Beneath her

Over at the ABC, Jennifer Wilson – the lady who anti-porn anti-abortion former Harradine adviser Melinda Tankard-Reist reportedly threatened to sue for continuing to speculate about her private beliefs – has had published at the ABC an article purporting to investigate “When it is ethical to disclose your religion”.

When Tankard Reist seeks to influence public morality and public policy, then it is entirely reasonable for her audience to ask if her position is influenced by her religion. Ethically, she is required honestly to answer this question.

And then she inadvertently exposes the big assumption that prompts this fallacy:

Her audience is not required to sit meekly by and unquestioningly accept a social order designed according to Christian morality…

No, they’re not. Of course they’re not. Who said they were? When did Tankard-Reist rely on her religious beliefs to order her audience “to sit meekly by and unquestioningly accept” what she said? When did her audience “sit meekly by and unquestioningly accept” what she said because of her faith, whatever that may be?

Why does knowing Tankard-Reist’s private theological thinking alter the validity of her publicly-expressed arguments? If Tankard-Reist’s only input on the debate is her words, and her words are flawed – which I agree with Wilson they are – then why does it matter what else she believes?

Why is an attack – sorry, “questioning” – about MTR’s private religious beliefs even necessary?

Now, I’d agree with Wilson if MTR was campaigning for public office. Because the thing about public office is that once you’re elected, you have a vote in parliament on every issue that comes before it. Even ones you haven’t previously discussed. And you’re also not legally bound, for that matter, by what you said you’d do earlier – you can change your mind and there’s nothing voters can do until the next election. And of course every “conscience votes” is decided on MPs’ private views on subjects outside the party platform.

So obviously a politician’s private beliefs ARE a relevant consideration for voters, and a legitimate subject of debate. Because they are asking to be elected for a period of time as a person who will exercise their judgment on anything that comes before them. As a voter, I’d want to know if my local ALP candidate is a card-carrying religious fundamentalist who will use her vote to oppose marriage equality, for example. And I think I’d be entitled to know that.

In contrast, MTR is not – so far as I know – running for office. She’s just arguing about things. Her ability to influence us is limited to those public words. And surely those arguments – flimsy as they are – can be much more persuasively dealt with on their merits.

Digging into her private religious beliefs just makes you look creepy and builds sympathy for her – sympathy she doesn’t deserve.

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28 responses to “Beneath her

  1. What bothers me about this is the implied “gotcha” that seems to be coming at the end of the MTR inquiry. Though nobody seems to be articulating this, the logic seems to suggest that if MTR’s views are informed by her beliefs (as of course they are) and X doesn’t hold those beliefs then because of that, then MTR’s views have no rhetorical weight for X. And some version of this must be the sub-text here, because why else would it matter so much?

    And to me, this is just seems lazy. Does the secular person then say to Tim Costello that because his beliefs on international aid or gambling control are informed by his beliefs that they are invalid? Of course not.

    If you want to use religious faith as a touchstone that means “See? I told you she was crazy”, then I just think it undermines the legitimate arguments you make. Just as this whole issue has devolved into a discussion about whether people should declare their religious beliefs rather than a discussion of the ideas which are said to be so problematic.

  2. I don’t know that I’m convinced either way on this one.

    On one hand, when someone who was the advisor to Brian Harridan when he was scuppering access to RU146 describes herself as a feminist, or anyone who is anti-choice describes themselves as a feminist, I balk.

    On the other hand, all I really give a shit about is the fact that they are anti-choice. I could not care less WHY they are. I don’t think it’s relevant.

    Isn’t the fact that they are campaigning for denying access to safer methods of abortion the salient point? Why they’ve decided they need to do that is neither here nor there, for mine.

    In terms of hoping that attitudes within the community change, though, isn’t it relevant? When we think about how to combat those attitudes, isn’t that important? If we want to understand why people take an anti-choice stance – which we must if we are to have a constructive debate about it – shouldn’t we know why someone thinks the way they do?

    How can you understand (or accept) why someone thinks the way they do if you don’t know why?

  3. narcoticmusing

    This seems like another attempt of the left (yes I’m over generalising) to use the same tactics of the extreme right (eg shock jocks) in response to accusations they (the left) are too polite etc.

    I’m not sure sinking to the same cruddy level as shock jocks and creating outrage where there should be one – such as a persons own personal beliefs- is useful for the left or the right.

