On 15 November 2010, Chas Licciardello of The Chaser published an article on the ABC’s The Drum Unleashed responding to an article by Paul Howes in the November 13 Daily Telegraph. Howes’ article criticises Internet anonymity; and while Chas’ article is funny (as a good deal of The Chaser team’s work is), it’s a fallacious response to Howes’ argument.
Here’s how Chas summarises Howes’ article:
Howes’ argument focused particularly upon the effect anonymous abuse might have on politics, and it consisted of two major points — that politics is a horrible job; and that political candidates may be driven away by the hatred they face on the internet. Then all we would be left with is a choice between “pollie-bots” and “absolute dimwits”.
This is a fair summary of Howes’ article. But then Chas goes on to argue that
…Howes’ argument is self-refuting. With all the working, travelling and getting stabbed in the back politicians do, does anyone think that being called “utterly incompetent” by rangarooter34 on news.com.au’s comments section is going to be a defining factor in their career choice?
While Howes’ claim that a bit of Internet abuse will cause politicians to reconsider their career choices and budding up-and-comers to think twice about entering politics may be questionable, it is not self-refuting.
The relevant part of Howes’ article could be teased out as the following argument.
- (H1) People on the Internet can make comments anonymously.
- (H2) When people can comment anonymously they abuse others, including politicians.
- (HC1) People on the Internet abuse others, including politicians.
- (H3) Politicians take abuse to heart.
- (H4) People on the Internet abuse politicians.
- (HC2) Politicians take Internet abuse to heart.
But for Howes’ argument to be self-refuting it would have to include the following premise.
- (P1) Politicians don’t take anonymous comments seriously.
Chas takes P1 from Howes’ claim that
…websites like Twitter, and news sites which encourage readers comments, are making it easier than ever before for the deranged and the insane (and rarely, the completely lucid) to say whatever they like about whoever they want.
But one can’t take P1 from Howes’ claim. To do so would require the following premise to be true.
- (P2) Politicians don’t take anonymous comments by the deranged, the insane and (albeit rarely) the completely lucid seriously.
So, let’s apply the bullshit test to P2.
- (BT1) Is it ever the case that anonymous comments by the deranged, insane or completely lucid are taken seriously by politicians?
If the answer to BT1 is ‘Yes’ then Howes’ argument is, so far, sound. Howes may deride the deranged and the insane, but nowhere does he claim that anonymous comments from the deranged or insane are easily dismissed just because their authors are deranged or insane. As for the completely lucid, many self-conscious politicians would take these rare gems seriously. Whether or not such comments then cause politicians to doubt their choice of profession is an open question. And that question is: Does taking an anonymous comment seriously sometimes mean taking it to heart? Whatever the answer, the question is legitimate if you accept the possibility that anonymous comments (by the deranged, insane or lucid) can be taken seriously, as Howes does.
So, what may we conclude? Well
- (C1) The idea that anonymous comments are not taken seriously is Chas’ premise, not Howes’. Therefore,
- (C2) Howes’ argument is not self-refuting.
A further, tentative conclusion based on Chas inserting P1 into Howes’ argument as part of a reply is
- (C3) Chas doesn’t take anonymous comments seriously.
Fortunately, C3 can be discounted because Chas defends anonymous comments, arguing that on
…the general point Howes touches upon — that old chestnut about whether anonymous internet comments are good for society. I thump my computer desk with an inappropriately hearty “YES!”
I agree; to a point. It’s a basic tenet of argument that arguments stand or fall independent of the people who make them. If a smoker gives you reasons why you shouldn’t smoke, those reasons stand of fall independent of the fact that a smoker provides them. You don’t have to know who is criticising you to know whether the criticism is good or not.
However — and this is a big HOWEVER — Internet commenters should ask themselves why they don’t wish to put their names to comments. As the Chief Prosecutor in the case against Charles I, John Cooke, asked in the middle of the seventeenth century, another time when people published scathing criticisms of politicians anonymously, ‘Why should he who thinks he writes the truth be ashamed to own it?’ (Cooke 1646, cited in Robertson 2005). Cooke was hung, drawn and quartered for his troubles. Admittedly, Cooke suffered this fate because of the part he played in the king’s execution rather than for putting his name to his publications. But the man had balls (which would have been cut from his body and placed in a wicker basket prior to his death) — the balls to prosecute a head of state and to put his name to what he published. By comparison, our anonymous Internet friends look like jokers. On this, I agree with Howes. But even the joker’s criticisms can cut. And sometimes the deepest.
Cooke, J 1646, The Vindication of the Professors and Profession of the Law.
Howes, P 2010, ‘New media have made deriding politicians a national sport’, The Daily Telegraph, (November 13)
Licciardello, C 2010, ‘In defence of anonymous pricks’, The Drum Unleashed, ABC online, (November 15)
Robertson, G 2005, The Tyrannicide Brief: The Story of the Man who sent Charles I to the Scaffold, Vintage Books, London.