The Right To Say Stupid Things

Always leading the fight for freedom, the Guardian did some interesting work this week. Presumably Polly Toynbee felt a bit envious for how the Daily Mail gets attention for provocative headlines, so decided to engage in oneupmanship:

It is the Baby Ps and Hamzah Khans who pay for this Tory vandalism

That is quite a shocking headline, until you remember that Baby P and Hamzah Khan were two small children, killed by the adults who were responsible for looking after them. They were not killed by Tory vandals, despite the lurid headline. And you may remember that both children died whilst the Labour Party was in government, at which point the headline becomes shocking for a different reason. In this instance, the Guardian was guilty of leading a different, but equally important fight for freedom: the right to express your stupidity, in any way you please. And I agree that this freedom needs to be protected, even if I disagree with the arguments that result.

For the avoidance of doubt, Toynbee has since explained why her drivel is in a totally different league of drivel to all the other drivel in other newspapers:

OK, some points: plainly many commenting here have not bothered to read my article carefully (or at all), and the headline (which I didn’t write, and which is more provocative than the print Guardian) I didn’t write.

This leads to three quick observations. First, that was a nice bit of casual ad hominem smearing of everyone who criticizes of Toynbee. If a criticism is fair, just lump it in with unfair criticism, and simultaneously ignore all of it. The logic is flawed, but unsurprising, given the source. Second, Toynbee disowns the headline, and admits it is provocative. But she does not say it is wrong, or needs to be changed. Third, why mention the different, print version of the article? In a recent piece by the New Yorker, the Guardian’s CEO explains why their business strategy is make money from the global internet, because the national print model is failing. According to that article, Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger “can envisage a paperless Guardian in five to ten years”. Fair enough. That must mean there is no loss of responsibility, just because words are published on the internet.

Toynbee went on to argue:

I am NOT accusing Gove of killing children: if child deaths rise, it will be hard to pinpoint such specific responsibility. But the combination of less collaboration and larger than ever crisis caseloads for social workers is a serious risk.

This is intellectually muddled bunk. Either government policy will alter the numbers of children who will die, or it will not. If it does, then Toynbee’s argument is clear: Gove’s policy will increase the number of children who die as a result of child abuse. We can wrap that idea in woolier words, like ‘risk’, or by saying children will be more ‘vulnerable’, but the final calculation comes down to how many are affected in real life. It would mean nothing to say children are at higher risk, or to say they are more vulnerable, if it is a literal fact that the numbers of children suffering death and abuse remain constant. And if government policy cannot alter the numbers of children who will die, then Toynbee has succinctly trashed her own argument.

The get-out clause, in all this pseudo-intelligent shambling, is the difficulty of proving a connection between a government policy and the specific suffering of an individual child. An intelligent person can separate the question of whether there is a causal link, from the question of whether the causal link is provable. Sadly, Toynbee does not respect her readers’ intelligence, and she prefers to muddle these questions. Anyone who read her article can clearly see that she argued there definitely is a causal connection between government policy and the numbers of children who will suffer abuse, even whilst she hides behind the impossibility of showing this connection. And yet, if it was truly impossible to show the connection, that would suggest Toynbee is some kind of goddess or mystic, using divine powers to perceive relationships which are unknowable to human science.

Clearly Michael Gove is not going around the broken homes of Britain, telling benefits-dependent alcoholic mothers to repeatedly hit and starve their own children. And yet, some women independently come to the conclusion that that is what they should do. Toynbee uses the word ‘pinpoint’ to highlight the difficulty in establishing a relationship between policy and results. However, she is being disingenuous. If the numbers of dead children were to double, she would be the first to point out the correlation, even though no specific death could be ‘pinpointed’ as the result of Michael Gove’s policies. Her article was entirely based on the premise that changes in government policy would make a difference to human suffering. And what evidence was produced to support this conjecture? None. She presented a theory, with no data to back it. Whilst it feels icily gruesome to talk about the deaths of children as ‘data’, if we care about results in the real world, we must look at what happens in the real world, and not get absorbed by theory which is divorced from reality. That the Guardian is ready to claim that government policy will kill children, in advance of any facts that support their belief, shows how far some people will push the envelope of crooked and emotive arguments.

It is worth noting that the Guardian’s employees managed to undermine each other, if you compare and contrast their arguments. Whilst Toynbee defended herself by arguing against the ability to ‘pinpoint’ responsibility for a death, her colleague Libby Brooks had no problem in identifying the spine of Toynbee’s argument.

As regards the headline on this piece: whilst I appreciate that both Baby P and Hamza Khan died before the last election, I think it’s pretty clear in its suggestion that coaltion [sic] cuts to children’s services – in particular those headed by the Conservative Michael Gove – are putting more vulnerable children at risk, and increase the likelihood of terrible cases like this happening in the future.

