The innocent have nothing to fear

"If a government takes offence at this, that government should be offended by the acts of its own citizens, if they are hateful."
Lynne Weil, US State Department communications director, the Daily Telegraph, 13 October 2004

Last year, the US Congress ordered the State Department to “start rating governments throughout the world on their treatment of Jewish citizens.” Alarmed by an apparent rise of anti-Semitism, especially in Europe, Congress decided that the situation needed monitoring.

Several countries, however, objected to this. But State Department communications director Lynne Weil argued that there were no good reasons for any government to object to such reporting. In essence, her argument was that if a country had no particular problem with anti-Semitism, then nothing in the reports would be objectionable to them. But if they did have a problem, then they should be concerned not with the reporting, but with the problem. Only anti-Semitic nations had anything to worry about, and quite rightly so.

This is a version of the very popular “The innocent have nothing to fear” argument, which is wheeled out whenever authorities wish to bring in new measures which increase surveillance or limit freedoms in the name of increasing security. For example, someone demands to search your luggage. You object to this intrusion on your privacy, but you are told that if you are innocent, you have no reason to object. After all, what are you trying to hide?

The argument is a particular species of false dichotomy. You are presented with a simple either/or choice. Either you’re guilty, and so should be exposed; or you are innocent, in which case nothing will be exposed, and so you have nothing to worry about. Either way, you have no legitimate reason to be concerned. Like all false dichotomies, the problem is that there is at least one more option than the two offered in the either/or choice.

In the case of “The innocent have nothing to fear” argument, the key point is usually that our objections have nothing to do with our guilt or innocence, but with our right to privacy. We don’t want to be scrutinised at every turn because constant scrutiny is an intrusion into our privacy. Consider, for example, that what we get up to in our bedrooms may be nothing to be ashamed of, but most of us still wouldn’t want others to stand around and watch. Potential voyeurs would not have a very strong case if they simply said, “Why not let us look? Doing something you shouldn’t be?” “The innocent have nothing to fear” is therefore usually an example of a red herring: the fact that we are not doing anything wrong is beside the point.

Lynne Weil’s argument is a red herring for a slightly different reason. It is not privacy violation that governments objected to, but what they saw as the particular focus on anti-Semitism as opposed to other forms of discrimination. State department diplomats were warning that the measures would open up the US government to charges of favouritism: focussing on anti-Semitism more than other, perhaps more widespread, forms of discrimination and oppression. Whether that is a good argument is of course another matter. What should be clear, however, is that because that, rather than any desire to cover up actual anti-Semitism, was the at least official basis of the concern, Lynne Weil’s response misses the point. What the innocent fear is not being found out, but living under an intrusive or unjust regime.

Julian Baggini’s latest book, The Pig that Wants to be Eaten and 99 Other Thought Experiments, is published by Granta.

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