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"Regardless of Intent"

I wanted to use this week’s LogicChecker to introduce a set of techniques that can increase the power of an argument through strategic use of language. This will kick off a discussion of rhetoric, a topic not always on the menu when people teach critical thinking, but one I hope you will realize is vital when trying to get people to pay attention to the points you are trying to argue.

The article I’ll be logic-checking is a column by New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, reproduced in full at the end of this posting. I’m guessing the Times will not come after me for pirating their work since Stephens' editorial was actually published in the Times’ rival, the New York Post, after Times editors punted on the piece.

This is likely because the editorial Stephens wrote was very critical of a decision by the New York Times to get rid of Donald G. McNeil, a prominent science journalist responsible for much of the paper’s coverage of the COVID pandemic over the last year.

Apparently, McNeil was chaperoning young people years ago on a trip to Peru, one of several travel programs the Times sells to readers.

On that trip, McNeil was asked by a student about whether a twelve-year old’s use of a racial slur online should lead to punishment. In discussing the matter, McNeil used the slur himself and was rebuked for doing so by others at the paper.

After a reprimand that did not lead to dismissal, large numbers of Times staff members expressed their displeasure that McNeil was still onboard which led to McNeil’s ultimate removal. When asked what policy the science journalist had violated, a senior editor at the paper said McNeil’s use of the word represented a grave enough offense to require sanction, regardless of his intent when he spoke the slur.

With that as backdrop, Stephens' argument begins by focusing not on details regarding the McNeil case, but rather on the phrase that tops this posting: “regardless of intent.” For, according to Stephens, intent not only matters, but is at the heart of what it means to be an ethical person living in a free society.

He begins with analogies, asking us why intent is so central in law, separating murder from manslaughter for example. He also points out that totalitarian societies are ones where intent or other internal states do not matter, so long as subjects conform - something that should not happen in a democracy.

Later, Stephens points out that determining intent is often a central goal of journalism, especially in situations where actions alone cannot explain a situation. Think about the role intent played in conversations over President Trump’s culpability for the January 6 attack on the Capitol, for example.

While I’m confident Stephens is sincere in being appalled that leaders of one of the world’s most important news organizations dismiss intent when dealing with internal matters, his choice to focus on their use of the phrase “regardless of intent” allows him to attack the paper’s decisions without making the McNeil controversy the focus of his piece. In doing so, he elevates the discussion by focusing on a principle most readers would agree with (that intent does matter) and then uses the McNeil story as an example of how this reasonable principle was violated by the Times.

Later, Stephens points out that the Times itself has published articles featuring the slur at the heart of the McNeil controversy many many times over the last several years and asks whether, according to the Times’ own new “intent doesn’t matter” standard, the paper is guilty of what it now considers a fireable offense. This move leverages the power of pointing out contradictions in an opponent’s positions.

Stephens also makes himself vulnerable by pointing out one of his own political beliefs (that “hardcore anti-Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism”) and asking what the Times’ news and editorial pages might look like if enforcement of his beliefs were made inviolable policy at the paper. This vulnerability taps into a previous controversy at the Times regarding a journalist who left the paper claiming she had been harassed there over her pro-Israel beliefs. But rhetorically, Stephens’ move works since he dismisses the paper’s hypothetical enforcement of his preferences as absurd. This establishes him as living by a single (consistent) standard, versus those he is criticizing.

Finally, throughout the story Stephens qualifies his points by acknowledging the wounding history of use of the slur under discussion, and also acknowledging that people do, in fact, do terrible things to each other without bad intent. You would think those acknowledgements would weaken his argument, but they actually make it stronger by establishing that the writer is not ignoring moral complexities of the principles he is defending.

While I’m tempted to shave off half a dumbbell for the writer trying to do too much in a single editorial, the courage it took for Stephens to take on his employers in a piece that includes the exact offense he is protesting (using a slur to illustrate and explain, rather than denigrate), has led me to be generous and give Mr. Stephens a full 5/5:

Keep in mind that the kinds of strategic rhetorical devices described above can be used to make a weak argument appear stronger than it actually is. But when applied to an argument with a strong logical core (like this one), it can get the writer’s point across with unstoppable power (just ask the editors at the Times who tried to stop it).

