One of my favorite passages, one I read to my students on a yearly basis, comes from the opening page of The Great Gatsby:
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
… In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments… Reserving all judgments is a matter of infinite hope… And, after boasting this way of my tolerance, I come to the admission that it has a limit. Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or the wet marshes, but after a certain point I don’t care what it’s founded on.
Gatsby’s first two pages can be read as, among other things, a critique of the principle of charity: it seems to be saying there are at least some times when one not should attempt to see the confusing statements of one’s interlocutor as true, or trying to maximize the truth value of what is being said through creative acts of intepretation and sincere questioning, but should instead break off the conversation, and conclude that the person is either not worth listening to (say, because they’re not intelligent enough to make sense), or is positively misleading the audience (say, because they’re evil). The events of the novel (upon which Nick is reflecting at its opening) end up turning a lot of what Nick let happen, whether through gentility, passivity, tolerance, or a problematic combination of all of the above.
The question I’m asking isn’t one of literary interpretation. I might be wrong about what Nick means, but the question I mean to ask is more about the ethics of interpretation: are there ever times when the principle of charity should be set aside, and if so, when, and why? I have some ideas on the answer to this question, but I’ll just leave it as a question for now.
To sharpen that question, I’ll posit an example: Wisconsin Republican representative and former Republican Vice Presidential Candidate Paul Ryan. This dovetails somewhat with the string of posts about libertarianism, because whatever else you might think of him, Paul Ryan is the closest thing we probably have (with the possible exception of either Rand or Ron Paul) to the public face of libertarianism. Ryan was about 3% of the vote again from being vice president, after all.
I think we can probably all agree that Robert Nozick, or Michael Oakeshott, or other respected academic conservatives deserve, at some level, to be taken seriously. We can probably also all agree that Michelle Bachmann does not. But Paul Ryan occupies a problematic middle ground: he presents himself as though he’s actually studied the conclusions he advocates, but many of those positions seem to rest on obvious problems.
In Thursday’s New York Times, Charles Blow describes Ryan’s libertarian-type anti-poverty project, and then others’ dismissal of it:
Paul Ryan has begun to focus on poverty from a Republican perspective, releasing a report this week that calls for cutting programs designed to help the poor. Only in the Republican house of mirrors does this make sense, but he essentially makes the argument that current programs haven’t eliminated poverty but, in some ways, have made it worse. The mitigating factors at play are given short shrift.
Furthermore, Ryan’s version of Compassionate Conservative 2.0 seems to be built on bad, or at least distorted, math, as is Ryan’s wont. As The Fiscal Times reported Tuesday, “several economists and social scientists contacted on Monday had reactions ranging from bemusement to anger at Ryan’s report, claiming that he either misunderstood or misrepresented their research.”
Charles Blow is hardly the first person to express (or pass along others’) dismissal for Paul Ryan’s ideas: Paul Krugman writes a column about once a month doing so – in Friday’s column he repeatedly refers to Ryan’s work as a “con job.” Krugman’s argument is (this column and in months preceding), more or less – Ryan shouldn’t be taken seriously, he’s just filling a media niche – the role of the “intelligent conservative.” There are no other plausible candidates, so he gets the benefit of the doubt, though he shouldn’t. In fact, according to Krugman, Paul Ryan and his ilk are extremely disingenuous, and the media make things worse by being willing to take their work seriously.
Beyond Krugman though, there’s the more famous case of Joe Biden, and the Vice Presidential Debate of 2012 (youtube highlights here, full debate [which is totally worth re-watching here]). I’ll put some of my cards on the table here: I thought Biden’s contemptuous, angry dismissal of Ryan and his ideas at several points throughout the debate was a display of real political courage, the sort of thing that many Democrats have often been unable or unwilling to do, say, with conviction and to great rhetorical effect, what Biden literally said: “that’s a bunch of malarkey!” I found it an incredibly empowering performance, one that (though I don’t have the statistics to back it) was an important turning of the tide in the 2012 election season, coming as it did right after Obama clearly lost the first debate, to some extent, because his attempts to call Mitt Romney on similar malarkey-deployment came across as cold, confused and reactive. Biden sounded nothing of the sort – it was a day that for a brief time, I was proud to be a Democrat.
At at least three moments during the debate, Biden violently dismissed Ryan’s claims:
1) When Ryan said he and Mitt Romney were good people, and gave money to charity, so it was unfair to say that they didn’t support lifting people out of poverty. Biden replied, roughly “I don’t doubt you’re a good guy, but show me ONE POLICY, one action you’d advocate taking if elected, that would help poor people” [logical implication – they have none, and so their resting on the implication that they’re “good people” is irrelevant – even possibly – the fact that you don’t advocate such policies means you AREN’T good guys.]
2) When Ryan attempted to explain that cutting taxes would help with deficit reduction – Biden’s reply was to call either “malarkey” or “stuff” (don’t remember which). And noted that Ryan’s refusal to offer specifics was in fact an act of intentional deception.
3) When Ryan said he was a good Catholic – Biden said roughly “you don’t advocate anything that agrees with the church’s social statement” – I was actually surprised this didn’t make more news at the time. Here was a religious Democrat finally calling a “religious conservative” a bad Christian, because they refused to endorse the social justice parts of their religion… But at any rate, Biden was certainly not giving Ryan the benefit of the doubt when he said he wasn’t really a good Catholic.
Part of what’s going on is Biden clearly and intentionally violating the principle of charity – saying “there is no reason for me (or those listening) to take what you’ve said seriously… you’re either being intentionally misleading or woefully naive or both.” Rather than reply to some of these claims, Biden laughed. Or just, as we say, “called bullshit.’ Or called malarkey.
The question is: is Biden-type behavior ever justified?
Some possible answers:
1) No. One should never question the motives of one’s interlocutor, but always strive to patiently and charitably interpret that interlocutor’s words, by working in one’s interpretation to maximize the number of true statements in their words. Call this the principle of ultimate charity.
2) Yes. In fact, it’s always justified. One shouldn’t take one’s interlocutor’s words seriously, as a rule. Rather, one should attempt to develop theories for why people believe/say the things this person is saying, independently of why they say they’re saying them. Call this the principle of ultimate cynicism. At times, some reductively Marxist or psychoanalytic critics start to sound like this. Obviously it’s just offered here for conceptional completeness.
3) Sometimes. It’s only justified in some situations. But the question then is, which ones? Martin Luther’s “here I stand, I can do no other” – you can’t always bust that out, so when can you? Or, to return to The Great Gatsby, what should be the “limit” on Nick’s tolerance? Call this either the principle of appropriate cynicism, or the principle of the limits of charity. What is it, and why is it justified, if it is?