The reaction to the arrest of Julian Assange, with "celebrities" coming to his defence, reminds me of that to the arrest of Roman Polanski last year.
I don’t mean to draw any parallels between the gravity of the offences with which they are charged, nor with their degree of innocence or guilt*. Instead, I mean that comparable cognitive biases are involved.
One is the halo effect, reinforced by wishful thinking. Just as Polanski’s supporters could not believe that a great film-maker could also be a sex criminal, so people who cheer Assange’s embarrassing of the US security system don’t want to believe that their hero is guilty of, well, something. As Cath says:
The left finds itself a new poster boy, and suddenly leftie so-called feminist men are falling all over each other in their haste to defend him**.
Assange’s opponents are guilty of the opposite vice, of assuming that men who pursue bad causes are themselves bad. Both sides are thinking in naïve “white hat/black hat" terms - of believing that the good guys are all good and the bad guys all bad.
Underpinning this halo effect, I fear, is the poisoning the well fallacy. There’s an assumption - shared by Assange’s supporters and opponents - that if Assange were convicted, it would discredit the Wikileaks project. But as Robert says, this is plain wrong.
The fact is that it’s perfectly possible for men who are good, even heroic, in some respects to fall short in others.
The belief to the contrary seems to me to be a naïve form of the fundamental attribution error, a belief not only that character rather than environment determines actions, but also that there is a single, unified thing as “character” which is either “good” or “bad”.
This view strikes me as not only untrue in many cases - I’m not speaking of Assange - but, worse, uninteresting. “Character” is not so much a thing as a statistical distribution.
The more interesting cases, and perhaps the more numerous, are when we see different drawings from that distribution - as when the US was founded by bastards, drunks and thieves, or a bellicose bigoted fool recognized the Nazi threat before anyone else, or when cranks, hypocrites and prigs ameliorated British social conditions in the 19th century.
It is, surely, only bad thinking, reinforced by sham pop history and culture, that cause us to think our heroes must be all good and our villains all bad.
* I shouldn’t have to write such words, but I fear many of my potential commenters are prone to legalism and moralizing.
** In truth, some leftists mightn’t like Assange’s politics, which only reinforces my broader point.