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The Credibility Trap [Max Fisher / Vox]

April 30, 2016

The use of the “credibility” argument as a talking point in favor of aggressive foreign policy has been a pet peeve of mine for a while.

A Vox article describes how the “reputation theory” underlying this talking point has been thoroughly debunked.

I want to take it further, however. My main objection is that, in addition to being logically false in light of the facts, the term “credibility” is intentionally misleading. A cheap rhetorical trick of using an ambiguous word choice, to conceal the shoddy reasoning the speaker is presenting.

This is because it brings to mind positive connotations of a vaguely similar, yet quite different word, “trustworthiness“, but it is typically used in contexts where it means “reputation”, “respect”, “authority”, and most specifically and least flatteringly, “ability to intimidate”.

Read the following sentences, imagine a US politicians and statesman/woman says them.

  1. We must take action in Country X, to ensure we have respect in world affairs.
  2. We must take action in Country X, to ensure we have a good reputation in world affairs.
  3. We must take action in Country X, to ensure we have authority in world affairs.
  4. We must take action in Country X, to ensure we have ability to intimidate in world affairs.
  5. We must take action in Country X, to ensure we have credibility in world affairs.

All but the last one sound a little off. The first two call attention to our association of respect or reputation with (typically) very assertive actions (and this is debunked per the Vox article). The second two raise some troubling questions: What exactly is our authority to be the world’s policeman? If we are so concerned about ability to intimidate, how does that square with our deisire to have the “moral high ground”?

The word credibility is special in that it goes down the smoothest, whitewashes the context of the argument, and actually draws attention away from the “reputation theory” and the bunk logic that is being sold.

[ I got the Vox link was via The Observer ]

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