How Many Offended People Does It Take to Make True Facts “Inaccurate”?

Tony Messenger, the man who canned George Will from the St. Louis Dispatch for writing an “inaccurate” column, admits there were no inaccurate facts in his opinion column, only incorrect opinions:

HH: So tell me if you would, specifically, what was offensive, and specifically, what was inaccurate?

TM: And let me be clear, and I actually wrote an email to Mr. Will’s secretary today explaining the same question. He had a question about the inaccuracy. We weren’t referring necessarily to a factual inaccuracy, but we believed that the very assumption or opinion that sexual assault victims in any way on college campuses are seeking privileged status, or that universities are trying to bestow that status on women, is completely inaccurate, and don’t believe that the evidence shows that that is to be true. And mostly, it’s offensive. It allows, it continues for the victimization of women and diminishes the importance that we should place on the very serious prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses.

HH: Did you, so you are agreeing there is no place where a factual inaccuracy exists in Mr. Will’s column?

TM: To the best of my knowledge, no, there is not, and we did not correct one.

Mr. Messenger reflects well the spirit of Mrs. Clinton’s injunction that “We cannot let a minority of people — and that’s what it is, it is a minority of people — hold a viewpoint that terrorizes the majority of people.” 

Except Mr. Will is quite an influential columnist. And it’s not at all clear that the vocal contingent who, even if they would put it so strongly as feeling “terrorized,” represent a “majority of people.”

So my question to those who support Mr. Messenger’s claim: What number of people claiming to take offense must there be to justify his statement?  And I’m not talking about just his decision to fire Will. While I disagree with his pusillanimity, a paper’s business decisions get a wider berth than their purported justifications. Messenger chose to offer a statement supporting his decision, and that statement is objectively false.

Unless, that is, someone can explain the alchemy of how offense turns fact into “inaccuracy.”

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155 thoughts on “How Many Offended People Does It Take to Make True Facts “Inaccurate”?

  1. Out of curiosity: If an editor broke services with a columnist who used a handful of factually correct data points to make an opinion-based argument that, say, the Jews should be exterminated, or that we should revisit enslaving blacks, would you have still written this piece? Should an editor be compelled to run such a column — and continue running columns from that person in the future — on the basis that it was merely “opinion?”

    I think your argument here is based on a “value principle” that you think you believe in, but that you in fact do not.

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      • You don’t believe that a paper — or a news show, or a radio station — should be allowed to choose not hire people who write content its customers find highly offensive? Because you’re making two errors here:

        The first error is your implication that just a few people, including the editor of the Dispatch, had a problem with Will’s campus rape pieces. That’s simply not true. It has been national news for over a week precisely because a). so many people found it offensive and b). those people found it *highly* offensive.

        The second is the unspoken (but certainly implied) notion that you wouldn’t support any content provider nixing any opinion piece (or opinion writer) on the basis that it’s “just opinion.” We certainly wouldn’t do that here — I wouldn’t publish a “racial realism” piece, even if all of the pre-analysis facts in that piece were factually correct — and we pride ourselves on publishing writing from a vast spectrum of viewpoints. When Rich Lowry booted John Derbyshire, he didn’t do it because he found “factual errors” in Derbyshire’s writing. He booted him because what Derbyshire wrote was highly offensive to Lowry’s readers, and because he was worried that NRO might be associated with Derbyshire’s racist rant if he didn’t.

        If my examples above are too extreme for you to take seriously, consider this one: I bet that none of the publications/radio shows/news shows you support pay to run Dan Savage’s regular column, or have him be on the masthead. And I bet the primary reason that the content providers you like don’t do so isn’t because Dan Savage makes too many factual errors, it’s because they know that their readers will find Savage’s opinions and the way he presents them as offensive. Further, I submit that you have absolutely zero problem with them not paying Savage to be on their masthead for that reason.

        Like I said up top, this “it’s just an opinion” argument isn’t just a thing I don’t believe, in, it’s a thing *you* don’t believe in.

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      • Before whacking strawmen erected in my name, check what I actually said: “I’m not talking about just his decision to fire Will. While I disagree with [Messenger’s] pusillanimity, a paper’s business decisions get a wider berth than their purported justifications.” So no, I didn’t say the Dispatch should not “be allowed” to discriminate in its content. What I said in response to your first comment was very precise, and you ignored it: “If a paper wants to take up with a cause, then do it. Don’t hide behind a false claim of journalistic ‘accuracy.’” I demand of publications I read to take a position against racism, communism, for instance. I also would expect any self-respecting publication not to publish Savage because he’s an insufferable halfwit bully that’s never said anything capable of making anyone smarter. I award him no points and may God have mercy on his soul. No serious person can say the same about Will. In my opinion.

        I also did not imply “that just a few people, including the editor of the Dispatch, had a problem with Will’s campus rape pieces.” I only said Will is influential and thus not obviously a “minority” viewpoint, but that is not implying that the number of people who “had a problem” with him is small. Nor did I discuss the degree of offense which people took. I do find it interesting, however, that the comments here offer lengthy characterizations explaining Will’s “offensive” comments. If they are so odious, a simple quotation would do. But my question, largely unanswered in the comments, is when “taking offense” justifies calling an opinion or its supporting facts “inaccurate,” as the Dispatch irresponsibly has done.

        The comments here, yours in particular, are really quite illuminating. There is a very robust and self-laudatory “discussion” happening here about all sorts of things I didn’t say and a concerted effort to avoid the issues raised. It is a microcosm of what I imagine Will is experiencing.

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      • There is a very robust and self-laudatory “discussion” happening here about all sorts of things I didn’t say and a concerted effort to avoid the issues raised.

        Tim, I have to admit that when I read the OP, I thought I understood the issues you raised clearly enough. Given your responses in comments, tho, I don’t think I know what they are anymore. And that seems to happen pretty frequently in your posts. So maybe you could clarify it for me: what are we supposed to be talking about on this thread?

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      • I took the point of Tim’s piece to be the following: The St. Louis Dispatch fired Will for offending people. They say that they fired Will for being offensive and inaccurate, when in the latter case they cannot point to anything inaccurate he said. That something is offensive does not make it inaccurate.

        Tim believes this has been framed as: The St. Louis Dispatch wrongly fired Will for being offensive. They shouldn’t do that (or maybe shouldn’t be allowed to).

        I thought your 11:59 comment pretty much nailed a good response the argument that I read Tim as making, though it was in response to Kolohe. I think had a good response, too. As did others I am sure. Others still, though, seem to be arguing against the misframing. I think ‘s comments are kind of indicative of this.

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      • Is that the case? If so, I confess I didn’t read it that way. Or maybe I got distracted by the “how may people does it take” argument?

        Tim himself highlighted the very piece that the Dispatch (and most readers who found the column offensive) found inaccurate. Is there an argument I’m not understanding for why it is in fact accurate? Or is it just a confusing of “facts,” and |”accuracy”, and “correct?” That would explain why Tim and I are talking past one another.

        “I also did not imply “that just a few people, including the editor of the Dispatch, had a problem with Will’s campus rape pieces.”

        Then I misunderstood you point here: “So my question to those who support Mr. Messenger’s claim: What number of people claiming to take offense must there be to justify his statement?”

        I think if Will is correct about your point, I can’t figure out why you didn’t concentrate on Clinton’s comments and not the Dispatch editor, who made it pretty clear (I thought, anyway) that they number one reason was the comments being offensive. I’m a pretty big media critic when it comes to journalism, and I think I’m just struggling to see where a real transgression occurred.*

        And probably more than anything, I think this is a reading comprehension fail on my part, because I think maybe I’m still not getting your point in the OP.

        *Actually, if I’m being honest, in terms of media/journalistic criticism angle I thought the whole thing about first questioning about whether or not the Dispatch editor was a Christian was far more noteworthy (and, frankly, a little weird) than anything else in the radio interview.

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      • The problem is the Dispatch is pawning off its political position as a matter of journalistic “accuracy.” The call of the question in the OP is a reductio ad absurdum, given that no amount of offense can ever properly render inaccurate what is otherwise admittedly accurate. That is, it is a reductio for those operating under the “privilege” of classical argumentation. If “lived experience” is instead to be our touchstone, then nothing is absurd. Which is to say, everything is.

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      • I think that is indeed where you are losing me, since the part people seem to have trouble with in Will’s article does not appear to me to be “accurate.”

        For example, let’s say I note that unemployment is higher today than it was in 2000, and that Saved By The Bell: The News Class was finally cancelled in 2000, and therefore I put it to you that the the unemployment rate is connected to the Save the Bell franchise.

        I have not made one factual error, but neither was I accurate.

        This seems to me the case with Will’s campus rape column. He quotes government and academic statistics (factually correct), notes that he does not believe them and/or does not understand them (factually correct), and drawing from that makes a highly inflammatory statement about women coveting the “status” of being a rape victim (highly inaccurate, unless you are privy to data the rest of us are not).

