When you are subject to “guilt by association,” what can you do?
In the early 1980s in Western countries around the world, there was a massive citizen mobilisation against nuclear war. Critics — defenders of Western military strength, including nuclear weapons — attacked the movement by claiming it was a tool of the Soviet Union, and that Communists were involved. These critics used the tactic of “guilt by association”: if Communists supported the movement, or were in the movement, this discredited the entire movement.
Repressive governments use the same technique. They claim that opponents are funded by the CIA or are tools of other foreign powers.
Guilt by association can also be used to discredit individuals. In the 1960s and 1970s, the leading US critic of fluoridation was Dr George Waldbott, a doctor and researcher, author of numerous publications. The American Dental Association compiled a dossier titled “Comments on the opponents of fluoridation” listing various individuals with far-out ideas, reactionary groups like the Ku Klux Klan — and a few scientists, including Waldbott, with damaging statements about him.
This dossier was circulated for years whenever Waldbott gave talks or testified to legislatures. It served to discredit him by associating him with crackpots and political fanatics. (See Scientific Knowledge in Controversy, and search for “dossier”.)
Reputations under attack
This is the third in a series of posts about dealing with unfair attacks on reputation. Since the 1970s, I’ve advised hundreds of people who contacted me about being defamed. Each case is different and the best option for one person may not work for someone else, so I will suggest several options for consideration. Other posts deal with false statements, derogatory labelling, malicious gossip and online attacks.
“Guilt by association” refers to a process by which the reputation of a person or group is hurt by being linked to a person, group, belief system or activity that is widely stigmatised. The word “guilt” is a bit misleading. The process might better be called “denigration by association” or “stigma by association.”
This process is found in all sorts of circumstances. Some people will not buy or live in a house where a foul murder was committed. The house is tainted by association with the murder, and buyers don’t want to be tainted by association with the house. This connection might be called superstitious; it is founded on stigma by association. Another example: it is common for children of known criminals to be bullied at school. A moment’s thought should be enough to realise that the children are not responsible for the crimes of their parents.
Guilt by association is a powerful process because it operates without conscious deliberation. It is an automatic reaction and hence difficult to challenge.
Guilt by association is an attack on reputation, and often quite an unfair one. It is not about some transgression or failing by you or your group, but rather just about your connection with someone or something that is negatively perceived. Logically, an association should be carefully probed to assess its significance. If left-wing or right-wing extremists support your cause, does it mean your cause is any less worthy? The onus of proof should be on those who make the attack but, alas, it’s usually the other way around. Those subject to a guilt-by-association attack need to figure out how to defend. There are several options.
The association may be so toxic that you want to distance yourself from the stigmatised linkage. Leaders of nonviolent movements might decide to condemn anyone or any group that uses violence, even those with the same aims.
A guilt-by-association attack on a group can lead to internal strife. A political party might expel members with viewpoints hurting its reputation. The disowning option may come with a high cost.
Instead of disowning an association, a completely different approach is to accept it, even to welcome it. “Our group is open to anyone who shares our aims. We don’t discriminate.” Can you get away with this? It depends. The broader and stronger the group, the safer it is to use the acceptance option.
When criticised over your associations, you can counter by pointing to the critic’s unsavoury connections. If you’re linked to left-wing extremists, you can point to your critic’s links to right-wing extremists.
This can be a potent response, especially when critics are obviously hypocritical. Nevertheless, there’s an important drawback in this response: it cements the use of guilt-by-association techniques.
You might try to explain why stigma from an association is not logical. You can say that just because you live next door to a convicted criminal doesn’t mean you’re less than honest. In fact, it might show your tolerance, generosity and forgiveness. Explanations are valuable when others listen and stop to think.
Sometimes you can just ignore attempts to discredit you using guilt by association. Maybe you don’t care or maybe you realise that by defending against the implied allegations, you simply draw more attention to them.
Honour by association
A potent counter to stigma by association is to make connections with people or things that are highly valued. This is called reflected glory or honour by association. You didn’t do anything special but knowing a celebrity or brain surgeon gives you greater status.
Honour by association is all around us. You might think you’re not susceptible to this process because, after all, it’s just an association and the positive spin-off is not sensible. Consider some examples.
- Selfies taken with prestigious or good-looking people or locations.
- Name-dropping: mentioning famous or accomplished people you’ve known, met or even just seen. The opposite is name-withholding: you don’t mention low-status individuals you’ve known.
- In academic work, citing well-known intellectuals, but not obscure ones.
- Having prestigious figures as patrons for your organisation.
- Having high-status individuals as referees for job applications rather than lower-status individuals who know you better.
- Barracking for a sporting team that is doing well, but dropping away when they’re not.
- Choosing to live in a high-status suburb.
- Attending a prestigious university rather than an equally good but lower status one.
- Entering a respected occupation (doctor, lawyer).
- Attending talks by famous people (rather than equally informative talks by others).
- Owning a nice house, car, watch, clothes, etc., and making sure others see your possessions.
- Being seen with good-looking or popular people.
These examples suggest the powerful role of honour by association in the way societies operate, especially ones driven by materialism, in which striving for status through possessions and titles, for getting ahead, takes precedence over the quest for a virtuous life. Honour by association is important in politics: politicians acquire status mainly through their positions, not their achievements. Indeed, being prominent is often thought of as an achievement itself, as in the case of celebrities who are famous for being well known.
Although honour by association is often an unconscious process and used to serve dubious purposes, there is nothing wrong with using it for worthwhile goals. Consider the circumstances of people with intellectual disabilities, who are often shunned and looked down upon. Wolf Wolfensberger developed an approach called social role valorisation, or SRV, to enhance the lives of people with disabilities.
Part of SRV is promoting positive images through enhanced competencies and favourable associations. Honour by association comes from being well dressed in the company of valued individuals, living in a nice neighbourhood (and not next to a cemetery or waste dump), and having a respected job.
When your reputation is threatened by a guilt-by-association technique, you have a variety of options. Rather than responding quickly and emotionally, it’s worth choosing the option that serves your purposes most effectively. It might be tempting to respond to an attack with outrage, or to counterattack, but maybe remaining silent or calmly pointing out the lack of logic might be better.
You can also use the technique of honour by association to enhance your reputation. And you can use this technique to help others. Assuming you and your group are respected, you can make a difference by aligning yourselves with others who are stigmatised. When it comes to the reputation game, we can all make a difference.
Thanks to Tonya Agostini, John Armstrong and Anneleis Humphries for useful comments.