My question Has Boris Johnson ever referred to any of his opponents as “traitors”? has (perhaps aptly) devolved into a debate about propriety rather than the issues, so I'd like to get a second opinion.

In the question, I ask, specifically, whether Boris Johnson has ever used one of three terms that he is accused of using by a political opponent. I note, in the question, that he has definitely or probably has used each of the other two, and that I find them uninteresting anyway because I only consider the third claim to real bearing on the broader political argument that the accusations were made in support of, and explain that I am thus asking only about the third claim.

I also include three non-conclusive bases for skepticism of the accusation that I found in the course of trying to corroborate the accusation: that a transcript indicates he hadn't used that term in Parliament on that same day (very weak, I know!), that he broadly described the accusation as "humbug" (still weak; imprecise about what's being denied) and that another member of Johnson's party was quoted by the Guardian explicitly denying the specific claim I was skeptical of (aha - notability requirements finally unambiguously met!).

Finally, I concluded with a sentence summarising my question: has he really used the term, or is the accusation that he has a fabrication?

To that, I've received an answer whose only attempt to address whether the specific claim I ask is the paragraph

I was not able to find a direct quote using the word traitor explicitly, but then, all I had was a couple of sessions I watched live and what search engines served up.

flanked by 6 paragraphs of political commentary and a couple of quotes of Johnson saying other things that the answerer finds objectionable, including one of the other two terms he was accused of using that I'd explicitly stated I wasn't asking about.

To my mind, this is a non-answer worthy of deletion. It's almost entirely opinionated political commentary with no bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim, and the single sentence that actually addresses whether the claim is true is nothing more than an admission that the answerer couldn't find any convincing evidence one way or the other. Yet it's now at a score of +26. Is this sort of answer really to be considered acceptable here?

Meanwhile, in the comments below that answer, the answerer throws several accusations at me:

  1. That I forced his hand into writing political commentary through using a source for the counterclaim that was itself making political commentary:

    If I just said, "there is no proof that he did call anyone 'traitor'", I would implicitly acknowledge Mr. Cleverly's position that the accusations "were deeply unfair"

    Is there any merit to this? My feeling is "no"; while I of course concede that the judgement that the accusations "were deeply unfair" is a political opinion, not a fact, it seems to me that:

    • stripping out that part of the quote - which appeared in the same line as the explicit denial of the claim - would've wrongly denied the reader context that might be relevant to the motive and credibility of Mr. Cleverly and his counterclaim

    • completely omitting any mention of the counterclaim from the question would've been wrong; we're explicitly encouraged to include a source for counterclaims where possible

    • even leaving those things aside, the objection just seems false; it's clearly possible to acknowledge that a factual statement is false without endorsing the political opinions of other people who say it is false.

      This is true of Mr. Cleverly, and also true of Paula Sherriff; if someone were to find a source where Boris Johnson refers to an opponent as a "traitor" and post it in an answer, that would not constitute agreement with Sherriff's opinion that Boris bears responsibility for death threats sent to Remainer MPs, and it would be wholly improper for 90% of the answer to be a discussion about how, even though Boris used the word, there's no reason to think he meant to incite violence, and the people sending the threats have their own free will, and inflammatory political rhetoric has been around for a long time, and yada yada yada. I'd expect the answer to simply deliver the source with no fanfare.

  2. That I asked in bad faith, already "knowing" that nobody would find proof that Boris had used the term:

    Or, to put it differently -- "I could not find proof that he used that term explicitly." You know as much yourself, because I am sure you did your own research before posting here.

    This much, at least, I can say is false, because I at least know my own mind.

  3. That I should've explicitly conceded that Boris Johnson's language is divisive in the question:

    @Tim Well, if the question hadn't framed the question the way it did -- including the "humbug" and "deeply unfair" retorts -- and perhaps focussed on how Mr. Johnsons choice of language is divisive and inflamatory but did he say that one word, the framing of the answer would have been different as well. Context does matter.

    I'm not sure what to do with this one. I am personally of the opinion that Johnson's choice of language is not divisive (which is why I was shocked enough by the "traitors" accusation to research and ask about it), so such a concession would be a lie. And in any case, I don't see why I should have to express my agreement with progressive political opinions as a precondition of asking a factual question on a Skeptics site, which is what this comments implies I should've done.

  4. That I invited broader commentary on the issue by somehow implying that the answer would disprove some broader claim:

    @Tim: Consider a discussion about whether or not there are stars visible on the original Apollo 11 photographs. Consider that question asked on a photographer website. "I know that the light reflected from the surface makes short exposure times necessary, but if you would use modern image enhancement, are there stars visible on those photos?" No, they aren't (I think). Now, the same question from a moon-landing-was-a-hoax conspiracy person. "Are there stars visible, or was the moon landing a hoax?" -- That same "no there aren't" needs the "...but..." / "...because..." to follow. Same here.