  4. narcoticmusing

    How can you understand (or accept) why someone thinks the way they do if you don’t know why?

    The problem is when the ‘why’ becomes a touchstone for dismissing the argument regardless of the argument’s own merits. It creates a sub text that says your view is valid (or not) just because you believe (or not) in X. Which appears to be the motives of Wilson in this case.

  5. Lefty – aren’t you essentially arguing that conflicts of interest need not be disclosed?

    For example when a prominent opinion writer pushes a global warming denier position isn’t it relevant to know whether or not they’re being paid to spruik that position? You can take the view that their argument ought to stand on its own merit – and that’s valid to a point – but isn’t it relevant for the audience to understand what that person’s motives for making a particualr argument are?

  6. narcoticmusing

    That is an excellent point Mondo – but I suppose it depends on whether the arguments have merit or not on their own and whether the why is a very personal thing that need not be disclosed or the why is nothing to do with their beliefs per se, rather, they have some financial interest or stake in the outcome.

  7. But mondo rock, in this particular case i.e anti-abortion, aren’t most people going to assume ‘Christian’ anyway? Do we really need to know the ins and outs of MTR’s personal beliefs to understand that she doesn’t like abortion and would like to control women’s access to it?

    Sure understanding that person A lost their sister/wife/mother/friend/whatever to a botched abortion or had a botched abortion or had an abortion and regretted it etc (not saying that MTR falls into any of these categories) might help you understand where they are coming from, but for me it’s not going to change my mind. So I would argue that all I need to know is that they are against, I am for choice and if they choose to share their motives well and good, but if they don’t neither position changes.

  8. So I would argue that all I need to know is that they are against, I am for choice and if they choose to share their motives well and good, but if they don’t neither position changes.

    Fair enough Mindy – I tend to agree with you. My problem is that the logic you’ve set out (and which I find convincing) is equally applicable to a most vested-interest scenarios, such as the ‘industry-funded global warming denier’ example I gave above.

    I like to be consistent in my application of principle, and I’m starting to think that if I accept that commentators shouldn’t be required to disclose their religious motivations for making an argument then I will probably also need to accept that commentators shouldn’t need to disclose financial motivations either.

    Either an argument stands on its merits independent of its author’s various interests or it doesn’t. You’re suggesting it does, and I tend to agree.

  9. This is an interesting question, which was debated at some length at Pure Poison.

    I’m inclined to agree with Jeremy, though like Keri I can see both sides.

    I am not convinced this is the same as a conflict of interest situation. If I am getting paid to spruik for X, naturally I am going to do so. I have a financial interest in doing that and will be sued if I fail to keep my end of my spruiking contract. Private religious beliefs don’t have anything like the same imperative attached to them.

  10. narcoticmusing

    I suppose Mondo the line could be drawn between having a stake in the outcome in terms of some personal gain, versus positioning an argument due to a sincere belief in something. For example, being Christian doesn’t automatically make you anti-gay marriage as demonstrated by regulars here (Jordan and SB for example).

  11. Exactly, narc.

  12. Certainly there’s a difference between a financial and religious motivation for making an argument – I don’t dispute that.

    What I do question, however, is whether that difference is in any way relevant to the principle being put here, which is that:

    Her ability to influence us is limited to those public words. And surely those arguments – flimsy as they are – can be much more persuasively dealt with on their merits.

    The same is true of all ‘public words’ isn’t it? Isn’t the fundamental principle Jeremy is defending that motivation for making an argument is irrelevant to the validity of the argument? That an viewpoint should be judged on its merit and not on the personal motivation of the person making it?

  13. I think there is a huge difference between someone’s personal beliefs and their financial interests. I hate the obsession with Tankard-Reist’s religious beliefs and I don’t see how they are relevant at all. What if she were shy about her possible Catholicism, for instance, while arguing against capital punishment or the Iraq War? It would be gross bullying for people to go after her, sneering “I bet she’s a Catholic!”

    But if, for instance, she opposed that war without telling us that she owned half of central Bagdad that would be a bad thing, as clearly her selfish financial interest could be seen to influence the way she thought.

    As for Anne Summers and others getting all bothered and saying you can’t be a feminist and be against abortion, that’s just a ridiculous idea to even bother with. It’s the exact sort of thing lefties waste far too much time on, being obsessed with labels and whose in and whose out and whose not my friend today.

    And yes, I used to be a Catholic and it’s nobody’s business. Until, as Jeremy said, I run for office.