        Maybe it’s just me, but I’m not seeing how calling that inaccurate is “political.” Or am I still missing something from your point of view?

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      • It is a confusing defense of Messenger that sets out by disagreeing with him. Messenger himself said there were no factual inaccuracies in the piece. He disagrees with the conclusion (or he says he does; he didn’t seem to have a problem in the pre-publication review and before the reports of offendedness). But as I’ve said, the conclusion is political commentary, something that cannot be reduced to “accurate” or “inaccurate.” Again, I disagree with the characterization of Will’s opinion, glibly bandied about here. (Indeed, you say “the part people seem to have trouble with in Will’s article does not appear to me to be ‘accurate,'” without identifying which “part” you’re talking about.) Will’s opinion about fomenting indignation and irresponsibly swelling reported instances of grievances among a political constituency by lowering the burden of proof against those accused of very serious crimes — in defiance of our cherished ‘innocent-until-proven-guilty’ principle — is neither accurate nor inaccurate. It is just an opinion.

        Rauch:

        The biggest threat to freedom of speech in America is not from the traditional book burners and censors. It’s from well intentioned liberals and progressives in many cases who want to protect minorities and want to protect people from being as they called it wounded by words.

        Being offended is part of how we learn. If you can’t offend people then you can’t criticize people. And if you can’t criticize people and ideas then there is absolutely no way to figure out what ideas are good and what ideas are bad.

        I’m not for offending people on purpose. But is offendedness an absolutely indispensable part of the process of developing knowledge and living together as a society? Absolutely. And is it a dangerous situation when someone can shut down the search for truth by saying, oh, that offends me? Absolutely.

        The attempt to rebrand “offendedness” as a dry journalistic concern over “accuracy” is transparently silly.

        [edited for clarity -tmk]

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      • Being offended is part of how we learn. If you can’t offend people then you can’t criticize people. And if you can’t criticize people and ideas then there is absolutely no way to figure out what ideas are good and what ideas are bad.

        What does that have to do with nonconsensual touching, or having sex with a woman after she says noe? Will’s argument was largely about treating too many things as sexual assault. Your argument might bear on his end-of-column reference to trigger warnings, but how does it bear on the issue of unwanted physical contact?

        It seems to me that you and Will want to make this an issue of political correctness, but College Carl grabbing Coed Cassie’s breasts, or pulling down her panties after she says no, are not about political correctness. They’re not about criticizing people.

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      • Perhaps the first sentence of my last comment is unfair. I do understand you are conceding, at least for the sake of the argument, that there are no factual inaccuracies, only that there is something like an inaccuracy in Will’s reasoning.

        But I do think you are straining more mightily on the “inaccuracy” argument than even Messenger did, who immediately took refuge in offendedness:

        “And mostly, it’s offensive. It allows, it continues for the victimization of women and diminishes the importance that we should place on the very serious prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses.”

        Sounds like a political stance to me.

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      • Tim,
        if that’s political, then my advocating for the use of lawyers for housing sales is political.

        Noting interests (and understanding that Police are Not Your Friend), and attempting to do something about it shouldn’t need to be a political matter.

        In my opinion, rape victims (and probable rape victims) deserve advocates that look out for their safety, not simply saying 0 rapes on campus, come hell or high water.

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      • This sounds a lot along the lines of “Well, the cops wouldn’t have arrested the defendant if he wasn’t guilty.”

        Question: Are you likewise in favor of reducing the burden of proof of allegations of criminal conduct to preponderance of the evidence in all cases?

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      • Tim,
        Have you ever called campus police to make a rape allegation go away?

        Consider that it is these people’s job to shut the victim up as efficiently as possible, to quiet anything down as best they can (No Stats No Problem!).

        And let me add that there’s a difference between the serial rapist, whom one might have the preponderance of the evidence about (you can be sure his “friends” know all about it…), and the “fucked up once” shmuck who raped someone when he was 14. By the time you’re in college, there’s plenty of women around who want sex…

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      • “The attempt to rebrand “offendedness” as a dry journalistic concern over “accuracy” is transparently silly.”

        Is this what happened?

        From where I sit, Messenger’s stated reasons for ceasing their contract with Will (both in the Dispatch one on talk radio) were threefold, and were clearly ranked in this order:

        1. Will wasn’t a popular columnist, and they were already moving to replace him with one that they presumably thought would sell more papers.

        2. In addition to that, the column in question was found to be highly offensive.

        3. In addition to that, the part of the column that is getting the most attention is inaccurate.

        Leaving aside the fact that you and I disagree that “factual” and “accurate” have identical meanings, you seem to be insisting upon Messenger making a distinct claim — that but for the “dry journalistic concern” of accuracy Will would still be a member of the Dispatch team — despite the fact that he has made it clear (at least twice, and in all the links you’ve provided) that this is not the case. Not only didn’t the Dispatch claim the decision hinge on “accuracy,” “accuracy” didn’t even rank in the top two reasons Will’s contract was severed.

        And none of this is an attempt on my part to find Messenger blameless. I think there are probably a whole lot of reasons one might critique the Dispatch’s decisions — to sever Will’s contract for the actual reasons stated, to wonder aloud why they published it in the first place, to question the wisdom of a newspaper editor pulling the machismo card and going mano-y-mano with a talk radio host, to have written an announcement in their paper that both pointed fingers at Will without once acknowledging their own part in whatever offense might have been caused.

        But I think that one you have chosen, that the Dispatch (and, I assume, liberals in general) are trying to claim that “opinion = facts” to liberals is weak, and hangs from too many precarious threads of sentence parsing, lack of self-reflection from all involved, and unspoken and unproved assumptions about your opponent. It is an argument that seems (to me, anyway) better suited for the medium from which it was lifted.

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      • “we believed that the very assumption or opinion that sexual assault victims in any way on college campuses are seeking privileged status, or that universities are trying to bestow that status on women, is completely inaccurate,”

        What part of this don’t you understand? Or don’t I understand?

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      • “note the language of prejudgment.” This point from Will’s piece is studiously ignored in all the suggestions and characterizations that he is belittling rape. The problem he attempts to draw attention to is that the data appear over-inflated, and he offers some observations and opinions on the possible causes and effects. Rape and sexual assault are terrible things, but they are not the subject of Will’s piece. The subject is how accusations of them are processed and reported.

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      • the data appear over-inflated,

        And you have either not bothered to look at, or have ignored, the explanations of his (and Mark Perry’s, whom I actually like) error in using those two numbers together.

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    • If the StL dispatch merely said “The column was offensive; we apologize for publishing it.” then that would be a plain statement that Will’s opinions were unwelcome.

      But they said “The column was offensive and inaccurate; we apologize for publishing it.” So not only an offensive opinion, but a *wrong* one. And thus a precedent that *wrong* opinions have no place in their paper.

      And before a counterargument that this is too much semantic hair splitting – If there’s one thing editors at a major daily newspaper should be good at, it’s economy of words.

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      • There is no free speech right to be published in the St. Louis Dispatch. There is a free speech right for George Will to say what he said and not risk being jailed or fined.

        If people were talking about sending George Will to prison for his column, I would be at the barricades for him.

        I have a hard time raising a flag because his column was dropped from the Saint Louis Dispatch though. And the same would be true if a paper dropped Krugman for a column they considered offensive and wrong.

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      • I said nothing about Free Speech. Where did you get that?

        I *am* saying that if a major daily gets in the habit of removing ‘wrong’ op-ed writers, that’s a fundamental alteration of their implied and sometimes explicitly stated mission statements. That may be a good business decision, but it is shift in previously held erstwhile ideals.

        And I would also say that it would be a close contest on who has written inaccurate opinions over more of their professional lives – George Will or a former speechwriter and Iraq policy advisor for George Bush

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      • K,

        If I had to argue the point about journalistic integrity (which seems like it rather misses the point of the discussion Tim wants to have – he’s more interested, it seems to me, in how the liberal media actively silences conservative voices and all that nonsense) I’d say that opinion writers are held to account insofar as their opinions about the world are based on or justified by observable facts. In this case, Will’s opinion about liberals’ infatuation with rape culture aren’t based on anything factual whatsoever, but specifically any evidence that liberal’s are actually motivated by what he attributes to them. Instead, he constructs a theory to account for liberal’s policy views, one that is radically inconsistent with reality. IF that’s not an inaccuracy, I don’t know what is. I mean, I can categorically say that his description of liberals is *wrong*, yes?

        I think you can too. :)

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      • THink of it this way: IF at the end of the article Will wrote “of course, liberals will deny that what I’m describing is the case, but that’s exactly what we’d expect them to do,” the whole game would be exposed as an unprovable conspiracy theory and he’d be relegated to whackaloon status. And rightly so.

        At least by us liberals. Which is exactly what the theory *predicts* we’d do. And so on and on and on.

