Archive for logical flaw

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.

Kellyanne and the Sea of Red Herrings

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 4, 2017 by deborah1960

 

A “red herring” in rhetoric refers to a diversionary tactic that is used to distract attention from the issue actually at hand.  Because it is an attempt to use an irrelevancy to avoid the real argument, it is a massive, albeit popular, logical fallacy. There are lots of fun, apocryphal stories about the origin of the phrase, but they all boil down to the same idea:  in order to throw hounds off a trail, crafty [fugitives, thieves, hunters, take your pick] would use a stinky old fish to create a false trail for whatever gullible rube they were trying to fool (http://www.culinarylore.com/food-history:origin-of-red-herring-expression, http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2016/05/origins-phrase-red-herring/).  I was reminded of the term on December 29, when various Trump surrogates, including Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer, strongly implied that the real story about the alleged Russian hacks of the DNC computers was how the DNC was actually to blame because of its piss-poor cybersecurity measures.

CNN asked Kellyanne about actions President Obama took in response to intelligence reports that not only did Russia hack the DNC, but they did so in aid of the Trump campaign.  She said many interesting things that day, but this is what really pricked up my ears:

This is really about the DNC’s breach. They didn’t have the proper security … and someone was able to hack the information, and we are not in favor of foreign governments interfering in our elections or interfering in our intelligence (http://www.politicususa.com/2016/12/29/kellyanne-conway-blames-u-s-intelligence-agencies-russia-election-hacking.html).

It seemed as if she were saying that, instead of going after the hackers and whoever might have benefitted from their actions, we should instead blame the DNC.  Now that seems like a distraction, doesn’t it?

But it is important not to leap to conclusions.  Even teachers of Critical Thinking have been known to have an emotional reaction or two, and I certainly did not want to commit a logical fallacy of my own.  In this case, the fallacy I wanted to avoid is called “confusing an explanation for an excuse.”

Before going on to examine this fallacy, it’s important to recall basic principles of argumentation in order to understand the difference between excuses and explanations.  An argument has two basic components:  a reason and a conclusion.  A conclusion is the proposition or claim that you are trying to prove. A reason is a statement given to support or justify the conclusion.  If you can logically put “because” before a statement, it is a reason; similarly, if you can put “therefore” before a statement, then it is a conclusion. [1]  And if you have the two together, then you have an argument.

Here are some examples:

“[Because] I think, therefore I am.”

“[Because] I am a grammar nazi.  Therefore I would be a good copy editor.”

“[Because] I like cats, therefore I hate dogs.”

These are all properly formulated (albeit not very well-developed) arguments.

Explanations, however, are not reasons—they support the reason by making the thinking behind the reason clearer.

“I like cats.  They are fluffy and sweet.  Therefore, I hate dogs.”

The statement “they are fluffy and sweet” clarifies why I prefer cats, but does not justify why I hate dogs.  Thus, it is an explanation, and not a reason.

Unlike most logical fallacies, where the flaw is committed by the speaker or writer, “confusing an explanation for an excuse” is usually the result of faulty thinking on the part of the reader or listener.  Instead of realizing that what is being said is being offered to clarify the reasons behind the speaker’s ultimate conclusion, the reader jumps ahead and assumes that the writer is justifying the conclusion.  In other words, what is being used as an explanation is interpreted as a reason or excuse.

Here’s an example of how the fallacy can be committed:

Me:  Where’s your homework?

Student:  I didn’t do it.  I am a lazy slug.

Me:  I suppose you think that excuses/justifies your decision not to hand in your homework. [SPOILER ALERT:  This is the step where I commit the fallacy.]

Student:  No, I’m just explaining/clarifying that this is how God made me. You knew this about me, you have always known this about me, and you will always know this about me. Therefore, it was totally illogical of you to expect me to do the homework in the first place

I assumed that the student was saying “Because I am a lazy slug, I therefore did not do the homework,” and attacked her before she could conclude the argument.  I (gasp!) committed a flaw in my logic because I interrupted her before she could give me her reason (“You knew this about me…”) that supported her conclusion (“Therefore, it was totally illogical of you to expect me to do the homework in the first place”).  “I am a lazy slug” was simply strengthening her reason.  Now, I don’t have to accept her argument, but at least I can recognize the true role being performed by her statement, “I am a lazy slug.”

It is not always easy to make the distinction between an explanation and an excuse.  For example, sometimes an explanation is so compelling that it looks like an excuse.

Me: Where’s your homework?

Student:  I was in the hospital for two weeks in traction for two broken arms and high as a kite on pain killers.

Now, unless I were a total dickhead, this explanation would more than suffice as justification for cutting the kid some slack.  But, strictly speaking, it is still an explanation that supports the implied reason that she couldn’t do the homework, which would support her implied conclusion that she should be exempted from my “homework is due when homework is due” policy.  If my student were as pedantic as I am, she would have formulated her argument thusly:

Me:  Where’s your homework?

