Asking Serious People Silly Questions

I've written before about the media's inability to talk about the issue of marijuana legalization without turning into eighth graders, peppering their stories with references to Cheech & Chong and making generally idiotic stoner references ("Put down those Doritos and turn down that Dead bootleg—a new policy statement from the Office of National Drug Control Policy could be a serious buzz-cruncher!"). Whether this is changing now that Washington and Colorado passed decriminalization schemes in the last election and momentum is building in other states for similar measures, I'm not sure. But Mark Kleiman, who has done extensive research on the potential consequences of drug legalization and is now acting as a consultant to the state of Washington as it finds its way toward implementing the law the voters there passed, found himself confronted with a smirking Erin Burnett on CNN, who wanted to know whether he's a pot smoker or not, and handled it perfectly. "I don't think there's any ill will involved in asking the question," he wrote afterward, "journalists simply want to 'place' their sources culturally on the hippie-to-jock spectrum. But I want to resist the whole idea that drug policy should be a clash of cultural identities rather than a serious discussion of harms and benefits." Lo and behold, once he set her straight she had actual substantive questions to ask him, so it worked out fine.

This raises an interesting question, though. Just how capable are we of divorcing our beliefs about the people involved in public debate from the content of their arguments? And should we? Obviously, when you bring your ideas into the public arena, you bring your identity as well.1Or as Aristotle would say, you're arguing not just with logos and pathos but also with ethos. We all probably believe we have the intellectual clear-headedness to evaluate the arguments we hear on their own merits regardless of whose mouth they come out of, but in the real world that almost never happens.

Personally, I find Mark Kleiman's ideas about drug policy worth listening to not because of whether he does or doesn't get high, but because he's a professor of public policy who has done a lot of research on this issue, and knows more about it than I ever will. At the same time, it's perfectly possible (albeit unlikely) that the next time he goes on television he'll say something stupid that could be easily dismissed, all of his knowledge and qualifications notwithstanding. But I take what he says more seriously than, say, some dude interviewed outside of a marijuana dispensary in Colorado Springs. The problem isn't that Erin Burnett is wrong to point to who Kleiman is as opposed to just what he's saying, it's that she asked the wrong question. She didn't do it because of some sinister agenda, or that she was trying to dismiss him as nothing more than a hippie, it's just that when you bring up the issue of marijuana, journalists tend to get all giggly. But we all take the identity of the people we're listening to as an indication of whether we can trust them, and accept or reject what they're saying in large part on that basis. The trick is figuring out which kinds of identity make those judgments meaningful, and which are irrelevant.

You may also like