    Brendan from theinternetatemyblog

  14. And then she inadvertently exposes the big assumption that prompts this fallacy:

    Personally, I thought the big assumption was “when Tankard Reist seeks to influence public morality and public policy […]”.

    This is someone who has had the ear of politicians and other people of influence, and is playing off that history to lend authority to her position. If you believe politicians are obliged to disclose their personal beliefs, it only stands to reason that the people who influence them are equally obliged to do so.

  15. MTR’s religious motivations and anti-abortion stance have only become public knowledge BECAUSE of Dr Wilson’s writings and the subsequent debates. I think it is highly relevant that a PAID advisor (for many years), political lobbyist, PAID public speaker and, Oh my goodeness there is that word again – PAID author – be prepared to discuss their ideology – particularly when the research and arguements they rely on are quite frankly – rubbish. It is all very well to say that her arguements should “stand on their own merits” – but they don’t – and if you had done any real research or reading you would see that this is the case – and therefore find yourself in the very same position Dr Wilson did – Well if MTR’s arguements and research don’t stack up…what is left??? What is her motivation? And how do we bring this to the attention of the public? I have read extensively of as many of MTR’s written articles and policy documents and also her contributions to Senate Standing Committees as I have been able to find (from approx 2004 onwards) – I know exactly what I believe she is – a trojan horse for the religious right – who would love to bring this kind of horror to Australian public policy http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/02/05/941426/–Not-Close-Enough-to-Death-?detail=hide

  16. Actually THIS is the link I meant to add (the other was one I was led to from the following article- it too made me weep)
    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/02/15/1064997/-Virginia-House-getting-all-up-in-your-vagina

  17. If you believe politicians are obliged to disclose their personal beliefs, it only stands to reason that the people who influence them are equally obliged to do so.

    No, it doesn’t. Those who influence must do so with arguments. Those can stand on their merits. An MP has a vote. A special vote. A vote he or she may use in any way over their term, and a vote they’re meant to use to represent us. Of course voters need to know factors that indicate how candidates are likely to use their vote in parliament.

    Lobbyists? Advisers? What rubbish. We have no idea what the personal beliefs are of people in the PM’s office, and nor do we need to.

    I think it is highly relevant that a PAID advisor (for many years), political lobbyist, PAID public speaker and, Oh my goodeness there is that word again – PAID author – be prepared to discuss their ideology – particularly when the research and arguements they rely on are quite frankly – rubbish.

    Why? Why do you require more than their rubbish arguments? How does it help you identify flaws in their rubbish arguments?

    Can’t you debate with people if you don’t know everything about them?

    It is all very well to say that her arguements should “stand on their own merits” – but they don’t – and if you had done any real research or reading you would see that this is the case

    And you can’t out-argue her then? You can’t persuade more effectively than someone relying on rubbish arguments?

    Well if MTR’s arguements and research don’t stack up…what is left???

    Oh… you’re the person who suddenly bombarded me with tweets mid-evening?

    What is her motivation? And how do we bring this to the attention of the public?

    Why does it matter? Why do you think you need to?

    I know exactly what I believe she is – a trojan horse for the religious right – who would love to bring this kind of horror to Australian public policy

    Well so what if she is? You get that the religious right exist and are advocating for these policies, right?

    Duh.

  18. No, it doesn’t. Those who influence must do so with arguments.

    Rubbish. Once someone is in a position of trust, their input implictly carries more weight.

    You can argue this isn’t true until you’re blue in the face, and that everyone’s arguments are carefully and rationally researched and assessed, but reality dictates that it is.

    Those can stand on their merits.

    The vast swathes of public policy and behaviour that has been supported by arguments that most certainly do not stand on their merits, blows this suggestion out of water.

    An MP has a vote. A special vote. A vote he or she may use in any way over their term, and a vote they’re meant to use to represent us. Of course voters need to know factors that indicate how candidates are likely to use their vote in parliament.

    So why *don’t* we need to know about the people who are telling those politicians how they should vote ?

    Lobbyists? Advisers? What rubbish. We have no idea what the personal beliefs are of people in the PM’s office, and nor do we need to.

    Then we equally have no need to know the personal beliefs of the politicians themselves. They should be presenting the wishes of their electorate, irrespective of their own personal biases.

    The whole *point* of policy advisers is so that the politicians themselves don’t need to become experts (or even knowledgable) in every topic they’re expected to vote on. To suggest they do not have an ethical obligation to disclose personal beliefs that might bias the decisions they are influencing, is ridiculous.

