Blog: Accountability for Words

Accountability for Words
Accountability for Words
Date: 2018-Jul-15 19:33:37 EST

It looks like Sasha Baron Cohen's next expose is set for release too, this time poking fun at the willingness of some American pols to endorse arming of preschoolers. I find his style of humour right on the border of being too cringeworthy to watch; funny, but a little bit too mean. And this brings to mind the question of whether it's fair.

I don't believe in comedy or journalism as "speak truth to power". I think it should rather be, at least in that framing, simply "speak truth". Less powerful people today may be powerful tomorrow, and they're as ridiculous, and poking at the bizarreness of everyone helps us build perspective in humility rather than staring at clothes in a tumbler and cursing at them when they're at the top.

And so, having dispensed with that popular framing, we're left with some questions:

  • Is it possible in conversations to nudge or manipulate most people to say bizarre things based on conversational implicature?
  • If so, is it fair to judge them when this happens?
  • Do the pols involved have bizarre beliefs that they're careful not to say on camera absent prodding by journalists?
  • If so, is what Cohen gets them to say more of this than the former explanation?
  • Are there times people might "agree" with someone just to get them to go away?
  • When is it appropriate to go after people for their statements or beliefs?
These are tough questions. I would like to believe that people should be careful with what they say, that they should own their words, and that it is always fair to judge them for it (at least for a reasonable time after they say them; people change). That said, I think sometimes people let off steam and say things they don't mean, misrepresent their own views, and are easily dragged into saying things they don't mean unless they're very careful. People who study rhetoric or philosophy or who take part in debates may have an edge up in really paying attention to words, particularly if they're already less socialised and more resistant to peer pressure, but most people? Not so much. So there may be unreasonable standards. Most people, I suspect, were we to follow them around invisibly and hear all their conversations, would say things out of the general public sphere that are unacceptable in it. It may be unreasonable to only accept in public office (or other high-profile roles) people who are entirely fit for public consumption, and I feel that people may be realising this and becoming unhappy with PR (even as the most available examples right now far overreact).

Most people I have gotten to know have said some things that bothered me and which, if recorded, would end their political career. I have also said such things.

I think it's possible to take Cohen's works in a positive way where we adjust our expectations of what people say and become more tolerant of people's foibles, steerability, and speech, although that requires our mind to be set on that path already. It's also possible to want to want to purge such people from public life and in theory replace them with less quirky people but in actuality replace them with people who are more PR-careful. The latter seems a shame.