THE CHARACTER ASSASSINS
Among the vilest people are those who resort to character assassination in lieu of frank statements of disagreement or serious argument. We see resort to attack on character frequently in politics, but it is becoming increasingly more commonplace in charged arguments over science and medicine. Wherever it appears, it suggests an underlying illicit motivation on the part of the one casting aspersion, but it can succeed in damaging deservedly good reputations, particularly when the one casting aspersion has an apparent position of prominence and access to major media and the one being maligned does not.
Individuals have been falsely labeled liars, embezzlers, frauds, hypocrites, or worse. The charges have sometimes been republished by third parties paid to do so who have made character assassination their stock and trade. Lost in all of this are truth, decency, and the underlying reasons why the person was attacked. Oftentimes character assassination has been used as a means to obfuscate important issues or to advance a private agenda at public expense.
The one maligned may resort to publishing works in his or her own defense, in suing the libeler, or in resorting to the same kind of character assassination against the one who commenced the attacks. Those approaches variously place the one maligned in the spot light over the false charges and tend to republish or exacerbate the libel. Although a suit may be necessary to stem republication of the falsehoods and to cause the one who cast aspersion to incur costs for doing so and be thereby dissuaded from a repeat performance, it is often not enough to overcome the character disparagement. In the end, two means are most effective: (1) communicating the truth in the court of law and the court of public opinion simultaneously and (2) winning the underlying argument.
A recent case study of character assassination occurred during the early days of the Clinton Administration. In May 1993, seven long-term employees of the White House Travel Office, who had served since the Kennedy administration, were summarily fired. Although they could have been fired without cause, the White House chose to condemn them for cause, taking the extraordinary step of stating that they were fired for “financial improprieties.” Travel Office Director Billy Dale and his staff were investigated by the FBI at the urging of the White House and Dale was subsequently indicted on December 7, 1994, for embezzlement and criminal conversion.
The Travel Office employees and Dale experienced character assassination of the worst kind. Atop a very public termination, they also stood by largely helpless as their reputations for honesty and fair dealing were called into question repeatedly.
But eventually through judicial process and public discussion the truth came to the fore and Dale and the other Travel Office employees were vindicated. Evidence of a political firing began to compete for coverage with the initial allegations of financial wrongdoing. Hillary Rodham Clinton, then First Lady, was implicated in a move to replace the Travel Office employees with Clinton friends from Arkansas and Hollywood. The entity that replaced Dale and his staff was in fact a Little Rock, Arkansas-based travel agency, World-Wide Travel. Efforts were underway to give Clinton friends and supporters Harry Thomason and Darnell Martens an exclusive on White House airline travel.
As the truth became public, the White House itself performed a mea culpa of sorts. In July of 1993, it issued an 80-page report on the matter in which 5 White House officials were said to be involved in an improper firing of the Travel Office employees; in pressuring the FBI to investigate those employees; and in allowing friends of the Clintons to replace Travel Office functions. Although Hillary Rodham Clinton denied any direct involvement in the matter, on May 2, 1994, the GAO concluded that the then First Lady was indeed involved, at least through urging White House Director of Administration David Watkins to take action to increase the rapidity with which the Travel Office director and staff were terminated and to “get ‘our people’ into the travel office.”
The trial involving Dale became a focal point for assessing Dale’s character. Among those who testified in favor of Dale’s reputation for honesty were ABC News’ Sam Donaldson and LA Times’ Jack Nelson. The evidence against Dale dissembled as it became increasingly apparent that he may have been terminated to justify the hiring of Clinton cronies and that he had done nothing that qualifies under the law as embezzlement or criminal conversion of Travel Office funds. After only two hours of deliberation, the jury in the Dale case came back with a not guilty verdict on both charges. Dale had been vindicated but his reputation for honesty could not be fully restored after so public an attack from the highest levels of government.
Independent Counsel Robert Ray issued a 243 page report in which he very nearly concluded that Hillary Clinton should be prosecuted. Stopping short of that recommendation because he found no direct evidence that Hillary Clinton intended to lie, Ray concluded that she gave “factually false” statements to investigators for the GAO, the Independent Counsel, and Congress concerning the firings. Ray wrote, “Mrs. Clinton’s input into the process was significant, if not the significant factor in influencing the pace of events in the Travel Office firings and the ultimate decision to fire the employees.”
While so-called Travelgate is a very high profile example of character assassination, it is replicated often by those with a political agenda outside of government to harm opponents. Certain advocates of conventional medicine who have no tolerance whatsoever for integrative approaches that deviate from the model they favor not only attack the modalities they dislike but attack the people who practice them, labeling those whose practices they dislike “quacks” and calling on government agencies to prosecute the doctors. Repeatedly this backfires when the truth comes to the fore but for the malicious the allure of character assassination and litigation based upon it remains.
The vaccination debate also inspires certain people to engage in ad hominem attacks on character. Certain people believe, as do I, that mandatory vaccination is an assault on individual liberty. They variously hold to the view that it should be incumbent upon the state to prove in an individual case that vaccines are safe and effective and that less intrusive alternatives, such as sanitation, lack of interaction with diseased populations, and avoidance of interpersonal contacts, are incapable of reducing the risk of disease transmission before compelling a person to be vaccinated. They point to the absence of long term clinical trials to establish vaccines safe and to the failure of the government to identify and exclude from mandatory vaccination vulnerable populations at risk of adverse reactions. They point to the absence of informed consent, whereby adults are apprised of the known adverse reactions to vaccines in addition to proof supportive of claimed benefits before they or their children undergo vaccination. They also point to the absence of adequate efficacy testing to establish that FDA approved vaccines will in fact prevent the diseases in question.
Because the debate over mandatory vaccination can be heated, certain people choose to engage in ad hominem attack on those whose arguments they oppose, labeling them liars or worse. In the process, they prove yet again that the ultimate recourse of the scoundrel is to attack the deservedly good reputation of one’s opponent with character assassination. Over time, as we come to learn more of the character of those who cast aspersion in this way, it is often the case that the tables turn and the public mind rejects the despicable tactic.
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It is generally wise counsel to view with particular skepticism any person who attempts to win support through an attack on the character of an opponent. Whenever we see such an attack, we should recoil from it, become contemplative, and examine in detail the reputation of the person making the charge. If we rely on that approach, we are less likely to be deceived and more likely to appreciate that the character attack is usually a foil designed either to obfuscate the real issue or to place doubt in our minds concerning the message conveyed on the erroneous premise that the validity of the message necessarily turns on the character of the messenger.
© 2010 Jonathan W. Emord - All Rights Reserved