In mid-March Tucker Carlson invited the Executive Vice President of Planned Parenthood, Dawn Laguens, to appear on his show, “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” His goal for this appearance was to have her answer a very simple question: What was so important about the abortion services that Planned Parenthood (hereafter, “PP”) provides that the organization would be willing to forego about $500 million dollars of federal funding in the upcoming budget year? The White House earlier had offered to preserve those funds if the organization stopped providing the controversial services.
It was immensely instructive to watch the byplay between the conservative television host and Ms. Laguens: the proffer of a simple question – why is this one area so important? – and the professional level of obfuscation that passed for Ms. Laguens’ answer could be modules in any course on logic or critical thinking. The conversation was reproduced in A Conversation With Planned Parenthood: Decisions, Decisions. Here, as we examine how not to answer a question, we won’t just gather critical insight into how flat and juvenile the abortion debate is, but also how childish many other political and social debates are. The fact is, we simply don’t know how to argue.
The Sales Pitch: Flattery
Carlson opened with, “Why is abortion so important to Planned Parenthood that you are willing to forego a half a billion dollars a year in federal subsidies?”
Ms. Laguens, of course, did not answer the question – she didn’t even mention the word “abortion.” What she did was to give a sales pitch.
First, she praised her customer base: “[We believe] in the power of the individual to decide what care is right for them.” This is just “buttering up,” or flattery – commercials do it all the time.
The Straw Man
Second, she set up a straw man: “…no one’s going to bully, threaten, or bribe Planned Parenthood to not have that view.” What view is that? That PP believes in the individual’s wisdom and power to choose what care and what doctor is right for them. The problem is that no one is disputing PP’s belief, nor is anyone trying to force them to not have that view.
These opening sentences exhibit one of the most powerful tools in a propagandist’s arsenal: Misdirection. When you are faced with a tough question, start with a completely unrelated but soft “pitch,” or appeal to the audience’s wisdom, knowledge, or hipness, or whatever else might flatter them. Then, once they’re blushing with pride – “Oh my – why, thank you!” – then take them on a completely different path away from the question. It’s a version of the shiny object syndrome – “Oh, look at that bird!” or “Squirrel!”.
Demonization and Fearmongering
Laguens does this when, after defending PP’s right to have an opinion, she goes into a litany of unrelated-to-abortion but necessary and completely unobjectionable medical procedures that PP does provide, that are in danger of being lost because of Donald Trump and Paul Ryan and others. This last bit illustrates two techniques: Demonizing and Fearmongering. When holding a position you cannot defend, it is imperative that you demonize your opponent while simultaneously instilling fear in your listeners that they will lose something valuable or suffer incalculable loss if your opponents have their way.
When, after Laguens defends “a woman’s right to choose” and PP’s giving access to abortion, Carlson states that the majority of PP’s approximately 300,000 abortions per year are after 5.5 weeks’ gestation, at which point the fetal heartbeat can be detected. He then asks his second question: “I’m just wondering, as someone who works there, what do you think of that? What is being aborted? If you can hear the heartbeat, what is that thing that’s being aborted? How do you feel about that?”
Laguens does a good job, from a propagandist’s point of view, of once more not only not answering the question, but giving the PP sales pitch for “women’s choice.” Her answer: “Well, abortion is a right in this country. Women have their own views on whether or not they want to be pregnant.” She not only states the obvious – it is legal to abort a fetal heartbeat – but she sticks to a script as if she were shooting a commercial – repeating her central point (choice) while flattering her customer base.
Carlson persists: “But what do you think?” Laguens answers that “I’ve made my own choices” – a complete non-sequitur. This also is common in propaganda. And “choice” is an anchor concept of the pro-abortion side, and for that reason is used throughout this conversation.
[And the use of “choice” is not by accident. If people can be convinced that their choices – however misguided or wrong, or repugnant, or accountable – would be restricted by an action, they can be convinced that this restriction of choice is un-American, un-democratic, and even fascist; after all, “freedom of choice” was the watchword of the founding of this country (according to many). That’s why the word “choice” is used in the abortion debate. Of course, “non-viable” embryos and fetuses have no choice whatsoever in whether their heart will stop beating at some point in their development, but, as in so many issues, that aspect is ignored].
For the third time Carlson asks what she thinks about the heartbeat. Laguens continues with misdirection, demonization, and fearmongering: the Pence-Ryan plan will take away health screenings for millions of Americans.
The conversation whipsaws while Carlson doggedly continues: “Is it a separate being or is it a piece of flesh that is part of the woman?” Laguens answers, “What I’m going to say is that 70% of Americans believe that Roe v. Wade should be the law of the land” and “ They [these 70% of Americans] believe that women should each individually should be able to have their choices about what they want to do in their pregnancy.” Non-sequitur, misdirection. “And they definitely believe that women are at risk for losing care… [under the Pence-Ryan plan].” Fearmongering.
Carlson, as is his wont, continues to try to get his basic question answered: “…the majority of your abortions take place after five and a half weeks. So, I want to know if that bothers you at all…Do you ever stop and think, ‘Wow, what is happening here? Is a life being taken?’…”
At this point further dissection of the conversation becomes pointless: Laguens’ response is, as Carlson mentions at one point, “robotic,” as she simply repeats talking points: “I personally favor safe, legal abortion in this country, decided on by each individual woman and her doctor, to decide for themselves…”.
Donald Trump’s election was apparently a bugle call to what I call Modern American Liberalism (“MAL,” in my made-up parlance), because it has been a long time since students of argument and logic – or just careful observers – have had such a cornucopia of material to dissect, as this discussion between Tucker Carlson and Dawn Laguens was not an anomaly by any means. Virtually all of the techniques discussed here – the Sales Pitch, Straw Man, Misdirection, Flattery, Demonization, Fearmongering – are made so clearly evidenced in debates on the other current hot topics that it’s as if the Left either rolled out a nationwide campaign for their entire platform or decided to book the very worst debaters on their team for speaking tours.
While it’s disturbing that people will actually go on television and have a conversation like this without feeling utterly embarrassed, what’s more disturbing is that people will watch these debates and not get the central point that we’ve been driving at – that the question is being evaded (sometimes egregiously), and that there is no substance to what is being said: it’s all just propaganda.
Most reasonable people can agree: an educated voting populace is preferable to an ignorant one. But to become educated on the issues about which you care requires what most things of importance do (and can we agree that electing a person for President is important?): hard work, close and persistent observation, and a willingness to think and reason that is devoid of ego or fear.
Although they may be good for entertainment, it isn’t good for our future to have a schedule filled with debates like this one. What we need is our television hours filled with transparency, honesty, and reason – not obfuscation, evasion, and the conspicuous use of the tools of propaganda. Perhaps, with time, we’ll get there; one can only hope.
Categories: Political Punditry