This is our truth, tell us yours
In a below the line discussion yesterday, Sarah Ditum came up with the following proposition;
‘Speculating on internal motivations to discredit someone rather than engaging with the substance of their argument is the definition of bad faith.’
Now, I’m no lexicographer, nor a professional writer like Sarah, but I think she’s ether missed a few words out there, or she’s extending the definition of bad faith to the point of collapse. Is it really the definition of bad faith to check the motives of someone who’s written something you disagree with? In Sarah’s case, dear reader, I actually came to the conclusion that she really does believe most of what she writes – so it is apparently bad faith to reach the conclusion that someone is sincere but wrong.
The radio this morning gave me the perfect example of this; Harriet Harman, the queen of my little pony social democracy, has accused the Daily Mail of hypocrisy or acting in bad faith by accusing her of giving comfort to paedophiles via the NCCL while the DM continues to publish its sidebar of shame, full of underage upskirts and pre-pubescent children ‘looking all grown up.’
Is Harriet acting in bad faith by questioning why the DM is going after her, her bit of rough Jack Dromey and her best friend Patricia Hewitt while providing wank fodder to closet paedophiles everywhere? Am I acting in bad faith by asking whether Harriet sincerely believes that the DM is giving comfort to paedophiles in a more direct way than the somewhat dubious legal advice of the young Ms Harman from the NCCL would have done for the members of PIE? Incidentally, while I think Ms Harman is, as an apostle of the new authoritarianism so closely associated with the Blair years, no ally of the oppressed, I think she is capable of being right sometimes on issues of liberty, since I suspect her eagerness for New Labour’s authoritarianism was more of electoral calculation than a deep rooted belief in ASBOs and the full awfulness of Labour’s socially divisive toolkit. Is that also an example of bad faith?
Harriet Harman’s assault on the Daily Mail would have more force if she pointed out that, actually, there is no moral divide between the Daily Mail and pornographers, just competing producers in the same market place targetting different customer segments. The Daily Mail may well be appealing to wankers who’d be embarrassed to be caught with a copy of Fiesta – I’m proud to say the opposite is true in my case, that I’d be more embarrassed to be caught paying for the Daily Mail than Fiesta. However, given that we happily acknowledge the stopped clock rule here (that even a stopped clock can be right, by mere coincidence) it’s possible to simply say that, on balance, Harman has called this one correctly.
By way of diversion, dear reader, a little context for many of you too young to remember those days. I campaigned for a reduced age of consent in the 1980s. Not because I supported PIE, but because I thought it wrong that my female partners could be 16, but my male partners had to be 21, and because, for a time, the older men I preferred were at risk of being prosecuted for having sex with me. The Daily Mail was, as I remember, on the wrong end of that argument for most of that decade, and used offensive language about the likes of me.
So is it bad faith to question whether the Daily Mail is hypocritical, or whether a professional writer believes what they write. Faye Weldon, famously, wrote, for money, that we should all go to work on an egg. Murray Walker, well before anyone had heard of Marianne Faithfull, wrote that a Mars a day helps you work rest and play.Is it bad faith on my part to question whether Weldon or Walker believed what they wrote? They were doing it for money, of course, and pointing that out, that a penjob is about money, not love, is no different to reminding a punter that the enthusiasm of a sex worker for the handjob they’re receiving may just be part of the service.
That aside however, there’s a much more serious question here. A staple of any beginner’s class in literary criticism is Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal.’ Is it bad faith to ask if Swift really believes in eating babies? If it’s not bad faith in Swift’s case, then it’s not bad faith to ask if we’re sure Sarah Ditum really believes all the stuff she writes, or if the Daily Mail’s outrage over the links between PIE and the NCCL is congruent with its editorial policy on under age upskirts. Of course, there’s that clever conjunction in Ditum’s new definition of bad faith, that she links speculating about people’s motives to being part of discrediting them. I think she’s confusing two issues here; if you speculate about someone’s motives having predetermined that you intend to use that speculation to discredit them, then you may well be acting in bad faith. The problem is that you can’t reach that conclusion without, to some extent, speculating about the motives of the person speculating about the motives. Such a recursive debate would be pointless. If all Sarah meant, in her heavy handed, dismissive and arrogant statement, was to hand out a warning about the danger of debate lapsing into a series of ad hominem attacks, then she has right on her side – even if some of us might observe that selectively quoting a paragraph out of a long piece is not conducive to a well mannered and even tempered debate, and does not demonstrate any serious effort to engage with the evidence, or the whole of the text in question.
One final point about the dreadful Ms Ditum, dear reader. I’m not the one who put her motives into play. She did. On the about page of her blog, she says
I thought I was going to be a journalist for as long as I can remember. Then I had children and thought I was going to be an academic instead (because there’s a stable and lucrative business).
Is it really bad faith to point out that someone’s output might be the product of a lucrative and stable business rather than a deep-seated conviction (even if, as I did, you conclude that they really do believe in what they write)?