All my adult life as a newspaperman I have been fighting, in defense of the Left and of a sane politics, against conspiracy theories of history, character assassination, guilt by association and demonology. I.F.Stone
A “new McCarthyism” is seen in the manner in which guilt by association has been pursued by the likes of Glenn Beck and “mainstream” GOP leadership (if there is such a thing). Katrina vanden Heuvel, The Nation
In the United States of America, we don’t practice guilt by association. And let’s remember that just as violence and extremism are not unique to any one faith, the responsibility to oppose ignorance and violence rests with us all. Jeremy Ben Ami, President, JStreet
The tenuous “evidence”—later discredited—that landed Arar in a rat-infested cell was guilt by association. And if that could happen to Arar, a successful software engineer and family man, who is safe? Naomi Klein
This is the story of a late-twentieth century invention, namely the ostensible moral and intellectual sin of accusations of “guilt by association.”
This trope, “guilt by association,” or GbA, has a curious history and a curious present. It has the following characteristics:
1) The trope user is almost invariably a self-described person of the “Left,” or, in somewhat more modern usage, a “progressive.” The target is someone perceived as, or at least designated as someone opposed to the Left, a “right-winger.”
2) The trope has a surface resemblance to accusations of established errors of reasoning — fallacies — but in fact it is the user of the trope who is illogical and irrational.
3) The accusation underlying the usage of the trope is as much moral as intellectual; the trope user combines a disdain for the ethics and morality of the target (the ostensible bad faith of so-called right-wing McCarthites, for example) with an accusation of intellectual incompetence (failure to understand elementary logic).
4) The trope enables its users, who are often devoted supporters of totalitarian and other hateful movements, to pose as moral and intellectual superiors.
We have so far discussed the relation between premises and conclusion in case of rigorous proof. But complete or conclusive evidence is not always available, and we generally have to rely on partial or incomplete evidence. Suppose the issue is whether a certain individual, Baron X, was a militarist, and the fact that most aristocrats have been militarists is offered as evidence. As a rigorous proof this is obviously inadequate. It is clearly possible for the proposition Baron X was a militarist to be false even though the proposition offered as evidence is true. But it would also be absurd to assert that the fact that most aristocrats are militarists is altogether irrelevant as evidence for Baron X having been one. Obviously one who continues to make inferences of this type (Most Xs are Y’s, Z is an X, therefore Z is a Y) will in the long run be more often right than wrong. An inference of this type, which from true premises gives us conclusions which are true in most cases, is call probable.
Those who employ the GbA trope misconstrue statements of probability to make them appear to be statements of certainty. For example, the Wikipedia article on GbA employs a Euler diagram to argue the obvious: if some B is part of C, it does not follow that all of B is C. But in the political discussions to which the GbA users address themselves, the arguments by the GbA targets are not arguments of certainty. It is not (typically) claimed that all members of a Communist front organization were dedicated Stalinists. Insofar as such arguments were at all serious, they were arguments of probability, not certainty.
The “guilt” in the GbA trope is also telling. “Guilt” is a term most frequently used in the criminal law, where the standard of proof is much higher — “beyond a reasonable doubt” — than in the everyday world of political discussion. The judgements we make in ordinary scholarship and in ordinary life rely on what seems more probable, not on what seems probably beyond a reasonable doubt. During the lifetime of the late Paul Robeson, for instance, both he and the Communist Party always insisted that he was not a Communist at all, just a very progressive person. (After he died, the CP revealed that he had been a secret Communist all along). But in his lifetime, given all the various associations of Robeson, it was reasonable to hold, by a balance of probabilities, that Robeson was a Communist, even absent proof beyond reasonable doubt.
Moreover, the trope “guilt by association” is ambiguous in its very nature. It is regularly applied to the following types of statement, among others:
1) A was once seen in a certain bar in which the notorious gangster B was also seen. Therefore A is a gangster.
