25 November 2009

A Proportionate Response to "Proportionate"

There is a nauseating piece of troll-bait in the Guardian today. It's called "My DNA dilemma", and in it Alan Johnson attempts to convince readers he suffers as much as any of us bleeding-heart liberals at the thought of the terrible, terrible sacrifices of freedom we must make for the sake of security.

I won't bother demolishing the rickety edifice of its spin and half-truths, since that has been done expertly elsewhere. Instead, I'd like to concentrate on the key argument of the piece, implicit in its title:

This is a classic home secretary dilemma. It is not a clear-cut choice between liberty and security – between siding with the civil liberties lobby or the forces of law and order. The far less headline-friendly reality is the need to balance all these factors – protecting the public, but in a way that's proportionate to the threat. I believe that the government's proposals do precisely that but I also welcome the debate as a necessary part of implementing such sensitive measures.

There's a tell-tale word in there that I have been tracking for many months as it silently worms its way into public discourse in this country: "proportionate".

It's the ultimate argument-killer when people raise the big issues like liberty to defend themselves from ever-more intrusive "security" legislation - which strangely always turns out to be "surveillance" of the little people like you and me. Yes, it seems to say, you're right, this *is* a tricky one, but we must find a compromise "to balance all these factors", as Alan Johnson puts it. And the way we do that is by making a *proportionate* response.

How could anyone argue with something so reasonable? After all, that's exactly what we all want: a proportionate response that represents a compromise position.

There's just one little problem. As the UK government has shown by its use of this word time and again to justify everything from ID cards and policing to Internet monitoring and DNA databases, what they really mean is: we're going to do what we've said because it's what we've decided. In effect, this use of "proportionate response" is simply shorthand for the tautological "our response", but dressed up in a costume of apparent concession.

If you don't think this is a serious problem, just watch out next time you read or hear a government discussion of why they realise something is a contentious area, and that there are many people who disagree profoundly: I can almost guarantee that at some point they will roll out the "p"-word, and that will be the end of the argument - because if you argue for something else, you are clearly *against* a proportionate solution, and can therefore be dismissed as part of the lunatic fringe.

Because it is such a slippery, weaselly word, I think we need to try to pre-empt these attempts by claiming immediately that *our* solutions are proportionate. Then, when the government inevitably claims the same for theirs, it comes down to a slanging match - which at least makes it clear that there is no "consensus".

The more we point out the UK government's constant invocation of "proportionate" responses to hide a complete refusal to engage with critics - despite Alan Johnson claiming to "welcome the debate" - the sooner it will drop that tactic. It might not start to listen - that would be too much to hope - but at least we will have reduced the verbal undergrowth in which it can hide.

So, please pass it on about the UK government's "proportionate" meme: after all, it's a proportionate response.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.


Crosbie Fitch said...

This is all part of the logical fallacy of 'appeal to moderation'.

Unfortunately, it's quite a seductive one. People learn at an early age that the remedy for conflict over an unfair distribution (of sweets), is to compromise with a proportionate redistribution. So, when there's a conflict over principle, people similarly conclude that some principles have to be ceded by either side to reach a balance. (qv Idiocracy)

Arguing that something is fundamentally unethical (cf Slavery) is dismissed as extremism, and therefore irrational and unsound. The solution is therefore always a compromise and lies somewhere in the 'middle ground' (waving a white flag within arrowshot of the opponent's encampment).

Philippe Bradley recently appealed to me to 'consider the middle ground' and thus demonstrate I was prepared to engage in argument (aka concede on principle).

I can just imagine a cotton farmer saying to MLK, "Look boy, I see you feel strongly about this matter, but I ain't gonna argue with you unless you stop yammerin' at me that what I'm doing is unjust. I'm a Christian church goer and I look after my slaves. What's more I let them rest on the sabbath. Now if you're telling me I should let 'em run off after 40 years' service I've an ear open to that, but don't waste my time telling me I've got to give up my farm or I'll be rousing a war."

