Friday, December 12, 2014

Motte, Bailey, and Rape

One of Thom Hartmann's recent "The Good, the Bad, and the Very, Very Ugly" segments -- in which he seems to be less careful about his facts than elsewhere in his programs -- criticized some statements by Tammy Bruce in a superficial, nearly puerile way. I made the following comment on his website:

With all due respect, Thom, your comment isn't a serious critique of what Bruce said. Suggesting that the public image or status of victimhood is being romanticized isn't at all the same as saying that actually being victimized is "cool." For instance, there's widespread admiration for POWs, especially those like John McCain who were tortured. This is why some politicians have been caught making false claims along these lines. You could call this a romanticization, but it in no way implies that anyone thinks it's cool to be tortured.

I've attended a few Take Back the Night rallies, and I've noticed that typically, after someone gives their personal testimony about being sexually assaulted, they're applauded. Of course participants will say that it's not their victimization that's being applauded, but rather their courage in coming forward to talk about it. Nonetheless, it could be argued that this is a social environment in which people are given an incentive to self-identify as victims, even if the facts may not warrant it.

In fact, at the first TBTN I attended, one of the participants implied a man had drugged her to unconsciousness in order to take her, even though the very fact that he called her about it the next day, as well as what he said in that call, indicated he'd perceived her as conscious and willing, and had expected her to remember the encounter. When I wrote the campus paper about this discrepancy, the reply by a student anti-rape leader consisted of stock rhetoric while ignoring or distorting all the factual points I had made, such as by pretending that my pointing out the difference between blacking out and passing out was somehow equivalent to saying no one ever passes out from drinking. She was too preoccupied with reaffirming a party line to actually read my letter for comprehension. (You may be able to find these letters, along with my rejoinder, in the online archives of the Daily Pennsylvanian on or about 4/9/05.) Similarly, it seems the Rolling Stone reporter was too doctrinally sure about what had happened to the woman she interviewed, to remember the normal journalistic standards about fact-checking.

I must say I noticed a similar two-step in the remarks of your recent NOW guest. I'd heard previously about traumatic memories' being stored differently -- but never from feminist representatives in the context of an actual rape trial. In those circumstances, what you always hear, without any qualification, is "Believe women," "Women don't lie about rape," and cries of outrage any time a defendant is found "not guilty" in spite of the victim's (traumatically unreliable) testimony.

This could be considered an example of what's been called the "motte-and-bailey doctrine" ( the strategic equivocation of making a very dubious or totally indefensible argument to those who are sympathetically inclined; then, when criticized for it, saying, "All I mean is [something totally uncontroversial and obvious]"; then going back to the extreme and indefensible claim as soon as the critics go away.

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