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Guilt By Association

Political discourse seems full of calls for one side to denounce its extremists. Liberals are told they must condemn Dennis Kucinich's "these soldiers died for Haliburton" ad, Muslims are told they must denounce al-Qaida, and George Bush is taken to task for not criticizing the religious far right. Two functions spring to mind that these calls serve.

First, they serve to define the boundaries of legitimate discourse. The other side is asked to agree that certain ideas or expressions are beyond the pale. This may be a deliberate attempt to define certain ideas off the table. Or it may represent shock at the transgression of previously existing boundaries. There's a sense in which ideas that cannot be grappled with through the form of rationality one understands are psychologically disturbing. One way to deal with such an idea is to rule it irrational, a ruling best confirmed by those whose rationality puts them closest to the dangerous idea.

These calls for denunciation of extremists often do not elicit sufficient compliance, but this failure serves a function as well. It allows people on the other side to be treated as if they too were irrational, since they failed to disassociate themselves with an irrational idea. Again, there is a cynical implementation in which failed calls for denunciation are used to legitimize what would otherwise be straw-man arguments. There's also a psychological implementation. There's a bit of doublethink required in holding both that your views are fully supported by reason, and that reasonable people can disagree within certain boundaries. It's useful to be able to rest more securely on the former premise by seeing irrationality on the part of one's opponents undermine the latter. This function also serves as a sort of threat in order to gain compliance in the boundary-setting function -- if you don't denounce them, I'll treat you as if you're as bad as them.


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