Why not?

Suppose there’s a  candidate from the party you most dislike who is running to get the nomination for president. He or she is from your state, and you think they would be a disaster for the country.  Suppose further that there’s a very subterranean rumor about this candidate that they have some feature F, which you think is at least OK, but which members of the other party certainly wouldn’t.  The rumor might be

They smoke pot sometimes.’

They are gay.

Both daughters have had an abortion.

They do not believe in God.

They have a hidden “love child”.

Closely related cousins are in Mexico or Africa.

And so on.

Now, we’re to suppose the rumor is merely a rumor, though ones that people in the legislature and so on do not deny. It’s got legs.

Here’s the question:  would you say to a conservative friend or relative in another state who is getting enthusiastic about the candidate that, you know, it is rumored that X is …. .  And fill in the blank with one of the descriptors given.

Why?  Or why not?

Just for the record:  None of this has anything to do with Rick Perry’s very recent announcement, nor was it inspired by my conservative brother’s expressed enthusiasm for him on Sunday.

25 thoughts on “Why not?

  1. I guess it would depend on just how mean-spirited I felt or, alternately, how much I felt like trying to inform *cough* shape *cough*) my friend or relative’s vote. Personally, if I thought that my friend or relative was wrong to support the candidate in question (or, more importantly, if I thought that my friend or relative was unjustly biased against the characteristic in question), I’d break it out as part of my arsenal of arguments.

    I should, however, confess that I’m well known for correcting (or, rather, attempting to correct) the mistaken conceptions of my friends and relatives (and the intarwebz) when it comes to politics. I’m quite combative on these points, really. So maybe my advice isn’t the best to follow. =)

  2. For me, it would depend on whether or not F was something that the candidate openly spoke against. If so, I’d mention it in terms of their being a hypocrite; if not, then I wouldn’t.

  3. I’ve been dismayed to see contemporary U.S. politics ruled by this kind of rumor mill, instead of actually discussing the merits and demerits of politicians and their policies. I would not actively promote rumors of this sort to steal votes away from a politician I dislike. This would only be to perpetuate the kinds of infantile political discussions that dominate our political scene and have put is in the kind of trouble we’re in today. It doesn’t matter whether the right or the left do it; it’s still bad for the country.

  4. Assuming I had it on good authority that the rumor is true, I’m a big fan of the good old hypocrisy standard (as #2 points out). I’m all in favor of outing closeted folks who use their position of public authority to subordinate and marginalize gay people. I have no regrets about that position. I’ve heard the arguments against it, and those arguments just don’t cut it.

    But when no hypocrisy is involved? I have a hard time coming up with a justification here.

  5. If there’s not explicit hypocrisy, then doing so seems quite unprincipled. I can’t see how it’s not a tacit endorsement of the political standard you don’t espouse (e.g., “Gay candidates aren’t qualified”). More generally, I think valuing election results over principles has been disastrous for the Left.

  6. I would never do such a thing! Totally unethical!

    As an aside, have you all heard? Apparently (now this is just a rumor) Rick Perry eats live puppies for breakfast, and then washes them down with freshly squeezed dolphin blood (I’m still trying to confirm from my source whether this is with or without pulp).

    Seriously though, I think it really depends on both the authenticity of the source that started the rumor, and how well founded our beliefs as to the effects of their election are. So if we have really good reason to believe that candidate x getting elected would lead to terrible consequences, we might be inclined to spread the rumor. This gets a bit mucky however, because then why couldn’t we just make shit up? In the end I think rumor spreading as a whole leads to bad consequences, and as such I wouldn’t engage in it.

    Not only that, but if some rumor is disproved, other rumors that are actually true might be ignored when shown more conclusively (maybe even when beyond rumor status) to be true. The classic: boy who cried wolf (or person who cried candidate x is having a gay affair with a drug-dealing abortionist stripper).