2) A is a member of five groups that were dominated by the Communist Party. Therefore there is a certain probability — whether high or low needs to be established by all the other circumstances — that A is also a Communist.
It is the gravamen of GbA proponents that the truth-value of propositions 1) and 2) is exactly the same, namely nil. That is of course preposterous on its face. Pace these progressive writers and activists, associations among men are varied. Sometimes negative inferences can be drawn from them to a greater or lesser degree of probability. In some instances, as for example in those designated by the law of conspiracy, association may indeed give rise to valid findings of criminality. In other cases association may be totally harmless. Most generally, human associations are relevant without being conclusive in a great many of the judgements that we are called upon to make. The proponents of the GbA trope must know this as well as we all do; in the course of their daily lives they must know, just as the rest of us do, how to chose their spouses, their friends, their business associates, their merchants, all on the basis of some sort of “guilt by association” judgements. But when it comes to politics, these progressive GbA proponents declare that all evidence of human association is ultra vires, inadmissible for discussion in the market place of political ideas.
The origins of the GbA are not altogether clear. The usage seems to have arisen in the post-WWII era, most specifically in the nineteen fifties. The country was faced, on the one hand, with a Stalinist conspiracy, both through an elaborate network of Communist front organizations and Soviet espionage. On the other hand, there were demagogic politicians, notably Senator Joseph McCarthy, who sought to use the Soviet conspiracy for his own purposes by making exaggerated claims of Communist penetration of the US government. But there were indeed many Communists in places of influence, for example in the trade unions, who by and large attempted to rid themselves of Communist domination. The trope “guilt by association” seems to have arisen in this atmosphere as a defense mechanism by Communists and their fellow travelers. I. F. Stone, quoted above, was one of the most prominent users of the trope. The logic was always this: true, some members of the front organizations are Communists, some may even be Communist spies. But this has no relevance, no relevance whatever, to the nature of the “progressive” (read front-organization) movement. Not a few of these progressives had been students at CCNY during the tenure of Morris Raphael Cohen; their ears had obviously been deaf to his teaching.
Today, the trope seems to be used in two specific efforts by the progressives. The first is to criticize (and to misconstrue) the public’s concern over Islamist terrorism. This concern is termed “Islamophobia,” a fairly new addition to the progressive polemical armamentarium. The GbA argument runs as follows: a) it is true that some Muslims are terrorists; b) not all Muslims are terrorists; therefore, c), it is unjust, it is “guilt by association,” to be more concerned over activities of American Muslims than over those of American Christians and Jews. The fallacy of the trope, of course, is to construe the heightened concern by the public as holding that “all Muslims are terrorists.” This latter proposition is not advanced by anyone in public life who is at all serious. Were it to be encountered, it would of course be both false and malicious.
The second GbA effort concerns the overlap of self-described “leftists” and “progressives” on the one hand with the organized anti-Israel movement on the other. As I have shown in a previous posting, the progressive group JStreet contains a sizable number of aggressive opponents of Israel. Those of us who point to this association are regularly accused of using “guilt by association.” The logic, or rather the illogic of this accusation takes the same form as that of the other GbA accusations that we have seen.
I recently reported my finding that six of the nine identified top leaders of the Occupy Wall Street movement were also active in the anti-Israel movement. One reader, an ordained rabbi no less, wrote to complain that I was engaging in a “guilt-by-association” argument. I wrote back, explaining, among other things, that I made no accusation of “guilt” but I also insisted that surely, to a thinking man, there would be something of interest in this finding. “Nothing of interest at all,” replied the rabbi, “what you say is a red herring.” Red herring ? Here is another left-wing trope from the fifties. My curiosity was aroused. “Rabbi,” I wrote back, “indulge my curiosity: do you personally support the boycott movement against Israel ? ” “I will not answer this question; it has no relevance to our discussion,” replied the good rabbi. Well there you have it: an I. F. Stone of our time, bearer, unlike his predecessor, of the nice Jewish name of his birth.