In other words, cuts in spending = more children will be killed by their own mothers. I know that is not how any Guardian hack would have chosen to phrase it, but it is their argument. Otherwise we are forced to believe that people are clever enough to know what government policy should be, but they do not understand the meaning of the words ‘increase the likelihood’. If I increased the likelihood of our planet spinning off its axis and falling into the sun, it still might not happen. That is because our planet has never crashed into the sun, and is very unlikely to do so. However, if we can learn anything from the deaths of Baby P and Hamzah Khan, it is that we already live in a world where a number of children, greater than zero, will die from the consequences of abuse. Take the number of children who die from abuse, and divide it by the number of children, in order to learn the raw probability of children dying from abuse. So, unlike the case where the earth spins into the sun, if there is a rise in the likelihood of child deaths from abuse, then the number of actual deaths will go up. Either that, or our unscientific use of the word ‘likelihood’ amounts to no more than irrational old wives’ tales.

Either Guardian writers are arguing that government policies will lead to more deaths, or they are talking nonsense. There is no middle ground here. Brooks’ version of the argument makes the cold-hearted mathematical connections more obvious, whilst Toynbee has subsequently shied away from her own logic. But Brooks has no need to hide behind artful words like ‘increase the likelihood’ – if she understands what she is saying, then it would be more accurate to summarize the argument as ‘coalition cuts will lead to more deaths like those of Baby P and Hamzah Khan’. But both writers disguise their arguments by placing it in a thick undergrowth of mathematical incompetence. They hint at causal relationships, they insist that government policy should change because of those causal relationships, but they do not have the honesty to speak plainly about those relationships, or to show any evidence for them.

And yet, whilst I find the Guardian’s arguments to be stupid and offensive, it is good to live in a society where people can say stupid and offensive things. Some rather arrogant people have come to the conclusion that only their opponents ever say things which are stupid and offensive. I beg to differ. Everybody, apart from me, says stupid and offensive things from time to time. And every opinion is backed by at least one stupid person. If an opinion is widely held, then we can be sure that many of the people who support it must also be in the subset of the human race whose intelligence is well below average. And even if an opinion is held by a lone individual, it is a reasonable to speculate that the inability to persuade others is a sign of the stupidity of the belief. Either that, or everyone else is so irredeemably stupid that we are all beyond saving. In the latter case, I will gladly admit that the exception is what proves the rule.

The universality of stupidity was recently highlighted by the Daily Mail, when they wrote about Ed Miliband’s dead dad. I will not repeat the words of the Daily Mail at length. They have been repeated plenty, and the argument is pretty simple to summarize. As with Toynbee’s piece, the Mail’s headline succinctly summarized the argument made by Geoffrey Levy in his article. In short, he argued that Ralph Miliband “hated Britain”.

As a 17 year old, Miliband senior wrote in his diary that he would like to see Britain defeated in WW2. Between then and the end of his life, he wrote a lot about what was wrong with Britain, and why various British institutions needed to be scrapped or reformed. The Daily Mail summed this up with the word ‘hate’, which is a strong word, but not so unimaginably strong that ordinary people do not use it all the time, for much more flippant reasons. And whilst I find the Mail’s argument was weak, I am equally upset by the reaction to it. Take this blog, published by Hacked Off, campaigners for ‘better’ regulation of the press…

The Mail, Miliband and Leveson

Posted October 1st, 2013 by Hacked Off & filed under News.

by Brian Cathcart

We all know that the Daily Mail likes to…

Excuse me, but no we fucking do not. Cathcart’s assault on free thought occurs in the first few words, which are no different to any other snooty argument that relies on the circular assertion that ‘all right-thinking people already agree on what I’m about to tell you’. One can easily imagine a Daily Mail article which starts ‘We all know that Hacked Off likes to…’, and so Hacked Off’s crusaders for higher standards appear to be not one iota better than their enemies. Any argument which relies on this kind of opening gambit deserves to be ignored. If it were really true that we already think what was about to follow, then only a braying jackass would feel the need to state the words that actually follow. However, whilst some people may not ‘know’ what they are supposed to ‘know’, they still deserve respect. Whatever Brian Cathcart might think about the British people, well over one million of them read the print version of the Daily Mail every day. Some of them may not ‘know’ that the Daily Mail is the kind of contemptuous rubbish which Cathcart says it is. But by the same measure, they may not know that Cathcart tends to write contemptuous rubbish. I would very much like to advise Cathcart to take his sneery elitist attitude and shove it where even the filthiest hack would not care to follow.

According to unelected (but often state-employed) commentators like Cathcart, our biased press deserves a good kicking if they dig out a 17 year old’s diary and find evidence that he hated his adopted country. I note, with some bemusement, that Polly Toynbee’s smear of linking the current Education Secretary to the death of Baby P receives nary a mention on Hacked Off’s website. Is this because Hacked Off is itself engaged in gerrymandering debate? Is the Daily Mail wrong to oppose Hacked Off’s proposals, because the Mail is inherently nasty and duplicitous? Or maybe Hacked Off believes that the Daily Mail is nasty and duplicitous because they rubbish Hacked Off’s proposals? The truth is that many writers, of many shades, have written things which are nasty and duplicitous. Hacked Off do themselves no credit, by blatantly picking sides in irrelevant sideshow debates, like those concerning Daily Mail headlines about Ed Miliband’s dad. They cannot get consumed with criticism of individual articles at this level of triviality, whilst cogently arguing that their proposals will not threaten freedom of speech.

