I strongly believe in this question.
January 29, 2008 10:19 AM   Subscribe

"Ann Coulter doesn't even believe anything she says!" Really? Are there any cases of a writer or pundit who turned out not to believe the positions s/he took?

This claim never rings true to me -- I don't think it's satisfying for most people to argue passionately for causes they don't really believe in. But perhaps this really does happen sometimes. I'm not talking about something like the Sokal Hoax, or a writer who tries to defuse a controversy by claiming, "It's just a satire." I'm looking for cases where someone strongly advocated positions s/he didn't believe for financial gain, publicity, or some other similar motive. (Although I suppose it would be hard to know for sure; the writer's later denials might be false.)
posted by transona5 to Society & Culture (34 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I know lawyers who do it everyday. I think it would be much harder for a writer to defend passionately anything written not believed.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:22 AM on January 29, 2008

Where money and fame is involved I'd say you could lump in quite a few that don't believe what they say but still haven't admitted it...a majority working for FOX. ;)
posted by samsara at 10:23 AM on January 29, 2008

White house press secretaries. They lie professionally.

It's not about being satisfied by arguing passionately for a cause they don't believe in. It's the money, the power, the attention that's rewarding.
posted by milarepa at 10:31 AM on January 29, 2008

Yeah, I guess I'm talking more about writers and commentators, where there's a presumption that they do believe what they say, than lawyers.
posted by transona5 at 10:31 AM on January 29, 2008

Steven Colbert seems like a pretty obvious example here, though one that's particularly easy to see through.
posted by Rallon at 10:37 AM on January 29, 2008

This does seem to be a more interesting question than it appears--my first two immeadiate thoughts were L. Ron Hubbard and Adolf Hitler... but then I realized that I didn't know whether they were cynical or insane.
posted by Squid Voltaire at 10:44 AM on January 29, 2008

Squid Voltaire: I didn't know whether they were cynical or insane.

You make it sound as if the two are mutually exclusive.
posted by adamrice at 10:46 AM on January 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Bush White House lied 935 times during the lead-up to the Iraq war. I'm guessing they knew they were lying.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 10:51 AM on January 29, 2008

John Dvorak has readily admitted to baiting Mac users with inflammatory/deceiving words to drive readership/page views to his columns.
posted by jaimev at 10:53 AM on January 29, 2008

I'm thinking more along the lines of fake opinion than fake facts; I think Bush really did believe we should invade Iraq (if not for the reasons he said) and made up some facts to support his position.
posted by transona5 at 10:54 AM on January 29, 2008

There is a fictional account of just this in Ender's Game. The side-story of Ender's siblings has the brother and sister writing articles (blogs?) on the Net where they force themselves to take the other's position on issues.
posted by trinity8-director at 10:57 AM on January 29, 2008

It is common for closeted homosexuals (particularly if they are also public figures and/or religious leaders and/or Republicans), to argue vehemently that homosexuality is wrong.
posted by wabashbdw at 11:01 AM on January 29, 2008

How about here at Metafilter? The whole dhoyt/highsignal/hall of robots/jenleigh thing? There are others here who have spoken openly about being contrarian, arguing whichever side of an issue that's opposite of the mainstream, regardless of their own beliefs.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:02 AM on January 29, 2008

Are there any cases of a writer or pundit who turned out not to believe the positions s/he took?

This is called trolling. It happens all over the internets, metafilter not excepted.
posted by dersins at 11:14 AM on January 29, 2008

Didn't dhoyt's sockpuppets argue positions he agreed with? I think most people have a compulsion to advocate for their real beliefs even if they create a fake persona. I have heard a couple stories of people arguing with themselves online, though, without even using one of the sockpuppets to argue the opposing position in a deliberately weak or ridiculous way.
posted by transona5 at 11:14 AM on January 29, 2008

This is called trolling. It happens all over the internets, metafilter not excepted.