  7. My suggestion here would be that, IF you want to go about furthering this sort of rumor, you need to do it either in a very large way or not at all. From a purely instrumental perspective, individual votes don’t mean too much. Swaying a single person from a candidate for whom they might otherwise vote in the basis of a mean rumor like this won’t do much to determine the outcome of the election. So, just talking to one or two people about this sort of thing is a) morally questionable for spreading rumors like this and b) unmotivated by instrumental considerations (unless they look like they might be big activists, donors, endorsers, etc). So, if you want to motivate this sort of tactic, you need to do it in a very big way. Of course, there might be even bigger moral problems here–but at least there would be some semblance of a reason for disregarding them. I take none of this to apply to the hypocrisy cases pointed out by #2 and #4, where a) there is nice non-instrumental motivation and b) there seem to be fewer moral problems.

    Of course, the institution of voting is -intrinsically- good in a number of ways. I would claim that first and foremost among these is the opportunity for people to participate in elections, through activism and discussion, in reasoned ways. When reasoned conversations change someone’s mind (as if!), that’s a good thing. That person will now to better able to reflect and act upon her or his values. So, political conversation is a good thing. But the rumor-spreading case is more-or-less exactly NOT reasoned conversation about political values. So, it doesn’t seem to me that it benefits any of the intrinsic value considerations normally associated with the practice of voting. I include this last paragraph only to shore up my implied claim that the only reasons for spreading the rumor are instrumental ones.

  8. Hypocrisy being, as La Rochefoucauld famously said, simply the homage that vice pays to virtue, I’ve never understood the current fashion in politics and media for regarding hypocrisy as the most punishable sin for a public figure.

  9. To bring about serious political change, one needs political education. to show people that the current system is not in their interests and/or that it is not just/fair.

    Spreading true or false rumors about rightwing candidates does not educate people about how the system is deceiving them and ripping them off. In fact, it perpetuates the myth that politics is about “character” or about candidates’ image or private life or family life.

    However, one can image rightwing candidates who are so dangerous to the polity and to the world that any dirty trick is justified in keeping them out of office. In that case, the long term goal of educating the public is trumped by the short term goal of keeping
    that person faraway from political power. So, if it’s a case of preventing fascism, spread some false rumors.

  10. As someone else said, I think it depends more on whether the rumor in question is at least decent evidence for p than whether you consider p bad or good or pertinent to how one should vote. This is for the simple reason that I think it is largely up to people to decide on what factors they want to base their vote. If they consider p relevant to how they want to vote I don’t see any problem with giving them (what is in fact) evidence that bears on p, regardless of whether one does so with the intention of influencing their beliefs or their vote. (It would be another matter if the purported evidence were *simply* an idle rumor, or obviously misleading, or something like that.)

    I guess perhaps the complaint might be that in so doing you will foreseeably be leading them to make normative judgments that you know are flawed (e.g., ‘candidate x is a terrible person because he is gay’ is a flawed normative judgment even x is a terrible person and x is gay.) However, I don’t think we have any kind of general obligation to prevent people from making flawed normative judgments on the basis of their flawed normative beliefs over and above, perhaps, an obligation to try to help them rectify those flawed beliefs where possible.

  11. No, absolutely not under any circumstances. I would feel that by mentioning that sort of thing in the knowledge that their fellow party members might disapprove, I would be condoning and using social disapproval of that thing – and therefore reinforcing it – which would just make things harder for everyone (politician or not) with the same attribute. (And even narrowly considered in the utterly heartless world of electoral politics: “my” side is far more likely to have candidates with that attribute than the “other” side, so long-term it’s more likely to give me problems)

    If they’re really that bad a candidate, then they no doubt have actual policy positions or real corruption that could be pointed to instead. (If someone from the other side thinks that their terrible policies are actually good, then surely disagreeing with that, rather than implicitly agreeing with them that a particular neutral attribute is bad, is the better approach)

    (Yes, even for fascists. The nature of electoral politics is that even if you win this election, there’ll be another one along in a few years, and the more elections you win, the harder it becomes to win the next one. If you can’t beat someone that extreme with principled methods, you’re not going to be able to hold them off very long with unprincipled ones either)

    I view the purpose of politics to be to get good policies implemented and bad policies scrapped, though – and I don’t particularly care who implements them as long as they get done. Implicitly or explictly conceding arguments on policies and principles to the “other” side makes it less likely that this will happen even if “my” side wins the election. Conversely arguing strongly for them makes it harder for the “other” side to implement counter-policies if they win.

