Alvinism: a social disease

Does anyone still remember the incomparable Marvin Kaplan, creator of dozens of comic icons?  In the 1950s TV sitcom "Meet Millie", he played Alvin Prinzmetal, composer, poet, and psychotic.  One of Alvin's paranoid peculiarities was that, whenever anyone voiced the slightest disapproval or disagreement, he would recoil, cringe, and hiss "you hate me!"

I'd like to propose Alvin as the poster boy for a prevalent degenerative disease in social disputes—denouncing one's opponents as evil or insane.  This is an ancient ploy that debaters call "poisoning the well".  But in this age of advertising, when catchwords are repeated so often that they gain unconscious acceptance, "alvinism" is flourishing as never before. 

If you disagree with the gay rights movement in any way, some will paint you as guilty of "homophobia", a word which is not only dreadful etymology (the correct term is of course arsenokoitophobia) but also a pretentious way of saying "if you don't agree with me, you hate me"—in short, pure alvinism.  If you don't agree that some genders are more equal than others, or if you leave the toilet seat up, you're "sexist".  And if you believe that job opportunities should be equal for all and that affirmative action should someday be sent out to pasture, you're automatically "a racist". 

Notice that sneaky little  "a".  The use of a noun instead of an adjective is no accident.  "Sally is lesbian" describes a woman who does something but "Sally is a lesbian" turns her into a thing, not quite human.  This little trick of grammar is a common device of alvinism.

But alvinists resort to more than name—calling.  One of their favorite tricks is to point to the extremists among their opponents and claim that they're the norm.  This is nonsense and they know it.  Any decent cause will inevitably attract a fanatical fringe but their unwanted presence does not invalidate the cause.  John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry did not justify slavery, but some Southerners of the era tried to claim it did.  Similarly, pro—choicers point to the few cases of clinics being burned, imply that all anti—abortion demonstrators are clinic—burners, and demand that they all be kept away from clinics, regardless of the First Amendment.  That's what we nowadays call "profiling", a favorite accusation of alvinists.

This alvinistic guilt—by—association can be stretched to preposterous lengths. Recently, as Ed Lasky  reported in these pages, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen  branded the Republican Party as racist, 'to its everlasting shame,' for including 'bigoted Southerners.' This remarkable claim logically implies the propositions that (a) all Southerners are bigoted and (b) they joined the Republican party because it pandered to their bigotry. It also evades the fascinating question of why these bigoted Southerners were staunch Democrats for the hundred years after the Civil War.

But aside from such overt alvinism, the media are often willing tools of alvinists in other ways.  Edgar Allen Poe, a journalist himself, said "it is the object of our newspapers rather to create a sensation...than to further the cause of truth".  Newspapers have not changed since Poe's day and  television cameras are drawn, as if by magnets, to the flamboyant and outrageous.   Imagine a group of a hundred protesters, ninety—nine in ordinary dress and one naked or carrying an obscene sign; which one will you see on the ten o'clock news?  What alvinist could ask for better help?

And thus alvinism proliferates.  A professor at a Midwest university teaches a course on the "isms", including homophobia, sexism, racism, and (hold on to your hats) "ageism", and "handicapism", apparently branding them all as pathological aberrations.  It's no wonder that some of us suffer from professorism. 

The worst thing about alvinism is that it works.  In our era of media hype, catchy neologisms are eagerly seized upon, repeated incessantly, and ultimately accepted; the trick is in the repetition.   (I have so far used "alvinism" or "alvinist" thirteen times in this article.)

I enjoyed Alvin Prinzmetal in his day, and would give a great deal to see him again, but I don't like his disciples.  "Elvis lives!" believers and the Flat Earth Society excepted, every cause has some reasonable grounds for its position and its opponents have some reasonable arguments against it.  So it should always be possible to argue rationally, without name—calling or vilification.  We have a national foundation for almost every disease; let's start one to stamp out alvinism.  

Paul Shlichta is a research scientist.

