This is part three in a series on bad arguments in the Canadian public sphere. The aim of this series is to take a closer look at the soft-serve reasoning employed by public leaders in order to see how they are unconvincing and even harmful to open discourse. Get caught up with part one concerning topic laundering and part two on reductio-ad-villainum.
The present piece is about ‘carrying a concealed motive.’
Carrying a concealed motive: this species of bad argument hides the goals it wishes to achieve and presents other insincere objectives that are more palatable to the public. It consists of the refusal to be forthcoming about the intentions behind an argument, as though that were immaterial to the debate.
Canadians as a whole frequently have difficulty admitting that they want something – we keep our eyes on the last honey-cruller at the office party and when it’s offered to us we say ‘Oh no, you go ahead and have it’ and a little bit of us dies as the last glazed morsel irrevocably vanishes. In political debate, however, it’s necessary to be clear about what we want in a piece of legislation and how we stand to gain by its passage.
In politics every decision has some motivation behind it – seeking some benefit or avoiding some detriment. The intention behind a proposal is a genuine and important ground on which to evaluate it. A politician might put forward a well thought out piece of legislation but if it involves a conflict of interest it can and should be struck down. Indeed the ‘conflict of interest’ is one of the most heinous forms of scandal because it involves a betrayal of the public trust. It is crucial to an open and democratic society that the public is aware to what ends its leaders are arguing.
Consider the Ethical Oil Institute, a not-for-profit registered by Ezra Levant with Calgary lawyer Thomas Ross. The Ethical Oil Institute runs advertisements about Iran’s human rights record in the hopes of gaining political support for tar sands projects in Alberta where human rights are supposedly respected.
Ezra Levant is a private citizen, free (within reason) to pursue his own chosen ends and to express himself.
He is also someone who has been successfully sued for libel several times and is currently under investigation for hate crimes after his racist comments concerning Romani immigrants to Canada. Whatever Ezra Levant’s and the Ethical Oil Institute's reasons are for promoting tar sands ventures (I assume financial gain and political influence), we can be quite certain that they have little to do with championing human rights.
Carrying a concealed motive ultimately consists of just saying something in order to get what you want. The motive-concealer has already decided on the end result, they just have to pick the most sympathetic reason to get people go along with it.
Carrying a concealed motive invariably involves a form of hypocrisy. It is not a crime to be a hypocrite but we would do well to not take what hypocrites say very seriously, not without first investigating what they get out of arguing a certain point and what they stand to gain if they get their way.
Hiding one’s motivations is a form of dishonesty that is inimical to open debate. What holds an open discourse together, what makes it productive, is the sincerity of its participants.
When private citizens try to influence us and our leaders while concealing their motives, we cannot fire them from their lobbying jobs or bring them before a tribunal. But we do not have to be convinced by them – we can make their advertisement spending and their rhetoric pointless by seeing through them.
We need only ask: what do you stand to gain? Establishing a motive is a crucial step in any investigation.
In the face of political insincerity I advocate for scepticism above cynicism. A little scepticism goes a long way in promoting rationality and honesty in the public discourse.
Image Credit: Screen Shot from Ethical Oil Ad.