Not really a reductio

Glenn Greenwald thinks people have been misrepresenting the arguments of Francine Prose and Deborah Eisenberg.

To defend the award to Charlie Hebdo, PEN officials argued that the award did not constitute an endorsement of the content of the cartoonists’ speech, but rather, only a recognition that they were courageous in expressing themselves. The principle articulated by PEN was clear: a person is deserving of this award if they continue to express their views even in the face of credible threats of violence, and especially if they pay for their right to free expression with their lives.

The objecting PEN writers believe this principle to be invalid and contrived. To prove that point, they offered a hypothetical example that was classic reductio ad absurdum: suppose a KKK leader continued to publish white supremacist filth in the face of credible threats of violence, and was killed for doing so: of course PEN would not bestow the KKK with a courage award, and almost nobody would be comfortable if they had.

And that far, I agree with the objecting writers. I think PEN put it too strongly when it said that. (Maybe PEN would say yes, a murdered KKK propagandist would be eligible for a courage award from PEN; in that case I would disagree with PEN.) But I don’t consider it a reductio ad absurdum but just an illustration of how the claim says too much. It’s not absurd enough to be a reductio ad absurdum. I think it’s just a competing example; I don’t know if there’s a technical word for that.

Their point was that the award is not merely about courage, but is clearly linked to a positive assessment of the content of Charlie Hebdo cartoons, as proven by the fact that PEN would never give the award to someone, such as a KKK leader, who expresses heinous views. And since these PEN writers don’t view the content of the cartoons as worthy of admiration, they oppose the award. They believe Charlie Hebdo should have full free speech rights, but not be admired for the content of their speech: the most basic distinction when it comes to free speech advocacy. That’s all there is to it.

Yes, but that’s not all that such examples can do. They can also poison the well. They can manipulate people who hear and see them. They can re-frame the discussion. The Nazis or the KKK can be a competing example but also a comparison, at least implicitly.

In her original letter kicking off the controversy, Deborah Eisenberg raised the examples of racist fraternities and Nazi propagandists who express widely reviled views that provoke recrimination and threats, and asked: “Is there not a difference — a critical difference — between staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable and enthusiastically awarding such expression?”

See there? Is that a reductio, or a comparison? It looks to me like more of the latter than the former. I think she’s saying Charlie Hebdo is bad in the same way that racist fraternities and Nazi propagandists are bad. I don’t think it’s at all clear that she considers the racist fraternities and Nazi propagandists obviously far more awful than Charlie; I think she’s saying they’re all much of a muchness.

Another objecting PEN writer, Francine Prose, wrote an incredibly clear op-ed in the Guardian this morning making clear exactly what her objections are (and are not), and similarly wrote:

I believe that Charlie Hebdo has every right to publish whatever they wish.

But that is not the same as feeling that Charlie Hebdo deserves an award. As a friend wrote me: the First Amendment guarantees the right of the neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, but we don’t give them an award. The bestowing of an award suggests to me a certain respect and admiration for the work that has been done, and for the value of that work and though I admire the courage with which Charlie Hebdo has insisted on its right to provoke and challenge the doctrinaire, I don’t feel that their work has the importance – the necessity – that would deserve such an honor.

Same thing, although less coherent – she seems to have thought that Charlie’s badness wasn’t obvious enough in comparison to neo-Nazis and so it was necessary to add badness + lack of necessity to make a big enough sum. But that’s not clearly because she wasn’t trying to say they were both much the same kind of thing.

Greenwald then gets indignant with Padraig Reidy for taking what Prose wrote at face value. Hmph. I don’t think Padraig is the one making an error here.


  1. psychomath says

    You’re reading more into the statements than is there. The whole point of the reductio ad absurdum is to use an extreme example to illustrate the wrongness of a thesis, as is explained perfectly well in Greenwald’s article and which you seem to accept. You even admit that they proved their point that the content of the speech was relevant to the decision to make the award. Yet, you still want to able to accuse them of equating Hebdo and the KKK, so you just say that you see it there anyway. Your thinking is biased, and you’re obviously unable to see beyond those biases.

