Once upon a time I dated a lady who used to practice a sort of verbal jujitsu on me. Whenever I challenged her about some relationship sin or other, she would soon respond with, “Me! What about you?!!” Pretty soon I would find myself futilely trying to get the conversation away from my sins and back to hers.
This form of argument is common enough that it has a Latin name: Tu Quoque (literally – “and you, also.”) It’s a form of ad hominem argument. If you can’t attack the argument, you attack the arguer. An hominem arguments are especially effective as they throw your opponent onto the personal as well as the rhetorical defensive. And few of us are competent when we are on the defensive.
I want to talk about rhetoric. It’s hard to remember now, but once upon a time Rhetoric wasn’t just a collection of tricks to win a debate. Instead, it was a highly respected subject which, along with Grammar and Logic, formed the core curriculum of learning. All three were considered essential to construct proofs and thereby arrive at the Truth.
But Tu Quoque wasn’t classed as a tactic of rhetoric. It was (and is) classed as a form of rhetorical fallacy. And rhetorical fallacies are very much in fashion these days. While we live in the age of the Information Revolution, we also live in a world where the fragmenting of the internet, cable news, and talk radio allows dishonest reasoning and logical inconsistencies to flourish with little fear of contradiction.
A favorite fallacy of the pundit class is the False Dichotomy (Greek: Dichotomia = cut in two). Watch your favorite TV interview show or listen to your favorite channel on talk radio and see how often some pundit tries to slip a dichotomy by you. Say there’s some problem in the Middle East (when isn’t there?). The pundit suggests that our only choices are to invade or simply abandon the Middle East all together. No middle grounds. No third choices. I would argue that anyone who tells you there are only two choices in just about any real life situation is simply lying to you.
Another favorite fallacy of the media is confusing succession with causation (Latin: Post hoc, ergo propter hoc). Event ‘B’ occurs after Event ‘A’, therefore Event ‘A’ must have caused Event ‘B’. If you ever listen to CSPAN, you’ll discover that this form of argument is the universal fodder of political speeches. “We know that Abstinence Only programs work because the rate of teenage pregnancies has been falling since they were introduced.” Or, “We know that effective sex-ed classes reduce unintended pregnancies because the rate has been falling since they were introduced.”
That kind of argument can also be turned on its head. For instance, look at Global Climate Change. All of the statistics agree about climate change and its correlation with the increase of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. However, I just argued that neither correlation nor succession can be used as necessary proofs of causation. So there are pundits today making good money arguing that because correlation does not always prove causation, there must be some third factor (e.g. natural temperature variation) that is really responsible for climate change.
Although these fallacies are popular in political debates, they are not confined to them. For instance, there is a form of argument that is wholly based on what we don’t know. (In Rhetoric, it’s call arguing ab ignorantiam.) Intelligent Design is based on this type of fallacy. The argument says that there are biological structures that are so complex they could not have evolved. Therefore they must have been designed by a powerful God.
As with many fallacies, simply rephrasing the argument highlights its flaws. If I said that there are biological structures that are so complex that I cannot imaging them evolving, you immediately see that the problem is with my imagination, not evolution.
Or suppose I said that my argument is that since the evidence for evolution by natural causes has gaps, and that those gaps are where God intervened. I think you’d recognize that I was maintaining that an absence of evidence (the gaps) somehow proves that my thesis is true.
But to go back to politics: One of the oldest fallacious forms of argument is the Reductio ad absurdum. On the media, it usually takes the form of following some idea to its (il)logical conclusion. Remember the old Domino Theory? If Vietnam falls, then so will Thailand, then Laos, then Cambodia, then Korea, then Japan. They’ll all fall like dominos. Therefore we must never allow Vietnam to fall. Interestingly enough, I’ve recently heard the old Domino Theory resurrected with the pundits talking about Iran, Syria, Iraq, etc.
You can hear the same argument all over the media on other subjects where it becomes the Slippery Slope or the Camel’s Nose Under the Tent. You damn (or, occasionally support) a suggestion by imagining the most extreme possible consequence and try to make it seem probable, if not inevitable. Logically, it’s horsefeathers. Rhetorically, it’s seems to be both popular and effective.
Of course, by far the most popular fallacy in politics today is the Straw Man. Invent some extreme idea and then ascribe it to your opponent. Since so many of us now live in our own information bubbles, there is little fear of contradiction. As a result, there is a large part of the American electorate that knows that Obamacare is a government takeover of medicine. Equally, there is another part that knows the political right is conducting a War on Women.
Finally, there is the fallacy of Begging the Question. I realize that it is becoming an accepted usage to mean “Asking the question” when you say “Begging the question,” but I mean the older use of the phrase. It means to avoid the question by building the conclusion you want into your assumptions. It is an example of circular reasoning. Once again, while it is popular in politics, its use is not confined there. For instance, “We know that God exists because the Bible tells us so. And we know we can believe it because the Bible is the inspired word of God.”
So today we know that Fox News or MSNBC is telling us the truth. Why? Because their pundits use sophisticated rhetoric to show us they are. More convincingly, because their pundits’ rhetoric warns us that the other guys are lying to us. And we all know that such rhetoric is a method of arriving at the Truth. Q.E.D.