My mum did warn me about getting into rucks, but I’ve been at it again. Worse: I’ve been in the same fight more than twice. It’s starting to look careless.
First time around, in the comments here and elsewhere, on the Dilpazier Aslam affair, originally raised by the much-imitated Scott Burgess. Second, over the Guardian column written by “Saudi dissident” Saad al-Faqih, in the
zoo comments at Harry’s Place.
I guess it’s no surprise to find messianic strands of left and right making common cause: same moral certitude, same authoritarian itch, same mistrust of letting people think for themselves. Deluded blah fellow-traveller blah blah useful blah idiot.
Essentially, the argument is this: I see no reason whatsoever why a Guardian political columnist ought to reveal (or have revealed by the paper) any affiliations, legal, disputed, proven or otherwise, should s/he choose not to. Note, I’m talking here about ought to, in the sense of being obliged, not might want to, or might be providing a useful service to readers by so doing, and so on. Nor am I arguing that a columnist should be protected from having any affiliations (legal, disputed, proven or otherwise) being revealed by others, like, say, Scott or David T. Nor, before any of the troglodytes come out to play, am I expressing any sympathy for the positions of Aslam or al-Faqih, though just like a stopped clock telling the time, some of what they write hits the mark.
No, I’m arguing that there is no reason why the Guardian should have “forewarned” their readers that Aslam was a member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir or al-Faqih close (or maybe integral) to al-Qaeda thinking. Ditto for the affiliation of any political columnists, if they wish to keep those affiliations to themselves. I can’t understand why the semi-accurate though unpleasant riposte to Scott in the Guardian didn’t make this point more forcefully. If common sense doesn’t agree with me, then common sense is wrong:
1. Trumpeting the affiliation of a columnist is likely to induce overconfidence should the “expert” agree with our own prejudice. If the “expert’s” line is contradicted by a knowledgeable mate down the pub, we’re unlikely to give as much weight to his contrary arguments, even if they are better ones. This may cause us to make bad choices and form unbalanced opinions. Remember: you do need to consult a proper expert on the technical aspects of oil extraction. When it comes to geopolitics, however, anyone armed with quality information can be an “expert”. Believing otherwise is a straightforward cognitive bias.
2. Affiliations tagged to columns only play to our comfortable priors. They make for complacent and lazy opinion-forming. We might ignore something valid written by an aide of George Bush or give undue attention to the opinions a reputed genius, without proper consideration of content. How many people read this morning’s Independent column by Ariel Sharon with an open mind?
3. Forcing us to reveal legal (or not proven illegal) affiliations is illiberal. If people choose to write from a state of (partial or full) anonymity, that’s fine. If a newspaper like the Guardian is happy to publish under those terms, it shouldn’t be censured for that. Let’s hear a writer’s arguments and decide for ourselves how stupid or otherwise his opinions are. The eponymous Harry avails himself of that right, as do I. Recall:
Liberty, if it means anything, is the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear.
It also means having the protection of anonymity to do so.