Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, recently appeared on ABC’s “This Week“ to defend her organization from charges that it is involved in commodifying body parts taken from aborted fetuses. In her interview, Richards seemed to be playing a game whose only discernible objective was to see how many times she could say “militant,” “highly edited,” and “extremists.” Credit where credit is due: she was really good at that game.
Richards’ agenda was obvious: tar the Center for Medical Progress, which produced the undercover videos revealing Planned Parenthood’s fetal-part-trafficking, as a group of radicals, which effectively makes them less relatable and gives the impression that they are dangerous crusaders.
As PR strategies go, it was one of the only maneuvers available to an organization so comprehensively outclassed by its ideological opponents. The claim that the journalists releasing the videos are extremists lacks any semblance of substance, of course, but it is understandable that Richards used it.
Then, Richards went off the deep end. She associated the center with those who have blown up buildings and murdered abortionists. Yes, because a team of journalists constructing an investigative ruse in order to raise awareness of the evils of abortion is tantamount to murder. Capturing video footage covertly is ethically indistinguishable from committing arson—didn’t you know?
Calling People Extremists Is a Smear Tactic
Let me put Richards’ preposterous smear aside and focus on the broader strategy of calling opponents extremists and radicals. In fairness, Richards is hardly the only one to deploy it. I want to consider some instances in which members of the media use those labels to describe their opponents. In many ways, the examples represent even more egregious behavior, since we accept the fundamental deceptiveness of public-relations campaigns yet hold journalists to a higher standard.
These selections are from writers not typically given over to sensationalism. It would be easy to multiply examples of undisciplined click-baiters adopting this strategy. But if we see this happening with writers who are typically measured and poised, if the Left’s more careful writers find it irresistible to assign the labels without any real warrant, there might be a real problem here.
Take The New Yorker’s John Cassidy, who wrote the following in a Marco Rubio profile piece from earlier this year: “Although Rubio was elected to the Senate in 2010 as part of the Tea Party wave, and although he still espouses extreme views on issues like climate change (he’s a skeptic) and same-sex marriage (he opposes it), many people in the conservative movement don’t view him as a true believer.”
Really? Being a climate change “skeptic”—a charge that is culpably vague on Cassidy’s part since skepticism can take significantly different forms—is an “extreme view”? Opposing same-sex marriage is an “extreme view”?
Climate-Change Skepticism Isn’t Extreme
Let’s take the climate-change charge first. It takes a bit of effort to figure out exactly where Americans stand on climate change, because there are different forms of skepticism and different degrees of concern. Saying of Rubio, “he’s a skeptic,” and construing his as an “extreme view” ignores the complexity inherent to the climate-change debate.
This is the allure of “extreme”—it provides an intellectual shortcut that misses much that is important along the way. Instead of the writer carefully delineating a public figure’s position, taking into account important distinctions and supplying the necessary qualifications, the label’s rhetorical force is relied upon for its persuasive power.
Let’s consider two forms of climate-change skepticism. Some are skeptical that the effects of climate change will be as catastrophic as many claim. This is a probabilistic skepticism, a skepticism about the plausibility of the projections. Others are skeptical about the existence of anthropogenic climate change in the first place. This is a substantive skepticism, a skepticism about the science.
To further complicate matters, simple “accept/deny” questions will be misleading, given that Americans exhibit varying degrees of outrage toward contemporary moral problems. If combating climate change is tenth on your list of priorities, that should differentiate you from those who put it first. For this reason, special polling is done on this question.
One poll, not even a year old, asks Americans to rank the relative importance of climate-change policy. Is it, for example, more important than finding a way to neutralize ISIS? Climate-change policy fares less well on these questionnaires. This is highly significant. If we simply ask people to tell us whether they think climate change is a problem, and the overwhelming majority say yes, then skepticism about climate change might appear extreme. But if we ask people to tell us how important climate-change policy is, and a sizable portion indicates it’s not very important, then the skeptical position doesn’t appear so extreme. In the latter example, a climate-change skeptic would be functionally equivalent to one who accepts climate change yet does not think we should do much about it.
Marco Rubio, the Climate Moderate
A careful look at Rubio’s statements on climate change suggest a candidate who is uneasy with the question, rather than a candidate who is hardened against environmental concerns. Consider his remarks in the wake of Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si,” remarks far more tempered than those coming from his Republican rivals for the presidency: “I have no problem with what the pope did. He is a moral authority and as a moral authority is reminding us of our obligation to be good caretakers of the planet. I’m a political leader and my job as a policymaker is to act in the common good. And I do believe it’s in the common good to protect our environment, but I also believe it’s in the common good to protect our economy.”
If my suggestion that Rubio is not a climate-change extremist seems off, run a little test. Take all of his statements on climate change and try to figure out if he falls into either one of these camps: is he (a) a hardened denier of anthropogenic climate change or (b) ideologically, politically, and economically opposed to using the machinery of government to address climate-change concerns?
If we cannot conclude definitively which of these best characterizes Rubio, that is a major knowledge gap to account for. But one would not be informed of any of this by reading Cassidy; he doesn’t consider these distinctions. The problem is that simply labeling Rubio as extreme skips one ahead to judgment without doing the work that is necessary to arrive at it.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s possible to tell at this point which camp Rubio falls into. Rubio shares some of the blame for this, of course, since Republican candidates are notoriously cagey on climate change. The reality, though, is that if we aggregate Americans who take the A position, above, with Americans who take the B position, we have something close to 50 percent of American opinion on this matter. In other words, Rubio falls within the “skepticism-to-indifference” continuum that half of America can be lumped into. According to Gallup, only 40 percent are “concerned believers.”
