Partial defence = support

“In the Guardian last week, the eminent philosopher, Julian Baggini, announced that, contrary to appearances, New Labour’s plans for identity cards were an idea which should be embraced by the left.”
Nick Cohen, the Observer, 5 December 2004

Bad moves can be made by readers as well as writers. When those readers are writers themselves, the result can be flagrant misrepresentation of someone’s position, which is very irksome for the inaccurately portrayed party.

I have been at the receiving end of this kind of thing several times now, and a pattern seems to be emerging. Time and again, people mistake a partial defence of something for full support of it. It seems impossible to point out that something can be said for x or y without someone who should know better interpreting that as meaning that, on balance, you think x or y is a good thing.

For example, a while back, someone on the widely-respected Crooked Timber blog attacked a previous Bad Move saying “the whole argument was undermined by the blatant political stance of the writer.” (See Armando’s comment, fifth one down.) What he then went on to say was true “according to Baggini” just wasn’t what I said at all. What seems to have happened is that Armando saw that I had, on one specific point, defended Blair and criticised one of his opponents, and he had therefore assumed that I in general supported Blair. This ignores the fact that in other columns I have used Blair’s speeches as examples of bad moves. This seems to me a classic example of mistaking a partial defence for full support, so that to defend Blair just once is to adopt a “blatant political stance”.

Nick Cohen has recently made the same mistake. In a Guardian article, I tried to argue that the debate over compulsory ID cards in the UK was dominated by concerns about limits on freedom from government “interference” and neglected legitimate concerns about how far governments are entitled to get involved in our daily lives to increase, on balance, our freedom to act.

Whether or not my argument was a good one, I quite clearly stopped short of commending ID cards, saying that I did not suspect the measure “would reap a big enough dividend in terms of increasing our positive freedom to go about our business safely” and describing the plan as “half-baked”. But it seems this was not clear enough, for once again, partially defending the home secretary David Blunkett and seeing some merit in the grounds of his arguments was quickly confused with being a supporter of him and his measures.

Cohen was perhaps being deliberately mischievous. After all, his description of me as an “eminent philosopher” is an ironic in-joke. (He used the term previously in an openDemocracy exchange and, when I corrected him, he made “an unreserved apology” saying “I withdraw the slur at once and promise never to repeat it.”)

But mischief alone surely can’t explain this, as no self-respecting, eminent columnist would consciously go into print having got their facts so clearly wrong. And if Cohen was indeed sincere, it shows how easy it is for people to confuse partial defence with support.

I don’t know what the origins of the mistake are, but I would speculate that they reside in the desire to divide the world into clearly opposing camps – the “us” and the “them”. If you tend to think in this way, partial defences can look like signs and signals of what someone really believes. In such a binary world, for me to admit that Blair or Blunkett has a point is therefore a sign that I’m a closet authoritarian Blairite. Well, maybe I am! But the key point is that the partial defences I have described show no such thing, for I have also partially defended the political opponents of these people and I can’t be a closet supporter of everyone. Not, that is, unless my own powers to embrace contradiction are more developed than I thought.

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