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      • I think I can say that the StL Dispatch can fire Will for any reason whatsoever (anti- bowtieism, for instance), that they said they fired Will because Will wrote something offensive and inaccurate, but when the StL dispatch replaces Will with somebody that for years wrote inaccurate opinions that were partly responsible for getting a lot a people killed it undercuts their implied commitment to accuracy.

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      • I’m precluded from pointing out how it’s imperfect?

        In my opinion, that comment is an attempt to grant yourself a privileged “above the fray” position.

        Go ahead, disprove me.

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      • Take the column that get the Derb canned from National Review . (It’s easy enough to Google; I’m not going to link to it.) Is it fair to say that his opinion of blacks there is inaccurate? If so, how would you demonstrate that with facts? What factual corrections should NR have issued?

        Interesting: Here is Rich Lowry’s announcemtn of the firing. And here’s part of the first comment:

        Rich Lowry denounced Derby’s piece as “appalling” without attempting to refute a single word of it.

        Again, how would you refute it factually? And was Rich Lowry being pusillanimous to fire the Derb?

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      • “Will’s opinion about liberals’ infatuation with rape culture aren’t based on anything factual whatsoever….”

        See paragraph 5 of Will’s piece, citing the administration’s bizarre statistics (almost as specious as 77 cents) called into question by another study. Dispositive? No. But it’s an op-ed, not a white paper. Certainly renders your “aren’t based on anything factual whatsoever” inaccurate. But don’t worry, I won’t petition to have you banned. ;-)

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  2. I would say what George Will said about being a rape victim being a “coveted status” goes well beyond being an inaccurate or wrong opinion into just being wrong.

    He is creating a strawman version of liberal thought and probably without talking to many liberals because that is the purpose of strawmen.

    Just because people are talking about sexual assaults including their own stories at being the victims of sexual assault does not make it a coveted status. I’m sure that almost everyone in the world would rather talk about anything else than their own traumas. People talk about the issue and their experience to raise awareness, not to get attention. This is why the victims of discrimination and genocide and other human rights abuses talk about their experiences. “Never again” as we say about the Holocaust or at least hoping that events like the Shoah happen less frequently in the future.

    For a political party that likes to talk about being tough on crime, the rally around the flag attitude to defend George Will is rather odd. When did conservatives become such fans of criminal defense lawyers?

    There is probably a case and need for conservatism. At least to balance unrestrained welfare staters like me but you are not proving the point by defending every conservative who ends up in a story of the week by a bone-headed column. All you are doing is proving Cleek’s Law. Again.

    http://theweek.com/article/index/262956/the-sad-sorry-decline-of-george-f-will

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    • this is an excellent comment. I would just add one thing: the calculus of talking about being the victim of sexual assault is fraught with complications. Not too long ago, to admit it (outside a small circle of women) was to invite the shaming of ‘what did you do to cause this?’ The onus was on you. Talking about it also means you re-remember it, it’s traumatic. I know, it’s supposed to be therapeutic; but I have my doubts about that.

      A while back, I wrote on this blog about my own assault. While I’m pretty willing to talk about it, that’s the very first time I sat down and poured it out. I’m glad I did that. But it was not easy, either. I doubt that Will would think that boys abused by Catholic Priests and Boy Scout leaders are seeking privilege; but he has not the same spirit toward women. It’s a perspective rooted in women are desired, they’re privileged to be desired, and they have power because of that; a very basic pillar of misogyny builds on this — that because women are desired by men, they hold power and privilege over men. The agency here is not the women, however, it’s men and their desires.

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      • Can I just say, on behalf of others, that it does REALLY SUCK when you can point to things you did that “caused it” — through your own naivety? It’s like folks don’t think rape victims are asking themselves, “what did I DOOOO???”

        Of course they fucking are. Something bad just happened, it’s only human nature to ascribe some of the fault, some of the actionable circumstances to oneself — if only because then you don’t have to admit “This Could Happen Anytime.”

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    • I would say what George Will said about being a rape victim being a “coveted status” goes well beyond being an inaccurate or wrong opinion into just being wrong.

      George Will, to be accurate, said being a victim was a coveted status. He said that in a column where he also talked about rape victims. His characterization of victimhood was clearly a very trivial version of victimhood (I believe his actual words were “anything that offends their sensibilities). The fact that he wrote about trivial sorts of victimhood and possible overreactions to those trivial sorts of victimhood in the same column where the one choice version of actual victimhood that he talked about was rape was a move of staggeringly stupid writing.

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  3. It probably depends which “claim” I’m asked to agree with. If it’s his claim that Mr. Will was inaccuarte, then I don’t agree with him. I also don’t agree that one can have an “inaccurate” opinion.. If it’s his claim that what Will wrote was offensive to a lot of people and that’s justification for no longer syndicating Will, that’s just a newspaper doing it’s work and supporting its constituency and given Will’s arguments in that column, I don’t blame the newspaper for doing so.

    Now, can someone have an “inaccurate” opinion? I’m inclined to say no, and therefore agree with you. I do think an opinion can be dishonest, in that one can hold an opinion based on specious reasoning, even if the facts that form that base are objectively true. To me, there’s something dishonest about saying that anti-rape advocacy creates a special class of privileged people. I think I see Will’s reasoning, and if he’s talking about due process for the accused and the extent to which anti-rape advocacy might sometime intrude upon that due process or about definitions and how some definitions might not capture the nuance of any given situation, then that’s potentially an area of concern. To devise therefrom the notion that a “privileged class” has therefore formed is not, to my mind, right.

    But I’ll hedge a bit. I’m wary of accusing people of intellectual dishonesty. The accusation is almost a personal attack, and most of the times that I suspect people of intellectual dishonesty, I find I have to make assumptions about their inner-motivations and their personal commitment to honesty. And I almost never have that insight. So, I can’t really accuse Will of intellectual dishonesty and of therefore having a “dishonest opinion.” I do find his reasoning suspect, though, and I realize dislike the tone that is bespoken when “privileged class” is used when talking about victims of sexual assault. But whatever my personal feelings, I just can’t, based on the evidence before me, make the leap and accuse him of dishonesty.

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    • Now, can someone have an “inaccurate” opinion? I’m inclined to say no, and therefore agree with you.

      That’s just silly. People have inaccurate opinions all the time. You and I both probably have inaccurate opinions several times a day, each and every day. An opinion is just what you think about something; so I suppose it’s not inaccurate to say that’s what you think; but that is still possible for you to think something is true that is not true.

      The value of an opinion worth paying for, which is Will’s business, is not that you hold it, but that you hold one that’s informed by actual facts and truth. If you opinion is that the Earth is flat, it’s not much worth paying for except as a evidence of the silly opinions some people hold. I you’re opinion is that the women are seeking privilege as rape victims, then you’ve left out the much bigger picture that women are seeking the privilege of not being raped. While it’s true that it’s your opinion that women are seeking privilege, it’s not worth paying you for it.

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      • With due apologies about not signalling this in my first comment, I was using a very specific definition of “opinion,” as a belief held on something that cannot in principle be empirically verified or demonstrated to be false. In that sense, my “opinion” that the earth is flat isn’t an “opinion” in the way I meant it, even if the earth really is flat.

        On the issue at hand, I say the opinion that rape victims are seeking status as a protected class (an opinion, to be sure, I strongly disagree with) is not empirically verifiable or able to be demonstrated as (empirically) false. There can be evidence that tends to support or to detract from that opinion, and in my view and apparently the view of most others, most of the evidence tends to detract from it. In that case and with the loadedness of the tone Will adopts, I can say the opinion is dishonestly or speciously arrived at (although, I do hedge on that accusation). But the opinion itself cannot be false.

        I’m making the word “empirically” do a lot of heavy lifting, and I’ll certainly forgive someone for not necessarily knowing I’m starting out with a specific definition of “opinion” from the one most people think of. What I’m trying to do is to put Tim Kowal’s argument in the best possible light and address it that way. Even then, I find the argument wanting, for the reasons I stated in my original comment.

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      • With due apologies about not signalling this in my first comment, I was using a very specific definition of “opinion,” as a belief held on something that cannot in principle be empirically verified or demonstrated to be false.

        No.

        Firstly, even if you were 100% right, Will’s column ascribes motives and behaviors to other people. Asserting it ‘cannot be principle empirically verified or demonstrated to be false’ misses the fact that there literally are people who know, empirically, if it’s true: The people those motives have been ascribed to.

        So, we can, in principle, determine the actual truth. Now, using current science, we cannot, because we cannot read minds, or have an infallible lie detector. But there is an actual fact that exist about whether or not people want the status of ‘victims’, we just don’t currently have a way to prove it.

        I don’t think ‘in principle’ means what you think it means.

        Secondly, you’re not 100% right. The difference between fact and opinion is not whether it’s ‘provable’ or not, it’s where it’s subjective or objective.

