Ian MacQuillin: If I'm right, you're not necessarily wrong

Controversies are rarely black and white but multiple shades of grey, and it's not healthy for the fundraising profession to pretend otherwise

Ian MacQuillin
Ian MacQuillin

Have you noticed how often people are wrong? That’s other people of course, not you. You’re always right. It’s others who are always wrong.

The logic behind this is irrefutable. Consider a hypothetical argument in which two people take up opposing views: person A argues for proposition A; person B argues for proposition B.

Person A argues for proposition A because they believe it is correct. And if it is correct, then proposition B has to be wrong and person B is obviously mistaken. They are ill-informed at best and a complete idiot at worst.

Person A couldn’t possibly be wrong, because if they were that would make them ill-informed or an idiot (or both), which they clearly are not.

It’s bad enough when we’re discussing factual propositions for which there is an evidence base, which can tip the argument one way or another, if person B (or A) is just prepared to listen to it. Fundraising is awash with such debates, one in particular being the question of whether to use consent or legitimate interest as the basis for contacting existing donors (answers on a postcard please).

A different situation occurs when what is being discussed is a moral issue, because the person on the "wrong" side of the debate is then not just ill-informed and/or an idiot, they are also morally bankrupt: they are a bad person for advocating such dangerous rubbish and are called out for it.

In fundraising we can look to the current movement to call out sexual harassment in the profession as an unambiguously moral issue. You cannot, in good conscience, argue that fundraisers should not be protected from such behaviour.

But a problem arises when what should be a factual issue is conflated with a moral one, when matters that should be decided on the balance of evidence become matters of personal moral belief for which the facts don’t matter. When this happens, critics of a particular position are decried (or shouted down) as being morally wrong rather than presenting a different interpretation of the available evidence around which they can be engaged. This is the point at which ad hominem arguments, which attack the person making the arguments rather than the points they raise, appear.

And with many emotive issues coming to the fore at the moment, we are beginning to see this in fundraising.

To a degree, this happened with the headlong rush to prioritise consent over legitimate interest, where consent was presented as the morally right choice and arguments in favour of legitimate interest were discounted.

But over the past few months, I’ve seen fundraisers attacked on social media for having a different opinion to the (moral) majority view on a whole range of contentious issues.

It is not healthy for an emerging profession striving for chartered status to be stifling debate and discussion about important issues by presenting opponents as morally, rather than factually, in error.

Most controversies can’t be resolved into clear black-and-white poles; most are laid out on a spectrum of myriad shades of grey. This means that the person with opposing views to you probably does not hold diametrically opposite moral opinions but is somewhere on the grey scale in interpreting the evidence base differently to you.

So please, treat both them and their argument with respect, especially if theirs is a lone voice and almost everyone else you know agrees with you. Just because everyone else shares your opinion, you (and everyone else) might still be wrong, and it’s that dissenting voice that could actually be closer, on that grey spectrum, to something that resembles the truth.

Ian MacQuillin is director of the think tank Rogare

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