Does anyone still remember the incomparable Marvin Kaplan, creator of dozens of comic icons?  In the 1950s TV sitcom "Meet Millie", he played Alvin Prinzmetal, composer, poet, and psychotic.  One of Alvin's paranoid peculiarities was that, whenever anyone voiced the slightest disapproval or disagreement, he would recoil, cringe, and hiss "you hate me!"

I'd like to propose Alvin as the poster boy for a prevalent degenerative disease in social disputes—denouncing one's opponents as evil or insane.  This is an ancient ploy that debaters call "poisoning the well".  But in this age of advertising, when catchwords are repeated so often that they gain unconscious acceptance, "alvinism" is flourishing as never before. 

If you disagree with the gay rights movement in any way, some will paint you as guilty of "homophobia", a word which is not only dreadful etymology (the correct term is of course arsenokoitophobia) but also a pretentious way of saying "if you don't agree with me, you hate me"—in short, pure alvinism.  If you don't agree that some genders are more equal than others, or if you leave the toilet seat up, you're "sexist".  And if you believe that job opportunities should be equal for all and that affirmative action should someday be sent out to pasture, you're automatically "a racist". 

Notice that sneaky little  "a".  The use of a noun instead of an adjective is no accident.  "Sally is lesbian" describes a woman who does something but "Sally is a lesbian" turns her into a thing, not quite human.  This little trick of grammar is a common device of alvinism.

But alvinists resort to more than name—calling.  One of their favorite tricks is to point to the extremists among their opponents and claim that they're the norm.  This is nonsense and they know it.  Any decent cause will inevitably attract a fanatical fringe but their unwanted presence does not invalidate the cause.  John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry did not justify slavery, but some Southerners of the era tried to claim it did.  Similarly, pro—choicers point to the few cases of clinics being burned, imply that all anti—abortion demonstrators are clinic—burners, and demand that they all be kept away from clinics, regardless of the First Amendment.  That's what we nowadays call "profiling", a favorite accusation of alvinists.

This alvinistic guilt—by—association can be stretched to preposterous lengths. Recently, as Ed Lasky  reported in these pages, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen  branded the Republican Party as racist, 'to its everlasting shame,' for including 'bigoted Southerners.' This remarkable claim logically implies the propositions that (a) all Southerners are bigoted and (b) they joined the Republican party because it pandered to their bigotry. It also evades the fascinating question of why these bigoted Southerners were staunch Democrats for the hundred years after the Civil War.

But aside from such overt alvinism, the media are often willing tools of alvinists in other ways.  Edgar Allen Poe, a journalist himself, said "it is the object of our newspapers rather to create a sensation...than to further the cause of truth".  Newspapers have not changed since Poe's day and  television cameras are drawn, as if by magnets, to the flamboyant and outrageous.   Imagine a group of a hundred protesters, ninety—nine in ordinary dress and one naked or carrying an obscene sign; which one will you see on the ten o'clock news?  What alvinist could ask for better help?

And thus alvinism proliferates.  A professor at a Midwest university teaches a course on the "isms", including homophobia, sexism, racism, and (hold on to your hats) "ageism", and "handicapism", apparently branding them all as pathological aberrations.  It's no wonder that some of us suffer from professorism. 

The worst thing about alvinism is that it works.  In our era of media hype, catchy neologisms are eagerly seized upon, repeated incessantly, and ultimately accepted; the trick is in the repetition.   (I have so far used "alvinism" or "alvinist" thirteen times in this article.)

I enjoyed Alvin Prinzmetal in his day, and would give a great deal to see him again, but I don't like his disciples.  "Elvis lives!" believers and the Flat Earth Society excepted, every cause has some reasonable grounds for its position and its opponents have some reasonable arguments against it.  So it should always be possible to argue rationally, without name—calling or vilification.  We have a national foundation for almost every disease; let's start one to stamp out alvinism.  

Paul Shlichta is a research scientist.