How to Think Critically About the Al Franken Accusations

Today’s lesson in how to think rationally and with intellectual consistency: A whole lot of people on my Facebook timeline are making arguments and sharing memes making arguments about the allegation against Al Franken that they would never accept if made in defense of someone they didn’t like politically. Like this one:

Franken1

The claim is that since she went to a dinner three years after it happened where Franken was honored, she clearly wasn’t bothered by what he did to her. If that argument was made in response to an allegation against a Republican, I’m willing to bet that nearly every single person sharing it would reject it out of hand. They would point out that it’s quite common for a woman to continue to have future interactions with a man who sexually harassed her in some way, to keep working for them, to keep seeing them socially, even to pretend that it was not a big deal at all. And they’d point out the many reasons why that is true and how it doesn’t in any way mean that the harassment was not real. But that same argument, made in defense of someone they like politically, is suddenly terribly compelling to them and definitive evidence against his accuser.

Or this one:

Franken2

The claim is that because she engaged in joking sexual contact with someone else during that same USO tour, she must have been okay with doing it with Franken. If that were made in response to the same allegation against a Republican, those same people would no doubt point out that it proves nothing whatsoever. It’s just one picture, and if the two of them agreed that she would do that on stage, there’s nothing remotely wrong with it. The fact that she engaged in something similar with one person that she objected to with another could not be more irrelevant. In fact, not only would the same people sharing that image reject the argument, they would almost certainly be outraged that anyone would make such an argument. They would point out, quite rightly, that just because someone consents to some sexual contact with person A does not mean she therefore must have consented to the same thing with person B, and that any argument to that end was nothing more than rape apologetics. But again, because it’s offered in defense of someone they like politically, the same argument they would reject as both illogical and morally appalling is suddenly compelling evidence.

I’m also seeing a whole lot of people saying “I heard that…” or “I read somewhere that…” and then follow that with a false claim, like the claim that the photographer who took the picture of Franken pretending to grab her breasts while she was sleeping said that she was pretending to be asleep and it was all staged. That claim is false. It came from an anonymous twitter account that has a history of making false claims. But “I heard that” or “I read somewhere that” and that’s enough for a whole lot of people to accept it uncritically without even bothering to check it out. That’s called confirmation bias — we immediately accept what we want to be true on the flimsiest of pretenses but demand absolute, undeniable proof of any claim we don’t want to be true.

And then there are all the “she’s a conservative” and “she’s been on Hannity’s show” arguments. When Roy Moore’s defenders claim that his accusers are all liberals, we point and laugh at them. We point out, again quite rightly, that whatever political beliefs they may or may not have are not relevant to the question of whether what they are saying is true or not. We also rightly argue that attacking the motives of a woman who accuses a man of wrongdoing is one big reason why women don’t feel like they can come forward, which is what helps maintain the conspiracy of silence about abusive men in positions of power. But again, we make the same arguments when they benefit our tribe.

Look, I know it’s difficult to be rationally consistent. Tribalism undermines our ability to do that in a great many ways. It’s a part of human nature, part of how our brains evolved, probably because tribalism had a real adaptive advantage in earlier times. It’s not easy to overcome it and none of us ever does so completely. That’s why I say “we” when I write about this stuff so much. I do it too, as hard as I try not to. But we can’t just accept that. We are constantly telling the world that what makes us better than our opponents is that we value critical thinking and we follow logic and evidence even if we don’t like where it leads. That means we are obliged to put in the effort to actually do that. And it does take effort. It takes constant self-questioning: Would I accept this claim or argument if it were made by someone I consider an opponent, or a member of the other tribe? If not, I have a rational and ethical duty to be consistent. It’s a constant struggle, but it’s a struggle that is worth doing. It’s the only way we will ever put our stated value for rationality into practice. We must resist our natural tendencies. All of us, me included.

And please, do not leave comments offering other arguments that you think show that his accuser isn’t credible. Those responses would be totally irrelevant. This post is not about whether the accusations are true, it’s about Franken’s defenders accepting or advancing arguments that they would reject out of hand, and even be angry about, if offered i defense of someone they didn’t like. And it’s about the psychological tendencies that lead us to do that and why we have to fight against them.

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