Archive for hypocrisy

Who Quoque? Tu Quoque!

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 24, 2017 by deborah1960

My beloved has suggested on more than one occasion that I should write a Critical Thinking textbook, using examples from Trump’s tweets and other public pronouncements to illustrate logical flaws.  I like this idea, and I just might take it up some time.  Lately, however, Trump has committed so many assaults upon logic, linguistics, and just plain human decency that it has been bloody difficult to keep up with him. Indeed, the onslaught has been so overwhelming that my most recent posts have focused upon the substance of what he has said (or done) rather than on how he has communicated his, for want of a better word, “thoughts.” While I’ve enjoyed writing these little bagatelles, I have felt a little guilty.  The role of a Critical Thinking Teacher, after all, is to teach Critical Thinking, and the first rule of Critical Thinking is “look at the details.”

Consequently, I resolved to redirect my attention in order to focus upon his actual words and phrasing, and to look for particularly choice examples of egregious thinking. It wouldn’t take long, I thought, before he would commit some logical faux pas or other.  And of course, Trump and General Kelly soon accommodated me by providing a magnificent catalog of ad hominem attacks upon Rep. Frederica Wilson (D., Fla. 24th).  It was easy pickings in the grove of Critical Thinking.  Believe me!

Too easy, in fact.  Everyone knows that ad hominem attacks are bad, bad. By attacking the arguer instead of the argument, they distract the listener from the issue at hand, and tend to provoke such an emotional response from all involved that reasoned discourse is impossible.  Up until recently, it would be considered bad form to accuse a female moderator of treating you unfairly because she had “blood coming out of her whatever.” Or to make short jokes about a Senator who happens to think you’re a menace to the nation and perhaps humanity at large.  Or to mock a reporter with a physical disability. Once upon a time, a bag of bile who would spout such things would be ostracized for an apparent inability to engage in civilized discourse.  Now, he’s in the Oval Office.

Do you see my problem?  Using Trump as an example of the evils of an ad hominem attack, while apt, would hardly win me any points for originality. I was about to hang up my towel when I heard something on the radio that pricked my ears.

As you may or may not be aware, President W gave a speech that, without naming 45, was a fairly damning assessment of why Trump, besides being an appalling human being, is also an existential threat to American ideals.  Bush asserted that nativism, bigotry, and protectionism are antithetical to the values we hold as a country.  In other words, Bush was a righteous oratorical antifa.

This might come as a surprise to most observers of presidential rhetoric.  W was never known as a fine spinner of words, and Christ knows I wasn’t a fan when he occupied the seat behind the Resolute Desk, but damn, he did a pretty good job of skewering Trump.  Kudos, George.

However, this is not what got my logical juices running.  I was listening to a phone-in show on NPR, and Bush’s speech was the topic du jour.  Many people were quite complimentary about the speech, and quite a few of them expressed their shock at being in agreement with W.  I certainly knew how they felt.  Anyway, I was nodding my head in agreement when the token Trump apologist opined that it was pretty rich that W, who had started two wars that we’re still fighting and whose own disapproval ratings were shockingly low, had the brass plated cojones to criticize another president.  Or words to that affect.

“That’s a tu quoque flaw,” I smugly said to myself.  “His argument is fatally flawed.”

Now, faithful readers of this blog (Hi, Mom!  Hi, Dad!) will recall that I have extensively discussed tu quoque flaws in a previous article.  However, for those of you who are new to my readership or have short term memory issues, here’s a brief explanation.  “Tu quoque” (pronounced “tu kwo-kway”) is Latin for “you, too.”  It is the “and so are you” or “look who’s talking” retort that we make when we realize that our verbal sparring partner is guilty of exactly the same behavior that he is complaining about.  Basically, the Trump supporter was saying that President Pot has a helluva lot of nerve for calling President Kettle black.  Tu quoque is a form of ad hominem attack because you are focusing the listener’s attention to a personal trait of the speaker (Bush is a flaming hypocrite) rather than the substance of his argument (Trump sucks).

But at almost the same moment that I was mentally patting myself on the back for recognizing the flaw so swiftly, the following thought caught me up short.

What if he’s right?

