Here in Australia there is an interesting debate going on around the views of Melinda Tankard Reist (“MTR”), a high-profile anti-abortion and anti-pornography activist, and Jennifer Wilson, a relatively obscure (at least until now) blogger and occasional online op.ed writer. The dispute blew up in public when Wilson received some kind of letter of demand, with a threat of defamation action, from MTR’s lawyers over some highly critical comments on Wilson’s blog.
The comments included claims to the effect that MTR is driven by conservative theological views that merit our opposition, and that she is duplicitous and deceptive in not disclosing her religious motivation. Rather, Wilson alleged, she seeks to create a false impression that she is associated with the secular feminist movement. These claims were expressed somewhat more colourfully and the attack on conservative Christian views of women and sexuality was detailed. If you want to follow the brouhaha that was triggered by the action taken to date by MTR’s lawyers, a good place to start is over on Twitter, where you can search for the hashtag #MTRsues. This will lead you to many tweets, blog posts, and articles in the mainstream press – all commenting on aspects of the dispute.
My own disclosure: generally I am sympathetic to Wilson. I don’t think this was an appropriate occasion to invoke defamation law; I am concerned about the way defamation law can chill public debate on matters of policy; and I am especially worried about the opportunities for public figures, who usually have sources of funds for legal action available to them, to bully bloggers, who may be in no position to defend themselves in the civil courts – legal costs are enough to put most ordinary people’s life savings at risk and possibly ruin them financially. I’d like to see defamation law progressively tightened as far as possible, and to be restricted to rather egregious cases. If the matter ever goes as far as defamation proceedings being issued, I’ll be contributing some small sum towards Wilson’s costs and I’ll see if I can help in any other way. This is not because I know Wilson or have any particular bias towards her as an individual – before the dispute blew up a week or so back, I’d never even heard of her! It is squarely because of concerns about freedom of speech.
Other issues include the content of the word “feminist” and its cognates. In particular, can you be a feminist while opposing abortion rights? That raises a deeper issue of what feminism actually is, something that might be rather difficult to be sure about by now, with so many different feminisms having proliferated. There’s been much back-and-forth about this.
But for the purposes of this post, I want to focus briefly on another aspect – that of disclosure. Here, I’m not so sure that I agree with what Wilson has to say, or at least with all of it (though I defend to the death, or at least to a degree of personal inconvenience, her right to say it, etc., etc.).
To what extent do participants in public debate about government policy come under a duty to disclose such things as their comprehensive worldviews? Prior to the #MTRsues dispute, I would probably have said, perhaps unthinkingly, “Not at all.” My reasoning is that all we can really demand of each other is that we each put aside religious (and perhaps some other) justifications of the policies we propose. We should offer secular reasons for them – e.g. we might argue that homosexual conduct ought to be banned because it causes some kind of secular harm (and there is then a question as to whether it must be a harm to non-consenting third parties); however, it should not cut any ice with public officials if we argue that homosexual conduct should be banned because it is disliked by God, or because it is an impediment to spiritual salvation, or because it “just is” morally wrong. These latter are, as it’s sometimes put, not publicly accessible reasons. I prefer to say that they are not worldly reasons, and that worldly reasons are the ones that should motivate officials in the secular government.
However, I would have said, you are entitled to be motivated privately by such reasons as “homosexual conduct is disliked by God”, as long as you don’t propose this as a reason for the legislators. If you are prepared to enter into public debate on the basis that your publicly accessible reasons will be scrutinised on their merits, and that you will not fall back on your private reasons if the publicly accessible ones prove to be weak, then you don’t even need to reveal the private ones. Indeed, it may be better in some ways if you don’t.
I still think this is about right in an ideal world, but I now wonder how practical it is in the messy world that we actually live in. Perhaps we do get to insist that our publicly expressed and accessible reasons be assessed and debated on their merits if we have been rather purist about putting only those reasons. However, activists such as MTR tend not to be purist in that way.
I don’t know a great deal about MTR herself, and the following is not about her in particular. But, as a generalisation, political activists use all sorts of rhetorical and other methods to win people over to their various causes. This can include associating themselves with others who may be well regarded by the public, or key sections of the public; cultivating a public image, including an image of being trustworthy to the public (or key sections); attacking opponents for having biases, impure motives, etc. The list goes on. My question now is, “At least once you start campaigning in this more robustly political way, as opposed to arguing positions in a more abstract and intellectual way, how far are you entitled to keep quiet about things that would change the public perception of you – things such as any unstated motivations that you might have, your comprehensive worldview, etc.?”
It looks to me as if we should demand at least some level of disclosure from the more “robust” types of high-profile political activists (though not, perhaps, from academics, for example, if they take a more “purist” approach such as described above). I don’t have a strong or dogmatic opinion on this, but I do suspect that my view before the #MTRsues dispute made me think about it was a bit naive. What d’ya reckon?