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Figleaves, Bothsidesing, and the Ethics of Implication

cartoon image of group of confused people

This is an article about the Plandemic video that made waves online at the beginning of May, but, before I can say what I mean to say about it (and how people have interacted with it online), we need to talk about a little philosophy of language.

Imagine that we’re walking down the street one evening when we pass by a panhandler asking for change. After another few minutes, I say, “Did you see that fellow on the corner back there? Do you think anyone would notice if he went…missing?” Hopefully, you’d be both surprised and troubled to discover that such thoughts were on my mind. Moreover, those concerns would not be dispelled if I continued by saying, “What? I’m not saying that we should kill anyone! I was only asking questions! What’s the big deal with that?”

When thinking about how people communicate their ideas to each other, philosophers of language often make a principled distinction between the semantics and the pragmatics of a sentence. The former (which is sometimes called the sentence’s “propositional content”) is simply a matter of how the words in a sentence are defined and what they mean when combined together, while the latter is determined by how a speaker in a given context intends that sentence to be understood by an audience. Put differently, the semantic content of a sentence is “what is said” by a speaker, while the sentence’s pragmatics are a matter of “what is meant” by the speaker.

Often, a sentence’s semantic and pragmatic meanings are the same thing: when I tell  you “Many apples are red,” I mean to communicate simply that many of the pieces of fruit we both know to be apples are colored red. So, of course, the more interesting cases are when these two things come apart: let’s say that you ask me whether or not I’m planning to attend a party that our mutual friend is hosting and I reply with the sentence “I have to work that night.” Technically, the semantics of my reply only mean “I am expected to work a shift at my job on that night,” but, in context, I am still clearly answering your question—even though I didn’t say “No, I can’t go to the party,” that is what I meant, nevertheless.

In his essay “Logic and Conversation,” H.P. Grice used the term ‘implicature’ to describe this curious (and common) feature of how we communicate. In unpacking several different kinds of implicatures, Grice pointed out that they can take many forms. Imagine that you’re hiring someone for a job and receive a reference letter that simply says “Mr. X’s command of English is excellent, and his attendance at tutorials has been regular. Yours, etc.” Even though this letter says only positive things about the applicant, it still clearly means that the letter-writer does not think that Mr. X should get the job (or else the reference letter would be far more substantial and informative). We can even mean things without actually saying anything at all, as when a regular patron in a shop wordlessly places their usual amount of money on the counter and waits for the familiar shopkeeper to hand them their usual purchase.

And implicatures can certainly take the form of questions, too. Imagine I’m walking towards the kitchen and you ask me “Do we have beer in the fridge?” If I simply answer “Yes,” I will have responded fairly to the semantics of your question, even while likely ignoring the pragmatic reasons that you had for asking it (namely: you would like me to bring you a bottle). Or think about someone asking you “Are you really planning on wearing that outfit tonight?”—although the question alone might seem to seek a yes/no answer, it also implicates that the questioner already has a strong opinion about your outfit.

So, a question like “Do you think anyone would notice if that person went missing?” might, on the semantic level, be relatively boring—it’s just a question about the number of people who might notice if the panhandler was no longer around. But, depending on what I mean by asking it (that is, what my pragmatic intentions are), this question could cover a wide range of other interpretations, many of which could be terrible. Notably, my saying “I’m just asking questions!” does nothing to negate the operation of this sort of implicature – what I’m saying is just a question, but what I mean by the question is what really matters.

It’s true that Gricean implicatures are “cancellable,” by which Grice meant that we can clarify what we mean by what we say in a way that explicitly clarifies what we’re trying to communicate. Consider if my initial question about the panhandler instead went like this: “This might sound odd, but do you think anyone would notice if that panhandler went missing? I’m not saying that they should go missing! I’m just wondering if people would care.” Such a construction doesn’t seem problematic at all – the potentially concerning implicature (which could suggest that I was thinking of myself causing him to go missing) was cancelled by me making my meaning explicit.