  19. Unfortunately a modicum of cynicism is frequently necessary when these situations arise. Organised religions are, in the majority, more like corporatised entities these days. The Roman Catholic church resembles a corporation more than anything (of course a Catholic’s own personal religious feelings are generally something else altogether). I’m not referring to the small, grassroots congregations of various (Abrahamic) persuasions that are dotted about the place.

    The point is, it’s important to know whether that person is speaking as an individual who happens to belong to a particular religion (which influence on their views could be at any point on the spectrum) or whether they have been actively recruited by the powers that be within that corporatised religion to speak on their behalf. Like how the Republicans actively recruit beauty queens (Sarah Palin being an example).

  20. Great post and great discussion.

    As a pro-choice Christian, I’m kind of glad Ms Tankard Reist doesn’t trumpet her faith as the reason for her stance, because it would cement the idea that Christianity is obsessed with abortion and other “culture war” issues rather than its true concerns.

    I think the fact she doesn’t want her religious beliefs brought into the argument, even thought its highly likely they motivate and inform her views, is troubling from the point of view of where she stands in her faith (she should not be ashamed to discuss religion if people want to – she should welcome it as an opportunity to talk about the Gospel.)

    I’m glad that there are feminist Christians engaging with these issues, even where I think they make mistakes. For instance I have Kristina Keneally’s feminist theological masters thesis in the post to me as we speak! I don’t agree with her about say abortion but as Christians and broadly left-wing people we have a lot of common ground and hopefully can learn to understand one another’s viewpoints…..

  21. narcoticmusing

    So how then does one have a view without risking it being tainted by beliefs that you do not think add weight or detriment to the argument? How does one argue without something being disregarded, not on its merit, but purely due to the belief of the individual that may or may not be relevant to the facts in issue?

  22. Rubbish. Once someone is in a position of trust, their input implictly carries more weight.

    MTR is not “in a position of trust”, she’s an advocate for one side of a highly-controversial argument.

    So why *don’t* we need to know about the people who are telling those politicians how they should vote ?

    Everyone’s telling politicians how they should vote. It’s the politician who makes the choice.

    Then we equally have no need to know the personal beliefs of the politicians themselves. They should be presenting the wishes of their electorate, irrespective of their own personal biases.

    Uh, that’s not how representative democracy works. We, the voters, vote for a candidate to represent us. In order to do that, we need to know the sorts of biases they’ll bring to their vote. And then when they vote according to those biases – as they all inevitably must – at least we had some say in the candidate who’s doing it.

    That’s the relevance of their personal views – so that we can choose who to represent us.

    To suggest they do not have an ethical obligation to disclose personal beliefs that might bias the decisions they are influencing, is ridiculous.

    You tell me the breakup of religious belief in the PM’s office, and in Tony Abbott’s office. Or in the office of the candidate for whom you voted. You don’t know? Oh my god! How can you possibly cast your vote?

  23. MTR is not “in a position of trust”, she’s an advocate for one side of a highly-controversial argument.

    Given the amount of time MTR spends in schools, she is very much in a position of trust. Do you know what she does there?

    No, it doesn’t. Those who influence must do so with arguments.

    We are still entirely ignorant of what you consider MTR’s arguments to be, and what the effortless rebuttal to them would be — something you prescribe for others, but won’t do yourself.

    JW argues that MTR:

    • pathologises female sexuality outside of heterosexual marriage
    • campaigns against expressions of female sexuality in a repressive and dehumanising manner.
    • deliberately conflates women and girls
    • believes that you didn’t make that choice, you know; you are a victim.

    Do you agree MTR does this? Why would she do this?

    JW argues why women should be aware of this; why there should be something inherently wrong with female sexual expression; how MTR convinces from authority by the invocation of morality. By doing so, Wilson helps to put MTR’s past and present behaviour in context and helps us to evaluate information. The closest you get to showing JW’s post was poorly argued or wrong, is because it wasn’t done on your arbitrary terms, going so far as to play the man and accuse of her of being harmful. Given your propensity to accuse others of ad hominem arguments, this is richly ironic.

    You could show that two of Wilson’s premises — the widespread acceptance of the virgin birth and that MTR is a practising Baptist — are invalid, and challenge any conclusions drawn. Instead you attempt to dismiss a thoughtful, well-argued, 1300-word post as a single ad hominem argument. (Note to dilettante logicians: invalid premises do not necessarily create ad hominem arguments.)