I asked myself this question because, believe it or not, there are times when an ad hominem attack would not be considered a flaw.  I would hazard a guess that 99.9% of the time that an insult is hurled at an opponent, the hurler’s intent is to distract the listener (and opponent) from the subject at hand.  Thus, Trump’s designation of any unflattering story as “fake news” can pretty much be seen as an ad hominem attack on the outlet that published it. Indeed, so consistent is this rule that you can just about bet your kid’s education fund on the truth of the story and sleep well at night (except the bookies wouldn’t give you decent odds on the bet, so why bother?).

However—and stay with me here, I know it’s a stretch—let’s imagine that there were a network or website somewhere the sole purpose of which was to spread unfounded rumors and outright lies about, oh, let’s say a female presidential candidate. Crazy, huh?  Let’s take that wild hypothetical a bit further, and imagine that the website is headed by a fat, cirrhotic, lying sack of shit who will stop at nothing to achieve his ends.  Let’s call him Steve.  Now, if I were debating Steve and said, “Steve, you are a fat, cirrhotic, lying sack of shit who will stop at nothing to achieve his ends,” I would be guilty of making an ad hominem attack up to the point that I called him “fat” and “cirrhotic.”  The state of his physique and his apparent ill-health have nothing to do with his propensity for publishing fake news.  However, the rest of my statement, from “lying sack of shit” onwards, wouldn’t be an ad hominem flaw.  Steve’s honesty is the heart of the matter being debated and, assuming that I can back my assertion with facts, it is logically connected to my argument.   (Where, oh where would I be able to find back up for such a spurious claim?)  Similarly, my oblique characterization of our current president as a bag of bile, while not nice, also wasn’t an ad hominem flaw because it was linked to the idea that a president should be able to engage in civil discourse.

So, are there times when tu quoque isn’t a flaw?  Am I so blinded by my misotrumpy that I glossed over the importance of Bush’s failings as a president? I’m tempted to say, “Yes.  There are times when the charge of hypocrisy is so damning that the term tu quoque denotes not a flaw, but an appropriate label.” It seems reasonable.  After all, would we sit still for a lecture by Himmler on the evils of anti-Semitism?  How many copies of Harvey Weinstein’s The Importance of Eliminating Sexual Harassment could we reasonably expect to fly off the shelf?

But isn’t anti-Semitism evil? Shouldn’t sexual harassment be eliminated? And does the mere fact that a hypocrite made these statements make them any less valid? Does the degree of hypocrisy in and of itself invalidate the argument?

To me, this conundrum illustrates perfectly why tu quoque is such an insidious flaw.  The charge of hypocrisy is powerful because we have a visceral reaction to people who dare to tell us to act in one way while they blatantly act in the other.  They make us want to puke.

But does that mean they are illogical?  Or can’t their reasoning, no matter how insincerely held, be sound?  Even if the subject of the hypocrite’s argument is “why I hate hypocrisy,” wouldn’t the reasons for hating hypocrisy remain valid? In other words, if their argumentation is valid, why should their lack of moral standing invalidate it?

I’m not sure it should.

Let’s take Bush as an example.  I recall that I spat blood when W stole the election from Al Gore, so I’m willing, for the sake of this thought experiment, to ascribe all sorts of nastiness to him.  Let’s pretend that George Bush is a goose-stepping, tiki-burning, refugee-kicking fascist.  He even likes to dress up in lederhosen embroidered with swastikas. Now, let’s look at what he says.  The entire speech can be found here, but here are three fairly typical statements:

“Our identity as a nation—unlike many other nations—is not determined by geography or ethnicity, by soil or blood.  Being an American involves the embrace of high ideals and civic responsibility.”

“[B]igotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed.”

“Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children.”

Is there anything wrong with these ideas?  Are they illogical, biased, or flawed? Does the fact that they were uttered by the second-most incompetent president in the history of our fair land destroy their legitimacy? Or do they merely reflect some fairly basic tenets that in ordinary circumstances (remember them?) would not have to be said?

