A Respectful Rebuttal of the Brutal Takedown

Compiled by the scientific means of putting the phrase into the Twitter search bar, here is a selection of things that have been the subject of a “brutal takedown” in the last couple of days:

  • Donald Trump
  • The Hyundai car company
  • Islam
  • Academia
  • Celebrity culture
  • An environmental campaigner called Michael from Chilliwack, British Columbia (“it was the Twitter equivalent of a snuff film,” said one comment).

I googled the term “brutal takedown” too and saw one of my favourite examples: “Manhole Performs a Brutal Takedown on a Car.” I couldn’t bear to click the link, because it could only be a disappointment compared to the image those words put in my head.

Only one of the items listed on Twitter was about a literal brutal takedown, an article about a Californian woman named Megan Sheehan who says that police officers knocked her teeth out and broke four bones in her face during an arrest.

Possibly the weirdest, and most convoluted, was a link to the story of a US Army Sergeant called Marcus Rogers. Marcus had posted a video of himself on Facebook, in which he criticised the rioting in Baltimore following the death of 25 year old Freddie Gray. Mr Gray died violently while in police custody. There was violence in the protests about his death. There were threats of physical violence and death made in response to the Army Sergeant for his response to the response to the death of Freddie Gray. And the only part of that chain of violence that was referred to as a “brutal takedown” was the video Marcus had made.

Here’s some of the content of that “brutal takedown”:

If you’re out there rioting, you’re out there breaking people’s businesses that they worked hard to build, causing chaos in the streets, you’re out there throwing rocks at police and destroying police cars, do you understand that you’re actually doing more damage than good? If Martin Luther King were here, a real civil rights leader … he would be disappointed in what you guys are doing.”

Whether you agree with what he’s saying or not, it hardly seems “brutal.” It’s politely worded, slightly confrontational in tone but not outright insulting. And nor was it a “takedown.” It didn’t change anything. Didn’t stop anything. Didn’t in any noticeable way alter the course of what was happening.  It was a tiny, insignificant footnote to a much bigger story.

And yet it is being compared to a ruthless, violent, quick and decisive victory from a combat sport. A mismatch, where one opponent is hopelessly unequipped to deal with the other. Where one muscle-bound warrior, their body apparently carved from granite, their eyes aflame with vengeance, years of martial training, knowledge and experience in every fibre of their being, unleashes their fury with clinical precision upon…well, upon me, or you, or any other Average Jo(e).  We have been brutally taken down. The fight is over. The victory is clear.

Consider again the subjects of the “brutal takedowns” mentioned on Twitter: Islam, Academia, Celebrity Culture, Hyundai, Donald Trump. They all seem to have continued on just fine, thank you very much.  Even Michael from Chilliwack is still campaigning, undeterred, for sustainable energy and clean water, in spite of the “Twitter snuff movie” he endured.

Most of the “brutal takedowns” out there are closer to a gnat attacking a rhinoceros.

So, ok, it’s a dull little cliché that unimaginative writers use to describe any old minor disagreement and make it sound a bit more dramatic.  Fine. We can all have a bit of fun, and laugh at Donald Trump’s silly hair and call our joke a brutal takedown. Donald doesn’t mind, or even notice. So does it even matter?

I believe, passionately, that words do matter. I believe that words have meanings, and that those meanings shape opinions and behaviour, and that observing how those meanings change over time is important. And I believe that words can, when chosen with grace and intelligence and precision, persuade. They can persuade others to change their opinion, even if only a little.

The most important issues are complex. There are rarely easy solutions. You have a problem with celebrity culture, or academia, or Donald Trump? Fine, it is positive to articulate that and see whether you can persuade others to your point of view. But if the language of our debate is the “brutal takedown,” if you are aiming to “destroy” or “eviscerate” or “own” your opponent, you’ve already lost. When we’re all trying to take each other down, we’re expending energy that could have been used on understanding the problem and finding a solution.

And, maybe worse, the lines start to blur. You try to persuade someone in a respectful, factual manner and they assume you are attempting to destroy them altogether. Before you know it, they are complaining of being bullied or trolled, because that is the norm for debate and they don’t know how to recognise or handle any other kind. And soon we’ve all forgotten how to disagree productively.

More sinister still, the rhetoric of violence, physical violence as an analogy for disagreement, can spill into reality. If you’re willing to perform a verbal “brutal takedown” online, you’re already a step closer to being ready to perform a physical attack in reality. Words have that power. You have identified an opponent to be attacked, not an individual to compare ideas with. And particularly if your intended takedown turned out to be more of a gnat-attack…where do you go from there?

I will, pre-emptively, plead guilty to the charge of hypocrisy if you want to make it. I regularly make negative ad hominem comments about certain people, or mock them in other ways. I could probably try to construct an argument that I mean no particular ill will to those people as individuals, I aim only to marginalise their ideas and make them look as ludicrous as I believe them to be. But I won’t. Sometimes I go too far, sometimes I lose my temper and say something more pointed than I should. But I’m not here to do a brutal takedown of the brutal takedown. I don’t think I can stop them. I’m just gently making a case for the return of the Respectful Rebuttal.

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