The Broad Brush

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Broad brushes are useful for that which they are designed, to cover everything up.

I’ve had an interesting week exploring new places on the internet, reading a host of new articles from sources very new to me. Entirely too many of these articles share one unfortunate feature; the broad brush.

Both sides of the political equation are guilty, but I have to say that I seem to find it a little more common coming from the left (my implicit bias at work no doubt). It isn’t new by any means. When I was quite young I recall hearing “The Republicans are for big business and the Democrats are for the working man”, both statements are false.

My recent travels found items like these:

• Republicans all drive jacked-up four-wheel-drive pickups with a “Back the Blue” bumper sticker and a Confederate flag stuck in a stake pocket.

• Chauvin represents all of law enforcement.

• All Republicans are responsible for the January 6th riot.

• Second Amendment supporters have a long history of anti-Semitism.

• Second Amendment supporters also walk around in public with a sidearm strapped to each hip, for no apparent reason other than to make a “statement.”

• The sole reason for any recall petition is the refusal to accept election results.

• If you don’t support BLM, it’s because you are racist.

• If you don’t embrace critical race theory, it’s because you are racist.

• The reason Republicans support originalist judges, the Electoral College, and the existence of the Senate, is that they hate democracy and wish to thwart the will of the people.

I must confess my astonishment that, at this late date, I was blissfully unaware of so many of these “facts.” All of these statements are, on balance, false. Are there a few people for which these statements are true? Yes, a very few, a vanishingly small number.

Why is this? Why is it “ok” to take the view of 5 weirdos in some obscure internet chat room and paint half of the country with it? Is it simply intellectual laziness, fallacious argument (straw man, ad hominem), or mere exaggeration for effect? Perhaps, but perhaps this would be too generous.

No, I would argue there is a simple and much more important reason for the use of the broad brush; to obscure.

The broad brush is used to end the conversation, to hide the details, to obscure the facts. If you call me a racist because I oppose critical race theory, we never get to hear the details of what critical race theory is, and more importantly, we never get to hear the details of why I oppose it.

This is precisely why the straw man argument exists, and it is precisely what it is used for, to hide the truth. You vote for a Republican candidate, a Klansman somewhere votes for the same candidate, therefore, you support the Klan. Completely obscured here is every single reason you voted for the candidate, how convenient.

What a wonderful tool the broad brush is. It can free you from having to make a detailed argument. At the same time, it can blunt the efforts of your adversary to make a detailed counterargument. Doesn’t this sound like a great way to make progress?

We’re all guilty of using the broad brush from time to time, myself included. But we would do well to keep in mind what it was designed to do.


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