There has been a flurry of opinion and outrage on Twitter and some websites as Australian blogger Jennifer Wilson claimed on the weekend that she was being threatened with legal action by anti-p-rn campaigner Melinda Tankard Reist. Wilson’s post infers that Tankard Reist is threatening action because of a post that revealed her attendance at a Baptist Church, while it’s been reported in The Age that Tankard Reist “says it’s not being called Christian she objects to, but the claim that she is ‘deceptive and duplicitous about her religious beliefs'”.
There’s a few issues to look at here, and neither participant’s image is improved by the stoush. There’s a question as to how Wilson’s comments about Tankard Reist can be seen as anything but an ad-hominem attack on her character. To claim that Tankard Reist holds particular beliefs because she identifies with any particular Christian sect is a lazy argument and one potentially easily disproved.
By Wilson’s standard it could be claimed that I am hostile to gay marriage and believe that climate change science is a fraud because I self identify as Roman Catholic, although in both cases that would be completely wrong.
Wilson’s argument essentially comes down to guilt by association, which is something that we would rightly ridicule if one of our regular targets tried to use it. Trying to prove someone else’s beliefs is impossible, and using that type of assertion as a basis for your argument is unconvincing, especially when there’s plenty of verifiable statements that can be argued against instead.
An example of this is Wilson’s follow-up post where she highlighted a link between Tankard Reist and Baptist preacher Bill Muehlenberg, pointing out some of the outrageous things that Muehlenberg had said. This tells us nothing about Tankard Reist or her personal beliefs, it’s just another ad hom.
Additionally — and we’re shocked that a Twitter hashtag could be completely wrong about something — according to The Age article, Tankard Reist hasn’t at this stage actually “sued” Wilson. She has apparently sent what’s referred to as a Concerns Notice under the Defamation Act 2005 of whichever state she chose, which gives the recipient the opportunity to apologise and withdraw the offending claim before it escalates to an actual action in a court. (Sometimes there’s also a demand for compensation; we have no idea if this particular Concerns Notice included one.)
The idea is to resolve the matter without involving the courts. A hostile reaction to a Concerns Notice (particularly in public) can, unsurprisingly, itself be aggravating when, or if, a court ultimately assesses damages.
None of this should be read as an endorsement of Melinda Tankard Reist’s public stances on any particular issue, but a call to make better arguments without resorting to logical fallacies.
There is also the question of why Tankard Reist decided that a Concerns Notice would be the best way to deal with Wilson’s claims when it was fairly easy to predict the Streisand Effect would kick in. Tankard Reist isn’t short of opportunities to engage with Wilson’s arguments publicly, and dealing with it privately rather than through a legal intermediary would certainly have avoided the accusation of attempting to stifle debate. When people with a public platform resort to using the legal system against a less powerful critic it usually appears heavy handed and ends up creating sympathy for the critic, whether deserved or otherwise.
The result of all of this is that rather than debate occurring over Melinda Tankard Reist’s arguments, a sideshow is developing over an ad-hominem attack, and the unexpected reaction to it. Hands up who feels better informed?