        That sounds almost the same, but there is a difference, especially when talking about the minds of people. Cocaine makes people feel elated, for example. That is *objective*, but is also completely un-provable. We can prove it does certain things to brain chemistry, but we can’t actually prove the state ‘elated’ existed at all. We can’t even prove people are *self-aware*, much less actually have emotions and desires, or that those words even mean anything.

        And, like I said, George Will made statements about how people think. Dismissing that all as ‘opinion’ means literally anything about human thought is an ‘opinion’, that’s it’s perfectly valid to state that ‘People like being tortured to death.’ That sentence is not true. It’s not an opinion, it’s an (incorrect) fact. People who believe it don’t have a wrong opinion, they are *factually* wrong.

        The way you’ve stated it makes it seem like opinions magically can turn into facts as science gets better. That 10,000 years ago the assumption that the world was flat was an opinion, and now it’s a (wrong) fact. No. It was always a wrong fact. (Of course, that claim runs into the strange problem that 10,000 years ago it was *theoretically* possible to deduce the world was round using the earth’s shadow on the moon, except no one know that. So…how exactly does your premise work again? What do you mean they can’t prove opinion ‘in principle’? What we can prove ‘in principle’ changes as science changes.)

        All objective statements (A foot is 12 inches, the moon is made of cheese, God exists, I am imagining the reader of this post naked right now) are facts. Some of them may be right, some wrong, and some unprovable, but they are statements (attempting to be) of fact. Subjective statements (The metric system is less confusing, the moon is too bright, God looks fat in those pants, and the reader of this post is attractive.) are the things that are opinions.

        It’s not rocket science. (A statement that, if take literally, is a fact, but if taken metaphorically to mean ‘it is not as difficult to understand as rocket science’, is an opinion.)

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      • The difference between fact and opinion is not whether it’s ‘provable’ or not, it’s where it’s subjective or objective.

        That’s good enough for me. But I don’t see why you say “no” when I say I’m using a certain definition of “opinion.” I am using that definition, whether it’s a faulty one or not. But good point about the fact that Mr. Will is ascribing motives.

        Cocaine makes people feel elated, for example. That is *objective*, but is also completely un-provable. We can prove it does certain things to brain chemistry, but we can’t actually prove the state ‘elated’ existed at all. We can’t even prove people are *self-aware*, much less actually have emotions and desires, or that those words even mean anything.

        How do you reconcile that statement with “there literally are people who know, empirically, if it’s true: The people those motives have been ascribed to”?

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      • How do you reconcile that statement with “there literally are people who know, empirically, if it’s true: The people those motives have been ascribed to”?

        Because it’s trivially possible to know something empirically without being able to prove it?

        For example, I just stood up and then sat back down. I know that empirically. However, I have absolutely no way to prove that. There were no cameras, there were no witnesses, I’ve made no difference in the floor, there is no measurable effect of my standing up and sitting back down that can used to prove or disprove my statement. But I still know it. I am 100% sure of it. And it’s a fact. Even if I’m lying, it’s still a fact, it’s just an untrue one.

        I didn’t quite catch what has happening in my first post, but I see it now. You’ve confused opinions with *beliefs*. ‘Belief’ is what we call a fact when we do not know the truth of it, and we know we don’t know the truth. It can be because we’re just ignorant of the truth, aka, ‘I think those batteries are good’, or because the truth is unknowable. But despite the truth being unknowable, it *exists*.(1)

        Opinions are not a form of fact at all. Opinions are how people feel about things, a subjective thought that cannot be right or wrong. It’s not that they cannot be *proven* right or wrong, they literally are neither right nor wrong. ‘Mountain Dew tastes good’ is not a fact. There is no truth or untruth there, there is just lying about your opinion and not lying about your opinion. (2)

        Statements about a person’s internal thoughts are facts, not opinions. They are unprovable facts, but they are facts. And since one person know for sure what they are empirically (even if they can’t prove it), and everyone else is just guessing, they’re not ‘beliefs’ either. Or at least we shouldn’t treat them as such without a good reason. We shouldn’t certain base a newspaper column on them.

        1) Barring certain quantum situations, I guess.

        2) Confusingly, people can believe they have an opinion. ‘Do you like Mountain Dew?’ ‘I think so.’ And have opinions about beliefs. ‘If you believe that, you’re an idiot.’. But they are not the same thing.

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  4. And I’m not talking about just his decision to fire Will. While I disagree with his pusillanimity, a paper’s business decisions get a wider berth than their purported justifications. Messenger chose to offer a statement supporting his decision, and that statement is objectively false.

    The free market at work! Will is certainly entitled to his opinion, but he’s not entitled to get paid for it in a free market where there are thousands of other voices vying for that limited resource on an editorial page. That statement — that Will’s opinion is inaccurate — is not ‘objectively false,’ it’s the opinion of someone privileged with making the decision about what he’s willing to pay for to fill that editorial-page space; and in his view, Will’s opinion is not worth the money or the space. Kudos to Tony Messenger.

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  5. Unless, that is, someone can explain the alchemy of how offense turns fact into “inaccuracy.”

    What you’re suggesting here assumes that the only types of claims which can be inaccurate are factual claims. But personally, I think that claim is inaccurate. Even tho you didn’t make any factual assertions in that sentence. Conceptual claims can be inaccurate as well. In this case, Will uses the words “victim” and “privileged status” and whatnot in ways that do not withstand any descriptively based scrutiny whatsoever.

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  6. The issue here is that the editor is pretty much clearly inconsistent with himself. Except, he’s not if you look at the standards he’s dealing with, of which there are two. He says what Will says was inaccurate, then says they didn’t see a specific factual error in need of correction. That latter standard is something of a “big deal” in the newspaper industry, and that’s why he want’s to make that distinction. But that doesn’t make it an assertion that what they took to be Will’s claim, that, “sexual assault victims in any way on college campuses are seeking privileged status, or that universities are trying to bestow that status on women” is true, or that they deem it true. They deem it “completely inaccurate,” as opinion yes, but also as factual assertion. They just don;t have the specific material they think they need to actually run a correction. (I think they could get that if they wanted, and just don’t want to admit to having to run a correction, but that’s just my suspicion). In any case, they nowhere say they think this is a “true fact.” They say they think it’s “completely inaccurate.” And there can be distance between having that assessment and declining to run further columns by a writer on that basis, and assessing that they’ve printed something in need of a formal correction.

    There’s no here here.

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      • I did mention this comment was very on-point in another comment (though I guess I didn’t reference the timestamp). I pretty much agree with it. I don’t think that “accuracy” can be determined solely on verifiable fact (and inaccuracy by factual error). DavidTC makes a point about something factual but unverifiable, but more to the point you can paint a very inaccurate picture with a selection of verified facts, subjective assumptions, and targeted omissions. I would nonetheless probably want to refrain from using the precise terms that Messenger did, because there can be the inference that “inaccurate” applies to specific, verified misstatement of facts, but that’s a matter of clarity if anything and not dishonesty.

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      • I am, for once, being perfectly serious. You described the difference between “This is not an accurate picture of the truth” and “There is a specific correction, of the sort traditionally printed by newspapers, to be made here” perfectly.

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      • Thanks, everyone. In all seriousness, I appreciate it. I’ve been doing an outdoor job in the heat (lately) since May and I sometimes feel like I have to check to be sure my words/concepts/politics module hasn’t started to just wander off onto off-property territory like I sometimes do with the weed trimmer in the hour or so before lunch.

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  7. To tie together what Tod and Saul said, what if Will had said blacks who are lynching survivors are seeking a privileged status, or holocaust survivors are seeking a privileged status, would we be having this conversation?

    No, if course offense doesn’t turn opinion (which I hope you meant instead of “fact” in your last sentence) into factual inaccuracy. But when the opinion is so sneeringly dismissive of rape, focusing on the editor’s misstatement sure seems like the wrong target.

    And while I’ve often enjoyed reading Will’s columns, I can’t see choosing to run a different conservative columnist in place of one who was so dismissive if sexual assault is fairly described as pusillanomous.

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  8. Messenger chose to offer a statement supporting his decision, and that statement is objectively false.

    Which statement is objectively false? The highlighted one?

    we believed that the very assumption or opinion … is completely inaccurate

    Do you have some evidence that they do not in fact believe the assumption or opinion in question is inaccurate? Maybe they think the opinion is accurate, but they’re pretending not to believe it? And you have objective evidence of such hypocrisy? Please provide it.

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  9. Recall when Limbaugh said that Donovan McNabb was overrated because the media wanted there to be black quarterbacks. I thought (and think) that that was an inaccurate opinion. McNabb was regarded as a very good but not top-flight quarterback, pretty much as his performance justified. Can I point out a factual inaccuracy? No. The concept of “overrated” is far too amorphous for that, even before trying to discern the motives of a group as large as “the media”.

