By Sergei A. Samoilenko
Character assassination comes in many shapes and forms. Character attacks vary in their complexity across time and cultures at interpersonal, intergroup, and international levels. The traditional view of CA, grounded in social psychology, sees a CA event in terms of cause-and-effect relations between the attacker and the target. Their relationship is determined by personal motivations, cognitive illusions, or intergroup prejudices and social norms of individuals and groups.
From this perspective, CA is a solo act similar to the practice of arching when the attacker aims an arrow at the passive target that unavoidably gets hurt. Undoubtedly, this approach provides multiple insights concerning the use of CA strategies and tactics and their effects on various audiences. However, it is also limited in its analysis of how individual actions can be explained by group dynamics or the rules and resources of larger social structures, such as governments and nation-states.
Towards a Social Constructionist View
In this blog post I argue for a social constructionist view according to which CA is a transactional process of communication in which all social actors are responsible for producing a CA event. Essentially, CA as a social event, is determined by the issues coming from social interaction, such as competing, cooperating, or conforming. For example, several parties may be simultaneously engaged in persuasive attacks, trying to adjust them in response to one another. Hence, CA is best represented as an event co-created by interdependent actors, rather than disconnected actions of the attacker and the target attempting to change public opinion. Importantly, CA is also an act of strategic communication and persuasion. Persuasion frequently requires a number of steps which refers to CA as social influence in which each message influences another. Typically, sequential persuasion is composed of a number of tactics that are aimed at getting people to form perceptions or behave in a particular way.
The Tetris CA Model
The term “Tetris CA” was invented by my Mason colleague Dr. John Cook during our private conversation following a long content analysis discussion. The model is named after the computer game Tetris (Nintendo). John compared the practice of sequential CA to randomly selected tetrominoes, or Tetris game pieces consisting of four square blocks, falling from the top of the playfield one at a time. In a game, each square blocks- enters the playfield with a given orientation and color depending on its shape (which correspond to different types of character attacks). As the game progresses, each level causes a tetromino piece to fall faster, and the game ends when the stack of tetriminos creates a structure by reaching the top of the playing field.
In the context of the ongoing climate change debate, personal attacks on scientific community by corporate interest groups can occur at two levels: character (the personality and experience of the target) and policy (past and future proposals for governmental action). These attacks are often interdependent. For example, an attack on character may be reinforced by identifying offensive acts allegedly committed by the target or an attack on policy can influence perceptions of the target’s character. In addition, personal attacks may contain overlapping ad hominem arguments. This contributes to a combined effect in support of the negative judgment on the conclusion advocated by the attacker. For example, some attacks may accuse climate change scientists of bias and having bad morals: “Of course, he is alarmist and is biased toward any common sense judgement about climate change. Also, the cherry-picked data in his report have thoroughly corrupted the science of climate change.” As the above example demonstrates, this type of sequential CA encompasses overlapping character attacks used in a single claim.
In addition, the Tetris CA model has a symbiotic nature. It is both modus operandi and opus operatum, i.e. both the modes and the results of character attacks. The idea is that character attacks as types of symbolic injury create narrative and social structures. Some structures, like stigma, are both made by human actions and simultaneously work to constrain agency of people and their opportunities for social advancement. CA events frequently produce unintended consequences of establishing new conditions and limitations for all actors involved.
The proposed model offers a promising new venue for academic research. Future studies ascribing to both socio-psychological and constructionist view of CA should examine the strategies of character attacks containing combined types of ad hominem arguments and their intended effects.