Brent Stephens Column (as it appeared in the New York Post on 2/11/2021)

Every serious moral philosophy, every decent legal system and every ethical organization cares deeply about intention.

It is the difference between murder and manslaughter. It is an aggravating or extenuating factor in judicial settings. It is a cardinal consideration in pardons (or at least it was until Donald Trump got in on the act). It’s an elementary aspect of parenting, friendship, courtship and marriage.

A hallmark of injustice is indifference to intention. Most of what is cruel, intolerant, stupid and misjudged in life stems from that indifference. Read accounts about life in repressive societies — I’d recommend Vaclav Havel’s “Power of the Powerless” and Nien Cheng’s “Life and Death in Shanghai” — and what strikes you first is how deeply the regimes care about outward conformity, and how little for personal intention.

I’ve been thinking about these questions in an unexpected connection. Late last week, Donald G. McNeil Jr., a veteran science reporter for The Times, abruptly departed from his job following the revelation that he had uttered a racial slur while on a New York Times trip to Peru for high school students. In the course of a dinner discussion, he was asked by a student whether a 12-year-old should have been suspended by her school for making a video in which she had used a racial slur.

In a written apology to staff, McNeil explained what happened next: “To understand what was in the video, I asked if she had called someone else the slur or whether she was rapping or quoting a book title. In asking the question, I used the slur itself.”

In an initial note to staff, editor-in-chief Dean Baquet noted that, after conducting an investigation, he was satisfied that McNeil had not used the slur maliciously and that it was not a firing offense. In response, more than 150 Times staffers signed a protest letter. A few days later, Baquet and managing editor Joe Kahn reached a different decision.

“We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent,” they wrote on Friday afternoon. They added to this unambiguous judgment that the paper would “work with urgency to create clearer guidelines and enforcement about conduct in the workplace, including red-line issues on racist language.”

This is not a column about the particulars of McNeil’s case. Nor is it an argument that the racial slur in question doesn’t have a uniquely ugly history and an extraordinary capacity to wound.

This is an argument about three words: “Regardless of intent.” Should intent be the only thing that counts in judgment? Obviously not. Can people do painful, harmful, stupid or objectionable things regardless of intent? Obviously.

Do any of us want to live in a world, or work in a field, where intent is categorically ruled out as a mitigating factor? I hope not.

That ought to go in journalism as much as, if not more than, in any other profession. What is it that journalists do, except try to perceive intent, examine motive, furnish context, explore nuance, explain varying shades of meaning, forgive fallibility, make allowances for irony and humor, slow the rush to judgment (and therefore outrage), and preserve vital intellectual distinctions?

Journalism as a humanistic enterprise — as opposed to hack work or propaganda — does these things in order to teach both its practitioners and consumers to be thoughtful. There is an elementary difference between citing a word for the purpose of knowledge and understanding and using the same word for the purpose of insult and harm. Lose this distinction, and you also lose the ability to understand the things you are supposed to be educated to oppose.

No wonder The Times has never previously been shy about citing racial slurs in order to explain a point. Here is a famous quote by the late Republican strategist Lee Atwater that has appeared at least seven times in The Times, most recently in 2019, precisely because it powerfully illuminates the mindset of a crucial political player.

“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, ‘forced busing,’ ‘states’ rights’ and all that stuff.”

Is this now supposed to be a scandal? Would the ugliness of Atwater’s meaning have been equally clearer by writing “n—, n—, n—”? A journalism that turns words into totems — and totems into fears — is an impediment to clear thinking and proper understanding.

So too is a journalism that attempts to proscribe entire fields of expression. “Racist language” is not just about a single infamous word. It’s a broad, changing, contestable category. There are many people — I include myself among them — who think that hardcore anti-Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism. That’s also official policy at the State Department and the British Labour Party. If anti-Semitism is a form of racism, and racist language is intolerable at The Times, might we someday forbid not only advocacy of anti-Zionist ideas, but even refuse to allow them to be discussed?

The idea is absurd. But that’s the terrain we now risk entering.

We are living in a period of competing moral certitudes, of people who are awfully sure they’re right and fully prepared to be awful about it. Hence the culture of cancellations, firings, public humiliations and increasingly unforgiving judgments. The role of good journalism should be to lead us out of this dark defile. Last week, we went deeper into it.


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