Ethics of a hoax

Margaret Simons' Crikey article on the Windschuttle/Quadrant hoaxThe Quadrant hoax was a small story by world standards. But for small magazines it was the big story of the new year. It also raised intriguing questions about how to respond to it, and indeed about ethical response more generally.

Like others, I had a variety of responses. On first reading how the Quadrant editor was deceived into publishing a spurious article, I laughed. This was a classical sting, in which an editor and magazine that sternly criticise others for being intellectually undiscriminating, were proved to be less than discriminating.

My laughter, however, turned into sympathy, and even to apprehension. There but for the grace of God went I. As both potential victim and potential perpetrator. Like anyone who assesses the merits of articles submitted for publication, I recognised how fallible are my judgments, and how vulnerable Eureka Street would be to a high class sting.

I also confess being tempted to similar hoaxes. When annoyed by journals, particularly church magazines that dress up a harsh ideology in a facade of intellectual seriousness, I idly imagine myself submitting pseudonymously an article advocating the brutal church order congenial to the magazine.

It might be supported by quotations from Stalin's speeches, attributed to an undeservedly unknown Eastern European theologian.

But the lesser graces of laziness and prudence have so far held me back, and saved me from the embarrassment of disclosure.

Laughter, sympathy and apprehension led me eventually to ask what to make of the hoax. Was it appropriate to laugh? Should I chastise myself for dallying with fantasies of hoaxing? After all, the intellectual enterprise to which small magazines contribute relies on trust. It would collapse if we could not trust that writers generally mean what they say, and are who they say.

And do not hoaxes contain an element of cruelty? They are designed to humiliate editors and discredit their enterprise. Can truth be commended or defended by such methods, particularly when the author of the hoax remains unknown?

With these questions we have left laughter behind and moved into serious ethical mode. Ethics, of course, is conventionally done with prune faces and laser lips. It is about judging. Judges who award black and white hats have no business laughing. It is important to be earnest.

Or is it? When doing ethics, even the ethics of hoaxes, it may be important not to be earnest. To appreciate the full human reality of hoaxes, we need to be playful and enjoy unreflectively the human comedy.

Hoaxes do not inhabit the ideal world of reasonable human beings in serious conversation. They dwell in the gaps — the gap between human intentions and what results from them, between the great pride we take in our achievements or our virtue and the tiny reality of both, between the ideal case and the possibilities that the resourceful can exploit.

A humane ethics has to encompass picaresque stories of human interaction and not simply abstract questions.

One of Jesus' stories poses the same question of the relationship between laughter and ethics. In Christian faith Jesus is a model of ethical judgment and conduct. This could lead us to conclude that he must be earnest.

But then we read his story of a dodgy manager who learns that he is to be sacked. So he cooks his master's accounts, arranging with his debtors to halve what they owe. He reasons that they will be so grateful that they will offer him employment. On discovering the fraud his master praises his smartness. Jesus then says that his followers should be equally shrewd in their dealings with the world.

Christian scholars, especially those who reverence property rights, have found it puzzling that Jesus and the master in his story should be so taken with the steward and so uncritical of his fraud. The problem disappears if you assume that in Jesus a lively enjoyment of the human comedy coexists with a strong moral sense.

He is serious but not earnest. Or better, the condition of his seriousness is a lack of earnestness. Some would say that this is also a condition of undiscriminating love.

The Quadrant hoax and our response to it do prompt serious questions about the conditions under which public intellectual conversation flourishes. But it is also another rich detail on the luxuriant human tapestry. It is humorous. Compared to the wounds caused this new year by phosphorous shells and the like, the scars of being remembered as the editor or magazine that was hoaxed are superficial.

But the editorial staff of small magazines this year will keep a wary eye on unsolicited articles.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.


Topic tags: andrew hamilton, quadrant, keith windschuttle.hoax, margaret simons, crikey, Sharon Gould



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Existing comments

Some good points, Andrew. The best of hoaxes - like the best of cartoons or lampoons - are surely those that 'send up' those in power and those who make claims to moral superiority. I think of some of the best of the Chaser, of Oscar Wilde, Bruce Petty. The combination of Windschuttle's carping criticism of not just the accuracy but also the ethics of serious historians was surely ripe for sending up.

And yes, I think that editorial staff of small magazines should be diligent with unsolicited articles. It's called 'responsibility' and it's the flip side of power.
Warwick | 28 January 2009

imagine a hoax or two which had the backing of the murdoch press and the aim was to destroy eureka st

could you laugh then?

we need to be able to laugh in our private lives, but we need a level of trust in public debate where ideas and media for ideas can flourish without fear and contempt

i was a crikey subscriber and let that subscription lapse because their involvement in the hoax disgusted me

eureka st is a more than adequate replacement
geoff fox | 28 January 2009

also, correct me if you think i am wrong, but wasn't jesus keener on the idea that we love our enemies than that we laugh AT them?
geoff fox | 28 January 2009

Sorry Geoff, but I don't understand the reference to Crikey's 'involvement'. In what way were they involved beyond sitting on the story for a while?

And as to the Murdoch Press backing a hoax that had the aim of destroying Eureka Street, do you really think the Quadrant hoax was aimed at destroying Quadrant? Surley the target was Windschuttle and the nature of his criticism of historians with whom he disagreed.

If Andrew operated in the same way as Windschuttle I'd laugh just as much at a hoax perpetrated on him. But he doesn't.
Warwick | 28 January 2009

The Quadrant hoax was an example of cultural jamming , a technique Jesus was quite familar with.
Eureka Street's demonstrated reason and fairness leaves no rationale for a well deserved expose.
Jonah Bones | 29 January 2009

I have a new collection of poetry. Would you by any chance be interested in having a look at it?

(Not The 'Real' Ern Malley)
Ern Malley | 29 January 2009

Much of what we read in papers and magazines is a hoax. It's just that the perpetrators believe it. All the deliberate hoaxer is doing is making it manifest, which is why some of us laugh.
David Baron | 30 January 2009

I don't know Windschuttle but whatever his faults I think they are best addressed openly and not by calculated deception which is akin to entrapment and which is designed to humiliate someone, funny and clever as these might be. I know things like Ern Malley are a great story but, like Andrew, I wouldn't like it to happen to me.
Bill Frilay | 02 February 2009

Thanks for an interesting perspective. About 4 years ago at America Magazine, where I work, someone submitted an ad to us for a statue of the Virgin Mary designated "Extra Virgin", and with the tag line, "a stunning ... statue of the Virgin Mary standing atop a serpent wearing a delicate veil of latex."

We printed the ad, only to realise after the fact that that delicate veil of latex atop Mary's head was a condom. We'd been duped by someone with an axe to grind. Conservative bloggers immediately condemned us, many assuming (quite wackily) that we had done this on purpose as a protest of one sort or another. One of our editors went to the press saying we're priests, what do we know about condoms? Suffice to say, it was not a happy moment in the life of the magazine.

Stepping back from the Quadrant situation, I wonder if a hoax isn't sometimes a means -- perhaps the only means -- of bringing into a conversation a topic or point of view (or even an "The Emperor has no clothes" type awarenesss) that's being kept out.
Jim McDermott, SJ | 26 February 2009


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