These are not terribly controversial stands for W to be taking, if you think about it.  Our history as a nation of immigrants pretty much makes the notion of an American people pretty absurd; what brings us together isn’t our ethnicity, but our belief in certain ideals and notions embodied in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Marbury vs. Madison.  If we take the 14th Amendment seriously, with its Due Process and Equal Protection clauses, then we really do have to admit that bigotry is a destructive force that needs to eradicated, not propagated. Didn’t we even fight a war or two over those very principles? And kids really do need role models, preferably positive ones. The only reason why these fairly unsophisticated notions have attained the status of soaring oratory is because Trump has set the rhetorical bar so low.  Frankly, it is so refreshing to hear something expressed in such a gentlemanly, multi-syllabic, and (praise be!) grammatical manner, that we swoon to hear it.  In no way does Bush’s hypothetical status as a closet Trumpite make them any less basic or correct.

So, yeah.  Tu quoque is pretty much always a flaw, no matter how hypocritical the speaker might be.

Glad that’s settled.

 

 

©2017 D. R. Miller

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Jason and the Argue-Nots

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on January 25, 2017 by deborah1960

Decisions, decisions.  Goodness knows how difficult it can be to make a decision—especially when the choices are set out like so many juicy cherries, their taut skin barely able to contain all of the delicious fallacies percolating beneath the surface.  But, really, some of these blogs have just been too long, so it is necessary to exercise discipline.  This is especially urgent when considering the wit and wisdom of one of the nation’s premier fallacy factories, the Honorable Jason Chaffetz.  In case you are not familiar with Representative Chaffetz, all you really need to know for the purposes of this lesson are the following three facts:

  1. He has represented Utah’s third Congressional District since 2008;
  2. He is the chair of the of the United States House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform; and
  3. He conducted the Benghazi hearings.[1]

Now, you might be wondering, after providing the platform for a witch hunt that arguably ultimately resulted in the non-election of perhaps the most qualified presidential candidate who ever walked the face of God’s green earth, however will Jason Chaffetz  fill his newly cleared calendar? Well, there are many options out there, but I’ll tell you one thing that Chaffetz won’t be doing any time soon.

He won’t be investigating any of Trump’s possible problems with the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution.[2]

Nope.  Not a one.

Why ever not? I hear you cry.  After all, isn’t the government oversight committee supposed to, well, oversee the government?  And if the president is riddled with more potential conflicts of interests than a wharf rat has fleas, shouldn’t someone at least take a sneaky peek at what’s going on?

Well, apparently not.  And why not?  Well, on the 15th of January, Chaffetz explained his “reasoning” on This Week:

I’m not just going to go on these fishing expeditions. I didn’t do that with President Obama. We didn’t go through this with President Obama. I think the world and certainly the American voters understand that Donald Trump has mass holdings. He’s worth billions of dollars. He’s been very successful in business. And I think the American voters understood that when they voted him in (http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/week-transcript-15-17-reince-priebus-sen-bernie/story?id=44778012).

         You see my dilemma, don’t you?  I mean, here I have some of the most flagrant hypocrisy uttered in political discourse in the past week,[3] but at the same time, I also have a lovely example of a strawman.  What’s a Critical Thinking Teacher to do?

Well, after weeping a bit at the thought of leaving that filet mignon of hypocrisy alone, I decided to go along with the straw man fallacy.  Hypocrisy is just too easy, and there are far too many examples (and far too little time) for us to examine every example that comes our way, no matter how glorious it might be.[4] Straw man fallacies are a bit harder to understand, and since Chaffetz has given us a nice example to work with, it seems a bit churlish to let it go by unnoticed. So, let’s start, shall we?

First of all, what is a straw man fallacy? Well, I think that the good folks at nizkor.org do an excellent job of defining a straw man fallacy:

“The Straw Man fallacy is committed when a person simply ignores a person’s actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position (http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/straw-man.html).”

When I think of a straw man, I think of those World War I movies, where dashing young soldiers practice their bayonet skills by shoving the blade into bales of hay.  It makes the whole idea of killing someone with a knife on a stick look wondrously simple.  But when you get onto the battlefield, and you have to shove that sucker through bone and sinew, then you realize how false the straw man is.  In an argument, when an opponent’s actual claim is thick with muscle, and one’s pitiful little bayonet of a refutation is too weak to penetrate it, it is very tempting to replace the target claim with a distantly related, but quite pathetic, pile of straw.  You can then jab your rhetorical bayonet in it to your heart’s content, until all you’re left with is a pile of chaff.[5]  Here’s an example:

A:  We need to control the feral cat population in our neighborhood.  This place is crawling with scrawny, scabby kittens.

