to the audience that your opponents are trying to confuse the issue because their arguments on the real question don't hold water.


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Posted 9 Sep 2000.

Copyright 1997 by Ohio Right to Life.
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