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  10. Newspapers fact-check facts on which opinions are based, not the opinions themselves. Facts can be checked for inaccuracy. So can estimates or guesses. Not opinions. A free society gives a wide berth to opinions on ultimate facts — facts based on a large number of discrete facts on a wide range of relevant factors incapable of being reduced to a tidy scientific or statistical conclusion, including moral questions and “known unknowns.” For a newspaperman to denounce an opinion as “inaccurate” suggests journalism is shedding a necessary humility and asserting itself as arbiter of ongoing debate in the public sphere, not to mention the law and social science.

    Messenger isn’t inaccurate. He’s just plain wrong. In my opinion.

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      • Tim, my advice is to walk back from the edge, take a few breaths, and try to understand that liberals (sorry I had to use that word, I know it’s a trigger for you) aren’t concealing a Secret Plan to take all your shit. If there is a plan, it’s right out there in the open for all to see. No need to go all “special” status on us. Fact is, a rape victim deserves more consideration that either you or Will seem willing to offer. And that’s a damn shame.

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      • Being a “survivor” — i.e., a female charging sexual assault regardless of the merit of the claim — is undeniably a legally advantaged status for purposes of prosecuting her case.

        Do women “covet” that status?

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      • Being a “survivor” — i.e., a female charging sexual assault regardless of the merit of the claim — is undeniably a legally advantaged status for purposes of prosecuting her case.

        This is preposterous. You are a lawyer. You know that courts do not render judgement on a victim’s rights; they only determine if the victim has status to bring fourth a case accusing a alleged assault. It’s the defendant that has rights. So beyond having standing, the victim has no legally advantaged status, and the Hillary Clinton rape defendant brohaha shows just how few rights the victim actually has in legal proceedings. I would not begin to suggest that Clinton should not have defended her client’s rights; so I can only conclude that you’re suggesting a does not have a to speak about sexual harassment and assault if she is unwilling to press charges. Yet the Clinton example beautifully illustrates what may happen to that victim if she does press charges.

        But those same victims also have the right to free speech and the right to petition their government. Are you in any way suggesting that either of those rights should be curtailed because victims haven’t pressed charges?

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      • Claiming to a victim of any crime gives one a legally advantaged status for purposes of prosecuting his/her case. It is sort of the prerequisite to getting the cops and courts to do something: claiming to have had a crime committed against their person. Am i missing something here? This seems entirely circular. Claiming to have been raped gives a person the advantages of having a claim of rape be investigated.

        And why is “survivor” in quotes?

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      • Well, it’s become increasingly clear, so I’ll just baldly state it: Tim clearly thinks that rape is not that big a deal. Certainly not as big a deal as false claims of rape. Hence why he’s inclined to defend the Will column, regardless of its merits.

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      • Can being found guilty under a title ix claim in a civil proceeding – or specifically, in the case, per a college’s administrative justice system – be used in a criminal proceeding covering the same event?

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      • The quotes alert the reader to read Will’s piece, which you apparently have not done.

        To be fair, though, Will’s use of “survivors” was not in relation to “legally advantaged status when it comes to prosecutions.” It was in relation to how some university administrators and apparently the Obama administration are urging “preponderance of the evidence” standards for school-imposed discipline. When you say something that suggest “survivors” implies status that makes it easier to prosecute someone, then you’re being a bit misleading.

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      • Yeah Will, i know, i read the piece. But you are using them. Let me try on “Holocaust Survivor” “attempted murder survivor” No i can’t imagine anybody getting bent out of shape. Still why put survivor in quotes?

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      • Zac,

        Well, it’s become increasingly clear, so I’ll just baldly state it: Tim clearly thinks that rape is not that big a deal. Certainly not as big a deal as false claims of rape. Hence why he’s inclined to defend the Will column, regardless of its merits.

        As much as I want to beat up on Tim on this issue, I don’t think what you wrote is quite right. It’s not clear that Tim doesn’t think rape is a big deal, and it’s not clear that he thinks real rape is not as big a deal as false rape claims. What’s a problem i that he thinks the liberal views of rape and rape cultureare a bigger deal than rape and so on. The problem is that he – like Will – place a higher emphasis on interpreting the words of their political opponents thru their own ideological filter than they do the words those opponents actually expressed. In short: his criticism – and Will’s – is completely divorced from reality and also completely ideologically driven. So rape and rape victims are relegated to secondary status, with Cleek’s Law reigning supreme. Again! (It’s like the most confirmed theory in history.)

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      • “K How does that give women a coveted status or advantages.”

        Not so much that is gives women ‘advantages’ but it may put accused persons at more of a disadvantage.

        The ‘universities affairs courts’ are, as far as I know, limited in the punishment they can met out – expulsion being the highest penalty. Reducing the standards for adjudication from ‘clear and convincing’ to ‘preponderance of evidence’ will no doubt lead to more false positives but also fewer false negatives, (the exact ratio probably unknowable) but in either case, the most that will happen is that someone will get kicked out of college. (whether or not this will have a disparate impact on poor and/or minorities is an open question).

        However, if the results of these college proceedings are allowed to bleed over into criminal proceedings – where the penalties are a lot more severe and so is the standard for guilt, ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ – then the prosecution in these cases are going to be allowed to steal a base in sexual assault prosecutions when they otherwise wouldn’t be able to in other cases – like someone accused of stealing an iPad or someone accused of murder.

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      • Because it refers to both survivors of sexual assault as well as non-survivors of sexual assault. I’m not in the habit of calling non-survivors survivors, despite the fact federal standards refer to non-survivors that way simply because they allege sexual assault. Hence, the quotation marks.

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      • “Not so much that is gives women ‘advantages’ but it may put accused persons at more of a disadvantage.”

        Of course, that takes as a given the legal fiction that all crimes are against The State. If one pierces that veil, and if one is pre-disposed to zero-sum thinking, then one person’s increased disadvantage is another person’s increased advantage.

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      • It’s a funny thing, as the conversation goes back and forth, and as you watch the “respectable face” begin to crack, and then the deep ugliness comes out. Keep talking, . You conservatives are really good at hiding how horrible you are, but not good enough. We see.

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      • Tim,

        Which is it you want? Someone to prove an I accuracy? Or someone to show how they found Will’s column offensive? You’re all over the map here, because those aren’t at all the same thing.

        FWIW, I think Will had a point about the numbers. But he was just parroting Mark Perry and didn’t bother to think about what they might mean. There are multiple plausible explanations, of which his preferred one, that they overstate the frequency of sexual assault is just one. So he chose that one because it “confirmed” his preferred thesis.

        I found his dismissiveness of unwanted touching as sexual assault offensive. I found his use of the one girl’s story, as though having sex with a guy means she’s fair game in the future, offensive. In neither case was he explicit about that, but in context these references cannot be taken as taking those cases seriously.

        Who really cares if Messenger’s statement was quite factually correct? Is that really what’s at issue here? As long as Will didn’t write a clearly factually incorrect statement, the paper can’t be justified in dropping him? His dismissiveness towards less violent forms of sexual assault can’t be a legitimate grounds for cutting ties?

        What exactly is your position here? I see you asking others to defend their positions, but I don’t see you making a clear and strong defense of yours.

        Tell us, do you think Will was not being dismissive in referencing groping and that girl’s experience? Do you think he was, but rightfully so? Do you think his dismissiveness is not as big a deal as Messenger’s statement. Do you think some other thing about it?

        Your lack of a clear statement of your position unfortunately does create an impression that you’re more concerned about Will’s victimhood than about sexual assault victims. I don’t think that’s true, and the one commenter is out of line to say you don’t care about rape, which is obviously false. But you’re not helping yourself with your responses. Inadvertently or not, you are doing that conservative male tone-deafness about rape. I mean, I can’t for the life of me peg you as someone who doesn’t care about sexual assault, but if I didn’t know you from way back now, I’d be hard-pressed not to read your post and comments that way.

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      • Probably not in the ordinary sense. So that appears to be it. The “inaccuracy” is over an adjective.

        Unless I’m mistaken, covet is a verb. But that aside, that sounds like an attempt to minimize the seriousness of an error by decontextualizing it by stripping it down merely to its grammatical identity.

        So if I said George Will rapes women, would you dismiss my error, saying it’s just a verb? If I called him a rapist would you defend me by saying my only error is a noun? If I said he rapist-like, is it really just an adjective, and nothing to be bothered by?

        That decontextualizing of the phrase “covet victim status” in the context of sexual assault really comes across as trivializing sexual assault

        I’m not accusing you of trying to trivialize sexual assault. I honestly can’t imagine that’s your intent. But it reads that way.

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      • “Coveted” is a participle, a form of the verb used as an adjective. A participle was considered an adjective in Latin, since it agrees with its principal in both number and gender.

        And I agree than describing mere modifiers as inaccurate is foolish. Who could object if I described the Roberts Court as “gleefully and sadistically” overturning the VRA?

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      • In the past, I might have offered a ‘disclaimer’ to prevent being misunderstood. But people of good will don’t typically need disclaimers, and the rest will either ignore the disclaimers or use them against the one making them. #BindersOfWomen. I won’t scrape for them. I find their conduct despicable and their opinions beneath my consideration.

