During the public comments section of the October 1 Board of Finance meeting, after I raised the issue of a potential conflict of interest of a Board of Finance member, a man later identified to me as a Republican North Haven Police Commissioner whose name is neither Joseph nor David (he asked me to remove his name so that this didn't come up when he was googled, and I felt sorry for him) rose to question my authority to make comments regarding ethics, because I falsely claim to be an attorney. The evidence he gave for this statement was an unidentified newspaper article.
I do not intend this blog entry to be a personal defense. I intend it to be instructive, to allow you to better understand personal attacks on people who are making arguments, so that you can know their true value and know how to deal with them, whether the attacks are directed toward you or toward others.
For those of you pressed for time or not interested in the details, here's a quick summary of what I say:
1. Personal attacks are a way of undermining an argument without actually making an argument yourself or even responding to the other's argument. A personal attack is effectively an admission that someone's argument is valid, and there's no honest way to counter it. A personal attack hurts, but it's the ultimate compliment.
2. Even hypocrites and other imperfect people have legitimate things to say.
3. When someone making an argument is personally attacked, someone not associated with that person should say that this is not a legitimate response. When people do this, personal attacks are no longer made.
4. Someone who attacks another's reputation should spend at least five minutes finding out if what he is saying is true. There is legitimate criticism of individuals, but only when people care about learning the facts.
First, I will make the assumption that the accusation was true.
In my municipal ethics blog on http://www.cityethics.org/, I have been writing a series about the use of logical fallacies in the context of municipal government. A logical fallacy is a statement that on its face seems like an argument, but is actually no argument at all. People who have nothing to say in response to someone else’s assertion frequently turn to logical fallacies to make it look like they have a response.
Can What an Imperfect Person Says Be True?
The first in my series on logical fallacies dealt with the most frequent type, which is the one this Police Commissioner chose: the ad hominem attack. Don’t let the Latin get to you; the concepts behind the Latin are simple.
Here is an edited version of what I wrote in my blog entry:
A common form of the ad hominem ("to the person") fallacy, or attack, is known as the tu quoque ("and you are another") fallacy. Here the speaker refers to someone’s actions (and their supposed hypocrisy) rather than their argument.
For example, recently Al Gore has been attacked for the unusually high energy usage of his home in Tennessee, his own inconvenient truth. This makes his argument about climate change look illegitimate without ever responding directly to the argument itself.
Ask yourself: does a smoker saying it is unhealthy to smoke mean that smoking may not be unhealthy? Was even Mahatma Gandhi a perfect man? Does anyone have to be perfect to be listened to? Should hypocrites be ignored? There would quickly be an end to discussion.
No, an ad hominem attack is just a way of undermining someone's argument without speaking to the argument itself. It is easier and more effective to attack the person making the argument.
What can we do when ad hominem attacks are made? The target of the attack has the most interest in responding, but is in the worst position to respond. Therefore, others should respond, and if possible, not close associates of the target.
I assure you: when unrelated people criticize ad hominem attacks, people stop using them. But this is rarely done, because most people don't recognize them when they are made, and if they do, they are afraid they'll be the target of the next attack. This is why ad hominem attacks undermine citizen participation in government, one of the reasons they are so frequently used.
Can an Honorable Person Do Something Dishonorable?
The ad hominem fallacy is also often employed in the positive sense. Officials appeal to how devoted they are to their town, how hard they and their colleagues have worked on, say, a development project. They praise their personal legitimacy in order to give legitimacy to their arguments. This is harder to respond to, because no one has been attacked, and it seems disrespectful to say anything.
This is exactly what acting Board of Finance chair Michael Peterson did. He said that the person whose potential conflict of interest I raised was "an honorable man." I responded that there is nothing dishonorable about having a conflict of interest, that there is only something dishonorable about not acknowledging a potential conflict of interest and dealing with it responsibly.
The point here is that even if I were going around telling people I am a lawyer, rather than the former lawyer I am, it would only show that I sometimes act unethically, not that my request for a discussion of a potential conflict of interest is without merit.
Making an Ad Hominem Attack Is an Admission That an Argument Is Valid
As it was, my request for a discussion led only to two ad hominem fallacies, one attack on me, and one defense of the person I was referring to. This is essentially an admission that there was a conflict of interest, and that therefore no official was going to discuss it responsibly.
And since no one came to my defense, their strategy worked. It is a strategy that has been so often used by North Haven Republicans, they knew it would work again. And it will continue to work until people understand it and speak out against it.
Why Hearsay Is Not Admissible
Now I would like to look at the validity of the accusation, and the care given to making it.
The Police Commissioner said that he learned about my unethical behavior in a newspaper. This is hearsay. He never actually heard me say that I was an attorney, and he wasn’t even told by someone else that I had presented myself as an attorney, the usual form of hearsay. He simply saw me described as one.
There is a good reason hearsay is not admissible: because it is not dependable. So many errors and misunderstandings can occur even when someone experiences something directly. Getting others involved makes those errors and misunderstandings increasingly likely.
Considering the constant little errors that appear in newspaper articles, especially weeklies, where one reporter has to write so much, no one can accuse anyone of anything based simply on what it says in such a newspaper, without any corroborating evidence.
This is especially true when the individual knows that the individual is a former attorney and frequently deals publicly with legal issues. A misunderstanding about whether I am currently a member of a bar association would hardly be surprising. But it would certainly not say anything about whether I was misrepresenting myself.
How Easily the Police Commissioner Could Have Checked Me Out
In this day and age, it is easy to corroborate such information. One way is to go on-line and see how I present myself. In less than five minutes, the Police Commissioner (by googling the way he apparently googles himself) would have found that I only once present myself in my North Haven Info blog even as a former lawyer. He would have found that in my Profile, I don’t even mention having ever been a lawyer.
The Police Commissioner would also have discovered that in my profile on the City Ethics website (my position there is mentioned in the same newspaper article), I am referred to as a "former lawyer." These are instances where I completely control how I am presented, and I did not present myself as a lawyer.
The Police Commissioner could have googled me and found at least four instances where I am referred to as a former lawyer (including one in the New York Times), and none where I am referred to as a lawyer. Someone named Robert Wechsler (there are many of us, believe it or not) did appear in 1999 before a lawyers grievance committee in Connecticut, but that wasn’t me and, even if it was me, there’s no evidence that I appeared under false pretences.
Five minutes, and the Police Commissioner would have had reason to believe that I present myself as a former lawyer (and even rarely as that) and that the article erred in referring to me as an attorney. But he did not care enough to do this. If you attack someone’s reputation as an ethics professional, I think you owe the victim at least five minutes of effort.
It’s a Great Compliment
Nothing is a greater compliment than having one’s arguments answered by ad hominem fallacies, especially by people who know what they are doing. I realize that most people don’t understand what’s happening, which is why they are effective, but the attacker and I both know, and although my first reaction is anger at being falsely attacked, I soon calm down and realize that I’ve been complimented by someone who despises me [note: he told me he doesn't despise me, but he appeared to have no intention of apologizing to me personally or publicly), but has no legitimate response to what I say.
They are saying, effectively, "You’re right." They just can’t be honest and civil about it, because they’re only concerned with winning. If they can’t get the ball by you, they just kick you in the groin and hope no one sees. It hurts, but it’s still a great compliment.