  12. Comment 5 above says: “I can’t see how it’s not a tacit endorsement of the political standard you don’t espouse (e.g., “Gay candidates aren’t qualified”).” How is it such an endorsement? Suppose I know of someone that she doesn’t want to eat food that has X in it. When I point out to her that something has X in it, I need not in any way be endorsing the idea that it’s bad to eat food with X in it. I can quite consistently maintain (and tell her) that her policy is ill-founded, ridiculous, harmful, and what not.
    I can see no reasons against bringing up the rumor, and several in favor, much along the lines of comment 10 above.

  13. cim,

    You raise some good points, and perhaps I should modify my original post to say that one should be especially careful in proportion as the attribute in question corresponds to a historically/currently oppressed class of persons. So for instance, I can see room for real worry if we’re talking about a rumour that candidate x is gay or disabled, yet probably less so if it’s that candidate x has smoked pot, and virtually none if we’re talking about a case where (for some reason) your relation would find a rumour to the effect that candidate x enjoys French literature especially horrifying.

    Separately from this however, I do not see how repeating information is necessarily ‘condoning’ social approval of anything. It may be *enabling* social disapproval of it (on a small scale), which may be independently worrisome. But condoning? Maybe we’re understanding that word in different ways.

    Finally, I’d add that a lot might hinge on *how* you present the information/rumor. For instance, I think it would be bad to present a rumor that candidate x is gay deceptively as indicating something discreditable, since this would be likely to have a confirming effect on the pernicious belief that it does (and going back to the previous point, maybe then this could be viewed as tacitly condoning that belief.) But equally, one might present such information as a way not of deceptively confirming but as genuinely *challenging* your relation’s preconceptions about the class or feature of persons in question. E.g., if your relation likes candidate x, and x turns out to be gay, that information could be taken or presented as evidence that x is bad after all, or alternatively that being gay (maybe I should just say ‘being F’…) is not so bad after all. And if it is taken and presented in the latter way, I do not see why it is necessarily so bad. (And if it does have the effect of positively influencing their voting behavior, I’m tempted to say, so be it…)

  14. Michael Conboy:

    one should be especially careful in proportion as the attribute in question corresponds to a historically/currently oppressed class of persons

    Recent history suggests that the rumours that actually get political importance are generally on those sort of attributes [1] – as were the examples in the original post. I can’t see how a rumour that they like French literature would get started: why would they try to hide it if it were true? Why would the voters in general care? But yes, in that particular case what I’ve said wouldn’t apply, assuming there wasn’t some massive anti-French sentiment going around.

    [1] Or about policy matters – “I hear Conservative X secretly supports liberal policy P” – but again it’s tactically terrible in that case for a supporter of policy P to try to discredit X on those grounds,

    And if it is taken and presented in the latter way, I do not see why it is necessarily so bad.

    But in that case the aim isn’t to get the voter to change their mind about the candidate, but about their opinion of F, which is a different question.

    Even then, though, I would be extremely wary about doing this based on a rumour. If the candidate was known to be F, and the voter had just not heard this, okay. If the evidence for the candidate being F is only at the level of a “rumour” – which to me means that it’s unconfirmed, maybe denied by the candidate or their team, and possibly not actually true at all – then I don’t think it’s much use for changing the voter’s opinion about F. (I don’t think, in practice, it’ll be much use for changing their opinion about the candidate either, in that case)

  15. cim,

    With the French literature example I was thinking of the anti-elitist sentiment (bordering on xenophobia) in the tea party or other conservative circles. Maybe you remember that in the 2004 campaign John Kerry took a lot of flack when, for some reason, the fact that he spoke French (or something to that effect — I forget exactly what, but something Frenchy) started to gain a lot of currency in the media. And politicians in the US regularly make themselves out to be more ‘salt of the earth’ or more stereotypically ‘American’ than their genuine values and beliefs would portray.

