On What Claims are Permitted
February 25, 2016
Recently, I had a bit of a disagreement with a cultural ally about how best to pursue our aims. This person suggested that in the course of public debates (or those on social media, to the extent they may sometimes be public) we ought to be careful not to make claims that might come back to haunt us in the general culture. In the context of the discussion, which was about political candidates in this election season, the warning was that “dubious,” “negative,” “unfair,” or “dirty” arguments made during a fight for a party’s nomination might later work against whomever is nominated when the general election rolls around. As a proponent of unfettered free speech, I took issue. The crux of our disagreement really comes down to terms.
I hold that the best way to sort out bad claims from good is to air them all, but with the only caveat being that outright lies are forbidden. Now what counts as “dubious,” “negative,” “unfair,” or “dirty” is up in the air, obviously. Any of these could nonetheless be deemed to be true claims. Dubious claims can turn out to be true once evidence is discovered, negative claims are simply those that reflect negatively upon someone or something, and again can well be true. “Dirty” is perhaps the most ambiguous of these terms. “Playing dirty,” “dirty politics,” “digging up dirt” … these are all terms of art in the political realm that don’t necessarily mean lying. One example of dirty politics is that employed and perfected by the late Lee Atwater, architect of the Willie Horton smear against Michael Dukakis. Willie Horton was a felon serving a life sentence who was released on furlough program while Gov. Dukakis was Governor of Massachusetts. Horton did not return from his furlough and committed assault and rape. By tying Horton to Dukakis, the racial strategy begun by Nixon clearly helped Bush Sr. get elected against Dukakis. The facts about Horton were true, the smear was effective, but the link between reasons to vote for Dukakis and the Willie Horton affair were so tenuous that most agree this was as dirty as presidential politics can get. Atwater later apologized for the tactic when he was dying of cancer.
Is it dirty or unfair to raise issues about candidates’ lineage and birthplaces? Is it dirty to raise questions about affiliations among them and others? Is it dirty politics to cite past actions and beliefs when assessing the candidate’s sincerity? It may be, if the intent is to draw some relation or comparison that is tangential or orthogonal to the issue at hand. There is no solid definition of what counts as dirty politics. If we use the Willie Horton instance as a prime example, we can see that it can occur without lies. Let’s then ask whether, in those instances, such claims should be prohibited or off limits in case we end up having some shared goal.
Again I argue no. As in science, where hypotheses that are not pseudoscientific are permitted and should be explored in the presence of some reason to think they may be true, or at least may be interesting, testing of claims regardless of how dubious allows us best to either develop confidence in them or to dismiss them in the absence of evidence or relevance. We do better in both science and society to air claims that are not lies for a full hearing, to have them weighed, provide opportunities for counterexamples, and help us to establish their truth or falsity with some certainty.
These principles are applicable in our communications as defenders of science, secularism, and reason in general. Should we check our speech in public or even in pseudo-public social media fora just in case later our cultural opponents latch onto it to use it against us or those we support? I don’t believe so. Our arguments gain strength best through testing, through challenge, through exposure to counterarguments and counterexamples. Playing our cards very close to our chests does not alter the cards themselves, and when it comes time to lay out our hand, we had better have built it to be as strong as possible. Our views may gain strength by such testing, or our positions may ultimately weaken. At best, they evolve and grow in light of better evidence, strong counterarguments, and we become better defenders of our points of view as our confidence in their truthfulness and the validity of our argumentation grows in the process. Our opponents will show no quarter, and so we ought to prepare ourselves, sometimes through bitter internal argument, for the worst we can expect. We cannot expect to face them with our best if we haven’t exposed our best to the harshest criticism. Of course, as allies and often as friends, we should continue to encourage respect and civility, as we should even against our cultural opponents. In the end, however, we should not use these expectations as reason to avoid the rigorous testing and criticism of our most cherished truths. But truth is the limit. Lies, when we know they are lies, are not permissible. All other claims are.