Excusitis

By skepticlawyer

Excusitis, n (med): the condition whereby one is rendered incapable of seeing the faults in one’s political position, particularly with respect to that position’s capacity to facilitate the perpetration of violence.

When I was a green young lawyer, I was introduced to the ‘No True Scotsman’ logical fallacy. It’s an old concept (the argument is made, among others, by lawyers from Ulpian to Hale to Coke). Its most memorable formulation, however, is a modern one, by philosopher Antony Flew (in his 1975 book Thinking About Thinking):

Imagine Hamish MacDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the “Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again.” Hamish is shocked and declares that “No Scotsman would do such a thing.” The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again and this time finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says, “No true Scotsman would do such a thing.”

A simplified and more distinctively Scots example was attributed to Neil MacCormick in my Scots law conversion course. I have no idea whether MacCormick wrote it, but it drives the point home nicely:

Margaret: All Scotsmen enjoy haggis.
Donald: My uncle is a Scotsman, and he doesn’t like haggis!
Margaret:Well, all true Scotsmen like haggis.

[A fight, no doubt, ensues]

The ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy is a subspecies of equivocation, that is, it relies on shifting the meaning of terms. There’s a bit of begging the question in there as well, as it makes assumptions about all Scotsmen, or all [insert name of grouping here]. At the same time, it stops us from asking what people really believe or what attributes they really have, and deflects legitimate criticism. It is what I’m going to call ‘excusitis’ par excellence, although there are variations on the theme.

The most common manifestation of excusitis most of us have seen of late is that proferred on behalf of Muslims: this was part of public discourse long before 9/11, although has become pervasive since then. It involves the assertion that Islam is actually a peaceful religion, that Sharia is a real legal system and that Muslim terrorists aren’t ‘true’ Muslims. It is so obvious that most of us can spot it now. That doesn’t mean it’s gone away: here’s a nice example of the genre with respect to Sharia, from yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald. It includes the following paragraph:

Hardly anyone checked the facts. The men’s actions were wrong, not only under Australian law but also under Islamic law. Even in the few Muslim countries that apply sharia, the offender should be considered innocent until proven guilty and entitled to a fair trial before being punished. A Muslim caught drinking alcohol in Malaysia, for instance, would expect to be brought before the sharia court and, after due process, punished. He would not expect to be set upon in his home by vigilantes.

By this logic, we are not dealing with ‘true’ Sharia (despite the fact that Sharia is most commonly enforced privately), while the nature of punishment under Sharia (its fondness for brutal retribution) is airbrushed away. Well done, Jamila Hussain, you win a prize in my ‘No True Scotsman’ Awards 2011. Perhaps I should talk my fitter & turner brother and engineer partner into designing and manufacturing a series of trophies :)

Because, you see, it isn’t just Muslims running the ‘No True Scotsman’ line, which is why I’ll need a goodly collection of trophies. This form of equivocation and question-begging has become such a large part of public debate there are times when I feel like polities throughout the Anglosphere (and probably elsewhere, too) have lost the capacity to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Other recent case studies? The outbreak of Excusitis over the behaviour of News Corporation in the UK. This took two forms: first, the determined attempt to suggest that this sort of appalling behaviour was restricted to Rupert Murdoch’s stable of media interests (‘no true journalist’), despite the fact that — as the Information Commissioner found — hacking was pervasive across the tabloid media and much of the quality media, with the honourable exception of the Daily Telegraph (UK). The second form was to argue that News Corporation hadn’t really done anything wrong (a variant, in that all true media magnates are expected to shill their interests), and was being hounded simply because it ran a ‘right wing’ or ‘conservative’ line (I use the scare quotes advisedly; some of the Murdoch tabloids adopted an anti free-trade position, at least when it suited them). This piece from the Australian is a good example of the genre. It includes the following:

Indeed, following the closure of that Murdoch title, having smelled the blood of the Right, some liberal hacks turned their sights on other, non-Murdoch tabloids. Peter Wilby at The Guardian effectively told his readers-crusaders to avoid resting on their laurels and instead to turn their tabloid-hatin’ attentions to the Daily Mail. “The Mail, with its suburban, curtain-twitching prurience, is in some respects worse than Murdoch’s tabloids,” he declared. “It has been a consistent enemy of liberal policies and it remains deeply hostile to scientists’ warning of global warming.”

Step up to the podium, Brendan O’Neill, there’s room for you beside Jamila Hussein. I hope you both like your ‘No True Scotsman’ trophy (maybe it should feature a Highland Scot lifting his kilt and baring his backside, like that anachronistic scene in Braveheart).

