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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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A Teachable Moment
I mentioned on Facebook the other week that one of my pet marking peeves this year (they operate on a strict rotation basis) is the habit of saying "it could be argued that X", rather than simply "X". It always strikes me as evasive, a way of saying "I'm going to float an idea, and if you agree with it I'll take the credit, but if you don't then I wasn't advocating it, okay?"

Thanks to stormdog I just saw the perfect illustration of this tactic, although not using that exact phrase, from Nigel Farage - who I bet scattered "It could be argued that" all over his school essays. It's in this article about the reaction to the London bombings on Fox News. Were internment camps a good way to go, mused the incisive analysts of Fox? (For the benefit of those reading outside the UK, no mainstream British politician - by which for this purpose I mean a politician from a party with more MPs than zero - has suggested it.)

Who better to ask than Nigel Farage? Like one of my bet-hedging students (Farage was a professional bet-hedger when he worked in the City, trading commodities, and the instinct is still strong) Farage doesn't call for internment. He says (of people on police watch lists) "if there is not action, then the calls for internment will grow" and, "unless we see the government getting tough, you will see public calls for those 3,000 to be arrested".

Did he just call for internment? Of course not - how dare you suggest such a thing! He was merely acting as a commentator! (Unless it happens, and then he'll be able to say he was brave enough to float the idea.)

And then of course, along comes Katie Hopkins of the Daily Heil like the organ-grinder's monkey, repeating his sentiment but minus the hedge, proving Farage's words true in the process: “We do need internment camps.” What a double act!

A few people on Facebook were bemused by my dislike of "It could be argued that", implying that it was perhaps a bit over the top. This is why I try to drum into people that it's a cowardly and dishonest tactic, whether you're talking about the date of a sonnet or the best reaction to an atrocity.

Nigel Farage uses it, for heaven's sake!

I don't think I ever wrote an essay that didn't contain "It could be argued that...". It is a cowardly thing, I see that now, but then I was never brave, and unlike Farage, was never actually 100 per cent sure that I was right.

Disappointed in May for saying "things must change". This is just what the terrorists want. It could be argued that things must in fact carry on, in defiance.

It could indeed - if only someone would argue it!

If that's not a reason to forgo using it I don't know what is.

I hate it too! I always write "Are you arguing this or not? Make up your mind!"

The way Farage uses it is just another variant of playing devil's advocate, conducting a social experiment or whatever the excuse du jour is for voicing anti-social opinions. On the other hand, it can also be used to illuminate an issue from several sides.

For example, it could be argued that this phrase is often used by people who are just hedging their bets. While that may be true, the phrase can also be used to state and discuss different arguments around an issue, without necessarily taking sides. It's useful for that purpose, so I hope it won't predispose people to dismissing what I say.

I agree, there is a legitimate use of the phrase, for example in response to a question of the form, "How might one justify the death penalty?", etc. However, I've yet to encounter that kind of usage in a student essay (and I've been marking them for almost three decades now). If I were teaching philosophy or even law it might be different.

Farage, of course, was not hedging because of any diffidence on his part, but because he's a weasel. His project is to shift the terms of public debate as far to the right as possible, but he's careful not to tread too heavily in case the ice breaks under him. That's why it's useful to have an idiot like Katie Hopkins to galumph on ahead.