Sex and Smears: Can Character Assassination Be Good?

By: Jennifer Keohane

In a previous post, I noted that while hypocrisy surrounding gun policy has not been enough to cast doubt on the characters of our representatives in Congress, sexual impropriety often has been something serious enough to land one on top of a news cycle, if only briefly.

The tide seems to be turning.

Spurred on by high-profile allegations against A-listers like Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer and the hashtag #MeToo, sexual harassment, assault, and all kinds of impropriety committed by men against women is in the news. This has become such an important cultural moment that Time magazine named “The Silence Breakers,” the women who have spoken up against male abuse, their people of the year for 2017.

It’s not just entertainment and news that have seen women speak out against sexual harassment. In the past week alone, three men have resigned from Congress: Al Franken (D-MN), John Conyers (D-MI), and Trent Franks (R-AZ). So many powerful men have been accused of sexual impropriety in the past few months that NBC News has started keeping a list.

This is newsworthy, and I truly hope it spurs change in taking women seriously when they report sexual assault.

But what does this have to do with character assassination?

We are seeing character attacks play out in the campaign for the open Alabama Senate seat, a campaign that pits Republican Roy Moore against Democrat Doug Jones. Roy Moore, it turns out, is a stereotypical white man who has behaved badly toward women. Very young women. A group of woman have accused him of making sexual advances on them when they were teenagers and he was in his thirties. (He’s now seventy.)

Unsurprisingly, the Jones campaign is attempting to capitalize upon these accusations by portraying Moore as a predator and unfit to hold office.

In response, right-leaning bloggers, on the fringes and not, have decried the character assassination of Moore. Conrad Black, writing in the National Review, noted that “It has the trappings of a partisan hit job.”

A site called Radical Reactionary phrased things a little more strongly: “The premier presstitute of fake news, the Washington Compost has manifested their obvious political ideological bias based upon a deep seeded disdain for truth and fair play.”

Many Democrats are framing Moore’s actions as illustrations of a character unfit to hold office, whereas some Republicans are crying out against what they see as a coordinated character assassination campaign.

My question, to which I’ll readily admit that I don’t have a good answer, is this: is character assassination ever justified?

In other words, if there is a coordinated campaign against Moore, is that unfair politicking or is it just giving voters data they need to make an informed choice at the polls?

My instinct, which is not divorced from my politics, is to say that such a campaign is justified because character matters. I fundamentally believe that our elected officials should be people of strong moral fiber with a deep commitment to serving those that elect them. I believe that proven evidence of sexual advances against vulnerable and underage populations should discredit one from serving in our government.

But surely there are lines and limits. Surely there’s a point at which attacks stop providing useful information and contribute to the vitriol that characterizes American democracy these days. Where that line falls is another significant question for practitioners and researchers.

My initial suggestion is that attacks should be based in truth, an obviously and notoriously slippery concept. I find it easy to condemn character attacks that are lies, whereas ones that are based in truth may have some claim to public attention. Moreover, I would argue, following the work of rhetorician Douglas Walton, that attacks should be relevant to the matter at hand. (Determining relevance is something I’ll take up in another post, perhaps.)

Is that ethical distinction too simple? That attacks should be truthful and relevant?

Maybe. But I offer it as a beginning to the conversation about the ethics of character assassination.

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