        I don’t need to defend everything Will says and I won’t be goaded into a hot battlefield in the identity politics war. Commenters can engage my point or not about the Dispatch improperly tarring Will as “inaccurate.” They can also engage the point, passionately made by Jonathan Rauch, that shutting down speech just because it offends is dangerous and wrong. http://www.thefire.org/new-fire-video-jonathan-rauch-in-defense-of-being-offensive/ But I won’t waste breath in a futile effort to convince people I’m a good person when I’ve said nothing to justify a suspicion to the contrary. If they were worth the discussion it wouldn’t be necessary.

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      • I’m pretty sure I lead your list of people ‘playing identity politics.’ Yet I have repeatedly said why Will, his very self, his very own words, are inaccurate.
        Which has me nearly rolling on the floor with laughter at this: They can also engage the point, passionately made by Jonathan Rauch, that shutting down speech just because it offends is dangerous and wrong.

        Becasue that’s exactly what Will’s column was all about. Universities, by standing up for those drinking, lying sluts, now has the unpleasant yoke of go government coming down on them. He’s trying to shut down the speech of liberals — the specific quotes from his column would include those about harassment and assault being invisible except for the trained eye and the plethora of victims, essentially coming out of the wood work.

        And as far as ‘bindersofwomen,’ which you seem to take great offense to, I don’t know any serious woman or feminist or liberal who took that as anything more than a joke. I’m probably the token feminist here, and I’ve never made fun of Romney for that mistake of speech; I never would. It doesn’t matter.

        But women holding appointed positions in government? Yes, that matters. Women having a right to talk about the sexual assaults they’ve experienced? That matters, too.

        You’re all on about someone’s speech being shut down. Well, I’m a woman, and I’ll have you look back at written history and notice how women’s speech has been shut down. For centuries.

        You argue that with me in good faith. Prissy victimhood for poor George Will who lost a sale for his column, because he claimed women covet victimhood is silly. They covet the right to participate fully; to have pages in history, and control of their own bodies.

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      • But I won’t waste breath in a futile effort to convince people I’m a good person when I’ve said nothing to justify a suspicion to the contrary.

        We have two statements. One is a claim that women covet the status of sexual assault victimhood, the other is an innaccurate claim of factual error.* You express disdain for the second, but not the first. I’m sorry, Tim, but I’m afraid you have done something that justifies suspicion.

        What we do is not good because we are good. We are good because what we do is good.

        *(I’m dubious about the innacuracy, but I’ll give it the benefit here.)

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      • I was probably too cryptic in that prior comment. I am not saying you are a bad person. I am only saying that in the way communication works, your choice to emphasize a possible misstatement about the justification for dropping Will’s column–which, as Mike Drew shows may not be a misstatement at all–while downplaying Will’s misstatement about women “coveting” victim status as merely being about an adjective* is a puzzling prioritization of concerns that can easily–and without further clarification, legitimately–create suspicion that, like Will, you’re downplaying the seriousness of sexual assault.

        Those of us who communicate on the internet can’t expect people to just know how good, wise, or smart we are. If we want people to know those things, the burden is on us to show them.
        ___________________
        *Why, then, isn’t Messenger’s alleged error just about a noun?

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    • Newspapers fact-check facts on which opinions are based, not the opinions themselves.

      Do you think that newspapers fact-check syndicated opinion columns, or do you think that they purchase the publication rights to the columns and publish them as made available? If so, it’s your opinion on the relationship between syndicated columnist and editor who purchases the rights to print syndicated columnist. But while it’s right that this is your opinion, it is an uninformed opinion based on your general knowledge of the job of editor, and not rooted the actual process of an editor’s publishing syndicated columnists’ work.

      Will is not a staff writer, subject to Messenger’s editing; and were this the case, there would be many variations of the same column for nearly any syndicated columns as editors fact-checked and corrected the columns. Can you show me any evidence that this is the case? For any syndicated columnist? I’m sure there are probably a couple of examples of this out there; if so, they are the exceptions that prove the rule. If you were to go to every editorial page featuring a syndicated columnist’s work, and compare it to other pages running the same column, they are most likely identical.

      Messenger’s choices are 1) run Will’s column as is; 2) run it as is, with an editorial point added to correct inaccuracies, or 3) don’t run Will’s columns.

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      • The process of how Will’s column got printed bears some frisking here.

        From TPM, we learn there were three editors, all male, at WaPo. That’s where the fact checking would be done; a woman’s editorial review of the column was not done.

        Now I’m only guessing here, but I presume the WaPo edits Will’s columns, and then they’re published, as offered, by newspaper editors who purchase syndication rights. I’d guess the editors of my local daily, The Lewiston Sun Journal, don’t edit or modify them Will in any way, and they rely on the fact-checkers at WaPo.

        I’d guess there’s some contractual language specifying any publishing editor’s rights to edit Will’s columns before publication, and I’d bet good money that Will has the right to approve any change an editor might make. A lump it or leave it clause — publish this the way it is or don’t publish it — wouldn’t surprise me.

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      • Messenger indicated they read it before publishing, did not find any factual inaccuracies either before or after publishing, and did not correct any inaccuracies. He did not say he was powerless to correct them had they found them, nor that he was powerless not to run the piece had they found it offensive before publishing. If so, he had the opportunity to mention say it. He didn’t.

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      • He did not say he was powerless to correct them had they found them, nor that he was powerless not to run the piece had they found it offensive before publishing.

        Why would he say those things? He said Will was on thin ice; so perhaps he thought he’d let his readers decide Will’s fate; it’s hard telling not knowing, isn’t it? Did he run Will regularly? Did he occasionally run Will’s columns? I’m at least happy to hear that Messenger read the column; that opens up the possibility that he (or other editors) might not read them before running them, and that’s truly disturbing.

        I have worked in newspaper offices; and I am pretty familiar with how publishing contracts work. Will had regularly scheduled columns in the paper from what I can tell. But Messenger’s explanation is not one of contractual obligations, it’s one of explaining why he stopped filling his real estate — so many inches at size on this day or these days every week. It is not explanation of how he decided to run the offensive column; it’s explanation of why he dropped it.

        You’re looking for Messenger’s role here to be fact checker. His role was filling filling space on an editorial page. George Will had dibs on that real estate. Now, somebody else get’s that space.

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  11. Tim, you linked to it, so I assume you saw this part:

    “The change has been under consideration for several months, but a column published June 5, in which Mr. Will suggested that sexual assault victims on college campuses enjoy a privileged status, made the decision easier.”

    Seems Will was skating on thin ice…and finally fell through it.

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    • But that’s moving the goal posts a little, no? The OP was about whether an opinion can be “inaccurate” and perhaps, also, about whether a newspaper editor should cancel syndicated columnists based on offense.

      I suppose the OP can also be about whether the offense is merited, and in that sense if that’s where the discussion is going, it’s then that we ought to be “invited” to quote from the piece. I’ll also add that in response to your earlier comment suggesting we hadn’t read the piece, I quoted and addressed specific points that Mr. Will had stated that I found offensive, along with a couple concessions about the possibility that other parts of his argument, taken in isolation, could have merit.

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      • We can walk and chew gum, I think. Besides, it was others who insisted on taking for granted how self-evidently offensive Will’s piece is and made it a part of the discussion. Below, even you ask whether I find it offensive and, if not, you conclude there is nothing left for us to discuss. But no one has bothered to identify what actual words Will uttered that are supposed to be offensive. Certainly there is a possibility of confirmation bias or finding (or not finding) what one wants on one side or the other, and maybe a little of both. But thus far those who take offense have only glibly cited to the “coveted status” language and simply concluded Will is talking about rape victims even while the entire article is about teasing real problems like rape into fake epidemics. So to answer your question below, if someone took “coveted status” as referring to rape victims, I understand. But I think that is the product of an uncritical read, or perhaps, as Will wonders, the product of “making everyone hypersensitive, even delusional, about victimizations.”

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      • </blockquote?

        Below, even you ask whether I find it offensive and, if not, you conclude there is nothing left for us to discuss.

        I’ll point that that’s not what I said. You acknowledge (implicitly) as much later on in your comment when you address my point about whether you understand how/why someone might be offended. But I’m just pointing out that you didn’t have to find it offensive, just understand.

        “Even I” asked that question in part because you had brought it up. I agree that we can walk and chew gum and that as far as tangents go, the offensiveness of Will’s column is more in the ballpark of the OP than other tangents in other threads are.

        Now, to this:

        if someone took ‘coveted status’ as referring to rape victims, I understand. But I think that is the product of an uncritical read, or perhaps, as Will wonders, the product of ‘making everyone hypersensitive, even delusional, about victimizations.’

        I would hope even you would admit that “coveted status” in discussions of sexual assault carries a lot of emotional baggage.

        But the “coveted status” quip wasn’t really my main or only objection. What about the scare quotes around “sexual assault”? What about his apparent incredulity that the situation of sexual assault he describes from Swarthmore, when he stipulates the woman said “no”?