Well, that's the thing (sorry to keep posting in my own thread): I wonder if real trolling, in the pure sense of making some outrageous statement just to get a reaction, is actually extremely rare.
posted by transona5 at 11:16 AM on January 29, 2008

The nature of belief makes this a slightly more complicated question than it appears at first. Cognitive Dissonance theory would seem to indicate that even if someone initially did not believe in a proposition, if they publicly defend that proposition they will eventually come to believe it. People don't like to think of themselves as liars, and it is often easier to convince oneself that a given proposition is true than it is to alter one's actions by no longer defending it.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:24 AM on January 29, 2008

As far as Ann Coulter goes, I don't think anyone (well, me at least) doubts that she genuinely holds conservative beliefs. It just seems like anytime she has a book coming out there includes a passage (or she'll make a statement that is) so outrageously over-the-top and inflammatory (such as the 9/11 widows comment) as to make me suspect it is an exaggeration of (as to opposed to a fabrication of) her genuine viewpoint, intended solely to generate publicity. Which is a whole different thing than what you're suggesting, which is arbitrarily choosing a viewpoint that is diametrically opposed to your own for the purposes of creating almost a fictional persona for professional reasons.

For a more direct example of what you're looking for, I would suggest David Brock
posted by The Gooch at 11:25 AM on January 29, 2008

And you might check out Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Elliot Aronson and Carol Tavris for an interesting recent take concerning the aforementioned phenomenon.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:28 AM on January 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oops. Here's the correct link for the book.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:30 AM on January 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Wasn't there something recently about Mother Theresa being revealed to have had doubts about the religious beliefs that she professed strongly?
posted by peacheater at 11:32 AM on January 29, 2008

In public speaking class I chose the topic of arguing that refined sugar was pretty much from the devil himself. After giving the speech I returned to my seat and my friend turned to me and exclaimed, "I can't believe you don't eat sugar products!" I then told her that I do indeed consume such treasures and had just previously to giving the speech eaten a candy bar (Milky Way Dark . . . mmmm . . .). But, I chose that topic because I knew it would get a few hackles up and it was an easily prepared speech, pretty much guaranteeing me an A, which I got.
posted by Sassyfras at 11:42 AM on January 29, 2008

It's a little hard to believe that Coulter really endorses the disenfranchisement of herself, and I suspect she's a performance artist.

Likewise, it's a little hard to believe Rush Limbaugh was really sincere in all his scathing commentary on drug addicts, for instance.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 11:45 AM on January 29, 2008

Likewise, it's a little hard to believe Rush Limbaugh was really sincere in all his scathing commentary on drug addicts, for instance.

Actions that appear hypocritical don't tell us anything about what someone really believes. It's entirely possible for Rush Limbaugh to be a drug addict and also be entirely sincere in criticizing drug addicts. The book I linked to above mentions him specifically as an example of its thesis.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:48 AM on January 29, 2008

Isn't this true of advertising copywriters in general?

What about Carlos Castaneda? Lobsang Rampa/Cyril Hoskin? And if you include literary hoaxes in your criteria, you can find plenty.

I'm sure a little research could dig up Soviet authors who wrote one thing but thought another too.

Finally, when people say Coulter doesn't believe what she says, they are talking about her outrageous exaggerations and slurs, not her ideology.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:59 AM on January 29, 2008

I think that some pundits suffer a commentariat variant on the sunk cost fallacy in business, where they believe that the amount of time/emotion/face "invested" in a line of thinking will be "wasted" unless they continue to invest time/emotion/face in it. In fact, that investment was already a "sunk cost", ie completely wasted, a dead loss, and the sane thing to do would be to abandon the line of thought and make a clean break of it. But no, on they trudge, investing more and more into the loss, looking more and more absurd as their arguments become more and more tortured and further and further from reality ... Anatole Kaletsky and Mark Steyn are both in the grip of this fallacy. Kaletsky consistently makes economic predictions that turn out to be completely untrue, and his justifications are comical. Steyn is a neocon commentator who hs been so wrong about everything GWOT-wise that you have to wonder how he gets out of bed in the mornings. Martin Amis might be heading into the fallacy, if he isn't already past the point of no return. What these people actually believe is besides the point, it's all about maintaining face.

