A reader writes, apropos the Republican mailer whose cover suggested that the “liberal agenda” involved “Banning” the Bible:
I understand the legalistic impulse to look at the fine print but could you explain your readers how fine print regarding the precise intention of the word “banning” would invalidate that the mailer is dishonest? By contrasting the “gay marriage allowed” to the “Bible banned” in such a graphic manner, the mailer unambiguously creates the IMPRESSION (which is what it intends to do) that bibles will not will be allowed in Arkansas if “liberals” would have it their way. No fine print is going to change that. Surely creating such an impression is dishonest.
A reference to “banning” the Bible is ambiguous. It could mean utterly prohibiting it, subject to criminal penalties for private possession and distribution — the literal meaning, but of course not a very plausible one. Or it could also mean, as this post points out (citing the usage by the American Library Association), excluding the Bible from some places, such as public school curricula, monuments in government buildings (e.g., Ten Commandments displays), and so on. It could also mean legally punishing certain uses of the Bible, such as workplace postings of anti-homosexual verses (perhaps under the rubrics of hostile work environment law, hostile educational environment law, or hostile public accommodations environment law).
Consider an analogy: Say that a Democratic flyer complained of a “conservative agenda” that involved “destroying a woman’s right to choose.” Literally, “right to choose” might be read as meaning the right to, well, choose things — like one’s husband, one’s religion, whether to own a gun, and so on. But we wouldn’t condemn the flyer as dishonest, on the grounds that conservatives have no desire to interfere with many choices on women’s part. In context, it’s pretty clear that the flyer is referring to a particular thing that’s often labeled (though controversially so) as the “right to choose”: the right to choose to have an abortion. And many conservatives do indeed want to (whether rightly or wrongly) block women from being able to choose abortions, at least in many circumstances.
Before we condemned the flyer, we’d have to see what it said on the inside: If it elaborated the cover claim as “conservatives want to reduce women to slavery, as property of their husbands,” then one would certainly condemn that as dishonest. If it elaborated it as “conservatives want to prevent women from being able to choose abortion,” then it would not be dishonest (though it might not be as nuanced as what a more careful academic analysis would provide). If it didn’t elaborate at all, then we’d ask how most readers would perceive the statement — especially keeping in mind that readers expect political mailers to involve some degree of hyperbole and oversimplification — and if we concluded that they would perceive it as applying only to abortion, we’d again say that the statement isn’t dishonest.
Likewise here. “Right to choose” is somewhat less ambiguous than a reference to a book being “banned” — the purely literal meaning of “right to choose” (right to choose generally, as opposed to abortions in particular) is more rarely used than the purely literal meaning of “banning” books. Still, in context, I suspect that most people seeing a claim that the “liberal agenda” involves “bann[ing]” the Bible would understand it as referring to something less than a criminal prohibition on all possession of the Bible; rather, I suspect that they’d probably see it as something more like the American Library Association’s definition, or some other more modest meaning. The insides of the mailer could confirm this suspicion, or rebut it. But without seeing the insides, I don’t think that we can condemn the mailer cover as dishonest.