Glyn Moody said...

@Crosbie: a nice parable, as ever...

Crosbie Fitch said...

It would be more historically plausible if instead of a time-travelling MLK (who'd be shot on sight), the farmer was challenged by William Lloyd Garrison, white and worthy.

Crosbie Fitch said...

This is what he wrote in the first issue of The Liberator:

I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; – but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest – I will not equivocate – I will not excuse – I will not retreat a single inch – AND I WILL BE HEARD. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.

Seems like he also had to ward off 'appeals to moderation' and those who declared the self-evident justice of a 'proportionate response'.

Glyn Moody said...

@Crosbie: amazing stuff - thanks for posting it

Phil B said...

Crosbie, I simply cannot abide by posturing without putting forwards any argument. It's mere dogma, totally unabashed, and it goes against everything I believe in; ironic, isn't it, that you strike up such an empty pose in nonsequitur response to a post rightly attacking the HomeSec for empty, unreasoned words in support of fascist, totalitarian moves. It's precisely because you consider yourself so *unquestionably* in the right, that you take up such an unquestioning attitude. Let me guess - you find your position 'proportionate' to the 'vastness' of the copyright fallacy?

look at your posts - gesturing, posturing, gradiose terms, simplistic analogies to the abolitionist movement that totally ignored the reality of how abolitionism came along and the role of moderatism (see Somersett's Case for example), even though the analogy falls apart on various other counts the moment someone actually turns their mind to questioning it.

I *really* can't abide by purely moralistic dogma as substitute for reasoned position.


Crosbie Fitch said...

Philippe, it's not an ad hominem matter of how I consider myself, or how I come across.

It's all a matter of argument.

However, that's free argument, not simply that subset of argument that holds the privilege of copyright as non-negotiable, i.e. the Lessigian principle.

Phil B said...

This is the thing. You aren't arguing. You aren't even attempting to demonstrate, from first principles, that copyright does not/should not exist. In these few comments (though I presume not elsewhere/in your own head) you offer just dogmatic statement of principle, and vague ones at that - why is it 'funadamentally unethical' and not merely an unethical implementation of a sound concept (at its simplest, that of work done, of value to someone, creating a right to benefit)?

because all I see at the moment are statements of dogma on minor blogs "backed up" with flawed analogies, finding either appeal for argument on one blog, and limp, adoring pats on the back on another. The whole conversation is of little value to anyone as it stands.

Crosbie Fitch said...

Philippe, the web is a big place and I take care to argue only with those interested in doing so. You insinuated on your blog a comparison between ACTA's 'graduated response' of 'guilty on suspicion' and the Spanish inquisition, as 'Corfu inquisition'.

I considered there to be a possibility you might be willing to entertain the argument as to whether the ethics of copyright itself should be questioned, not just its enforcement. I commented to that effect.

You responded:
"I disagree that copyright is fundamentally a bad thing in a modern society - and so would most people. That's a debate to be held in another place, at another time."

That is tantamount to saying "I disagree and am not yet interested in that argument".

So, by way of encouraging you to bring that date forward I said:

"Sorry Philippe, until you snap out of the doublethink that an 18th century suspension of the public's liberty to share and build upon published culture is a good thing, you, as most people, will remain mystified at how cruel the enforcement of this unethical privilege has become.

When enlightenment strikes you and your fellows in that other place another time, in the bottom of the oubliette awaiting your inquisition, it will be too late."

And your 'appeal to moderation' and the 'Creative Commons' or Lessigian basis for argument that admits no wrong on the part of copyright was thus:

"Care to argue, instead of preach?
If you do, please take into account my membership of Creative Commons, and consider the middle ground..."

There are plenty of others interested in discussing the middle ground, the territory of unprincipled appeasement. They can continue the discussions you prefer to engage in.

You made clear your lack of interest in arguing the ethics of copyright.