Student:  I should be not be punished for not handing in my homework [Conclusion] because I couldn’t do it [Reason/excuse/justification].  I was in the hospital for two weeks in traction for two broken arms and high as a kite on pain killers [Explanation].

There are many reasons why the listener can mistake explanations for excuses.  My second student didn’t structure her argument formally (she was still on painkillers), and it’s rather unreasonable (even for a dedicated pedant such as your author) to expect everyone to formulate every argument according to my exacting specifications. Another reason the listener can make the mistake is because of emotions.  For example, I was so pissed off at the student in the first example that I jumped the gun.

In order to distinguish excuses from explanations, it is necessary to see how the statement in question is being used.   Is it setting the stage by giving context for the reasons supporting the conclusion?  Is it giving you a fact that strengthens the reasoning behind the conclusion?  Or is it being used as a reason that justifies the conclusion of the argument?

So, keeping these considerations in mind, let’s look again at what Kellyanne said about the DNC hacks to determine if I’ve committed a fallacy by mistaking her explanation for her reason:

This is really about the DNC’s breach. They didn’t have the proper security … and someone was able to hack the information, and we are not in favor of foreign governments interfering in our elections or interfering in our intelligence (http://www.politicususa.com/2016/12/29/kellyanne-conway-blames-u-s-intelligence-agencies-russia-election-hacking.html).

Now, if we were speaking strictly in structural terms, it’s clear that Kellyanne is making an argument:  you can logically insert the word “because” in front of the sentence starting “They didn’t have the proper security…” and “therefore” in front of “This is really about the DNC’s breach.”  Grrr.  She really does seem to be saying that the DNC is solely responsible for the hack.  But, maybe like my student in my second example, Kellyanne’s powers of reasoning were somehow not up to par.  Maybe the stress of her job is getting to her.  So let’s cut her some slack, and see if we can discern an implied intent to use this statement as an explanation, and not an excuse. To do this would require us to see if “This is really about the DNC’s breach” can function as a reason, and not a conclusion.

But, assuming Kellyanne is being logical, there should be some proposition that would flow naturally from her reason “This is really about the DNC’s breach.”  What could that conclusion be?  That the DNC is the author of their own downfall?  That the hackers are utterly absolved of their own culpability?  It’s hard to see what other conclusion might be drawn.[2]

Or, if there is no reason at all in her statement, but it is instead a pile of explanations, of clarifications, of context, what reason would those explanations support?  Perhaps she is using this information to build an argument about the necessity for constant vigilance in the face of foreign attacks upon our political structures. In that case, we would reasonably look for her to condemn the Russians for taking advantage of the security breach.  Such an argument might look like this:

This is really about the DNC’s breach. They didn’t have the proper security … and someone was able to hack the information, and we are not in favor of foreign governments interfering in our elections or interfering in our intelligence.  Because of the lax security, the Russians were able to influence the outcome of the election.  Therefore, we must have a root and branch investigation of the DNC hacking to ensure that this never happens again.[3]

However, Kellyanne’s statement does not use the fact of the DNC’s rather fey attitude to cybersecurity for either of these purposes.  No. Instead, she says “[t]his is really about the DNC’s breach.”  That’s it.  End of report.  Kellyanne is not showing any interest in addressing the underlying issue of the rights or wrongs of the DNC hack:  instead, she is allocating all of the blame to the DNC, and none to the hackers.  So, after all that, I’m pretty sure that I’m not committing the error of mistaking an explanation for a reason.  Additionally, other GOP surrogates have failed to dissuade me from this conclusion.

For example, Sean Spicer used similar language the same day in his response to the news that the Russians were linked to the hacking:

At some point, the question hasn’t even been asked of the (Democratic National Committee): Did you take basic measures to protect the data that was on there?  Where’s the responsibility of them to protect their systems? http://www.cnn.com/2016/12/29/politics/sean-spicer-dnc-hackings/

Again, this might be deemed to be an explanation of why the hacking occurred in the first place.  However, Sean never takes that extra step of saying that the hacks should never occurred in the first place, or that we really do need to find a way to keep those pesky Russians from stealing personal documents.  Instead, he goes on to attack the media for not asking the DNC about its crap security and the intelligence agencies for not making their findings public.  Indeed, his ire seems to be aimed at just about everybody except the people who experts agree are the most likely culprit.  This is not the language of explanation:  it’s the language of obfuscation.  Of sand in your eyes.  Or, to use a term I learned on my mother’s knees, horse feathers.

