Guilt by association
Clint Eastwood filed a $10 million libel suit against St. Martin’s Press
and author Patrick McGilligan for an unauthorized bio portraying the actor
as a wife-beater and atheist. (USA Today, 26/12/02)
Sometimes sneaky rhetorical moves can be so subtle that they fail even to register
in the consciousness of the people using them. What would the journalist who
wrote this say about the odd juxtaposition of "wife-beater" and "atheist"?
It looks to me like a classic example of guilt by association: putting two things
that have no necessary connection together in the hope that the bad name of
one will taint the other. The almost subliminal suggestion of this short news
item is that being an atheist is a horror comparable to being a wife-beater.
You’d better not call someone either if you want to stay out of the libel courts.
This move is particularly insidious because it is perfectly possible to deny
it is being used and to accuse the person who claims it is of being paranoid.
Does this article actually say that atheism is comparable to wife-beating? No.
Isn’t it just true that this is why Mr Eastwood is suing the author and publisher?
Yes. Don’t people sue over falsehoods said about them even when there is nothing
necessarily wrong with what is attributed to them? Of course – in 1992, pop
star Jason Donovan successfully sued the magazine The Face for saying
he was gay, yet he has been vocally supportive of homosexuals. So what’s the
problem? Aren’t atheists who feel the article places them in an axis of evil
with wife-beaters just too sensitive?
Well, maybe they are. But at the very least there is something odd in the casual
conjunction of atheist and wife-beater made in the article. Would George Bush
consider slighted if the accusation was of being a wife-beater and republican,
for example? Would anyone be offended by the conjunction of wife-beater and
Jew? Would we really accept that in such a coupling no one was suggesting being
a Jew was bad?
On other occasions, there is no question about the intent of implying guilt
by association. The most popular way to do this is to invoke the Nazis. If you’re
anti-euthanasia, just do what many "pro-lifers" do and mention the
fact that the Nazis practised euthanasia. Never mind that the Nazi euthanasia
programme was nothing about people exercising their free choice to end their
own lives and everything to do with cold-blooded murder. Just suggesting a Nazi
link is enough to cast proponents of euthanasia in a negative light.
The same trick can be applied to an astonishing array of beliefs and practices.
The Nazis were very keen on ecology, compulsory gym classes and keep fit, forests,
eugenics and public rallies. If you yourself object to any of these, then slip
in a mention of Nazi policy next time you want your criticisms to pack an added
rhetorical punch. And if you’re being bothered by a vegetarian while you’re
trying to enjoy your T-bone steak, just remind your critic that Hitler too eschewed
The problem with guilt by association is that it fails to do what any genuine
criticism must do: show what is wrong with the thing being criticised. The fact
that some bad people like or support it, or that it can be mentioned in the
same breath as something bad, does not add up to a criticism. Would love be
bad if the devil had loved? Should books be banned because Mein Kampf
too was a book? Should we banish sauerkraut from our tables because Nazis ate
it? Of course not. Nothing is bad or wrong simply because the hand of evil has
touched it. If it is wrong, show why it is wrong and don’t resort to innuendo
to make it appear wrong by association.