Wondering what’s in a name-calling

If you have arrived at your current stage of life without encountering Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement, then you have been presenting arguments unaware of their effectiveness rating. This sheltered existence is about to end.

But, first, some background: My surname is Pugh. It’s not pronounced “Pug,” as some would have it; rather, it’s pronounced “Pew,” which, some would say, is worse than Pug.

I wish I had a nickel for every time I deployed the “names will never hurt me” defense. I’m sure you can appreciate my elementary school years were challenging.

During those years, my nightly prayers invariably contained a postscript: I would thank God I was not named after my uncle Roy — “Royal Pugh.” Can you imagine?!

A name that made Roy so tough, he became a paratrooper in World War II.

Though I lived through tough years, as well, by the time I hit adolescence, things had calmed to the point I was able to put the “names never hurt me” defense on a shelf.

Recently, however, stuff has started flying again — I may have to dust off my elementary school response. But I have concerns that old defense may no longer be adequate — name-calling has evolved from names that will never hurt us to sticks and stones that can break our bones.

What’s going on?

For an answer, we have to turn to The Graham Hierarchy.

The “Graham” is configured as a pyramid, divided into categories of possible argument responses. The most intelligent, most persuasive categories are at the top; the least viable, most unpersuasive at the pyramid’s base.

What are those categories?

The top-level of argument rebuttal is: “Explicitly refuting a central point in the opponent’s argument.” It’s the time-honored knock-out punch based on logic and verifiable information.

Next: “Finding a mistake in the other’s position.” After that comes a “contradiction based on sound reason or evidence.”

Continuing lower is the category: “Stating an opposing argument without refuting the one proposed.”

“Criticism of the opposing position’s tone without addressing its substance” is next; then comes “attacking the proponents’ standing without addressing his or her proposal’s merit.”

That brings us to the bottom, to the least-effective approach; the one used when no reasonable arguments or counterarguments exist — we have arrived at name-calling:

“I don’t know why you’re wrong, and I don’t care why you’re wrong, but I know you’re an idiot.” That sort of thing.

So there it is, the reason for name-calling: The name-caller has no reasonable argument to make.

Recently, a regent of the University of Michigan, a chap by the name of Ron Weiser, called our state’s governor, secretary of state, and attorney general “witches,” all of whom needed to get ready for “burning at the stake.”

It appears Ron had gone through the Graham categories but could find no better approach than that offered by its lowest rung.

University regents, embarrassed by Ron’s failure to utilize a higher Graham category — one more appropriate to that great university — voted to censure him and requested his resignation.

He refused — apologizing, instead.

But Attorney General Dana Nessel didn’t buy the apology. She may have perceived a deeper essence:

“If Ron’s comments inspired assassination attempts (against us), he would be fine with that so long as the university named another hall after him,” she said.

Ron’s a big university doner. I found it interesting there is a Weiser Diplomacy Center there. The women’s basketball tunnel — the north tunnel where it enters the Crisler Center — recently took his name, as well.

Could Ron have confused hall- and tunnel-naming with name-calling?

In any event, maybe we should give this admonished regent the benefit of the doubt; maybe the guy couldn’t help himself. Perhaps he got carried away in the excitement generated by being part of a name-calling crowd.

Which brings to mind a scene from Shirley Jackson’s famous short story, “The Lottery”:

“The people in the village began to gather in the square” — (a pile of stones was there, ready for their use) — then, “they began to move in on her — a stone hit her on the side of her head.”

“‘Come on — come on everyone!'”

“Then they were upon her.”

Doug Pugh’s “Vignettes” runs weekly on Saturdays. He can be reached at pughda@gmail.com.


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