I am in blood stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er -- Macbeth
posted by WPW at 12:04 PM on January 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

This is not quite the same as arguing for an opinion, but similar:

I can't find the name to go with this, but I once read this story in the obituary of a famous sports columnist. The publisher of the paper evaluated how many readers a columnist had by how much mail the columnist received. So this guy would occasionally deliberately mis-state a sports statistic, resulting in hundreds of letters saying "no, it was .323, not .332" etc.

I suspect that the desire to provoke a response can warp what any columnist writes.
posted by winston at 12:09 PM on January 29, 2008

Likewise, it's a little hard to believe Rush Limbaugh was really sincere in all his scathing commentary on drug addicts, for instance.

My brother died of an oxycodone overdose. Trust me, oxy addicts don't think of themselves as "drug addicts."
posted by ethnomethodologist at 12:41 PM on January 29, 2008

Fire and brimstone preachers count, right? Marjoe Gortner was a travelling preacher/faith healer who didn't believe a word of it and made a documentary about it called Marjoe. Interview here.
posted by heatherann at 1:16 PM on January 29, 2008

Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly are actors. The former was a DJ and the latter was a host of tabloid show "Inside Edition". Both have found found fortune by pretending to be a "voice" for the angry, ignorant American who abhors compassion and resists change.
posted by Jay Reimenschneider at 2:09 PM on January 29, 2008

If you are talking about changing their minds, Arianna Huffington was a conservative; now she's a liberal. Some believe that she didn't really believe the first perspective; some argue that she doesn't believe her current point of view. I think she actually changed her mind.

Brock is an example of another person who changed perspective, rather than didn't believe, I think.

The "neocons" started on the left-- hence the "neo." There are now some that have returned to the fold-- is Michael Lind an example? i can't remember.

Regarding addicts: many addicts don't think of themselves as addicts, others are just filled with self-hate so they support their own oppression. Similarly with the gay people who try to stamp out homosexuality. it's hard to say what anyone "really" believes. it shifts.
posted by Maias at 4:09 PM on January 29, 2008

I go with "troll" as an archetype here. I know that I don't think that way, but long exposure on the internets has led me to the inescapable conclusion that others do indeed say things just to fuck with you. The forum is a game to them that they're trying to win, or more likely they're just attention-starved in some broken way. In some cases, they may be genuinely mentally ill.

(My niece is a classic case. She's oppositional defiant, so she will literally oppose you just for the sake of the negative interaction.)

I truly believe, for example, that Jonah Goldberg -- being a smart college graduate -- knows that liberalism and fascism are, well, not so much mutually exclusive as resulting from different motivations. His book makes hardly one persuasive case. But he gets a kick out of spinning the "lib'ruls" into a lather by comparing them to something he's hated to be compared to for so long.

Free Republic used to have inexhaustible phalanxes of the type.

I was also trolled in real life by someone that I later dated. Long story short, it wasn't until years later that I realized she was pulling my leg in one of our early conversations, and I always wondered what her memory of it was once we became friends. She also liked to pull stunts like turning the tables on the social convention that in the elevator you stare at the ceiling: she would make eye contact with people just to see their reaction. So I know there are people who can even do this during intimate personal interaction, not just when someone is represented by pixels.

Maybe it's just my mild Asperger's tendencies (geek syndrome, social tone-deafness), but it's very hard for me to even visualize doing such things myself.
posted by dhartung at 2:55 AM on January 30, 2008

I think trolling is only a subset of what's described here. Trolling is making a statement one doesn't believe in with the intent of provoking anargument, outraged, response, etc. Someone may also make a statement he doesn't believe in, because he wants to examine whether his beliefs hold up to scrutiny, or because he simply enjoys the debate. (Note: debate ≠ argument) I can't seem to recall the name for this latter type of activity...
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 4:18 AM on January 30, 2008

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