Friday, 13 November 2009

It's not sexist to deploy the strawman argument

So after a week or two of being a bit sick and generally avoiding the Mail, I flick to the front page of the site this morning to see what edifying delights await. It's largely the usual; people are getting too much in benefits, the BBC have angered the Mail in some way, someone is a paedo, Littlejohn isn't happy about something, and lots of celebrities have got all kinds of lovely tits. And then something so depressingly familiar you wonder if you've somehow got into an old archive of the site by mistake; It's not racist to debate migration, says Gordon Brown as Tories brand him hypocrite.

Amusingly, this article was previously titled, and still appears in the title bar as, "Brown finally admits it's not racist to be worried about foreigners flooding into Britain", a headline presumably ditched on account of it, y'know, actually sounding a bit like it might be racist. That's always a good strategy; if you're ever a bit worried about how bad your views might sound, why not call for a 'debate' on them? It's a neat way of putting a little bit of distance between you and your possibly ill-conceived/insane/rambling/sometimes-even-racist views. Kind of like when 9/11 truthers who clearly believe the US did it just step back and go "whoa, I'm just asking questions!" whenever you put a point to them they don't have an answer for. "I'm not saying there are too many foreigners here, I'm just saying we should have debate about whether there are too many foreigners here! Even though coincidentally that's what I believe". For extra kudos, why not insert the words "open" and "honest" in front of "debate" as well? This has the effect of letting the people who agree with you know what you're saying, while pretending that you don't really have a strong opinion and are just kind of acting on behalf of some noble principle of democratic discourse if you get challenged on it.

Anyway, back to the story, and it begins;

Gordon Brown staged a major Labour U-turn over immigration yesterday by insisting it was 'not racist' to discuss the issue.
A U-turn is, of course, brilliant news for your opponents. Not only do you now agree with them, but you also look weak and indecisive, so your opponents can continue to berate you even though you now agree with them and are probably going to implement the kind of policies they've argued for. But, and call me Captain Pedantic here, but I would say a U-turn usually involves completely changing your opinion so it becomes the opposite way round. For this to happen, it would have to have been the case that Labour had, up until yesterday, believed that discussing immigration was racist. If they believed that, you'd think they might have fucking said it at some point in the last twelve years.

So, off the Mail trots through its extensive archive of British political history to find some killer quotes from Labour where they call the Tories big 'orrible racists. It comes up with a whopping two, neither of them from U-turner extraordinaire Gordon Brown, and they're...well, both a tad underwhelming:


So, that's Jack Straw accusing William Hague of 'exploiting' the asylum issue nine years ago, and Tony B.Liar countering the Conservatives' "It's not racist to talk about immigration" argument by simply pointing out that Labour never fucking said it was. So one of these apparently supporting quotes even contains a line refuting the very thing it was supposed to be saying.

(As an aside, I really like the 'William Hague 2000' bit in that graphic, makes him sound like a bumbling, ineffectual, right-wing robot all the kids want for Christmas. A robot that tells moist-eyed stories about the time they drunk 14 pints in a day).

It's descended into some weird kind of multi-level strawman. The main text says "At the last General Election, the then Conservative leader Michael Howard was criticised by Labour for claiming it was 'not racist to talk about immigration'", but the boxout quote makes it clear that that criticism took the form of essentially saying "We know, that's why we never said it was". So, whereas the Mail thinks it's proving that Labour told the Tories that it WAS in fact racist to talk about immigration, all they've actually done is create a strawman whereby saying that you never said it was racist to talk about immigration is 'criticising' the line that "it's not racist to talk about immigration", and therefore is somehow the same as saying it IS racist to talk about immigration. Now, that may well be the worst sentence anyone's ever written, but then welcome to the weird and confusing world of the strawman argument, where you misrepresent your opponent's argument and then argue against that instead, because it's easier, and because it helps turn the argument into one where you're being unfairly maligned.

I'm not going to wade into the immigration debate too much, except to say that I genuinely wish I had a pound for every time someone pretended they weren't allowed to talk about it, while talking about it, or claimed that politicians won't engage with it despite them constantly fucking engaging with it as far back as I can remember. Even 'soft on immigration' Labour have brought in a whole raft of immigration restrictions, particularly since 9/11. They employ as their immigration minister Phil Woolas, a man who has criticised lawyers for acting on behalf of asylum seekers, fought hard not to let the Gurkhas settle in Britain, took the decidedly un-PC step of highlighting the problem of Asian cousins marrying and blaming it for birth defects, introduced a points-based immigration system to restrict numbers of immigrants, promised he would never allow the population to reach 70m, criticised his own government for not deporting enough asylum seekers, and, indeed, has also played the "it's not racist to talk about immigration" card himself.

Yet, despite all proposing various crackdown measures on immigration, the parties are all aware that the electorate wants them to appear to be the toughest, so they harangue each other's proposals even though they broadly agree, and the press join in. It's an argument without a disagreement, and so you end up with the ludicrous spectacle of the papers accusing Gordon "British jobs for British workers" Brown of suddenly having a Damascene conversion on immigration, despite having produced literally no evidence that he ever thought anything else.

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