    Dr Emma Rush is approvingly quoted by MTR, and co-publishes in books and on MTR’s website. They are hostile to other researchers who don’t agree. They had similar resposnses to this article. In this interview, Waleed Aly asks if feminists could reclaim and reinvent pornography. Emma Rush replied,

    “My own view on that, is that, you know, sex is about intimate relationship with a, you know, unique other, with whom you have, you know, some depth of relationship and I just don’t see how the objectification of sex in porn, gets to the heart of what sex is about. So, to my way of thinking it’s always, you know, it’s a distraction at best.”

    Is that an argument? What informs it? What evidence is used to support not just accepting it for themselves, but seeking to influence public debate towards those ends?

    Why are you so invested in terminating a discussion of where the morally proscriptive are coming from?

    Where is your evidence that JW’s approach is harmful and counterproductive to “our side”?

  24. Given the amount of time MTR spends in schools, she is very much in a position of trust. Do you know what she does there?

    Even teachers aren’t required to disclose their religious beliefs. And they’re in schools every day.

    We are still entirely ignorant of what you consider MTR’s arguments to be, and what the effortless rebuttal to them would be — something you prescribe for others, but won’t do yourself.

    You tell me. What’s the strongest one of MTR’s arguments you feel you can’t argue against?

    Do you agree MTR does this? Why would she do this?

    Fits what I’ve seen of her. They’re all lame arguments which can be dealt with directly, without taking the additional pointless step of trying to dig into her private beliefs.

    JW argues why women should be aware of this; why there should be something inherently wrong with female sexual expression; how MTR convinces from authority by the invocation of morality.

    Anything MTR doesn’t discuss can hardly be something she’s relying on to convince anyone, can it. And are you seriously suggesting that people are convinced by MTR because of her imagined “authority”?

    Wilson helps to put MTR’s past and present behaviour in context and helps us to evaluate information.

    What “information” is Wilson helping us “evaluate” by telling us MTR’s a Christian?

    The closest you get to showing JW’s post was poorly argued or wrong, is because it wasn’t done on your arbitrary terms, going so far as to play the man and accuse of her of being harmful. Given your propensity to accuse others of ad hominem arguments, this is richly ironic.

    Saying someone’s argument is harmful is “ad hominem”? FFS.

    (Note to dilettante logicians: invalid premises do not necessarily create ad hominem arguments.)

    No, but trying to refute someone’s argument by looking past it and accusing them of being a Christian so we can ignore anything they say on a moral subject certainly is ad hominem.

    Is that an argument? What informs it? What evidence is used to support not just accepting it for themselves, but seeking to influence public debate towards those ends?

    Not much of an argument. Not very persuasive at all. No evidence is put for it at all. Therefore, refuting it is rather straightforward.

    You don’t need to know anything about Emma Rush (and I don’t) to know that she’s just put an incredibly weak and unpersuasive argument.

    Why are you so invested in terminating a discussion of where the morally proscriptive are coming from?

    BECAUSE CONSPIRACY.

    Where is your evidence that JW’s approach is harmful and counterproductive to “our side”?

    Where’s your evidence that it helps?

  25. “Where is your evidence that JW’s approach is harmful and counterproductive to “our side”?”

    Because so many words have been devoted to what her religion is, whether it’s relevant and how that informs her beliefs, that no-one is really talking about just how dangerous her actual activism is anymore. Everyone is talking about how #MTRsues and not how #MTRisadvocatingforthingsthatputwomenshealthatrisk.

    As soon as you delve into this side-show stuff, to some degree (in this case, to an incredibly large degree) the spotlight is taken off her actual arguments. She gets to sit back and watch everyone arguing about things she’s not saying, and no-one is really tackling the very dangerous things she IS saying.

  26. jordanrastrick

    Keri wins the thread 🙂

  27. Careful Lefty – the idiots are doing their usual thing and confusing your defence of MTR’s right to keep her religion out of the debate with a general defence of MTR.

    You’re making an argument that, if you tilt your head a certain way, can be made to look like endorsement of MTR’s views. It’s not of course – you’re obviously defending a principle and not a person – but the mental guppies out there can’t tell the difference.

    They don’t know much, but they know anyone providing support to their enemy must also be their enemy. And they really hate MTR.

  28. This is the result of religious education classes in state schools.

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