The Rhetoric of Inferiority

The Rhetoric of Inferiority


If you watch politics, and listen to how words are being used and to the way arguments are being framed, you see rhetorical games that just won’t go away.

One such perennial is to question your opponent’s intelligence or sincerity. This attack comes in several forms, and one of the most deadly is to suggest that your opponent is a front for others.  A corollary is that your opponent lacks the sophistication and brainpower to do its own thinking.

We have seen this political jab for many years. Traditionally this assault on integrity and brainpower – especially when waged against minorities – is the work of the reactionaries and the political cynics – from Stephen Douglas in the Lincoln-Douglas debates to Lee Atwater in the Reagan years to Glenn Beck today.  So it was surprising, and disappointing, to see it employed by one of our own.

Recently, a leading social justice organization contended that the major civil rights organizations are incapable of understanding their own advocacy for equal access to the Internet for the millions of people not online.  They  suggested that the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC), legal counsel for the groups, controls their thinking.

I serve on MMTC’s Board and have been active in the organization for more than 20 years.  Throughout that time, MMTC has ably represented minority, religious and civil rights organizations as those organizations have sought fairness and equality in decisions of the FCC.

This recent blast immediately brought to mind the many attacks on civil rights organizations in the past.  For well over a decade, reactionaries made outrageous allegations against the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and others, charging they were secretly acting to bring down American democracy. These activists who fought for equality were labeled Communists and called tools of a Communist conspiracy. In the Cold War excitement of the 1950s and 1960s, this accusation was used to frighten the mainstream and derail the true message.

Perhaps these tactics have influence over a few paranoid souls in the short term, but over time, no.  Yet it is a sad piece of Americana. Sad, too, that this organization, which has done good things in the movement, fell to this level and – I trust unintentionally – played into a racial stereotype to make its point.  Those with strong arguments on the merits never need to question their opponents’ intelligence or sincerity.

Dr. Jannette Dates is the Dean of the School of Communications at Howard University and the co-editor of Split Image:  African Americans in the Mass Media.


  1. Well stated Dean Dates! I read about this earlier in the month and I'm pleased to see someone speak out against these personal attacks. Any so-called leader should know how to attack the message, not the messenger.

  2. It first needs to be said that as with love and war, all’s fair in politics.

    Both sides in the recent ‘net neutrality’ debate deployed their fair share of hyperbole and ad hominems as influenced by their respective ideologies. As an African-American professional in the telecom sector and proponent of net neutrality, I was particularly struck by the contradiction in civil rights organizations’ apparent disregard for civil liberties and consumer protections on this issue . James Rucker raised a valid point in questioning whether certain public officials and organizations’ principles had been compromised by their dependency on corporate welfare. For his efforn, Rucker was maligned as a demagogue by opponents of net neutrality.

  3. I was disappointed to see that tactic used in the Huffington Post article.

    I agree — it feeds paranoia but doesn't shape public opinion. It only cheapens the argument and the person making the attack.