    But I’m certainly not suggesting even this example is wholly unproblematic (once invested with nationalistic or class overtones) or that most actual examples aren’t considerably more so — just that it’s a matter of degree, and I don’t see every instance as being necessarily proscribed.

    “But in that case the aim isn’t to get the voter to change their mind about the candidate, but about their opinion of F, which is a different question.”

    I’m afraid I don’t see this. I believe you can present a fact as x while knowing your interlocutor will interpret it as y. I can insist to my paranoid neighbor that the moon landing was real, thereby representing that as true, although I know he will take this as evidence that I am in on the conspiracy and remain convinced that it is false. Likewise, I can present the fact that candidate x is F in a positive or neutral light — perhaps even explicitly insisting that I see it that way, and the my interlocutor should too — even if I know she will view it in a negative light.

  16. Sorry, I just realized I misread you and hence my last paragraph was not to the point.

    Reading your properly now, I believe the question is whether you can present the fact that x is F (let us assume it is a fact, not a mere rumor, for simplicity — as I said in my first post, I think this is important) in a positive or neutral light, and yet that effort still qualify as an effort *to try to get them to change their vote* (or to change their opinion about x for the worse.) And here again, I think the answer is yes. For one, this seems clear if you present the fact in a neutral light. And even if you present it in a positive light, if you *know* they will view it negatively I think you can still be understood as trying to get them to view x negatively. Yet — critically — I do *not* believe this must involve trying to get them to view F negatively (which would be bad); rather, it relies on the fact that they *already* view F negatively.

    I hope that clarifies what I was getting at.

  17. @Comment 12: Because politics isn’t food: it isn’t a matter of personal *taste.* I can accept that you love white chocolate (ugh) and it’s no reflection on me to aid your getting some. But politics is inherently normative; I don’t wish to aid someone’s pursuit of politics I find objectionable (“avoid the gay candidates”). I want to fight their pursuit of that.

    Honestly, I find both the original post and the thread here dispiriting, so let me put my point more bluntly: I can’t see how doing what the original post suggests is anything other than rank opportunism, and it’s hard for me to see how the Left in the U.S. has made itself irrelevant in any worse way than in opportunistically valuing votes over clarity on key principles. (Hasn’t anyone here read William Saletan’s _Bearing Right_?) I mean, a feminist is considering using against a candidate that his daughters had abortions? Really?

    This also speaks to comment 8’s point about hypocrisy. The purpose of pointing out right-wing hypocrisy, to me, isn’t to taint the offenders as uniquely unvirtuous (I think the first two paragraphs of S. Wallerstein at #9 are totally right-on here, although the next paragraph effectively undoes them). Rather, it’s to make a point about *the issue.* If even right-wing anti-abortionists have abortions, that’s relevant to feminist arguments for legalizing abortion (like the argument that it’ll happen anyway and the question is whether only rich women will be able to do it safely). etc.

  18. Elizabeth,

    The original post merely posed a question, and the title was ‘why not’? I guess you might be disheartened that the rumor/fact-spreading in question is not *unthinkable* to principled people but I think the temptation is understandable for a variety of reasons — including perhaps some arguably petty ones that haven’t been mentioned, such as that our conservative relatives can drive us crazy and sometimes and it can be very hard to avoid the temptation to put right-wing hypocrisy in front of their noses when the opportunity presents itself. But I don’t believe there’s anything wrong — or even ‘disheartening’, except given questionably high expectations of our idealism — in posing the question or exploring arguments for the tempting alternative.

    That said, the more I think about it the more I come around to the view that any gain in utility (or petty satisfaction) that would come with such rumor spreading will in most cases not be worth the moral unclarity that comes with it, as I believe you rightly put it. So thanks to you and everyone who has shared their thoughts in response to the original question, ‘why not?’

  19. Michael, fair enough on the original post being a question; I agree that it’s useful to explore arguments for positions even when we’re pretty sure about the conclusion. The petty impulse toward crazed relatives is one I understand quite well and am sympathetic to (even if I think that ideally one would refrain). But I remain disheartened at the number of feminists here advocating on strategic grounds for what I think is an unprincipled approach.