  2. Lady Mondegreen says

    Is that a reductio, or a comparison? It looks to me like more of the latter than the former. I think she’s saying Charlie Hebdo is bad in the same way that racist fraternities and Nazi propagandists are bad.

    It is a comparison. I left a comment on “All the Nays” about Eisenberg–I think I should cross-post it here. So I will.

    Good lord. I just read (on Wikipedia) selections from Eisenberg’s exchange with Suzanne Nossel. They’re appalling.

    [The Charlie Hebdo journalists and cartoonists]…expended their courage, and ten of them lost their lives, in what was essentially a parochial, irrelevant, misconceived, misdirected, relatively trivial, and more or less obsolete campaign against clericalism.

    As Eisenberg put it in her original letter, the Charlie Hebdo award appears to be “an opportunistic exploitation of the horrible murders in Paris to justify and glorify offensive material expressing anti-Islamic and nationalistic sentiments already widely shared in the Western world.”

    Taking a stand based on such staggering ignorance is immoral.

  3. John Morales says


    (Maybe PEN would say yes, a murdered KKK propagandist would be eligible for a courage award from PEN; in that case I would disagree with PEN.)

    Why? I can’t see how it would be less courageous, ceteris paribus.

    See there? Is that a reductio, or a comparison? It looks to me like more of the latter than the former.

    Depends, as noted above. If one considers it would be absurd to award a courage award to a KKK advocate given a comparable risk factor to that faced by Charlie’s contributors, then yes; otherwise, no.

  4. says

    And then Prose, a few days later, made the comparison explicit to Katha Pollitt:

    She compared the magazine’s Muslim caricatures to Goebbels’s anti-Semitic propaganda. “I don’t see a difference, really. It’s the same big noses and thick lips.”

  5. says

    John Morales, for the reasons I’ve given several times over the past few days. For essentially the same reasons as the ones the Six and the 150 are talking about, except that they’re wrong on the facts. I don’t think they’re wrong to say that the content also matters, even in an award for courage. I do think they’re wrong 1. in their idea of Charlie’s content and 2. in where they draw the line.

  6. resident_alien says

    Is that the same Glenn Greenwald who has been spouting entirely evidence-free* assertions that Julian Assange is a persecuted victim of a conspiracy involving ( deep breath) the CIA, the US government, the Swedish government, the Swedish justice system, the Swedish police, the British government, the British justice system, two Swedish women Assange randomly and voluntarily , uh, associated himself with and a partidge in a pear tree, rather than an entitled, chauvinistic jerk who has been proven to lie and to exploit people when it suits his convenience? That Glenn Greenwald?
    Well, I sure trust HIS judgement….

    *= oh, you think having at some point worked with a Cuban civil rights group that has received US funding and CIA associations makes one a CIA operative? You’re cute!

  7. johnthedrunkard says

    Nazis and racist fraternities are not opposing an international movement against freedom, democracy, and the rights of women.

    That movement has made war by economic blackmail and murderous attacks against innocents.

    Is it decades of moral blindness around ‘Palestine?’ Or the fact that a Republican administration led the US into wretchedly mismanaged adventuring in the Middle East?

    Greenwald, the Six, and company seem to demonstrate an absolute, impermeable, denial about the jihadist threat. Comparable to Creationism, Flat-Earthism, anti-vaxx, or climate denial.

  8. quixote says

    Of course it’s a comparison, and an invalid one at that. The Nazis and the KKK and the frats are not attempting satire. (The “it’s just a joke” excuse has been used by frats recently, but is an obvious attempt to wriggle out of consequences after publicity. It’s not billed as a joke in real time, even if it is derision. Derision is not a joke. But I digress.) CH, on the other hand, is satirical. Not getting that difference is like lumping PG Wodehouse with Rush Limbaugh because neither gives an accurate depiction of the political system.

    So even as a comparison, it doesn’t work. It’s definitely not a reductio ad absurdum because you can only reduce to an extreme version of itself. You can’t transform it into something completely different. You could pretend it would be the same as giving Animal House an award for lampooning fraternities. Except, of course, they never suffered any consequences, aside from raking in big bucks. It’s very hard to reduce the courage necessary to face murder and carry on. Maybe that’s why the More-Tolerant-Than-Thou™ group doesn’t mention that part.

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