Sunday 19 January 2014

Expressing uncertainty is not scaremongering

I wrote recently about why accusations of scaremongering by SNP supporters were illogical. Normally I don’t receive many replies on my blog, which is fine, as I don’t really have time to engage in endless debates with people who have already made up their minds. However, this time I obviously rather touched a nerve. I got a fair number of replies, even including one signed RevStu. It became clear to me that supporters of independence are pretty reliant on making accusations of scaremongering as their stock form of counter to whatever their opponents say. Without it they would rather be at a loss. No doubt it is for this reason that they defend so vigorously their right to make these claims.

Let me say that the replies I received were sensible, polite and well reasoned. I replied to a couple and then I was away for a while. On my return I thought it worth writing again on this issue. I think it is also worth mentioning before making any criticisms that, on the whole my impression of independence supporters has improved since the referendum campaign began. They often put forward well thought out arguments and their sincerity and belief in the cause of Scottish independence is obviously deep. It is this however, that I think sometimes leads them into difficulties. They care too much.

I begin to find some of the toing and froing about the various issues involved in the independence debate rather tiresome. I’m sure many of us do on both sides. The way I was trained to think is anyway more abstract than this. When I wrote about scaremongering before, I used as examples the debates regarding whether an independent Scotland would remain part of the EU and would keep the pound. These were however, merely illustrative of the logical point that to accuse your opponent of scaremongering is to assume that you are in possession of the truth and that he is lying, which in an argument is clearly circular. My opponents chose not to focus on the logic, but once more presented arguments for why Scotland would keep the pound and remain part of the EU. These arguments were well made if familiar. They amounted to the standard SNP line on these issues. As I’ve said, I find these arguments tedious and the debate futile. It rapidly descends into he said, she said, this would, that would. So instead of putting forward counter arguments, I merely said that these matters were uncertain. This is really another way of saying that it is pointless and dull to debate these things further.

I would have thought that to express uncertainty about matters which are being debated in the press about which different politicians have expressed different views would be uncontroversial. But it turns out that even to express uncertainty amounts to scaremongering. The reason for this is that according to one reply “it's the definition of scaremongering - to say things which have *absolutely no chance* of happening might happen, purely to frighten people into doing what you want.” Thus, even to doubt the SNP view about various future events turns out to be scaremongering for these events are completely certain to take place as they predict and wish. I’m not denying that my opponents puts forward some good arguments for why Scotland would keep the pound and remain in the EU in exactly the way the SNP wishes. But that does not mean that these arguments are decisive. If there were no possibility to debate further after these brilliant arguments, how is it that the debate continues? Why do UK supporters in the press and among politicians continue to express doubts about what the SNP thinks will happen in the event of independence if there is absolute certainty about these matters?

How can it be that merely expressing uncertainty about controversial issues of political debate can amount to scaremongering? The reason for this, according to my opponent, is that I am expressing uncertainty about something that is certain. But in order for me really to be scaremongering it is also necessary for me to know that this something is certain. The position of my of my opponent thus amounts to the idea that I know that his position is the correct one, but I choose to lie about it in order to scare other Scots into voting against independence. What’s more not only am I acting in bad faith, but so are large numbers of politicians and members of the press who also have been accused of scaremongering. All of us are lying, because we must know that the SNP position about the various contentious issues of debate is the true position, but choose to present it either as false or uncertain. It’s only under these circumstances that the charge of scaremongering would be legitimate, for if we genuinely believed that the SNP position were either false or uncertain, it would not be scaremongering to point this out.

To say the least this accusation of scaremongering shows an extraordinary confidence in one’s own ability to discern truth. In matters of human society it is rare indeed for someone to think he is absolutely certain. When there is political debate about the future course of events there are often real experts who genuinely disagree. For me to describe an opponent as a scaremonger in such a debate, for instance, about the future course of unemployment or inflation, would invite puzzlement in academic circles even if I was able to put forward good arguments for my point of view.

In politics there are normally a number of sides to a debate. There are usually people more intelligent than most of us on both sides of the argument. Most of us accept that reasonable people can have different opinions. When we get to the stage where someone claims that there is “absolutely no chance” that something will happen, or that he alone is in possession of truth and we are in error, it is natural to wonder if he is engaged in politics or a new sort of religion. He is beginning to show that he cares too much.  

Like most Scots I am pretty uncertain about what would happen if Scotland were to become independent. I’ve been listening to both sides of the debate and because I think the SNP has been putting forward some good arguments, I’ve thought it worthwhile to put forward some counterarguments. I believe there are matters about which Scots can sincerely disagree. I understand why SNP supporters wish to emphasise what they think would be the benefits of independence and to downplay any possible disadvantages. But if I am not even allowed to express uncertainty about certain future events about which there is controversy how can I debate at all? To accuse opponents of scaremongering is to accuse them of lying. This is not the way to bring about the respectful debate that Scotland needs.

Whenever a country becomes independent this involves great change. To believe otherwise would be to suppose that independence were some tiny thing of small consequence. But wherever there is great change there is also uncertainty. To express this simple fact is not to engage in scaremongering. There is uncertainty about what an independent Scotland would be like. All of our lives would be changed in ways that are sometimes hard to predict. The majority of us know this and the blind faith of nationalists will not put blinkers on us.