Disagreeing with content and disagreeing with connotations

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Suppose someone writes an article entitled “rates of false sexual assault accusation on the rise”. Now, suppose you care about sexual assault victims and you’re worried about unreported sexual assaults. When you see a title like this you think “this person just wants to smear sexual assault victims” and you promptly conclude that the article is wrong or that the person writing it has malicious intentions. (This article title and content are made up: the idea is just that it’s a controversial claim that might nonetheless be well supported.)

We often have a reflexive reaction to an article like this that we don’t even notice. It starts with a reasonable-looking inference: “This article is wrong, therefore something in the article must be wrong.” You then either dismiss the article outright (“false accusation rates are not increasing”) or you try to find some claim the article makes that is false and that blocks the conclusion (“one of the key studies you appealed to here isn’t very good”) or you just point out that the authors must have immoral views (“you’re claiming we shouldn’t believe the victims of sexual assault.”)

It’s possible that the article does in fact contain an error and is incorrect, in which case it’s good that you pointed out the error. But it’s also possible that if you sat down and read the article closely, you wouldn’t actually be able to find any key claim, argument, or conclusion in the article that you truly disagree with. For example, the article on false accusation rates may contain no errors and be fairly humble in its conclusions. It may be completely accurate and fairly boring report on recent studies into, say, prosecution rates for malicious false accusations that doesn’t say anything about how we should respond to this increase. You might still feel like you disagree with the article, but you can’t actually point the author to precisely what you think they got wrong.

This leads to a really bad dynamic between authors and their critics in which the author feels unfairly maligned: they were trying to say something true and reasonable and now all these people on the internet keep misconstruing what they are saying or offering objections that seem beside the point or are claiming that the author is a bad person. The critic doesn’t change their mind and is angry at the author for saying such false things and annoyed that they don’t see how wrong they are.

What we can miss here is that the reasonable-looking inference “This article is wrong, therefore something in the article must be wrong” is not quite correct. It’s possible to agree with every claim in an article (to think that the article is technically correct in most respects) but but to think that the conclusions that many readers might draw from the article are wrong. You have a reasonable belief that an article on increased false accusation rates will be used to justify disbelieving victims, even if this was never something that the author actually endorsed or even if it’s something they went out of their way to reject. What you actually disagree with is the article’s connotations: what you think others will believe the article justifies.

I think it’s good for us to notice when we primarily disagree with the connotations of an article and not its content. We can then point out that we disagree with the conclusions people might draw from the article without misrepresenting it or its author. E.g. “This is an interesting [fictional] article that does seem to show an increase in false accusation prosecutions. Of course, it’s worth bearing in mind that the base rate of false accusations are relatively low and that this wouldn’t justify a sudden change in how much credence we place in the testimony of victims.”

An importnat worry we might have is that some authors will their article because they want people to draw the conclusion that it doesn’t state (“sexual assault victims shouldn’t be believed”) but they also want to avoid being criticized for supporting that conclusion. So they only state things that are technically true and let the reader draw the conclusion. That is a problem, and I think that this is why authors should try to be explicit about what they think does and doesn’t follow from the claims they are making. But this criticism can also be stated directly. We can say: “In your article you say x and many people are going to feel it’s reasonable to conclude y from this. I think that y is wrong and that it doesn’t follow from x, and that you never really did enough to rule out that inference.” This strikes me as a valid criticism but one that I don’t often see articulated.

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