    I don't really get this. I think it's a criticism of me setting up a dichotomy between the accusation being true or "a fabrication" in my final paragraph. Yet those are literally the only options. If the claim is not true, then Paula Sherriff fabricated it, whether intentionally or not; unlike the example given, it's not a false dichotomy.

Did I do anything wrong here? Could I have asked in a different way to get a more constructive, less angry reception? Is the answer I've received really acceptable here?

  • 1
    I think it's a criticism of me setting up a dichotomy between the accusation being true of "a fabrication" in my final paragraph. Yet those are literally the only options. -- And again I disagree with the framing of the question, and will refrain from replying at length. Have a good day.
    – DevSolar
    Commented Sep 27, 2019 at 11:06
  • 4
    @DevSolar Unlike on main, replying at length to challenge the framing seems like an entirely appropriate thing to do on Meta; it's a forum for discussion, after all. I would at least be interested to hear you out. But you are, of course, at no obligation to bother.
    – Mark Amery
    Commented Sep 27, 2019 at 11:16
  • 3
    What might be an interesting and engaging conversation over a pint or two usually turns out to be much less engaging... or should I say, engaging in the wrong way... when done online. Much more time consuming as well, and I'm not willing to go there anymore on StackExchange (in general, nothing personal or related to Skeptics.SE). I think the whole premise of your question is flawed, while admitting that the accusation was rather poorly phrased. But reducing the issue to "did he say 'traitor' or not" is bordering on bad faith, and thus I am unwilling to sit down for that virtual pint. Sorry.
    – DevSolar
    Commented Sep 27, 2019 at 11:24

2 Answers 2


To answer your last question first "Did I do anything wrong here", I think not, at least in regards to the specific question

Has Boris Johnson ever referred to any of his opponents, whether individually or collectively, as a "traitor" or "traitors".

The question "Did BoJo say X" is specific, clear and unambiguous, subject to an empirical answer that is not just opinion, and you obviously did prior research for the post. I am not a veteran of skeptics specifically, so I must be forgiven if I am unaware of skeptics specific policies, but to my mind at least you have hit all the expectations for a legitimate stack exchange question here.

The additional question

Or is this part of Paula Sherriff's accusation untrue?

is somewhat less specific and unambiguous because it depends so much on the interpretation of semantics in terms of political innuendo, which is fraught with peril! You might think "betray" does not necessarily equate to traitor, and the answer-er can reasonably reply "true" does not imply "literally true in the sense that this exact word was said".

IMHO, you would be better served by dropping this second question entirely because the accusation being "untrue" or not is much more subjective.

To your earlier question, "Is this sort of answer really to be considered acceptable here?".

You asked:

Has Boris Johnson ever referred to any of his opponents, whether individually or collectively, as a "traitor" or "traitors"?

The critical part of the answer-ers response being:

I was not able to find a direct quote using the word traitor explicitly, but then, all I had was a couple of sessions I watched live and what search engines served up.

This is an answer to that question, even if it is not couched in terms of "Yes" or "No"; it is an acknowledgement that no factual evidence exists that BoJo said X, and thus, purely in the context of the answer, it implies BoJo has never said X, the answer-er's other opinions notwithstanding. IMHO, it is unfair to say this is a non-answer for this reason, even if it could be stated more unambiguously.

The answer-er could theoretically have provided references to support this, rather than simply saying I did not find any information (IE a survey of media outlets on the relevant topic or a Media fact check on the claim) but this is essentially trying to prove a negative, an exceedingly difficult thing to do, and is a moot point if such media surveys/fact checks do not exist yet.

Yes, it is followed by what we might label opinion, but the answer provides supporting text for that opinion; rather that "opinion" should thus be removed from the answer is above my pay grade.

Now, with regards to your question:

Or is this part of Paula Sherriff's accusation untrue?

The answer-er responded:

Calling accusations of him escalating the language used in and about parliament "deeply unfair" because he might not have used one of those three words explicitly is a bit rich.

I agree this is not an answer, and the answer-er should have refrained from saying this is "a bit rich" (IMHO, that is a thinly veiled insult), but for the reasons stated above, it would be exceedingly difficult in a reasonable amount of time to answer this question rigorously in any sense that was not simply opinion.

All of this said, that you might have an opinion of this situation and that you constructed this question to support that opinion does not render the question illegitimate; once again, the first part at least is a factual question which asks for a factual answer.

It is true that obviously the question and any possible answer are subject to political biases...it might also be true that you are manipulating the semantics to prove a point (I use the word manipulate in a neutral sense, not to imply any negative behavior) but neither of those things rises to anything I would consider "bad faith". After all, many people ask factual questions on this site to prove points and prop up their own political beliefs. And many of those questions are written in precisely such a way as to force a particular conclusion.

