Contrarian Ethics And Ann Althouse

Ann Althouse, the now retired law professor and increasingly active bloggress, is a habitual contrarian. That’s why she is such an interesting and politically unpredictable commentator, and why, though generally left of center by instinct, she so often ends up on the opposite side from the news media. Being a contrarian can be a useful tactic for ethicists too: it provides a bias filter. Since lawyers like Ann are trained to be able to argue both sides of any argument with equal fervor and persuasiveness, picking a position you disagree with and arguing for it anyway is a wonderful way to change your own mind, or to find lines of reasoning that might never have appeared otherwise.

It can be a trap, too, especially in the blogging biz. Having an opinion that isn’t already everywhere on the web makes a blog interesting, attracts comments, and leads to increased traffic and links. Especially in areas where one doesn’t have strong opinions, the tendency to disagree with the obvious or popular opinion becomes its own bias, and undermines trust and integrity. I have my own contrarian streak (I inherited it from my father), and I have to watch it carefully. It is not ethical (it’s unkind) to say or write things primarily because you mostly want to make people’s heads explode. I’ve done it a few times on Ethics Alarms.

This is where I have seen Althouse trending, and here is a recent example.

A column last week by Los Angeles Times writer David Horsey took cheap shots at the appearance of  White House spokesperson in tandem with criticizing her boss’s sexism, writing in part,

“Sarah Huckabee Sanders does not look like the kind of woman Donald Trump would choose as his chief spokesperson…Sanders looks more like a slightly chunky soccer mom who organizes snacks for the kids’ games. Rather than the fake eyelashes and formal dresses she puts on for news briefings, Sanders seems as if she’d be more comfortable in sweats and running shoes….Yet, even if Trump privately wishes he had a supermodel for a press secretary, he is lucky to have Sanders.”

Horsey was called out by some Times readers for using Sanders’ appearance and weight to mock her. He quickly apologized, writing,

“I want to apologize to Times readers — and to Sarah Huckabee Sanders — for a description that was insensitive and failed to meet the standards of our newspaper,It also failed to meet the expectations I have for myself. It surely won’t be my last mistake, but this particular error will be scrupulously avoided in my future commentaries. I’ve removed the offending description.”

I would call that a proper response. Using appearance to bolster substantive criticism is a sub-category of ad hominem attacks. Sanders is pretty bad, but she would be just as bad if she looked like Kate Upton or a lizard. Her appearance, make-up and clothing are completely irrelevant, unless it is unprofessional, and it is not.

Yet Ann, in contrarian mode after praising the cartoon that ran with Horsey’s piece, wrote,

“I like seeing women criticized just as sharply as men, and that means the visual depictions should be just as cruel…It’s sexist not to trash women as viciously as men. And to say that we can’t is to argue against giving women any power. Can’t criticize them, can’t make fun of them. Get ready for a long grim future of That’s not funny. Horsey should have defended himself. What apology weasels we’ve become!”


Women should be criticized just as sharply as men, and men should be criticized based on what they do and say, and not how they look. The fact that nobody goes after a columnist or pundit who mocks the President’s hair, skin shade or weight doesn’t mean it is ethical criticism, and that they shouldn’t be slammed for it. I’d guess two-thirds of the published attacks on Rush Limbaugh focus on his weight. So do pundit critiques of Chris Christy. This isn’t ethical discourse, and vicious isn’t “sharp,” whether the target is male, female, or something else.

Cartoons are completely irrelevant to the discussion. They are humor first, or satire. As I have opined before,  as political commentary editorial page are juvenile, simple-minded (generally created by simple-minded wanna-be pundits who never grew out of making funny-faced drawings of their teachers on blackboards) and archaic, as the cartoon Ann says she likes above demonstrates. The proper parallel to such drawings is to comedians and impressionists, whose professional objective is to provoke laughter. That’s not a political pundit’s first job. His job is to enlighten, and gratuitous attacks on a woman’s appearance—OR a man’s—impede objectivity and fairness while appealing to emotions, bias, and bigotry rather than substance

Horsey’s insults were inexcusable and unprofessional; as Althouse says earlier in her post, “He thought he had Trump-hate privilege.” He was right to apologize.

Get well soon, Ann.


16 thoughts on “Contrarian Ethics And Ann Althouse

  1. Ann is a bit of a sartorial snob I think. I’m not sure this is just her being contrary. Search her blog for her thoughts on men in shorts for instance.

  2. I both agree and disagree with you, Jack. You are correct to point out that the addition of ad hominems such as fat-shaming are unethical in any critical examination of a person. Such statements are attempts at “otherization,” intending to diminish the value of the target’s arguments by making them look somehow less than fully human, or failing that, so flawed as humans that their positions must be mistrusted because they are so flawed in other ways.

    I got Althouse’s point to be the disparity of reaction when the same types of unethical ad hominems are directed at women versus men. If Horsey had directed that same criticism at Trump (replacing “chunky” with “orange” and etc.), the left and women’s rights movement would’ve cheered. Directed at a woman, even a woman with whom they vehemently disagree, they were outraged.

    This is straight-up bias of the meanest sort, and I’m just as guilty of embracing it as the left. I’m so un- “woke” that I still treat women with politeness in excess of how I treat men. I still open doors for them, refer to them as “M’am,” and generally defer to them, and would defend them from attack by others in public. It’s how I was raised, and I’m too old and ornery to change it.

    But still, I see the problem Althouse refers to, and it is a problem.

    • But she comes up with the most absurd solution! The way to address the issue is to avoid fat-shaming, bald-shaming, wrinkle shaming, height-shaming, botox-shaming, etc, etc, in political discourse, with the same rules for everybody. Instead she says people should be just as “vicious” to women as men….indeed, she encourages viciousness!

      • Sometimes viciousness is a useful tactic, like it or not. If you are in a tight political race where a day makes a difference, a vicious attack may knock your opponent off message for that one key day. If you are in a seesaw oral argument, an attack may derail your opponent’s train of thought. An insult can reduce your opponent to nothing more than a caricature. Mark Levin is a master of that.

        Face to face it can be useful if it provokes someone into going off the rails or crossing the line, but you best be ready to defend yourself if you provoke someone into taking a swing at you.

      • It’s my opinion, in response, that she was illustrating absurdity by being absurd. At least, that’s how I’m choosing to take it.

        That might explain the “out of character” tenor of the post, but to me, her apparent point stands made, and agreed with, if not literally her “solution.”

  3. “Since lawyers like Ann are trained to be able to argue both sides of any argument with equal fervor and persuasiveness….”

    No kidding. Reminds me of the joke from the early ‘eighties: How do you know a lawyer is lying? His lips are moving.

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