I keep this fairly low-key on the blog (I mean, sure I haven’t posted in months, so there’s that, too!), but I am a huge fan of The West Wing. It’s even in my Twitter bio:
I’m mostly a fan of the first four seasons. The balanced tension that held the political procedure plots and the personality-driven plots fell apart after Aaron Sorkin left (I’d argue they were falling apart toward the second half of the fourth season, while Sorkin was still there but having some problems in his own life), and the writers had a harder time “bringing the funny” (to use a phrase from the show). I have not really rewatched the last three seasons. Yet I love the characters and find many of the ideas and episodes powerful, even though I recognize that they’re really problematic at times. (There’s no small amount of casual misogyny in Sorkin’s writing, and we can start the critiques there.)
When you see a title like the one on this article from a West Wing fan (I’ve bought multiple t-shirts for The West Wing Weekly Podcast — seriously, I’m a big fan), you expect it to be about Bartlet’s personal foibles: hiding his MS, or his difficult relationship with his middle daughter, or how he treats Toby. (I stan Toby Ziegler.) And a rabbi fan? You definitely don’t expect me to tell you that the Dr. Jenna Jacobs bit is lousy.
But I cringe every time someone shares this scene with text like “How to handle Bible-thumpers” or the like. (Like this page: http://churchandstate.org.uk/2015/09/this-is-how-you-challenge-people-who-use-the-bible-to-defend-discrimination/)
Why cringe? Let’s set to one side the fact that from a right-wing Christian’s perspective, none of this is unassailable, and no one is being “owned” or “pwned” or whatever. (See, e.g., http://reformedanswers.org/answer.asp/file/39927 and https://www.equip.org/article/president-bartlets-fallacious-diatribe/)
But there’s a bigger issue here, and it’s one we should be aware of and avoid falling into — and it’s the very same reason we find it so appealing as a “YEAH! Dunk on those fundies!” video.
At its core, Bartlet’s “own” of the Jenna Jacobs character rests largely on the tu quoque (“and you, too”) logical fallacy: it points out hypocrisy and uses that as a way of attacking the points being made (or that it knows other make, even if Jacobs never makes them on the show — she’s a cipher for real-life personality Dr. Laura Schlesinger). Bartlet’s argument is, at bottom, “Why do you continue to use the Hebrew Bible to justify discrimination against LGBTQI+ persons when you’ll touch a football made from pig skin and don’t routinely execute your rebellious children or your Sabbath-working family members? Those are in the Hebrew Bible, too!”
What’s the problem with this kind of argument? Beyond it being an attack rather than it being an actual argument about the topic itself (that’s the logical fallacy part), it can also undermine the argument being made by the speaker. How?
Consider: is the problem with Jenna Jacobs’s position that she isn’t consistent in what biblical provision she follows? Or is the problem really this: discrimination is bad?
I think the latter is true, or at least is the argument we really want to advance. So why make an argument that is subject to the following problem? The problem: someone out there will claim that they do want to follow the other commandments that Bartlet mentions. They might not be successful in doing so, but they want to. And if your argument is centered on “You don’t really want to follow those other rules,” rather than “discrimination is bad,” then you’ve perhaps conceded that maybe consistency is enough to justify discrimination.
That’s not what you meant to say, right? You meant to say, “Discrimination is bad, and look at how badly people who engage in discrimination mess up things! They don’t even follow their own rules!”
The point? Say what you mean to say. Make that argument.
What argument should you make? Depends on the context. But start here: make the argument that discrimination is bad. Don’t surrender that ground. That’s the argument we’re really making. So make it!
Don’t stand there in your wrongness and be wrong.
Don’t be like Bartlet.