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The Depiction-Equals-Approval Fallacy

Does mere description of something -- like, say, homosexuality -- without condemning it constitute endorsement of it? The ConWeb seems to think so.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 3/28/2007

There's a logical fallacy running around the ConWeb -- the idea that mere depiction of a behavior without specifically criticizing it is approval of that behavior.

The reason it's a fallacy is because depiction is just that -- depiction. Depiction of the facts without issuing a judgment on them is the basis of the "objective" template of American journalism over the past half-century or so.

Where does such an idea come from? It appears to be a corruption of the idea that silence equals assent -- that if you don't criticize something, you approve of it. But that's a concept that applies mostly to parliamentary procedure and other instances in which specific silence does, in fact, allow a specific action to occur.

Conservative writer Richard Poe misused this concept in attacking Media Matters (disclosure: my employer) for pointing out the shoddy research he and David Horowitz used in their 2006 book "The Shadow Party." In his response to the Media Matters critique, Poe changed the subject, claiming that because Media Matters did not contest "21 points" that "encapsulate the major arguments and allegations made in our book," they must be true because "An ancient principle of law holds that 'Qui tacet consentiret,' or 'silence gives consent.'" Of course, that too is a fallacy; if a claim is not accused of being false, it does not mean that the claim is, therefore, true. The fact that, for instance, for years the Media Research Center promoted without challenge a misleading quote it attributed to former New York Times editor Howell Raines doesn't mean that the quote was true all that time and suddenly became misleading and false only because it was challenged. False claims are false regardless of whether their falseness has been pointed out.

The ConWeb has applied the depiction-equals-approval fallacy to specific concepts in which the ConWeb opposes certain behaviors and accuses others who don't similarly disapprove of it in their depiction of it of being in favor of that behavior. But no evidence is submitted that depiction without disapproval equals approval -- hence the fallacy.

One of the biggest users of the fallacy is WorldNetDaily, most frequently on the issue of homosexuality. For instance, a March 14 WND article by Bob Unruh claimed the school in question held "a 'gay' indoctrination seminar" and that students were "exposed to the pro-homosexual propaganda." But Unruh offers no examples of what was allegedly taught, let alone why it's "indoctrination" or even "pro-homosexual." The (unsupported) assumption appears to be that if homosexuality is discussed without an explicit condemnation of it, it is therefore "pro-homosexual." Indeed, the Concerned Women for America press release from which Unruh copied his article similarly uses the term "pro-'gay' propaganda" without explaining why it's pro-gay (or propaganda).

Another example from WND: An August 2006 article claimed that a bill in the California legislature would "allow the California superintendent of public instruction to arbitrarily withhold state funds from any district that does not adequately promote the State Department of Education's 'model policy' promoting transsexuality, bisexuality or homosexuality in its school policies" and that another bill would "spend state money promoting transsexual, bisexual and homosexual lifestyles."

In fact, there is no "promoting" involved. The "model policy" bill would amend a law on school non-discrimination programs, of which sexual orientation is one component, to permit withholding of state funding to schools who don't show demonstrated progress on the issue. The other bill would The "state money promoting transsexual, bisexual and homosexual lifestyles" bill -- language that WND copied from an "analysis" by a conservative group called the Campaign for Children and Families, which opposed the legislation -- is, in fact, for "tolerance education." Neither the article nor the CCF "analysis" offer any evidence that "tolerance" equals "promotion," despite their assertions.

The fallacy also figures notably at the Media Research Center. In a Jan. 26 NewsBusters post, Tim Graham attacked Washington Post writer David Segal because he allegedly "hailed Che Guevara chic." In fact, Segal wrote about an exhibition on the history of how the iconic image of Che became commercialized. In support of his claim, Graham linked to a February 2006 NewsBusters post he wrote attacking Segal over the article, but Graham used the post to suggest that the opinions of the people Segal quoted in his article were those of Segal himself. Graham noted that a person Segal quoted said that "[e]ven his ideological foes admire [Che]" for his "[b]ravery, fearlessness, honesty, austerity, and absolute conviction," then added: "Is there a more abusive thing liberal reporters do to conservatives than insisting 'even conservatives' admire that thug Che, or other propositions conservatives would spit out like someone put paste in their mouth?" But "liberal reporter" Segal never said that; he merely quoted someone saying it.

In all that fulminating, Graham offers no actual evidence that Segal himself is a Che follower, perhaps because there is none.

In a similar depiction-equals-approval attack on the Washington Post, an August 2006 NewsBusters item by Ken Shepherd claimed that the Post "glorifies" what he called "liberal suburban dumpster divers who call themselves 'freegans' " by writing an article about the trend. But Shepherd failed to note that the article pointed out that grocery stores throwing out the food disapprove of the practice, not least because they believe it's not fit to be eaten. The article also notes one dumpster-diver who "said he does not eat out of the dumpster because he believes privileged people should not take free food from people who need it"; he instead gives the food he finds that way to the homeless. A longer version of Shepherd's NewsBusters item on the MRC's Business & Media Institute website added that the Post "didn’t include any law enforcement officials or inform her readers of any criminal penalties a so-called 'freegan' can rack up when foraging for expired foodstuffs." Still, Shepherd offered no evidence that the lack of such information automatically means that dumpster-diving is being "glorified."

An October 2006 NewsBusters post by Shepherd looked at an scene from one of then-Virginia Democratic Senate candidate (now Senator) Jim Webb's novels in which a father greets his 4-year-old son by putting the boy's penis in his mouth. Shepherd claimed that by stating it was "not a sexual act," Webb was defending the practice, calling Webb "quick to defend arguable incest." But nowhere was Webb quoted, in fact, endorsing the practice. What Webb defended is the inclusion of that incident in his book, not the incident itself; he called it "illuminative" of the book's atmosphere, adding, "The duty of a writer is to illuminate the surroundings." Yet, in the comment thread on the post, Shepherd tried to claim otherwise:

Maybe in that culture it is not [a sexual act]. But it says something that the first thing to spring to his mind in an interview is to DEFEND it rather than say, "Yeah, it's pretty sick, but that's part of their culture." 

This, you may recall, was part of the manufactured controversy led by (and fed by Webb's opponent, George Allen) over out-of-context excerpts from Webb's novels to try to smear Webb as a pervert. Despite his false claim that Webb "defended" it, Shepherd offered no evidence that Webb's book -- or Webb himself -- endorsed or celebrated the practice he depicted.

Elsewhere at the MRC, an August 2006 article by Susan Jones followed in WND's gay-bashing footsteps, claiming that one of those California bills that sought to bar schools from "reflecting adversely" on homosexuality "indirectly requires a positive portrayal of those sexual lifestyles, conservatives complain." There's no explanation of why "not adverse" necessarily equals "positive."

As long as the ConWeb thinks it can get away with making such black-and-white interpretations, the depiction-equals-approval fallacy won't be going away anytime soon.

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