  20. I thought I had commented on this already, but somehow it didn’t go up. I really want to pick up the idea in #17 that #18 (Michael Conboy) challenges. The post was really asking a question. In fact, it was a question that had occurred to me as a practical question; that is, why not do this thing now?

    For me the objection with the most emotional impact is that it will almost certainly bring about a fairly conscious episode of bigotry on the hearer’s part, and doing that feels to me like a betrayal of my values and, in many of the cases, of some people.

    I should say that the person I was talking to is the same person who thinks it is a significantly bad thing that Michelle Obama wears sleeveless dresses.
    I think that the idea that one can intentionally effect any change at all in such a person’s manner of political thinking is wrong. Since I’m talking about a relative, I normally just say “No, we’re not going there.” However, he found sharing his happiness with the Iowa caucus results overcame my less than effective attempts to rule that sort of topic totally out of bounds.

    I think the considerations people have raised about contributing to political discourse and about what one would do in the case of a very dangerous candidate are very important, and the second doesn’t seem to me to have an easy answer. It’s too close to the “would you have shot Hitler” question.

    By the way, the disclaimer at the bottom was ironic. Bachman’s winning and Perry’s entry seemed to my relative like an occasion for celebrating. Apparently, the rumor about Perry has gone national and is now Google’s first completion for “Rick Perry is ” as you can see here.
    It makes me feel literally ill that Perry’s campaign will activate any dormant homophobia on the right, though perhaps what is dormant is miniscule. There may be an issue of hypocrisy here, though not because the rumor is tue. Rather, apparently he’s recently awitched his position on same-sex marriage, and though I haven’t followed the details at all, I doubt he has suddenly become pro it.

  21. So there’s not much chance of using the rumour as an opportunity to change the person’s bias against the characteristic in question?

  22. Michael X, it’s interesting to think that a right wing homophobe might come to see that if a right wing governor of a he-man, cowboy state can be gay, it might mean being gay is good. I actually don’t know.

    There’s definitely a shift in the country’s views, and it would be interesting to know if Brokeback Mountain, for example, had anything at all in the least to do with it.

  23. One interesting consideration is that in a number of U.S. states (Perry’s home state among them, I believe), the common law rule still appears to hold that an allegation of homosexuality is defamatory per se (meaning that it is presumed injurious and damages do not have to be proven). The standard for defamation of a public official is higher than for regular folk – usually malicious intent or reckless disregard for the truth or falsity of the claim must be shown – but I’d still think twice about repeating a rumour that someone was gay unless I were willing to gamble my pocketbook on being able to prove it true (truth being an absolute defense to defamation).


  25. I guess part of the question is the direct relevance of the rumor to what relative R believes about X’s policies. If R is strongly opposed to the production and consumption of marijuana, then the rumor that X smokes pot occasionally is directly relevant to R’s considerations of X as representative of his views. Provided that your intentions are to strengthen R’s epistemic position w/r/t casting an informed vote, sharing such information seems far less manipulative and more justifiable.

    But rumors like “X is gay”, when X is a known opponent of gay marriage, are not directly relevant. Biological or personality traits do not necessarily have impact on policy issues. It is wholly consistent (although not terribly common) to be both gay and opposed to the legalization of gay marriage. So if R is a staunch opponent of legalizing gay marriage, then informing R that X is rumored to be gay does not bear any epistemic impact on R’s views of X’s policies. Rather, sharing the rumor seems based on the assumption that R’s opposition of gay marriage is a product of aversion towards homosexuality in general (probably a warranted assumption, but not necessarily so) and that sharing this information will dissuade R from supporting X. I see this as much more difficult to justify.

    All that being said, the media is so thirsty for juicy gossip that if a rumor has any merit, it probably will be splashed across any major news source in a heartbeat. So if your intentions are simply to improve R’s role as an informed voter, you probably won’t be interested in sharing any rumor, much less an unsubstantiated one.

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