TCS Daily

Criswell's Razor

By Jon Haber - October 18, 2004 12:00 AM

Ask anyone his or her favorite closing line in a movie, and you will probably get a melodramatic climax (such as "Tomorrow is another day!" from Gone With the Wind) or a melodramatic dénouement (such as "This looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship." from Casablanca).

But for sheer contemporary poignancy, no closing words can match the gauntlet thrown down in the closing seconds of Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Directed by the legendary transvestite filmmaker Ed Wood Jr. (portrayed by Johnny Depp in Tim Burton's valentine of a tribute Ed Wood), and narrated by TV weatherman turned psychic Criswell the Great, Plan 9 is considered by many to be the worst film ever made.

After 75 minutes of ludicrous proceedings in which aliens whose spaceship is furnished with wooden tables unsuccessfully try to conquer the earth by bringing three dead people (including the actually deceased Bela Lugosi) back to life, Criswell makes a final appearance, haranguing the audience with the ultimate challenge: "Can you prove it didn't happen?!"

Who would have thought that these six simple words (referred herein as "Criswell's Razor") could undergird so much of today's political discussion? Criswell's Razor, which effectively transfers responsibility for evidence and logic onto the listener, is the penultimate argument for every conspiracy theory, from the Branch Dividians in Waco to the fevered madrasses of the Middle East.

Sadly, Criswellian logic is not confined just to the fringes. A few minutes spent watching liberal filmmaker Michael Moore scour the Afghan countryside for a fictitious oil pipeline or hearing some conservatives agitate to dust Vince Foster's suicide note for Hillary Clinton's fingerprints will demonstrate that Criswell's Razor forms a critical foundation to much of today's debate.

While "Can you prove it didn't happen?" has the appearance of a rhetorical device, this rejoinder actually dwells outside of the bounds of reasoned debate since it affords the creator of the premise license to determine when enough evidence has been provided to disprove his or her assertion (a back-door means of putting forth an unfalsifiable theory). Fortunately, rhetoric provides an effective antidote to Criswell's Razor in the Principle of Charity.

While the Principle of Charity can be interpreted in many ways, in essence, it calls for a debate participant to interpret his or her opponents' statements as generously as possible, to take on a challenger's strongest arguments, rather than dwelling on weaker points or non-critical errors.

In order to work successfully, the Charity Principle also binds participants to only put forth strong arguments, not bury a lack of evidence in a mountain of spurious footnotes or ridicule movements like feminism and multiculturalism by pretending they are represented solely by their excesses.

If the Principle of Charity were applied to our own political conversation, it would dispense with conspiracy entirely and instead go forward with the assumption that everyone is arguing in good faith, that all want what's best for our society, our positions unencumbered with unstated agendas. Rather than mocking our opponent's grammar or presenting fringe characters as representing mainstream opinion, we would recognize that both the "Blue" and "Red" theories of how our country should be run may have merit, may both have components of "the answer," or (heaven forbid) may be applicable to different situations in a society diverse enough to create both an Orson Welles and an Ed Wood, Jr.

While it is too much to hope that the Principle of Charity may break out during a heated presidential contest, one hopes it will supplant the tyranny of "Can you prove it didn't happen?" in time for our next leader to take on the awesome responsibility of trying to make an often divisive nation work well enough to make everyone's lives a little bit better in the future.

For as Criswell liked to remind his audiences on every occasion: "The future is where each of us will spend the rest of our lives."

Jon Haber is a TCS contributor. He has worked as a film writer for the Boston Globe and movie reviewer at WBUR in Boston. He now runs SkillCheck, Inc., a software publisher in Burlington, Massachusetts, and occasionally finds time to write about the intersection of politics, film and culture. He recently wrote for TCS about the return of the exploitation flick.


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