One reason I’m so grateful for having edited magazines for so long was the chance I got to learn about so many of the intellectually dishonest ways in which even some of the world’s most eminent scholars and statesmen argue for or against certain propositions.
Some well known examples? Trying to end debate through stigmatization. (“My opponents are isolationists.”) Pretending that only black and white choices are available. (“It’s either capitalism or socialism.”) Defining a problem out of existence or assuming it away. (“Free trade always creates more winners than losers.”) Launching ad hominem attacks. (“He wants to limit immigration because he’s a bigot.”) And appealing to either anonymous authorities (“All the experts agree….”) or identified authorities (“As Henry Kissinger says….”).
In fact, these ruses were so common that I identified one of my own – a device so popular and sleazy, but so subtle and thus effective, that it’s well worth spotlighting. And finally, after struggling for years to come up with a catchy (or even comprehensible) name, the Harvey Weinstein/Hollywood sex crimes scandals have finally crystallized its essence for me. I call it “preemptive bogus alarmism.” It consists defending a prevailing, longstanding idea or opinion or policy by warning of terrible consequences if (for reasons never specified) change results in a wildly excessive overreaction that’s also thoroughly improbable precisely because the status quo is so well established.
If you think about it, it’s becoming almost de rigeur in defenses of establishment positions on foreign policy, trade, immigration, and many other issues. What after all, has become more routine on the op-ed pages and the like than the concern that “We wouldn’t want ignoring foreign crisis X to turn into ignoring all foreign crises”? Unless it’s “We wouldn’t want fighting foreign protectionist practice Y to produce a shutdown of all trade.” Or “We wouldn’t want more border security to bring on a ban on all immigration.” Or “In trying to prevent another financial crisis, we mustn’t outlaw all Wall Street risk-taking.”
The intents, of course, are to portray even modest new wrinkles in current approaches as dangerous gambits all too likely to trigger widely feared disasters; to deny the possibility of exercising any judgment or identifying any useful opportunities for discrimination; conversely, to pigeonhole all supporters of change as reckless hotheads; and to depict current conditions as indisputable but deceptively fragile bests of all possible worlds that are held together only through the expert, Herculean, and sadly under-appreciated exertions of their supporters.
Which brings us to the Harvey Weinstein angle – and an example of preemptive bogus alarmism that struck me as particularly disgraceful. I’m talking about Woody Allen’s statement in a BBC interview that “it was important to avoid ‘a witch hunt atmosphere’ where ‘every guy in an office who winks at a woman is suddenly having to call a lawyer to defend himself'”.
In other words, we’ve now had weeks of revelations leaving little doubt that various versions of what used to be winked at (by lots of us movie-goers and other non-entertainment industry types, too) as “the casting couch,” have been deeply embedded in Hollywood’s business model for decades, and have victimized even many genuine superstars. And Allen is warning that the nation at large should be at least just as worried that any crackdown not sweep up the innocent as well as the guilty. Even recognizing that law enforcement can be political, and overzealousness is certainly possible, in the “bend over backwards” sense, whenever long-term neglect or laxitude has been exposed, the suggestion that this hypothetical should be on or near center stage sets new standards for obtuseness, at very best.
In fact, Allen’s own dubious past in this regard is enough to break the chutzpah meter. Which suggests a new category of intellectually dishonest argumentation: “Preemptive self-serving bogus alarmism.” But whatever the form it takes, I hope you all agree that the practice needs to be called out – and to the greatest extent possible, stamped out. Moreover, I hope you’ll help me in this effort by sending examples to RealityChek‘s comment section. As soon as I get enough of them, I’ll post them – with full credit provided if that’s what you want. You’d certainly deserve it!