The desire to protect News Ltd because its outlets often run an editorial line conducive to conservative political thinking I find particularly irritating. If conservative (or, less frequently in the Murdoch media, libertarian) arguments are to have any traction, they ought to be able to make their way without support from what is now a dreadfully compromised media organisation. This argument was put with great force by Charles Moore, the former editor of the Daily Telegraph, in an essay he wrote for the paper on Friday. For non-Britishers, Charles Moore is a doyen of respected British conservatism, a true (but thoughtful) believer. He is Margaret Thatcher’s authorised biographer. Regular commenter kvd flagged his article in the long thread where this topic first came up for discussion, but I’d already seen it. I concur with kvd and Lorenzo that it is well worth your attention. Some highlights:

A key symptom of popular disillusionment with the Left was the moment, in the late 1970s, when the circulation of Rupert Murdoch’s Thatcher-supporting Sun overtook that of the ever-Labour Daily Mirror. Working people wanted to throw off the chains that Karl Marx had claimed were shackling them – and join the bourgeoisie which he hated. Their analysis of their situation was essentially correct. The increasing prosperity and freedom of the ensuing 20 years proved them right.

But as we have surveyed the Murdoch scandal of the past fortnight, few could deny that it has revealed how an international company has bullied and bought its way to control of party leaderships, police forces and regulatory processes. David Cameron, escaping skilfully from the tight corner into which he had got himself, admitted as much. Mr Murdoch himself, like a tired old Godfather, told the House of Commons media committee on Tuesday that he was so often courted by prime ministers that he wished they would leave him alone.

Instead of indulging in the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy, Moore is capable of admitting when his opponent has a good point. The essence of much libertarian policy-wonking (of the sort I did at Oxford) is to encourage the wider adoption of evidence-based policy, to stop both conservatives and progressives from focussing so heavily on intent, and instead to pay attention to outcomes. Moore’s attention to evidence leads him to this conclusion:

The Left was right that the power of Rupert Murdoch had become an anti-social force. The Right (in which, for these purposes, one must include the New Labour of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown) was too slow to see this, partly because it confused populism and democracy. One of Mr Murdoch’s biggest arguments for getting what he wanted in the expansion of his multi-media empire was the backing of “our readers”. But the News of the World and the Sun went out of the way in recent years to give their readers far too little information to form political judgments. His papers were tools for his power, not for that of his readers. When they learnt at last the methods by which the News of the World operated, they withdrew their support.

It has surprised me to read fellow defenders of the free press saying how sad they are that the News of the World closed. In its stupidity, narrowness and cruelty, and in its methods, the paper was a disgrace to the free press. No one should ever have banned it, of course, but nor should anyone mourn its passing. It is rather as if supporters of parliamentary democracy were to lament the collapse of the BNP. It was a great day for newspapers when, 25 years ago, Mr Murdoch beat the print unions at Wapping, but much of what he chose to print on those presses has been a great disappointment to those of us who believe in free markets because they emancipate people. The Right has done itself harm by covering up for so much brutality.

Moore addresses a range of other issues where conservatives (and, to a lesser extent) libertarians and lefties have caught a nearly terminal case of Excusitis, including a very perceptive comment on the Eurozone. It has become fashionable for many left-leaning people to support the European Union and the single currency, but in so doing they traduce one of the best aspects of traditional left thinking, at least in Britain: hadn’t you better ask the people what they think? Perhaps they have forgotten it was the Conservatives that took Britain into the European Union, and that it was Labour with grave doubts. Maybe Labour was right:

As for the plight of the eurozone, this could have been designed by a Left-wing propagandist as a satire of how money-power works. A single currency is created. A single bank controls it. No democratic institution with any authority watches over it, and when the zone’s borrowings run into trouble, elected governments must submit to almost any indignity rather than let bankers get hurt. What about the workers? They must lose their jobs in Porto and Piraeus and Punchestown and Poggibonsi so that bankers in Frankfurt and bureaucrats in Brussels may sleep easily in their beds.

In the ‘Information is really beautiful’ thread, I pointed out how I strongly suspected we’d see some Christian, conservative and libertarian indulgence in the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy in the wake of the terrorism in Norway, and that part of political maturity is looking carefully at one’s own beliefs to see why (or if) your ideas or religion attracts bigots, racists and gun-nuts (respectively). It is perhaps worth pointing out that evolutionary biologist PZ Myers has trawled through Anders Breivik’s 1,500 page manifesto to see what he says about atheists. If nothing else, the manifesto (at least in the passages I have read, and the material Myers excerpts; Myers also provides a link to the full document) indicates that Breivik is not a simple ‘nutter’, and if there is mental illness there, it is buried pretty deep (psychoanalysing people over the internet, via media reports, is always a bad idea). Which takes us back to ideas, and how they work on one particular statistical outlier. Ideas have consequences, as Lorenzo often says.

