UK Politics

Symmetry and Splitting the Difference

There’s a debating technique called “throwing chaff”. Like the anti-radar countermeasure after which it is named, the way that it works is by creating a proliferation of bogus targets, and generally, by causing confusion. It is closely allied to the magician’s trick: “misdirection“. And it isn’t a million miles away from “Meanwhiling

The response to Livingstone’s recent attempted knifing of Peter Tatchell provides a good example of the technique in action.

Tatchell, you’ll remember, had complimented Livingstone on having sat the bigoted Moscow Mayor between two prominent gay European mayors at a dinner. Livingstone, weirdly, issued a press release which called Tatchell an “Islamophobe”, pointing to a year old article in which Tatchell had condemned the Grand Mufti of Moscow for encouraging attacks on Gay Pride marchers. Livingstone’s argument was that Tatchell had suggested that homophobia in Moscow was a predominantly muslim phenomenon. But when you looked at the article in question, it became apparently that Tatchell had said nothing of the sort: he had spoken out against christian and jewish faith leaders, and only had something to say about the Grand Mufti because of the call to violence. And, to boot, Livingstone himself had also put out a press release at the same time, condemning all three faith leaders. If Tatchell was an “Islamophobe”, by the same measure, so was Livingstone.

When this was pointed out, the chaff throwing began in earnest. Without going into the tedious details – and believe me, the whole point of chaff throwing is to be as boring and obscure as possible – the way it proceeded was as follows:

Brett: Your claim about Tatchell is untrue. You should withdraw it.
Livingstone’s Elves: *Makes counterallegation*
Brett: *Refutes counterallegation. Restates original point*
Livingstone’s Elves: *Several new counterallegations*
Brett: *Refutes key new counterallegations. Restates original point*
Livingstone’s Elves: *Points out that one of the new counterallegations has not been addressed.*
Brett: *Refutes remaining counterallegation.*
Livingstone’s Elves: *Restates first counterallegation*
Brett: *Refutes counterallegation again.*

And so on.

Confused? You’re supposed to be.

The way that chaff throwing works is that it makes an argument difficult to follow. It won’t assist victory, but it helps to avoid defeat. The chaff thrower wants the listener to come away thinking:

“I’m not really sure what this is really all about. Probably, both sides are equally in the right and in the wrong. It’s six of one and half a dozen of the other. Let’s split the difference”.

Chaff throwing is particularly effective if it calls in aid our natural love of symmetry. When we find the rights and wrongs of an argument difficult to follow, it is easy to encourage the belief that “each side is as bad, in its own way, as the other”. When an issue seems complicated, it is comforting to draw pat equivalences between the two sides, and tell yourself that you’ve achieved balance and moderation.

Not only is that a lazy get-out. It is often dangerously wrong.

This is effectively the technique which has been deployed against Ayan Hirsi Ali: not merely by her opponents, but by liberals who should be her strongest supporters.

Read Christopher Hitchens on the subject:

The Feb. 26 edition of Newsweek takes up where Garton Ash and Buruma leave off and says, in an article by Lorraine Ali, that, “It’s ironic that this would-be ‘infidel’ often sounds as single-minded and reactionary as the zealots she’s worked so hard to oppose.” I would challenge the author to give her definition of irony and also to produce a single statement from Hirsi Ali that would come close to materializing that claim. Accompanying the article is a typically superficial Newsweek Q&A sidebar, which is almost unbelievably headed: “A Bombthrower’s Life“. The subject of this absurd headline is a woman who has been threatened with horrific violence, by Muslims varying from moderate to extreme, ever since she was a little girl. She has more recently had to see a Dutch friend butchered in the street, been told that she is next, and now has to live with bodyguards in Washington, D.C. She has never used or advocated violence. Yet to whom does Newsweek refer as the “Bombthrower”? It’s always the same with these bogus equivalences: They start by pretending loftily to find no difference between aggressor and victim, and they end up by saying that it’s the victim of violence who is “really” inciting it.

Garton Ash and Buruma would once have made short work of any apologist who accused the critics of the U.S.S.R. or the People’s Republic of China of “heating up the Cold War” if they made any points about human rights. Why, then, do they grant an exception to Islam, which is simultaneously the ideology of insurgent violence and of certain inflexible dictatorships? Is it because Islam is a “faith”? Or is it because it is the faith—in Europe at least—of some ethnic minorities? In neither case would any special protection from criticism be justified. Faith makes huge claims, including huge claims to temporal authority over the citizen, which therefore cannot be exempt from scrutiny. And within these “minorities,” there are other minorities who want to escape from the control of their ghetto leaders. (This was also the position of the Dutch Jews in the time of Spinoza.) This is a very complex question, which will require a lot of ingenuity in its handling. The pathetic oversimplification, which describes skepticism, agnosticism, and atheism as equally “fundamentalist,” is of no help here. And notice what happens when Newsweek takes up the cry: The enemy of fundamentalism is defined as someone on the fringe while, before you have had time to notice the sleight of hand, the aggrieved, self-pitying Muslim has become the uncontested tenant of the middle ground.

Perhaps, though, if I said that my principles were a matter of unalterable divine revelation and that I was prepared to use random violence in order to get “respect” for them, I could hope for a more sympathetic audience from some of our intellectuals.

Now, I am certainly not an uncritical supporter of Ayan Hirsi Ali. I do not subscribe to an essentialist view of any religion or culture. And I certainly take on board the argument that polemics about the principles of a religion tend not to play well with people who are no maniacs, but have an attachment to their faith. However, she’s a secularist anti-clerical liberal: not a missionary.

But the rubbishing she has received at the hands of people who should know better is really quite outrageous, isn’t it?

PS: There is also this piece by David Thompson:

“In an attempt to rebut Hirsi Ali’s contention [that Muslim cultures are often “deficient in critical thought.” ], Lalami wields a list of Muslim figures who dare to question orthodoxy. Oddly, she omits any mention of how most of those she names have faced censure, persecution or serious threats of violence for demonstrating their capacity for critical thought.”