B:  You beast!  You hate cats!

The straw man is B’s assertion that A hates cats.  While it is possible that A does hate cats, there is insufficient evidence to support B’s assertion at this time.  Instead, B has mischaracterized A’s desire to control feral cats as a desire to exterminate them.  But the one does not equate to the other:  there are a variety of means at hand to control feral cats that fall far short of introducing them en masse to their maker. However, the emotional appeal of the straw man is such that poor A is left to splutter out that he loves cats, wouldn’t dream of killing them, etc., etc., etc.—and in the meantime, no agreement is reached about what to do with the feline nurseries that have magically appeared throughout A’s once desirable neighborhood.  And an effective straw man diverts all attention from the issue at hand—the hallmark of a logical fallacy.

So, there are a few straw men lurking around in Jason’s speechlet, but, for the sake of brevity, I’m going to focus on only one.  And here it is:

STEPHANOPOULOS: Five days from now, [Trump] will be the president of the United States. At that point, will you be requesting this information [about possible Emoluments Clause violations].

CHAFFETZ: No, not necessarily. Look, I’m not just going to go on these fishing expeditions. I didn’t do that with President Obama. We didn’t go through this with President Obama.

Now, it seems reasonable at first blush, doesn’t it?  We didn’t go after President Obama, so why should we go after President Trump?  Well, sure, except for one little thing:  You didn’t go after President Obama because President Obama didn’t have any Emoluments clause issues, numb nuts!

And that, my dear, is a classic straw man.  Instead of giving a substantive response to Stephanopoulus’s question, Chaffetz tries to deflect him by distorting the topic of the question to make some weird equivalency between Donald Trump, the rolling scandal sideshow clown, and President Obama, whose administration, while far from non-controversial, was remarkably free from major scandals of the hands-caught-in-the-cookie-jar kind (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2017/01/19/has-the-obama-white-house-been-historically-free-of-scandal/).

So, now that you’re armed with this knowledge, what should you do?  Well, straw men are tricky, because in the heat of the moment it’s easy to be thrown off course by the emotions that the straw man stirs up.  You need to be able to respond quickly and coolly to the diversionary tactic. That’s the nature of reasoned debate:  it requires a certain amount of cold-bloodedness in order to maintain logic.  But you don’t want to alienate your audience by being a Spock-like slave to your rational side.  Clothe your muscular and robust logical refutation with humor, for instance:  “Is that a straw man in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?” Or, right before eviscerating the idiocy that your counterpart has just uttered, openly acknowledge its emotional appeal: “Gosh, Mary, you sure know how to stir up a hornet’s nest with that last irrelevant remark!”  Do what you must, but just do it, because now, more than ever, we are confronted by an army of straw men.

Now that you’re done with this article, it would be good practice to spot and analyze the other straw men in Chaffetz’s statement.  I’ll give you a hint, too:  just about every sentence Jase utters is home to a straw man.

 

©D R Miller 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Yes, those Benghazi hearings.  You know, the ones that took two years (and 33 hearings, including 4 public hearings), cost $7 million, and produced an 800-page report that failed to prove that Secretary Clinton was responsible for the tragic deaths of four Americans (http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2016/06/house-select-committee-benghazi-report). Those Benghazi hearings.

[2] “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” (US Const. Article I, sec. 9, clause 8).

[3] And believe me, that’s saying a lot.

[4] But before continuing on, let’s just agree that Jason Chaffetz must have a huge and brassy pair on him if he’s saying that he would never go on a fishing hunt!  As if.  Whew!  Well, that feels better.

[5] Chaff:

noun

  1. the husks of grains and grasses that are separated during threshing.
  2. straw cut up for fodder.
  3. worthless matter; refuse. (http://www.dictionary.com/browse/chaff).

No matter how you look at it, you just know that it’s a matter of linguistic destiny that Rep. Chaffetz is guilty of using this particular fallacy.