I do not buy the Daily Mail myself. I never have. And I have definitely looked down my nose at people who have come into my house, lecturing me with some ill-founded opinion which they are quoting from the Daily Mail. And yet, I find the outpouring of anti-Mail outrage to be disgustingly cynical, and driven by people who genuinely believe the world should be run by people who know best (people who agree with them) and that opposing voices should be silenced.

To illustrate my point, let us unpick some of the arguments made against the Daily Mail, when writing their piece about Ralph Miliband, Ed Miliband’s dad. Some of them have argued that Miliband senior was only 17, when he wrote those words, so they should be overlooked. I believe that argument has some merit. If a man lives to the age of 70, it is trite to summarize his point of view based on one opinion he expressed whilst 17. However, that counter-argument is no longer as strong as it might have been. There was a time when 17 year olds might be thought to be less reliable, and their opinions should not be given any weight. However, Miliband junior is currently arguing that our democracy will be strengthened by allowing 16 year olds to vote.

Miliband junior pointed to his dad’s military service as evidence of love for his adopted country. I find this to be a very strange argument. Do we really believe that everybody in the military loves their country? Some will, but not all. Military service is not even proof of loyalty to a country, as has been demonstrated by many spies and defectors.

The anti-Mail argument might have gone very differently, with a lot less need for outraged hyperbole. All that is needed is for one of the Mail’s mirror-provcoateurs to locate a single contrary quote, from the many volumes of lectures that were written and spoken by Ralph Miliband. In his long academic and political career, it seems Miliband senior never once stated that he loved Britain.

I love Britain. And I just said so. That was easy. And now, if anyone slurs me after I die, there will be good public evidence to counteract their lies. And yet, Ralph Miliband never once accomplished what I have just accomplished. In book after book, speech after speech, spread across his 70 years of life, Ralph Miliband often stated what was wrong with Britain, but failed to find what was good, admirable, loveable about it. His son keeps telling us that the dad loved Britain, without showing any evidence to support his opinion. So whilst I find the Daily Mail’s argument to be thin, I find the contrary argument to be even thinner. Hence, I find little justification in pretending that one is an intolerable abuse of free speech whilst the contrary claim should be permitted without question.

The question of free speech is easily solved, once we remove ourselves from particulars. The Daily Mail has a perfect and natural right to draw a tenuous conclusion based on a 17 year old’s diary. It does not matter if people dislike it. It does not matter if people think it is wrong. What matters is that it cannot be proven false, and that there is some evidence to support the opinion – much more evidence that Polly Toynbee offers, when forecasting that Michael Gove will raise the number of deaths from child abuse. And so, whilst the Daily Mail may have written something that is stupid, and it may very well be wrong, lovers of free speech recognize why it is a good thing that they can and do feel free to write what they have written.

Toynbee’s argument that Gove is killing children reminds me a bit of some other disgusting muck-racking that also, somehow, is allowed to pass without widespread leftist uproar. Andy Burnham, Labour health spokesperson, routinely blames Tory economic policy for suicides. For instance, he does so here, and here. His analysis does not stand up to much criticism, though. His fellow Labour front-benchers have consistently argued that the coalition government’s economic policies hurt women much more than men (see a good example of that here). Meanwhile, suicide rates still stubbornly show us that twice as many British men commit suicide as British women. And that is in line with what is observed in every other nation. So whilst Burnham relentlessly tries to link the tragedy of suicide to economic policy, it seems there is a lot of evidence that he is looking to demonize his opponents, without making the slightest effort to evaluate the evidence. Either that, or he really does believe economic policy can make a big difference to suicide rates, and hence Labour’s policy should be to refocus on promoting the economic well-being of men, who commit suicide in far greater numbers than women.

Anyone can make a stupid argument, if permitted to make arbitrary leaps from one individual’s experience to the policies that will affect all of us. These leaps occur when jumping from Ralph Miliband’s diary to his son’s energy policy, between an abused child and social policy, or between a suicide and economic policy. And yet, this kind of foolish argument is a staple of modern discourse. It should remain so. Some people are stupid. The stupid have a right to believe what they believe, and to express their beliefs. The stupid should have the free choice to listen to others that tell them what they want to hear, whether the source is Andy Burnham, Polly Toynbee, or the Daily Mail. We will not make people cleverer, or better, by denying them choices in what they may think, or hear. That is the surest route to disaster, as the pendulum of human history must inevitable swing, and before long it will be the dissenters who prove to be the wisest, whilst the censors degenerate into a clique of increasingly self-righteous morons. If we want a healthy society, we must make it open. And an open society respects even its stupidest member.

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