One of the sources of my strong irritation with many even quite moderate lefties is the Excusitis engaged in when it comes to the bloody history of ‘actually existing socialism’, allied to a refusal to consider whether core components of traditional left thought (the desire to plan and regulate) have any link with economic destruction and genocide. I have similar outbursts of irritation at Muslims and Christians when they do it (often, I might add, in a more thoughtless way than many lefties — see the Jamila Hussein piece above). This has contributed in no small measure to the view I have of religion, particularly of monotheism. I really can’t take various groups’ moral posturing on everything from abortion to international relations seriously when the first thing that falls out of their mouths is a good ol’ dose of ‘No True Scotsman’. And that’s before we get anywhere near the metaphysics.

Which is why if I see the same Excusitis from people with whom I largely agree on other issues (I have met Brendan O’Neill; he is better than that awful piece in The Australian), I reserve the right to call them on it, to point out that, you know, we on the right have many good arguments. And that making excuses doesn’t improve them.

UPDATE: Nick Cohen on a related theme, this time drawing on the work of anthropologist Kate Fox, whom I discussed here.

13 Comments

  1. Posted July 29, 2011 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    An outstanding analysis focussed on Breivik’s methods from STRATFOR:

    http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20110727-norway-lessons-successful-lone-wolf-attacker

  2. Posted July 29, 2011 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] – Yes, Stratfor’s email before the arrest of Breivik was about the only piece giving similar weight to nasty righties and islamists in their discussion.

    Many center-right politicians have also begun raising anti-immigrant policy issues in order to distract from the ongoing economic austerity measures brought about by the European economic crisis. If grassroots Islamist militants are found to be the culprits in Norway, it will simply reinforce the current European political trend that favors the far right. That said, some far-right parties, particularly in Northern Europe, could get a popularity boost sufficient to push them into the political mainstream, and possibly into government.

    If an individual, grassroots or organized domestic group with far-right or neo-Nazi leanings perpetrated the attack, the significance for the rest of Europe will not be large. It could lead to a temporary loss of popularity for the far right, but long-term repercussions for the far right are unlikely since these parties have begun tempering their platforms in order to attract a wider constituency.

    There is also the possibility that the attacks are the work of a skilled but disturbed individual with grievances against the Labor Party. This possibility would have few long-ranging repercussions beyond a reworking of domestic security procedures in Norway.

    What’s interesting is that this sort of thing would be the analyses read by national leaders all around the world from their own intelligence agencies – and yet between the lines of all the PMs and Presidents was “islamist attack on democracy”, or most easily interpreted that way.

    One would also presume that all decent paid commentators would be getting Stratfor as well, and not just the regular and alert emails SL and I obviously do – or they certainly would have had ONE competent correspondent passing the alert from Stratfor around the office quick smart. (In fact, you’d be a stupid news service, or PM, to just get the freebies, but pay the big bucks for the full deal from Stratfor).

    So, if the its-your-job-to-know-this-before-you-open-your-gob types aren’t getting this sort of advice from somewhere, they are pretty much incompetent, and if they are getting it or ignoring it … why? Dunno which scenario is worse.

    Note the “popularity” mention of Stratfor – I don’t think it’s just self-labelled righty politicians that would much rather this have been an islamic attack.

  3. Posted July 29, 2011 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] I made the point that Leninism has a clear connection to mass murder (and tyranny) and it clearly and emphatically does. Far more than any other political movement humans have produced. This is why your “eggs were broken” metaphor is such a lame evasion: we are talking about a level of murderousness orders of magnitude greater than what it replaced, or competed with it at the time, with the sole exception of Nazism.

    Why Nazism’s connection to tyranny and mass murder is completely accepted but somehow pointing out the connection in the case of Leninism is hysterical is beyond me.

    Leninism is indubitably a form of Marxism: indeed, the most historically important form. What Leninism does is operationalise Marxism: turns the classless society into something actively created. That, alas, has very grim implications that come straight from Marxist theory. Leszek Kołakowski discusses very perceptively the deeply problematic elements of Marxism and why it could so easily lead to Leninism and Stalinism.

    As for Islam, either mainstream Islamic jurisprudence down the centuries was based on the notion of believers controlling and dominating non-believers, with violent spread of Islamic rule being acceptable or it wasn’t. In fact, it was. And, in mainstream Islamic jurisprudence, still is. These are the facts of the matter.

    That the logic of belief is not necessarily the logic of believers is true, but does not change the doctrinal facts.

    If the worst one can say about libertarianism is that a small number of lone killers picked up on its themes, that is extremely small beer compared to the contemporary and continuing record of Islamism, let alone the historical record of Leninism.

