Yesterday it was revealed that Bernie Sanders (a nobody socialist running for President) published a weird piece in 1972 in which he spoke of men’s fantasies about abusing women, and women’s supposed fantasies about being raped.
More interesting than Sanders’s bizarre writing is the reaction in conservative circles, namely: whether we should try to make a huge thing out of this as a tool to punish leftists for their wrongdoings? This is simply a variant of the evergreen “should we use their tactics against them?” question. If I were to run a poll asking “Should we use leftists’ tactics against them?” I am guessing the “yes” tally would run upward of 90%, so let’s turn the microphone over to Charles C.W. Cooke for a contrary view:
A society in which people are drummed out of politics for words they wrote 43 years ago is an ugly society indeed. Sometimes the best way to address hypocrisy is to take the high road. This is America: land of second chances. This is a place of redemption and of reinvention and of continual learning. Nobody honestly believes that Bernie Sanders is a sexual pervert or that he is a misogynist or that he intends to do women any harm. Nobody suspects that he harbors a secret desire to pass intrusive legislation or to cut gang rapists a break. Really, there is only one reason that anyone would make hay of this story, and that is to damage the man politically. Perhaps I’m old-fashioned. Perhaps I’m hopelessly idealistic. But until I see any sign of actual wrongdoing I’d much prefer to slam Sanders for his dangerous and ridiculous politics than to delve back into his past and embarrass him with a long-forgotten opinion. I certainly hope that my fellow conservatives will feel the same way, even if they do not enjoy the same courtesy from their adversaries.
In the other corner we have Ace articulating the more traditional “punch back twice as hard” position:
Charles C.W. Cooke says that we should not unduly persecute Bernie Sanders for his sexual heresies, so you have some idea of the perverted antiques roadshow Cooke has going on in his bedroom.
You know how it is with British men. The bizzare seeds planted in boarding school sprout wicked fruit throughout their lives.
Cooke is arguing for what he conceives of as free speech absolutism — one does not demagogue speech to whip up feeding frenzies of angry lynch mobbers about something merely said.
I agree with this, naturally, except that I don’t. As a tactical matter, there is no way to get the left to stop with its incessant Censorship Crusades except to visit equal pain upon them.
Ace goes on to describe the well-known experiments in which two people face off and can be honest or cheat. Instantly punishing the cheater by cheating — “tit for tat” — is the most effective system for preventing cheating.
My (I suspect very unpopular) instinct lies with Cooke — mainly because Ace’s argument seems to be, not that Sanders’s speech is actually objectionable, but that we should pretend it is, to punish the other side.
Rather than hyperfocusing on this one specific incident, though, I thought it might be interesting to discuss the broad outlines of when it is appropriate to “use the other side’s tactics against them.” I’m going to suggest that it’s a fact-specific question. While I can’t resolve it in one blog post with clear, understandable rules on which everyone will agree, hopefully I can articulate a couple of reasons to be wary about falling for the trap of using this principle as a justification for bad behavior.
Let me begin by stating that there are obviously times when it’s right to treat a person worse because of his own behavior. For example, take a hypothetical criminal — we’ll call him “Brett Kimberlin.” If Kimberlin sets off several bombs and maims someone in the process, it is right for duly authorized officials to lock Brett Kimberlin in a cage for a long time, assuming proper legal procedures have been followed. Whereas it is not right for someone to randomly lock an innocent person in a cage for years. In this example, Kimberlin’s own behavior affects how he should be treated.
To take a more mundane example, it would be fabulous behavior on my part if I could take the time to respectfully reply at length to the argument of every commenter, no matter how rude they are. But if someone comes on this blog and says “PATTERICO IS A RACIST!!!!1!!eleventy!1” I am not likely to be inclined to patiently spend a lot of time refuting them and presenting counterarguments. I’ll just mock and ban them. Again, their behavior has affected how I treat them, and properly so.
In other words, deciding that you are going to engage in your own standards of conduct, and not let others dictate your behavior for you, does not mean that you must allow bad behavior to go unpunished, or that you cannot engage in self-defense or reasonable, measured defense of others.
But there are times when I think most people would agree that it’s not necessarily justified to do to the other guy what he did to you. For example, when the Crips shoot a Blood, the Crips are often upset that the Bloods previously shot a Crip. When the Bloods shoot a Crip, they are often upset that the Crips previously shot a Blood. Most people are not inclined to justify such shootings as “punching back twice as hard.”
Having defined cases on each side which are obvious, but remembering that this is a blog and 1) your attention span is limited and 2) I have to get to work, let me say that I can’t solve all the harder cases in between. So let me finish by pointing out a couple of problems that don’t invalidate the “use their tactics against them” principle in every case — but are reasons that you should be wary of relying on that principle too easily.
First: people love to use the “use their tactics against them” principle to justify bad behavior that feels good. It’s fun to jump up and down and point at the personal foibles of the guy on the other side, and if you can justify by saying “this is what they do!” then you can engage in all kinds of nasty behavior and claim you have a clear conscience. But everybody does this. “The left” says they do it to you because you did it to them. Every bad guy in history has some paper-thin rationalization for why he did horrible things, and it always has to do with getting back at the other guy for what he did first. “He did it first!” is not generally a convincing argument for what you know is bad behavior.
Second: too often, the “use their tactics against them” principle is applied to other members of a group, with the group being more and more generally defined. Crips may not shoot the Blood who shot the Crip last week. They’ll just pick any Blood, or maybe even a random innocent person in Blood territory, and justify it by saying, hey, they’re a Blood. In politics, both sides simply slap a label on a group (“the left” or “the right”) and use that to justify using nasty tactics to make a member of that group miserable, whether that person personally merits it or not.
Did Bernie Sanders make a big deal out of, say, Todd Akin’s “real rape” statements? If so, give him hell. But nobody’s really asking the question. It’s good enough that “the left” did it — so let’s punish “the left” by blowing up the Sanders story.
Getting back to Sanders: if there are people who made a huge issue of odd Republican statements about sex/rape in the past, ask those people how they feel about Bernie Sanders. Watch them squirm. I’m good with that.
But be careful. Don’t engage in tactics that you know are wrong simply because someone else did it first. And make sure that anyone you punish truly personally deserves it.
You set your own standards of morality. Don’t let the other side set them for you.