        Again, to my mind, I can see some ambiguity in all of that. I can see how someone with a certain set of assumptions could be said to be acting in good faith and nevertheless not be offended by what he said. It’s hard, but I can see it. What I’m asking, now, is whether you can see how someone can be offended by it without passing off the offense to poor reading skills or “hypersensitivity” or delusional thinking. It seems to me your answer, at the end of the day, is no. Am I wrong here?

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      • But no one has bothered to identify what actual words Will uttered that are supposed to be offensive.

        James Hanley wrote:

        But when the opinion is so sneeringly dismissive of rape, focusing on the editor’s misstatement sure seems like the wrong target.

        Does that suffice? Some stuff is so offensive it strikes us so as not really requiring much an analysis. I mean, if you’re looking for insight into the minds and thoughts of folks who think differently than you there’s a better way to go about attaining that information. But to accuse folks of strawmanning a strawman isn’t one of them.

        At a minimum, it’s counterproductive. At worser levels it begs the question. Worser yet, it establishes a burden of justification that cannot be met because you’ve already determined that your interlocutor is ideologically insane.

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      • Of course this doesn’t suffice. The issue here is we have objective statements made by Will that we are taking in diametrically different ways. The touchstone by which we can hope to have a discussion is to cite to the statements, not our diametrically different conclusions.

        I find your suggestion that this could suffice to be breathtaking, but perhaps the sundering of reality to relativism is accelerating:

        “Joe Leeson Schatz, Director of Speech and Debate at Binghamton University, is encouraged by the changes in debate style and community. “Finally, there’s a recognition in the academic space that the way argument has taken place in the past privileges certain types of people over others,” he said. “Arguments don’t necessarily have to be backed up by professors or written papers. They can come from lived experience.””

        http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/04/traditional-college-debate-white-privilege/360746/

        Why should anyone explain why they take offense if feeling offended has become a sort of irreducible, self-referential truth?

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      • But of course I can explain why I take offense. That has never been the difficulty. The difficultly is in getting privileged people, who indeed lack the lived experience, to build sufficient empathy. This is very difficult to do. Likewise, the task is to help others see the presence of structural injustice, even when it does not directly affect them.

        The first step is humility, to understand that what one lives and experiences is not universal, and that one’s mental faculties can manifest as stubborn rationalization as quickly as they can provide insight.

        In fact, stubborn rationalization seems to be the default case, which is why we indeed elevate lived experience. It is not that lived experience is always-automatically correct, but it provides a counterbalance to inequity.

        In some ways this is an object lesson. It seems, near as I can tell, that you truly do not see how this is offensive, that you think telling women they seek privilege through victim status is just a lovely bit of discourse, something a man can bring up, and darnit if women are offended. After all, the man can demand they explain why and then reject all explanation.

        All provided with a smug grin.

        Which, fine. But women are judging you, deciding if they can trust you, and your political allies, and deciding how we should vote. Likewise, we are making our case, to other women first, who don’t need to see the statistics on sexual assault, since when they hear these things their response is, “I’m not the only one,” but also to men, who more and more are hearing us.

        We have explained this, in quite a lot of detail. Honestly, I cannot believe you have not understood. Thus, I do not trust your good faith. Not even slightly.

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      • I find your suggestion that this could suffice to be breathtaking, but perhaps the sundering of reality to relativism is accelerating:

        The “sundering of reality to relativism”??? IF that’s not an ideological statement I don’t think I’ve ever heard one, Tim.

        What the hell does that sentence even mean? It’s a nice slogan tho, I’ll give you that. Sorta rolls off the tongue and all.

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      • More on lived experience, take a look at this comics panel:

        http://leftycartoons.com/street-harassment/

        (Go ahead. It’s super short.)

        Now consider, what tools does this woman have to help men, such as the man in the last panel, understand how wrong their perspective is?

        I’m serious, how can she explain this? Where does she begin?

        The purpose of lived experience is not to be a trump card that ends conversation. Instead, it is meant as a reminder to people, to help them see what they tend to miss. When minorities (women, blacks, queers, etc.) talk about their experiences, we often are speaking of things very unfamiliar to people who are not similarly disadvantaged. Very often (very often!) we are met with skepticism. “Surely it isn’t this bad,” we are told. “You just need to look at it differently.” And maybe sometimes that is correct. Sometimes seeing things differently can help. But not always. For example, the woman in that comic is indeed perceiving street harassment accurately. In that scenario, it is the man who is wrong.

        This happens a lot.

        We have tools to address these things, a vocabulary to talk about it. We can speak of “-splaining,” “microagressions,” and indeed “lived experience.” These tools have been tremendously helpful, both for minorities, as we seek to understand our experiences, and for privileged people, those with empathy who actually want to be on the right side.

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    • Tim,

      Do you find Will’s column offensive? If not, do you understand how others, acting in good faith, might find it offensive even if you don’t?

      If the answer to the second question is, sincerely, “no,” then I don’t think there’s really much more for you and me to discuss. I’ve already conceded as much as I can and remain true to myself, and if you’re not in a position to meet me there while remaining true to yourself, then we can’t talk anymore, at least not on this thread about this subject.

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  12. Well if we’re going to quibble over semantic points, George Will wasn’t fired. Strictly speaking, the St. Louis Post Dispatch simply dropped his column from syndication. He’s still (rather baffingly) employed by the Washington Post to continue writing his hideous dreck.

    You know, since quibbling over meanings and semantics seem to be vital to you.

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  13. I’m just wondering how much confirmation bias and motivated belief it takes to turn a poorly supported and ideologically driven opinion into “true facts”.

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  14. OK, so I think it’s clear now that I am having a major reading comprehension fail, so maybe I’ll beg your indulgence and walk me through like I”m dumb.

    I think this might be what’s tripping me up:

    You say, “How many offended people does it take to turn fact into “inaccuracy”?” What is the fact that is now being declared inaccurate? I keep re-ceding the Will article, the Dispatch editorial, the Hewitt interview and your OP, and I”m just not parsing it out what fact(s) have been declared inaccurate.

    Help?

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  15. In a context of general disapproval, Will wrote of
    capacious definitions of sexual assault that can include not only forcible sexual penetration but also nonconsensuapacious definitions of sexual assault that can include not only forcible sexual penetration but also nonconsensual touching

    One wonders how Will would feel if he was walking around the ballpark and a woman grabbed his genitals? I wonder if he’s ever thought about the issue in that context?

    And given that in the same essay, near the end, he clearly demonstrates an appreciation for autonomy, one wonders why that respect for autonomy doesn’t include women’s autonomy over their bodies?

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  16. Conceded: I only read a handful of comments, some of which indicate Tim took a different line of reasoning there then in the OP, but I want to respond to the OP and the OP only…

    I think Tim’s point was decisively clear and without much controversy. Stating that the column was inaccurate requires some evidence of inaccuracy which seems not to exist. As such, inaccuracy should not have been used as a justification for action against its author. That’s not to say action wasn’t warranted on other grounds; only that inaccuracy was not appripriate grounds.

    That said, it seems the column discussed what certain people “wanted”; intent is difficult to infer. So if the author claims that a group of people want something they say they do not want, it is arguable that he is inaccurate in that regard. However, if the dots can be connected between their stated wants and related outcomes, we get into a murky gray area. But nothing the editor says (at least in the excerpted section) indicates that is what was inaccurate.

    There seems to be plenty of room to criticize and reject this author and his piece while allowing for the facts he chose to present to be accurate.

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    • I think Tim’s point was decisively clear and without much controversy. Stating that the column was inaccurate requires some evidence of inaccuracy which seems not to exist. As such, inaccuracy should not have been used as a justification for action against its author.

      Women covet being safe, not being victims of sexual assault and harassment. That was the heart of Will’s column, and it is a bald-faced lie. Women speak out about harassment and assault in an effort to be safe, not because they’re reveling in their victimhood. So suggesting that Will’s opinion was ‘accurate because it was Will’s opinion,” is not really an argument worth making. Just as I could say my opinion is that Will’s always wrong; I would, obviously, be holding an inaccurate and uninformed opinion.

      My personal opinion is that Tim’s a misogynist; it’s rooted so deeply into his soul that he cannot see it, and that this is evil. But I’m aware that this is my opinion, and I could be wrong. It could be an inaccurate opinion.

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      • I did not read the original column so first let me aplogize if I’ve misrepresented things based on what was said here.

        It seems if such inaccuracies existed, the editor who ousted Will should have spoken to them.

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      • To clarify, , if there were inaccuracies in the column, the editor should have been able to identify them. If he couldn’t do that, he shouldn’t have mentioned inaccuracies, lest he leave the door open for criticisms like what Tim has offered. The editor seems to have flubbed this, the content notwithstanding.

