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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Signing stuff

Now and then, I'm asked to sign public declarations, manifestos, or letters - material drafted by other people who ask if I'm prepared to sign up. Sometimes I add my name; sometimes I don't. The question arises as to when we should and should not sign such things, and my own answer is (usually) fairly simple: I'll sign something if I am in full agreement with it. General agreement is not enough, unless provision is made explicitly for general agreement that is subject to reservations. Even then, I might hesitate and decide against it. The trouble with signing something that you don't fully agree with is that you may be stuck with people thinking you hold those views ... stuck with it for the rest of your life. There's enough confusion about what I really think as it is; I believe it's best not to add to it.

All in all, then, I'm unlikely to sign something unless I agree with it completely (and not just when the document is interpreted in some recondite way). I need to feel that what I'm signing my name to is something that I really do agree with - and I agree with the sentiments expressed in the sense in which well-informed people are likely to take them. If the document is patently ambiguous, I'm going to hesitate to sign.

The moral is that your best chance of getting me to sign something is to write a screed that's very clear and simple, without too many tangential messages that you want to get across and certainly with no ambit claims. Ambit claims are for lawyers or industrial bodies like trade unions. They set the formal boundaries of a claim that is always intended to be negotiable. If I'm asked to sign something as an individual person, it is going to have to state what I seriously think or want, not a formal position that I'm proposing to negotiate back from.

I probably haven't always been consistent in following the above guidelines, but they seem like good ones and they represent the way I usually think. So please keep your claims (in the sense of demands and in the sense of assertions) simple and realistic if you want me to sign something you're writing.

But what if I do actually agree wholeheartedly with something that you want me to add my name to? Will I ever have good reasons to refuse to sign anyway? Probably. I can't rule it out. But what would they be?

I'm going to come back to this, dear readers, but what do you think? In what cases would you be unwilling to put your name, publicly, to a position that you actually agree with (and without any reservations or creative interpretations)? Inquiring minds want to know.


DEEN said...

"In what cases would you be unwilling to put your name, publicly, to a position that you actually agree with (and without any reservations or creative interpretations)?"

The first case that comes to mind is when I don't agree in important ways with the organization that issues the statement. If the Church of Scientology would issue a statement in support of world peace, I would still not sign it. I would not want to create the impression I support them.

I don't know if I would need full agreement or if general agreement with the organization is enough, though. Probably general agreement would do.

Greg Egan said...

At the risk of stating the obvious, most manifestos are exercises in narcissism and most petitions are utterly pointless. And not having won the Nobel Peace Prize or even starred in a Hollywood movie, my name on a petition per se will generally add very little to its power to persuade its intended target. In most contexts, it takes tens or hundreds of thousands of signatories to have the slightest influence on anyone. (I was involved in a petition to Amanda Vanstone asking her to free Peter Qasim. We collected more than 4,000 signatures. It had no effect whatsoever.)

So the whole question for me is efficacy. The accurate "recording" of my own precise opinion on various matters is beside the point. But if there's a context where a government or organisation might plausibly be swayed by a sufficiently large number of petitioners, and the outcome being sought is one that I wish to see myself, then I'm happy to add my name to the list -- in the spirit of being one member of a vast army tearing down a tyrant's walls. And unless the fine print is actually repugnant, it's the likely outcome that really matters.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Another case that comes to mind is if I'm leery of being associated with those who've already signed the letter. Imagine a petition in favor of doing solid science that ended up signed by people into alt-med woo, like Bill Maher.