The Burden of Proof

The culture wars are heating up again, and that’s got me thinking about having something to prove.

We, by and large, like who we are, and we like the way we’re living our lives. We may feel the need to tweak here and there, or reflect on practices that we might feel questionably about. But, overall, most people are pretty comfortable being themselves.

So when a culture warrior on any side of the debate appears and points out something that they claim is wrong with the way I’m living my life, it’s important to track down on whom the burden of justification falls. What do I mean by that?

We engage in a lot of different behaviors every day, at home, at work, at play. And most of them seem more or less benign – we don’t have to justify them to anyone. If I feel the need to attach my rolls of toilet paper in an overhand fashion, you can debate me on the merits, but it’s ultimately up to you to explain to me why I should switch. The burden of proof (that my practice should change) falls on you.

There are, it follows then, practices for which the burden of justification falls on the person doing the action. If someone I don’t know opens my front door and starts spraying a chemical on my floor, then they had better justify what they’re doing or I’m calling the cops. They have to prove to me why they are allowed to be in my house spraying. (Hopefully I’ve called an exterminator?) I don’t have to give them a lecture on personal spaces and prove to them why they shouldn’t be spraying.

This is of utmost importance when dealing with hypothetical situations that seem to be controlled by other criteria – like, for example, marriage equality. One opposing argument you may come cross if you support the right of gay couples to get married is the objection: “if we relax the male-female rule for marriage, what rules can stand? Why can’t men marry children and dogs and six women and computers?”

Note what’s happened here: I (the marriage equality activist) placed the burden of justification on my opponent (Mr. Strawman). What Mr. Strawman did was attempt to shift the burden of proof back onto me despite the fact that it still belongs on him. When gays marry – it’s been said before – it says nothing about anyone else’s marriage. So the burden of justification rests on those who want to prevent gay marriage: why shouldn’t consenting gay folks have the right to the same piece of paper I can get after an afternoon at the courthouse?

Conversely, the burden of justification would rest on someone who was forty-five and wanted to marry an eight-year-old. Given the potential for harm in that situation, the burden of proof would rest squarely on the shoulders of the man who wanted to call the decidedly unequal relationship between an adult and a child a ‘marriage’. (Not that legitimate marriages can’t be unequal. They can. But this scenario doesn’t even allow for equal relationships.)

Awareness of the burden of proof is an important feature of public debate, and ‘slippery slope’ arguments often try to shift the justification back to a person who really doesn’t need to be on the defensive.

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