  4. Posted July 29, 2011 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

    Laurie Penny in the Independent has a cogent critique of the use of the “lunacy” charge to put Breivik in a “safe” box.

    She does use one of my least favourite terms (‘Islamophobia’: criticising someone’s religion really is not the same as criticising their race) and her attempt to force the relevant political issues into a framing she finds congenial is not helpful since it perpetuates the “dialogue of the deaf” that gives hatemongers their “in”. But she is correct, the lunacy charge is not apposite but does quarantine.

  5. Dave Bath
    Posted July 29, 2011 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] : Your distaste for Marxism because Leninism is a derivation (a twisted one I might add) is akin to blaming Zoroaster for the killings by extremist monotheists over millenia, because the Babylonian exile of the Hebrews until Cyrus could well have giving the idea of a single universal god to the Hebrews, rather than merely /their/ god they had to stay loyal to rather than all other gods. Hell, why not blame the ancient Greeks and Romans for the excesses of both Stalinism and Nazism? Both are forms of the western civilization we’ve got from Athens/Rome.

    I take in then that you must be Confucianist as Mao hated that, and it’s the only worldview with some kind of theory of government (Buddhism doesn’t have one) that hasn’t had a psychopath (let alone a spirochaete-ridden one) falsely wrapping themself in a doctrinal flag and using it to justify mass murders.

    That’s all about as sensible as a few silly lefties out there going “Breivik is Bad, Breivik admires Howard and Pell, therefore Howard and Pell are Bad.” (We can accuse Howard and Pell without that false syllogism, thank you very much).

    If there is excusitis, then there is also the opposite (false-blame-itis? doctrinally vexatious? accusitis??? anybody got a good word?)

  6. Posted July 29, 2011 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    No, I agree with Lorenzo on Marxism, Dave. It’s a really nasty set of ideas, and far more than any other contemporary left thinker (people forget there were others in the period, like Proudhon), Marx loved violent imagery and the thought of violent overthrow. Read the Communist Manifesto. Lots of bloody wallowing in there.

    That said, I think Marxism is pretty inert without someone to chop away the philosophical bits and just put the violence into action per se. Lenin did that. The philosophical bits are what makes Marx interesting and challenging, which is why Marx is still important in the academy (a distinction I attempted to draw in my last post on this topic, but everyone chose to ignore it).

    Lenin, not so much.

  7. Dave Bath
    Posted July 29, 2011 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] – Must admit it’s close to 30 years since I read Marx/Engels. I may have glazed over the bits you mentioned, there is always a more elegant way.

    All we have to do is put all the bigwigs in a line and rather than shoot them, take their crackberries and smash them under their own feet. Insant massive cerebral aneuryms. No blood to wipe up.

  8. Posted July 29, 2011 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

    My thesis remains, modern day libertarainism contains scary elements and we won’t know whether it is as spooky as old style Marxism until/unless it runs something larger than a tuck shop. But the warnings signs are already highly visible.

    Don’t worry about libertarians Mel. Libertarians love thinking about politics and philosophy but that is all. They freely admit the Left has hijacked politics, academia, and economics but are incapable of doing anything about that.

    Thinking is easy, changing how other people think is incredibly difficult. Libertarians are not particularly interested in changing how other people think and until such time as they pay *much* more attention to that their ideas will largely remain their own. Their choice, they are entitled to that, but given that choice I wish they would stop complaining about how the Left has hijacked … ..

  9. Patrick
    Posted July 30, 2011 at 6:26 am | Permalink

    Confucianism has no mass murderers? I had always thought that there were several whole dynasties of confusian emporers, but maybe there weren’t…or maybe, but much less likely, none of them were mass murderers?

  10. Posted July 30, 2011 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Leszek Kolakowski is the person to read on this.

    A slew of C19th anarchist (and, indeed, liberal) thinkers predicted that Marx’s ideas would lead to state tyranny. And lo!, they did.

    By contrast, all Marx’s key predictions were flops.

  11. Posted July 30, 2011 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    SL: back to your original post, it has occurred to me that natural law theory uses the “no true Scotsman” fallacy a lot. For example:

    Claim: It is in the nature of things that sex is for procreation.
    Objection: There is lots of non-procreative sex in nature.
    Response: That is not true sex.

    The conclusion gets to choose the ambit of its premises, so all contradicting examples are not “true” instances.

  12. Posted August 6, 2011 at 5:31 am | Permalink

    [email protected]

    Maybe it is the ‘postmodern conservatism’ that Lorenzo talks about (I wouldn’t mind a guest post on that, Lorenzo, at some point, it is a worrying development).

    I have sent you and LE a draft post (it needs a whole lot of links added, for example) on that very topic :)

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