Having used the current President as an example to illustrate the impact contradiction has on both the logic and perception of arguments, it’s only fair to come up with a different example (in this case, set of examples) related to President Trump’s rival for the presidency: Vice President Joe Biden.
One of the most controversial issues facing the Democratic nominee involves allegations of sexual assault made by former staffer, Tara Reade, that she alleges occurred in 1993. In addition to the seriousness of the charge, the matter became politically hot when conservatives complained that Democrats and the media refused to follow principles they claimed to hold (represented by the hashtags #MeToo and #BelieveWomen), drawing specific comparisons between the subdued way accusations against Biden were being treated versus the 24/7 news cycle surrounding similar accusations against now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
In other words, they were complaining about a contradiction.
As I discussed here and here, the fact that those complaints originate from partisan sources does not mean they have no merit, especially in a case like this one where supporters of #MeToo and/or Biden have felt the need to respond to accusations of hypocrisy.
Four different writers took four different approaches when arguing about this apparent contradiction. For example, journalist and editor Cathy Young wrote this long piece claiming the Reade allegations had little merit. Most of the article is based on shoe-leather reporting regarding the background of Biden’s accuser (including inconsistencies in her story). For purposes of this discussion, however, Reade successfully navigated the contradiction problem by stating outright that processes in which believing an accuser takes precedent over presumption of innocence led to both Biden and Kavanaugh being treated unfairly.
Current Affairs columnist Lyta Gold also avoids the contradiction problem by applying a single standard to Biden and others who found themselves in the crosshairs of the #MeToo phenomenon: by condemning all of them as misogynists who deserve to have the spotlight shown on them. Like several of the articles I’m using as examples, the heated language in Lyta’s piece (starting with the headline) might make it difficult for her to persuade those not already in her camp. But whatever you think of her argument, she cannot be accused of behaving inconsistently.
The title of a New York Times opinion piece written by Linda Hirshman: I Believe Tara Reade. I’m Voting for Joe Biden Anyway, spells out her strategy for dealing with the contradiction problem: by acknowledging it openly, then explaining why she chose to act in a way at odds with her principles (summed up in the subtitle of her piece: “The importance of owning up to an ugly moral choice”). Hirshman faced a classical ethical dilemma of having to decide between two bad options, and while admitting to a contradiction is better than papering it over, her piece could be used as evidence that decisions over who gets shamed are based more on the political orientation of the accused than truthfulness of the accuser.
My last example demonstrates how one can try to navigate a contradiction by proving (or claiming to prove) that it does not exist. In a different New York Times opinion piece, journalist and author Susan Faludi distills the debate down to whether the hashtag #BelieveWomen meant people using it were advocating everyone #BelieveAllWomen (meaning believe any woman bringing forth accusations of sexual assault unconditionally), a position she claims is actually a parody of #MeToo manufactured by the right. As with all four arguments, Faludi’s likely found an accepting audience. But beyond opening up questions over what #BelieveWomen was ever supposed to mean, rejecting the existence of a contradiction (one admitted to by the other three writers) means rejecting the existence of another ethical dilemma underlying this entire debate.
Just as Linda Hirshman had to contend with a choice between competing bads, the #MeToo debate forces us to decide between competing goods: justice for victims of sexual assault versus maintaining principles at the heart of our legal system, including presumption of innocence. One can argue that prioritizing the former at the expense of the latter is warranted (even long overdue), but that is an argument that must ultimately be made using more than a couple of hashtags.