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      • quoting Messenger, as Tim quoted him above:

        We weren’t referring necessarily to a factual inaccuracy, but we believed that the very assumption or opinion that sexual assault victims in any way on college campuses are seeking privileged status, or that universities are trying to bestow that status on women, is completely inaccurate, and don’t believe that the evidence shows that that is to be true. And mostly, it’s offensive. It allows, it continues for the victimization of women and diminishes the importance that we should place on the very serious prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses.

        And as to the editorial process, I’ve also tried to explain that to Tim: editors don’t edit syndicated columns, they purchase them to run as standard far reflecting national/international conversation, and run them as offered. The discretion they exercise is to run or not to run any give column. If this were not the case, we would see multiple, edited versions of syndicated columnists work as different editors the nation over edited those columns. This does not happen.

        The more appropriate response here would be questioning why Messenger ran the column in the first place; did he have a woman with editorial experience on his staff read it? Why did the WaPo run it, without a woman’s review of it first? Really, there’s serious mansplaining going on, and it ain’t pretty.

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      • Basically, Kazzy, thoughts inside people’s head really exist. What someone else is thinking is a fact, not an opinion. It is an actual thing going on inside their head, and it objectively has a status. It’s really hard to *prove* what it is, but it still exists.

        It is entirely possible to be *factually* wrong about what people think, which is exactly what George Will did. The things he said, why people seek the status of a victim, is not an opinion with no right or wrong answer. It is stating a fact, one that is wrong.

        Granted, as Tony Messanger *himself* incorrectly called such a belief an ‘opinion’, it’s easy to see where people missed that. He’s wrong. Opinions would be things like ‘I don’t like grapefruit’ or ‘Women gain too much by having the status of a victim’. The words ‘like’ and ‘too much’ in that context have no subjective meanings, are thus it’s impossible to refute. (However, it would be a fact for someone to ascribe an opinion to someone, e.g., ‘George Will thinks women gain too much by having the status of a victim’. He either does have that thought, or doesn’t.)

        Of course, almost everyone misuses ‘opinion’ and ‘belief’ to mean each other, and I’m not some sort of grammar Nazi running around trying to correct people. I’m sure I do it do too. But ‘opinion’ is a subjective thing that is literally the opposite of fact and cannot be right or wrong (And hence cannot fail a fact check.), whereas a ‘belief’ is a measure of certainty about a fact.(1) (And we often use the word to describe facts that cannot be determined by any means we know of, but still are *objectively* true or not. God either exists, or doesn’t.)

        George Will has *beliefs* about *facts*, namely, what people’s motives are. And has stated those facts, and he’s been called out for those facts being incorrect. The only possible rebuttal is that what he said was *true*, not that what he said was an ‘opinion’…it was not.

        George Will write an ‘opinion’ column. He does not write a ‘some incorrect facts that I believe’ column.

        1) To confuse things further, you can have beliefs about your opinions, too. ‘I believe I dislike passion fruit, but I’m not sure.’

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      • I want to thank , , and for fleshing this out for me. I made the mistake here of not looking more deeply into the issues than what Tim offered here. I took Tim’s summation of things at face value and understood and accepted his broader point based on that representation (FTR, I still accept the broader point, namely that disagreeability or offensiveness do not equate to inaccurate).

        Clearly, there was much, much more to the issue and I appreciate those who’ve helped me understand that. I apologize if my cursory approach in any way offended anyone or seemed to indicate that I take issues related to violence against women lightly. I do not. I could not disagree more strongly with Will’s column. I was attempting to discuss the meta issue at play but simply didn’t do sufficient homework to determine if this example actually exemplified the problem at which Tim was attempting to draw attention. I will attempt to be more careful going forward.

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    • That said, it seems the column discussed what certain people “wanted”; intent is difficult to infer. So if the author claims that a group of people want something they say they do not want, it is arguable that he is inaccurate in that regard. However, if the dots can be connected between their stated wants and related outcomes, we get into a murky gray area.

      That’s appears to be the issue over which and I sparred above. I think he probably got the better of the argument.

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    • This line of argument seems weird to me. It’s very common, especially in punditry, to selectively quote facts that tend to support a conclusion that’s questionable, or even completely whacko. Here’s an example: a Forbes article by Dinesh D’Souza, which was later expanded into his book The Roots of Obama’s Rage. Its conclusion is

      Incredibly, the U.S. is being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s. This philandering, inebriated African socialist, who raged against the world for denying him the realization of his anticolonial ambitions, is now setting the nation’s agenda through the reincarnation of his dreams in his son.

      I’m quite willing to call that “inaccurate”. In fact, I’ll go further: it’s nuts. And this isn’t just a matter of my liking Obama. The highly conservative Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard wrote a scathing review pointing out how crazy it was (in fact, its title is “The Roots of Lunacy”).

      Yet it was published in Forbes, a magazine that take fact-checking seriously, and in fact there was a correction made to one of D’Souza’s claims regarding an Obama speech on the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. So, I’m willing to stipulate that, after that, no factual inaccuracies remain. It’s still utter nonsense and, yes, wholly inaccurate.

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  17. I’ve mentioned this in some responses, but I think it deserves a top-level comment:

    It’s actually amazing how this entire discussion seems to be about the premise that Messanger can’t identify what facts are wrong…except that he literally does so in the actual quoted and bold text:

    we believed that the very assumption or opinion that sexual assault victims in any way on college campuses are seeking privileged status, or that universities are trying to bestow that status on women, is completely inaccurate

    This has resulted in an epically stupid discussion that appears to exist solely because Messanger mispoke for a second. He should have said:

    we believed the fact that George Will stated, that sexual assault victims in any way on college campuses are seeking privileged status, or that universities are trying to bestow that status on women, is completely inaccurate

    Of course, Messanger cannot prove that claim is incorrect, because it’s nearly impossible to disprove sweeping generalizations about how people think. But by that logic, we should be fine with opinion columnists writing ‘Jews generally want to drink the blood of Christian babies’, because we can’t disprove *that* either.

    Immediately after that, Messanger appears to have been tripped up by the questioner because of that inability to disprove George Will’s claim, and said some nonsense in response about not having a specific fact to object to, despite him literally stating the specific fact he objected to in the previous sentence. (1)

    I feel like I’m back in ninth grade debate class here. Do people really not understand that people really do objectively have motives and wants and desires, and thus statements about other people’s motives and wants and desires can be factually incorrect?

    Opinions are subjective statements like ‘Star Wars is overrated’ and ‘This discussion is epically stupid’. However, thoughts inside people’s heads do objectively exist, and statements about them are objectively true or false, just rather hard to prove or disprove.

    1) Or at least a summary of the fact. And it’s entirely possible his summary is wrong. Perhaps that was *not* what George Will was saying.(2) *That* would be a valid objection Tim could have made.

    2) And it’s worth pointing out that that summary *is* slightly misleading, in that George Will was talking about victim status in general, and not sexual assault victim status in specific, although he did specifically mention them in another place in the column. A more honest way to write it would be phrase it like ‘that victims, including sexual assault victims, in any way…’.

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  18. Tim,

    I’m honestly trying to understand your point here. And I think your comments to Tod have helped clarify it. If I interpret you wrongly here, please correct me.

    First, it seems as though your argument depends on Messenger having mean that there was a specific, concrete, factual error, rather than meaning a more generalized inaccuracy. Is that correct, or does your argument also work if what Messenger meant all along was inaccurate in a vague non-concrete sense? And if your take is that Messenger meant a specific factual error, how do you know that? His comment is so non-specific that a plain textual reading admits of both interpretations as possibilities, so how can we be certain–either way–which he meant?

    Second, accepting your foundations as correct, how does this amount to shutting down debate? No newspaper can run all columnists, so it has to make choices. There are any number of reasons why it might choose one columnist over another.* Does saying, “let’s run conservative B instead of conservative A because we don’t like what A said about sexual assault/welfare/foreign aid/abortion/euthanasia really count as trying to shut down political debate?

    If that’s the case, how can newspapers avoid effectively shutting down political debate in their choice of columnists? Can they only use non-political criteria? Is any political basis for choosing one columnist over another–even when they’re both in the same general political camp–implicitly a danger to robust debate?

    I honestly don’t see how your argument plays out here, how it generalizes while still leaving newspapers with editorial discretion.
    ___________________
    *My working theory is the St. Louis paper finally found an excuse to dump him because they were embarrassed to have ever run the columns of such a notorious Cubs fan in the first place.

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  19. This thread is probably dead, but if it’s not, the answer to the question ‘How Many Offended People Does It Take to Make True Facts “Inaccurate”’ is, of course, zero.

    But it’s not like Mr. Will gets the benefit of the doubt when it comes to science. His posts on climate change alone should make any suitably skeptical reader double-check Mr. Will on any scientific claim.

    So, with just a few moments of googling, I found an article at Discover, here that appears to me to be a complete dismantling of Mr. Will’s numbers.

    The actual science behind the numbers matters much more than whether an editor could articulate why he fired Mr. Will.

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