Simply saying “it’s just a question,” however, is insufficient to actually cancel the implicature; instead, such a phrase functions like what Jennifer Saul has called a “figleaf” by merely “providing a bit of cover for something that is unacceptable to display in public.” Figleaves are like a conversational distraction that purport to shield a speaker from responsibility for what they say: Saul offers the example of someone saying “I’m not racist, but…” before going on to express something racist—the “I’m not racist” figleaf might make it seem (to some) like the speaker has done nothing blameworthy without actually excusing or addressing the problem of the subsequent racist expression. In a similar way, saying “It’s just a question” might make it seem like a question’s implicature is being cancelled without genuinely clarifying or correcting what the speaker really means.

And the ethics of this kind of speech can be important to consider. At their core, manipulative conversational moves like gaslighting and sealioning can both be fueled by seemingly-innocent questions that mask exploitative (or otherwise immoral) implicatures. Imagine an abusive boyfriend trying to twist his girlfriend’s emotions by perpetually questioning her memories and perceptions: not only is this boyfriend doing something wrong, but it is likewise wrong to pretend like he is innocent simply because he’s “just asking questions.” Furthermore, reckless usage of this kind of figleaf can easily contribute to manifestations of the Dunning-Kruger effect (where someone incorrectly believes themselves to be more knowledgeable about a topic than they actually are): if experts agree that a certain course of action is best, my self-confidence to criticize their consensus by asking probing questions suggests that I consider myself equally informed on the matter. So, even in conversations where the main victim is the truth of the matter, we have reasons to be suspicious that a figleaf like “I’m just asking questions” sufficiently covers one’s epistemic obligations to be clear.

In the case of the Plandemic video, the creators repeatedly question numerous elements of the nature, origin, and significance of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the motivations of figures like Anthony Fauci and Bill Gates. Repeatedly throughout the 26-minute production, both the host and the interviewee cast doubt on the general consensus that the pandemic is both real and significant, often by asking questions that suggest nefarious (though unstated) answers. For example: towards the beginning of the video, the interviewer asks “How can a man [Fauci] who’s giving—any person who’s giving global advice for health own a patent in the solution of the vaccine?” While this certainly suggests that Fauci’s expert opinion has been corrupted by his financial interests, it does not explicitly say this, nor does the interviewer’s response (which simply names it a “conflict of interest”) fully capture the immorality implicated of Fauci by the question. Similarly to how the fallacy of the loaded (or “complex”) question can rhetorically force an interlocutor into a hopelessly bad-looking conversational position, Plandemic repeatedly deploys such tricks to suggest that competing sources of information are not to be trusted. Despite its idiosyncratic posture, Plandemic paints itself as though it is on an epistemic par with (or even superior to) the public position, simply by self-confidently presuming it has the evidential authority to ask the questions that it asks.

And when it comes to the online response to Plandemic, the same problem recurs. When someone defends their choice to share a link to the video on their social media feed by saying “I’m just asking questions,” this sort of figleaf hides their assumed belief that they have the background knowledge necessary to ensure that the questions being asked are relevant and fair. (Obviously, everyone has the political right to ask questions, but that is different from the epistemic right to do so, which requires an informed understanding of the matter up for debate.) Brute “bothsideism” is unhelpful enough for creating a respectful, functioning political system; it is even worse for people trying to understand what others actually mean to say.

Bothsidesism and Why It Matters

Image of many protesters in Charlottesville

In early December, Kelly Craft, the new US ambassador to Canada, stated in an interview that she believes “both sides” of climate science. When asked directly whether that meant that she believed that human-made climate change was a real phenomenon, she stated that “both sides have their own results, from their studies, and I appreciate and respect both sides of the science.” As many pointed out, this position is misinformed: there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that human-made climate change is indeed a real phenomenon; indeed, it was expressed by a recent report conducted by hundreds of scientists from the US itself. This is not to say that there are not unresolved questions about climate change, nor is it to imply that there is universal agreement amongst scientists with regards to the facts about climate change. And there are of course those who continue to deny that climate change is occurring, or occurring for the reasons that scientists have stated. Nevertheless, the mere fact that there are two sides to an issue does not mean that both sides are equally well supported by evidence or that there are no reasons to prefer one side over the other.