In conclusion, I believe that most of your question is legitimate and in accordance with stack exchange policies, but removing the last part "is this accusation true" would help make the question more factual and less opinionated. After all, it seems to me that you are necessarily trying to imply the answer to this second question by getting to the bottom of the first question, and if so, that implication is best left outside the question, since that implication is far more vulnerable to subjective differences of opinion.

I believe that the answer-er could have made their response less ambiguous (and perhaps should have refrained from making the last remark) but nonetheless it was an answer that happened to be followed by additional commentary that you disagreed with.

  • 1
    With regards to whether the answer is a "non-answer", note that the site's introductory FAQ stresses that answers need references. While the answer has some, they're only used to support its political commentary, not to address whether the claim is true; the bit of the answer that you defend here as answering the question is just an unreferenced assertion. Note also that another answer was posted similarly asserting that there's no evidence Boris used the word, but without the anti-Boris commentary, and that one got deleted.
    – Mark Amery
    Commented Sep 27, 2019 at 15:09
  • @MarkAmery edited my answer to account for the lack of references. Providing a reference for the "answer" in this case would mean providing a reference that proves a negative; the Site FAQ does not seem to explicitly talk about proving a negative. For lack of formal media fact checks or surveys (IMHO those would be rather suspect anyway, though that's beside the point) what could the answer-er provide by way of reference? Commented Sep 27, 2019 at 15:36
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    "IMHO, you would be better served by dropping this second question entirely" - for the record, that second question was originally worded "Was this a fabrication of Sherriff's?". A moderator changed "fabrication" to "mistake", OP objected to the rewording and deleted the entire sentence, but immediately changed his mind and reinstated it with its current wording. That last edit occurred within the 5-minute grace period, so the version without the second question doesn't appear in the edit history. I just so happened to see it in time.
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Sep 27, 2019 at 15:37
  • Can confirm that what @F1Krazy says is correct.
    – Mark Amery
    Commented Sep 27, 2019 at 15:39
  • 2
    @F1Krazy I saw that as well; decided to discuss in reference to the updated "True/Untrue" wording for the sake of posterity...fabrication and mistake both imply an intent or lack thereof so true/untrue is certainly less subjective. Commented Sep 27, 2019 at 15:40
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    @VivaLebowski I agree that the shift from "fabrication" to "untrue" helps make the tone more rigorously objective and neutral (albeit beyond the point that seems truly necessary to me; it stretches credulity to think that someone could mistakenly think that Boris had referred to his opponents as "traitors", given that such a thing would've likely been a major scandal).
    – Mark Amery
    Commented Sep 27, 2019 at 15:45

I think your question is fine. We're currently allowing this kind of question ("Did this guy say this thing?"), so I can't fault you for posting it. Some of us may want tighter scopes on this kind of question, but no one has put forth any actionable suggestions yet.

I think the answer is okay. There's a few things that could rub you the wrong way if you happen to be a BoJo supporter. I see two elements that I like seeing in answers, but one of them I think should be more charitable to the fact that it's a matter of opinion.

  1. Word interpretation

    Do phrases like "a betrayal of millions of people who voted 'leave'" and "We will not betray the people who sent us here" really, in the words of that answer "at least [imply] the person so accused [of] being a traitor"? I'm not going to answer that question, as I think it's an opinion, and readers are welcome to follow through to the chat and see the differing opinions put forth. I do like seeing this addressed, however, as it certainly is a valid opinion that "betray" is pretty darn close to "treason".

    Where I would personally change it is that using the word betray "at least implies" treason. No, it doesn't "as least" imply it. It's an equally valid opinion that it doesn't imply treason at all. I would prefer a more impartial wording like "a valid interpretation of this is that it implies 'traitor'", with further explanation that perhaps some of those accusing Johnson of using the word do feel this way about it. I may have pressed this issue in comments on that answer myself, but the author seems steeped in his opinion regarding it, having said it three times in such a short answer and being generally obstinate in the chat transcript when it was brought up previously.

  2. Addressing reverse claims.

    Apparently James Cleverly has called it a falsehood and thinks proceedings were "unfair". DevSolar has put a bit of fairness to Cleverly's words, noting that 2 out of 3 are factual. Johnson has explicitly said those terms. I think this is appropriate on Skeptics, as perspective is often obfuscated by biases.

Both of these play on each other for a decent answer. Johnson did say 2 out of 3. There is the real opinion that comments using the word "betrayal" can be construed as accusations of treason. And at this point, you hopefully see why these kinds of questions are decidedly poopy. Virtually all of them get the same answer: "Explicitly yes/no, but interpretations vary". It's a bit incredulous that one can imagine that, even in our information age, not all relevant quotes on such an issue have been brought to the forefront.

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