Judge Before Seeing the Evidence, Please
So, then, how do we make sense of Cassidy’s usage of “extreme” here? It’s possible that Cassidy is relativizing it to expert opinion, rather than to Americans at large. In other words, it’s possible that Cassidy means to say that Rubio’s position is extreme in light of what most climatologists believe, not that it’s extreme in light of what most Americans believe. Indeed, Politifact concluded that one of Rubio’s statements on climate change contradicts 97.1 percent (the 0.1 in that number is a fantastic touch, by the way) of “climate change findings.” If Cassidy is intending to use “extreme” in this way, then he is on safer ground.
But that would be a strange application of the word, since his article is presumably referring to Rubio as a political candidate, not as a scientific popularizer. This means that it doesn’t matter what the scientists believe as it relates to political analysis, since agreeing with scientists is not politically necessary for electoral success (you may weep, but this is true). The relevant usage of “extreme,” therefore, is in relation to what the country believes, not what scientists believe.
Don’t miss the funny reasoning here: if Cassidy is issuing a claim, within the broader context of offering a political assessment, that Rubio holds an extreme view about climate change, yet half or most of America more or less agrees with Rubio, then what use is the word “extreme” here?
Opposing Same-Sex Marriage Isn’t Marginal, Either
What about same-sex marriage? Pre-Obergefell data—selected because it was the data available to Cassidy at the time of his writing—from the Pew Research Center tell us that 39 percent of Americans oppose same-sex marriage, whereas 54 percent support it. It seems quite a bit of a stretch, then, to conclude that a position taken by two in five Americans is an extreme one, unless “extreme” is being used as a moral, rather than a sociological, category.
So, again, Cassidy might be using “extreme” relative to what he and other liberal Americans believe concerning the morality of same-sex marriage. Taken this way, yes, Rubio’s position is “extreme,” but, as I noted above, this isn’t politically significant. If both of Cassidy’s statements are disguised ways of saying “Rubio’s beliefs about climate change are extreme relative to what climatologists believe” and “Rubio’s beliefs about same sex marriage are extreme relative to what liberal Americans believe,” then the article is not political or electoral analysis, which is what it presents itself to be. It’s something more in the genre of philosophical criticism of conservatism.
That’s fine, of course, if that’s what Cassidy wants to put out, but isn’t his article pitched to us as a political assessment of Rubio? Isn’t he assessing Rubio as a political candidate? Readers see “extreme” affixed to Rubio, which creates the impression that his views are not in step with the rest of the country. But this is false. They’re just not in step with what many scientists and what many liberals believe. So Cassidy’s decision to use “extreme” here has confused rather than illuminated.
If You’re Religious, You’re a Fanatic
Consider also Glenn Greenwald’s column from earlier this year, invitingly titled “Religious Fanaticism is a Huge Factor in Americans’ Support for Israel.” Greenwald, who is rightly respected for having done lots of good work on other topics, seems to be promising the reader quite a lot. The religious-based reasons for support of Israel are declared “fanatical.” We should expect him to support this characterization, right?
Except that’s not what we get in the article. Greenwald does make the case that American support for Israel is fundamentally theological. But he doesn’t go any distance toward showing that this theologically-based support is fanatical, or extreme, or radical.
Notice how he puts it: “The U.S. media loves to mock adversary nations, especially Muslim ones, for being driven by religious extremism, but that is undeniably a major factor, arguably the most significant one, in explaining fervent support for Israel among the American populace.”
But where is the argument that this “fervent support” constitutes “religious extremism”? Since “extreme” is a relational term, requiring a frame of reference for intelligibility, what is functioning as the reference frame? Is it Greenwald’s own views? But why should we accept Greenwald’s own beliefs on religion as our frame of reference? In other words, Greenwald wants us to accept his claim that religious extremism is behind American support for Israel, but if “extremism” just means “strongly deviates from Glenn Greenwald’s views,” we can legitimately ask, “Why should we accept Glenn Greenwald’s views?” What reason does he offer? None that I can see.
Again we see the failure of using “extreme,” “radical,” and “fanatical,” as terms of substance. Since they are so rhetorically effective, using them seems to disarm the critical powers of the writer and lull him or her into foregoing any penetrating analysis all together.
You’re Radical If You Disagree with Me
More from Greenwald: “The primary reason evangelical Christians in the U.S. are so devoted to Israel is simple: their radical religious dogma teaches them that God demands this.” Evangelicalism represents a fairly large camp. Does Greenwald make any effort to convey the varieties of evangelicalism to his readers, aside from a passing comment about “dispensationalism” later in the article? Much of Reformed evangelicalism, for example, sees no special eschatological place for Israel moving forward. So his application of “evangelical” as some sort of monolithic category is sloppy journalism.
Moreover, in what way is Greenwald claiming that devotion to Israel stems from a “radical” religious dogma? Is he analyzing the dogma himself and concluding that it is theologically deficient? What’s his frame of reference? Again, it seems to just be his own views. This all seems to rely on his own appraisal of evangelicalism—since he personally finds the views so strange or wrongheaded, they must be radical.
Using “radical,” “extreme,” or “fanatical” is not per se illegitimate, yet doing so tends to discourage analytical rigor given the persuasive power such words naturally pack. By using these words, writers must feel as though that is all they need to adequately characterize a view, but this is a mistake. The words are not self-evident, since their application is often idiosyncratic, reflecting a baseline of the writer’s own choosing rather than an agreed-upon standard.
Richards is just the latest to employ this strategy. We should reject it as an obvious ploy to smear her opponents. If this tactic fails even journalists whose work tends to be intellectually serious, it is one that we should extremely, radically, and fanatically beware.