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Saturday, October 8, 2011

Spokespeople

Not allowed to be right about
anything.
After posting a clip from Bill Maher's show in which the comedian mocks the Republican presidential  candidates, Ed Brayton got some flack from readers complaining that they wouldn't watch it because Maher has established himself as having some pseudoscientific views, specifically being anti-vaccination. When Ed expressed confusion about why that would mean refusing to listen to Maher's comments on a completely unrelated issue, one response was:
Well Ed, sometimes people are annoyed to find that an idiot agrees with some of their positions. They feel, for whatever incredibly odd reason, that having a blithering idiot as a spokesperson is not the very best strategy they could hope for.  
Examples for me are Maher and Hitchens. Great to hear them when they support me — both have a way with words (Hitchens even writes his, maybe Maher does his as well) — but I will always feel that their effectiveness is undercut by the fact that on some major — really major — issues they are idiots.
My reaction to this is utter bafflement. First, that it's apparently an option between "supportive of my views" and "blithering idiot." But mainly because I don't understand why appreciating some things a person-- especially a comedian-- has to say means that you have somehow adopted him/her as your spokesperson.  What a mantle of responsibility to lay on someone you've never met, let alone never employed to speak for you! It's as though public figures aren't allow to have views of their own.

The ad hominem fallacy is not, as many confusedly believe, a statement that an argument is fallacious when it involves an insult to someone. It's a statement that it's fallacious to believe that you have discredited someone's argument by disparaging something irrelevant about them, usually his/her character: Joe may sound like he has a good point about the feasibility of legalizing marijuana, but he's a thief-- don't listen to him. Ronnie has a lot to say about public healthcare, but he's a Republican and so can't be trusted. Bill Maher might have something funny/insightful to say about the presidential election, but he's an anti-vaxxer so I won't listen. What?

If someone has valuable thoughts to offer, those thoughts can be appreciated without adopting that person's worldview wholesale and allowing him/her to speak for you on every matter.  It's important to realize this because no one in a position to advocate publicly for ideas that you hold dear is going to agree with you on everything. Nor are they infallible-- everyone is wrong about at least a few things. At least.  They're not even infallible in whatever area you find them to be dead-on. Christopher Hitchens is remarkably politically savvy, but that doesn't mean he was correct in endorsing the invasion of Iraq. Nor, for that matter, did such an endorsement make him an idiot-- it simply made him (in my view) wrong.  Richard Dawkins knows his arguments for and against the existence of God, but that doesn't mean he was right to chastise Rebecca Watson for speaking out about a creepy come-on at a conference for atheists. There's a certain of irony in the fact that both Hitchens and Dawkins are considered icons of the skeptical movement, yet so many within that movement are reluctant to be skeptical of them.  It's as though continuing to evaluate claims on their own merits rather than the people making those claims is just too taxing, and so after identifying some heroes of skepticism people are content to turn their brains off and allow those heroes to do the thinking for them. Not very skeptical, that, whether you agree that Hitchens and Dawkins were wrong on these specific issues or not.

Having opted out in many realms of life so far, and being very accustomed to the idea, I realize that my feeling of repugnance for the practice of adopting uncritical acceptance of public figures as spokespeople is uncommon. But it's something that should become more widespread, if ideas are really what is important rather than the mouths from which they come. A good idea is a good one no matter who is expressing it, and the same in reverse for a bad one. Let's not be afraid to criticize our heroes when they're wrong, or too willing dismiss everything a villain has to say as false and invalid. That's what intellectual honesty requires.

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