Recently, there seems to have been an increase in the amount of, for lack of a better term, bothsidesism. One such instance that many found particularly egregious was Donald Trump’s comment in the aftermath of the Charlottesville protests last year that there were “very fine people on both sides,” which many interpreted as Trump lending his support for, or at the very least failing to condemn, white nationalism. More recently, PayPal banned a number of accounts associated with the far-right group Proud Boys, but at the same time also banned accounts belonging to a number of anti-fascist groups. As The Guardian reports, many found PayPal’s grouping together of these two sides as a failure to distinguish between groups that spread hate speech and those that attempt to fight against it. As was the case in the aftermath of Trump’s remarks, PayPal’s actions were interpreted by some as another instance of catering to the interests of the far-right.

Although these cases are different – the first involving Craft’s treating “both sides” of climate science as equally legitimate, and the second involving the equivalent treatment of far-right hate groups and those protesting against them – they have something important in common. In these cases there are, broadly speaking, two sides to some issue. The balance of reason and evidence, however, supports one side over the other: there is overwhelming evidence to believe that human-made climate change is a genuine phenomenon, for example, and overwhelming reason to believe that white nationalist hate groups are morally reprehensible. Bothsidesism occurs, then, when the mere fact that there is more than one side to an issue is, itself, taken to imply that there is a reason to remain agnostic with regards to an issue, or else to imply that both sides are equally worth considering.

We need to be careful here: there are many issues about which there are competing views, and in which it may very well be appropriate to say that one appreciates that there are good arguments on both sides. The problem I have in mind is not like this. Instead, the problem with bothsidesism is that a disagreement is presented as a legitimate one, with both sides deserving equal discussion, simply because there is disagreement, and not because there is, in fact, good reason to consider both sides.

Legitimate disagreements, on the other hand, are driven by a search for the right answer to a question, and so both sides are given careful consideration because one wants to figure out which one is right. Many recent incidents of bothsidesism, however, appear to not be driven by any concern for the truth, but are instead motivated by political or other practical concerns. After Craft’s remarks on climate change, many pointed out that her husband is a multi-millionaire coal magnate, and thus Craft herself is presumably highly motivated to deny the existence of climate change. Critics of Trump after his Charlottesville remarks argued that Trump was trying to prevent the alienation of a key demographic of votes, while critics of PayPal argue that they are motivated by monetary concerns, not wanting to lose users who might have far-right political affiliations.

There are many potentially moral concerns surrounding the kind of bothsidesism considered here. First, there are always potentially bad consequences in spreading misinformation – in these cases, this misinformation involves the implication that both sides are equally well supported by evidence. Second, a consequence of the spread of this information is an emboldening of those holding the minority view. For example, as Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman at The New York Times argued, Trump’s “equating activists protesting racism with the neo-Nazis and white supremacists” after Charlottesville “buoyed the white nationalist movement.” Continuing to believe that there are equally good arguments on both sides of the climate change debate could have disastrous consequences of its own, as continuing to debate an issue that has received scientific consensus threatens forestalling important actions related to preventing further environmental damage.

Some have proposed that the best way to deal with certain types of bothsidesism is to refuse to engage in debate, thus refusing to give a side that is not worth consideration and kind of consideration at all. For example, in response to a recent report from the UK by Ukip MEP Stuart Agnew denying the existence of climate change, MEP Molly Scott Cato created a petition of “politicians, scientists, academics and campaigners” to pledge to “refuse to debate those who deny that human-made climate change is real.” Cato’s goal is to stop giving a “voice to the pseudoscience of climate change deniers; we must urgently move the debate on to how we address the causes and effects of dangerous climate breakdown.” Refusing to debate the existence of climate change thus prevents climate denial from being given any sort of legitimacy, and thus can prevent the harms associated with failing to take action with regards to climate change.

Again, we should not conclude that there are no legitimate cases in which there are two sides of an issue that deserve equal consideration; nor should we think that it is always appropriate to refuse to engage in debate when we disagree with a minority view. But when views are motivated not by a concern for the truth, or when the motivations behind holding one’s views are morally reprehensible, giving such views equal consideration simply because they are contrarian can be actively harmful.