Misconceptions of Guilt by Association

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Guilt by association
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Logical fallacies are damaging to productive debate. Whether used unknowingly or intentionally, they divert a discussion away from honest reason and facts.

Those using guilt by association, the fallacy that a person or idea is bad because it is associated with a bad person, are responsible for an incredible amount of damage to productive dialogue. This tactic is second only to the deliberate spread of false information in its contribution to the increasing political divide.

Guilt by association can be divided into two formats: association of ideas and association between people.

Ideas

The association fallacy is used against ideas, especially when tying them to extremist ideology. More recently we’ve seen this used when tying moderates and centrists to Nazis and white supremacists. If one makes an argument critical of progressivism, it becomes a “white supremacist talking point.”

It’s not unfair to use someone’s talking points to determine their ideology, but several points of reference are needed, not just one comment or claim. And there is often ideological overlap on some points. Fascists often fought against communists. This does not make anti-communism fascist. White supremacists are critical of enforced diversity. This does not make all critics of enforced diversity white supremacist.

The same applies to the climate change debate. If one is against the Green New Deal, they are in league with “science deniers” and, therefore, opposing the Green New Deal is bad.

Guilt by association is also used when defending free speech. If an extremist complains about being unfairly deplatformed, and someone else also complains about the extremist being deplatformed, this other person must have sympathy for extremist ideas. Because arguing in favor of free speech for extremists is something an extremist would do, anyone that argues in favor of free speech for everyone (including extremists) is aligned with extremist ideas.

Right wing trolls have exploited this by playing pranks on progressives. Anyone even remotely right wing can claim anything to be alt-right, and paranoid progressive media will report it as such. This list even includes the OK-sign and milk.

People

Guilt by association is used to tie radical ideas to not-so-radical people. The claim is that to associate in any way with radical people is to sympathize with their ideas.

Such a worldview quickly creates echo chambers. Echo chambers then prevent one from understanding opposing views, which prevents them from understanding the opposing arguments, and what was once a debatable view with two understandable sides becomes a hateful extremist view. This then reinforces echo chambers and restricts them further, until everyone stops talking to everyone else outside of their tiny echo chambers.

This is not to say that everyone needs at least one Neo-Nazi pal. Rather, it means that having a conversation with someone (either in private or on a podcast) does not equal an endorsement of their views. If anything, it only suggests that a conversation with that person would be beneficial.

Kamau Bell interviewed Richard Spencer in 2017 for CNN. During the interview, Bell had a civil conversation, and was often smiling. Does it make any sense to claim that this black CNN reporter has white nationalist sympathies? Or that anyone at CNN holds a favorable view of Spencer?

Even if two people have a happy conversation about one topic they both agree on, this does not mean they condone the other’s opinion on all issues. When we reference Einstein’s contributions to science, we do not validate his positive view of socialism. We cannot say that enjoying the Strange Planet comics is a statement against abortion.

If it’s impossible to listen to opposing views without endorsing them, one will never be able to understand them. Reading National Review, Huffington Post, and Being Libertarian all in one day is not an ideological contradiction. Neither is interviewing a conservative, a libertarian, and a progressive on the same podcast.

To attack someone for minor associations with people that hold unsavory views only exposes one’s own lack of knowledge. How can someone claim to be knowledgeable of a subject if they view exposure to that subject as immoral?

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Nathan A. Kreider is the host of The Conversation, a podcast about ideas and how to spread them. He also publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]

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