Tuesday, April 25, 2006

More on civil liberties

I was somewhat perturbed to discover that someone else had written a post called The Great Civil Liberties Debate. However, Euan MacDonald's contribution to the Transatlantic Assembly is infinitely better than mine, and I am sure each of us independently came up with the post title. However, I recommend you to have a look at the MacDonald piece. In a piece of balanced criticism of the manner in which the civil liberties issue has been argued by Ministers on the one hand and some journalists on the other hand, he takes the latter to task: "By seeking to attack the Government on as many civil liberties questions as possible at once, its critics all-too-often allow for weak argument, which rely upon hyperbole and the existence of the other, stronger arguments for all apparent strength of their own, to creep into their work." Thus it weakens the argument to make generalised assertions about attacks upon civil liberties, especially if some of the changes can be relatively easily responded to with technical arguments. The example MacDonald uses is the removal of the right to trial by lay jury for complex and technical fraud offences.

As MacDonald says, Blair uses this technique very effectively in his email exchange:

"In attacking these claims one by one - which, in reality form a very small part of Porter's criticisms - Blair appears to be giving a very full, frank and reasoned rebuttal of all of the points raised. In fact, to my mind, he does not even begin to formulate a response to the most powerful of the criticisms."

The last point is the killer point. As MacDonald rightly points out (in terms which are relevant to the arguments made in the comments section of my earlier post on this question):

"Porter quizzes Blair in terms of one of the central themes of his defence - that these protections are what the public wants, and that those who criticise them are "out of touch" with what the public want - with the very valid assertion that civil liberties are often there to protect individuals from the whim and caprice of the majority; in this regard, Blair's populist justifications appear to be simply the wrong type of argument to achieve the result he seeks. Again, Blair does not answer this particular criticism."

In other words, with some arguments, Blair simply does not reply to the points made by the journalists, although the effect of his cumulation of technical arguments makes it appear as if he is being full and frank in his rebuttals. As MacDonald says, the argument gets more interesting once we get down to the details of what has and has not been done, and what the implications are both under this government, and under other future, as yet to be elected, and potentially even more authoritarian governments. Such governments may be elected by a majority. That does not mean they will not be a tyranny, against which some or all of us will need to be protected. And then where will our civil liberties have gone? Down the drain marked "The world is different after 9/11 or 7/7 or since yuffs started throwing bricks at old ladies" [delete as appropriate]. As Chris Lightfoot says in a similarly detailed demolition of Charles Clarke's recent speech at the LSE on civil liberties, such generalised assertions about modernity just will not do as the basis for such radical legislative interventions.

This business of heaping up a whole pile of technical assertions which don't answer the fundamental underlying point about the direction of policy is not unrelated to another rhetorical technique which Bookdrunk at Rhetorically Speaking has identified in Blair, namely bait and switch. I had to resort to (yes, you guessed it) Wikipedia in order to get a proper understanding of this concept (it stems from fraudsters), although Bookdrunk does a good job of applying it to our case of civil liberties and points out how often this is the type of reaction on encounters in one's comments box when blogging "liberally" as it were:

"Residents of blogistan should recognise this bait and switch from our trolls - when someone proposes the means (ID cards, imprisonment without trial, straight-only marriage - you name it) to a particular end (the protection of the family, justice, public safety) and you disagree with those means, then someone else accuses you of actually being an enemy of families and justice, and a friend of the terrorist. It's buoyed by the ever popular false logic of "something must be done": crudely put, there are terrorists so let's lock everyone up just in case because something must be done."

She's damn right, of course, that's exactly how he does it, and it's also what I've had in the comments box today. Not that I mind of course - that's in the nature of blogging - but I wanted to get it straight in my mind what argumentative techniques were being applied to me .... and why they were wrong. Oh no, I've fallen into that trap again, just like TB: "I'm right and you're wrong". Now, there we are, that's me back where I started with this - with Nosemonkey's lovely little post ("The Shorter Tony Blair") on the infamous email exchange.


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