Friday, March 4, 2016

Whose motives can we impugn?

What I cannot appreciate is the imputing of foul and malevolent motives to those of us who don't feel passionately about [Sanders]...I agree with him, not [Clinton], on Iraq, and think she cast a cowardly vote on Iraq, which I've written about many times. - Michael Tomasky
What would really clarify these political controversies, for me, is if the critics of Sanders would spell out their etiquette on when it is and is not acceptable to bring up an opponent's motives. If you read the rest of his article, Tomasky seems to be rejecting this absolutely, as a matter of principle: "This is just a disagreement," he concludes - "Raising it to anything greater than that is childish." And indeed, Clinton has tried to make the same case:
I know this game. I'm going to stop this game...I'm not impugning your motive because you voted to deregulate swaps and derivatives. People make mistakes and I'm certainly not saying you did it for any kind of financial advantage. What we've got to do as Democrats -- what we've got to do as Democrats is to be united to actually solve these problems.
Listening to some of this rhetoric, it would seem like talking about motives is simply off the table. I suspect most Sanders supporters would be absolutely thrilled with this, and would love to have substantive debates over policy and records that don't get instantly derailed by all the familiar accusations of unconscious bias.

But of course, that's not what actually happens. And here we see that not only do Clintonites reserve the right to impugn the motives of Sanders supporters - they will even impugn Clinton's own motives, if it can boost their credibility. Of course, if Michael Tomasky told Clinton that her vote was motivated by cowardice, she would be saying to him precisely what he's saying to Sanders supporters, rationalizing her decisions and piously decrying the "politics of personal destruction" etcetera. And in fact, if the Clintonites who have defended her Iraq vote as a mere mistake, or as forced upon her by the oppression of sexism - if they are consistent in their rhetoric, they'll start calling Tomasky a Bernie Bro too for his outrageous character assassination.

What is obviously going on here is that Clinton supporters are fine with talking about motives when they think this is justified, and only object to it as uncivil or bad faith when they think that it isn't justified. In other words, they're using discourse etiquette as an empty rhetorical bludgeon for policing truth claims, which is of course how discourse etiquette always works.

But contrary to what Tomasky suggests, there is every reason for the public to be suspicious of the motives of the press - it would be an abdication of the basic demands of skepticism if we weren't. This is certainly inconvenient if you're a journalist who wants all of your reporting to be taken at face value, but there's nothing unfair about it, or even uncivil.