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To be sure

January 2, 2015

Today I was reading Justice, Gender and the Politics of Multiculturalism by Sarah Song, as part of the research for my PhD thesis, ‘Should a Liberal State Ban the Burqa?’, and I noted that Professor Song is a serial user of the formulation ‘To be sure’, used to make a seeming-concession to an opposed viewpoint, which one then immediately snatches back. The book itself is quite good, and useful for my purposes; its central argument in favour of ‘right-respecting accommodationism’ (ie the view that states should accommodate the needs of minority groups as long as this doesn’t infringe the rights of others, including the rights of minorities within the minorities) seems fine to me. But I’m not a fan of to be sure. In the first place there is something glib about it; it’s an acknowledgement that an opposing view exists, but only a token one. Then again, the predictability, indeed the inevitability that the next sentence will begin with But or However is tiresome. Worst of all, it nearly always heralds what I have called the ‘Last Proposition Wins Fallacy’. In other words, the writer has two opposed views or considerations in mind, and the one that comes first, introduced by the words to be sure, is only put up in order to be succeeded by the one the writer favours or agrees with, which is presented as the winner just because it comes last. It is merely a rhetorical technique, having nothing to do with logic.

This can be seen by the fact that one can simply reverse the order with no sense of illogicality. For example: “To be sure, the rights of individuals should be respected in a liberal society. However, it is important for states to secure the conditions within which minority cultures can survive and flourish”. Or: “To be sure, it is important for states to secure the conditions within which minority cultures can survive and flourish. However, the rights of individuals should be respected in a liberal society”. What’s the difference? Only that in the first version the writer prioritises group rights, and in the second the writer prioritises individual rights; but no actual argument is given in either case.

I don’t think any self-respecting philosopher should use it. To be fair to Song, she is not in fact a philosopher, but a Professor of Law.

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  1. Mark Brafield permalink

    Not exactly the same thing, but this construction reminds me of an idiom used repeatedly by Peter Ackroyd in his otherwise outstanding biography of Charles Dickens, where he comments that ‘it would not be wonderful’ if something were to have happened. I always thought that this phrase sounded awkward, and somehow seemed to imply the opposite, namely, that the particular occurrence in question was a wonderful event (rather than being unsurprising or an everyday occurrence). This phrase jarred with me until I re – read Bleak House where Dickens observes in the opening paragraph that London was so foggy and muddy that ‘it would not be wonderful’ (in modern language, ‘it would not be surprising’) to see a megalosaurus waddling up Holborn Hill.

    Clearly, Ackroyd has lifted the phrase from Dickens, either unconsciously, or in a deliberate attempt to identify himself with the novelist. (I later learned that Ackroyd read every piece of Dickens’ writing, prose and letters, three times over before starting the biography).

    At school, one of my teachers (did you ever have Tim Jones ?) once suggested to me that when writing critically about an author, you should adopt his own style and outlook in your criticism. At the time I thought this was the acme of sophistication, but thinking about it now it seems to me that this lacks distance and thus (stylistic) objectivity. Clearly, Ackroyd has no such qualms.

    Postscript; for an extraordinary example of a writer identifying with Dickens, I unhesitatingly recommend David Madden’s uncannily accurate completion of ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’. It is a cracking read in its own right, quite apart from the miraculous extent to which he captures Dickens’ voice and rhythm.

  2. Thanks Mark. Yes, I do remember Tim Jones. I liked him. But that advice about trying to adopt the style of the author you are writing about sounds odd to me (unless one is trying to be satirical).

    I’ll certainly read Madden’s completion of ‘Drood’. It’s always frustrated me that it is unfinished. Thanks for the tip!

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