Well, what’s the big deal, you might ask.  After all, Kellyanne and Sean have a point:  if the DNC hadn’t been so whimsical about basic cybersecurity, they wouldn’t have been hacked, right?  Even if they come to this conclusion, what makes it a red herring?

Well, the reason why it’s a red herring is that it is an attempt to distract the reader from the real issues at hand:  who the hell committed those hacks, and what should we do about them and their beneficiaries?  Instead, Kellyanne and Sean are offering up a new culprit:  the victim of the hacks, and not the hackers themselves.

There is something that feels good about this stance:  it seems balanced.  The bad action provokes the bad reaction.  Man up and stop being such a baby—you got what was coming to you.  And there are, indeed, times when someone richly deserves the bad karma he or she provokes.  I once knew a guy who wrecked his MG Spitfire, so his amazingly indulgent parents gave him a Triumph 7.  Spoiled rich guy hated the Triumph, so he would leave it in the middle of the highest crime neighborhood in the city– unlocked, convertible roof opened, windows down, and key dangling from the ignition—praying that it would be stolen so his parents could use the insurance money to buy him a new Spitfire.  Of course it wasn’t stolen (any would-be thief with half a brain cell would have thought it was a trap set by the police), but if it had been, I would have been the first in line to say that my friend had it coming to him.[4]

But it is precisely because this formulation is so emotionally satisfying that we should look at it carefully.  Remember:  emotions cloud reason.  In essence, we are blaming the victim, and a victim, by definition, should evoke our sympathy.  Therefore, when a claim not only neutralizes our compassion, but actually gets us to actively sneer at the victim, we really need to look at it with a magnifying glass.

The key to determining the reasonableness of blaming the victim is to examine the proportionality of the action and the result. The classic formulation of victim blaming is “if she weren’t so drunk/dressed like a slut/walking home alone, she would not have been raped.” Surely, even if any of these actions were the proximate cause of a sexual assault (and that is HIGHLY debatable), they are so negligible that they wouldn’t justify a brutal crime.  The results are simply wildly out of proportion to the alleged cause.[5]

So, let us use the proportionality test to ascertain whether it is fair to say that, since the DNC is the author of its own woes, we should not try to dig more into the hacking itself.

First of all, what’s sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander:  if we shouldn’t take the DNC hack seriously because it was its own fault, then we should never take hacking seriously if the victim had poor cybersecurity.  But being lax with cybersecurity is hardly unique to the DNC.  A 2014 report by the Heritage Foundation reveals a list of hacked companies that is simply breathtaking in its breadth.  (http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2014/10/cyber-attacks-on-us-companies-in-2014).  From Sony to Target, it seems no one is safe from internet malefactors.  And surely, there must have been some laxity involved.  For example, as recently as 2015, in an article discussing a hack of Anthem, the New York Times reported that health insurance companies are vulnerable to hacking as a result of lax security practices surrounding the personal information in their files (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/06/business/experts-suspect-lax-security-left-anthem-vulnerable-to-hackers.html). And yet, despite this laxity, various federal and state law enforcement agencies have been hunting the hackers down—and occasionally even managing to arrest them (http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/surprise-breaking/2016/10/27/phoenix-meetkumar-desai-arrested-cyberattack-911-system/92847226/). So, surprise, surprise:  as far as law enforcement is concerned, the victim is still a victim, and the hacking is still a crime, even if the victim had been somewhat lazy about not responding to phishing expeditions.  I guess that’s only fair:  after all, cops still investigate burglaries even if the victim left the door unlocked.

Second, we need to look at the enormity of the Russian hack.  Top intelligence officials believe that the Russians deliberately interfered with our election by selectively releasing embarrassing emails in the hopes of swaying the voters away from Secretary Clinton.  Goodness only knows why they preferred Trump; I admit I’m as perplexed as the next person about it.  Maybe it has something to do with those pesky tax forms (http://ijr.com/2016/09/698715-senate-democrats-speculate-that-donald-trumps-tax-returns-would-reveal-russian-collusion/), or the bizarre love triangle between Putin, Trump, and Manafort (http://www.nationalreview.com/article/439164/donald-trump-paul-manafort-russian-ties)  .  But whatever the reason, there is a clear indication that this election’s results probably came from Russia, with love. This is a foreign attack on our electoral system, which, in the humble opinion of your author, is a YUGE deal.  The preservation of fundamental democratic principles demands that the government conduct a full and open investigation into the hack and its connections to the RNC, even if the DNC were hopelessly naïve about cybersecurity.

Consequently, not only did Kellyanne and Sean use a red herring to keep us off the trail, but it was a particularly stinky one.

 

THIS JUST IN: 

Even though Kellyanne and Sean made their comments on 29 December, I didn’t complete this essay until 1 AM on 4 January.  That’s because I like to do a little something called “thinking” before I set my words down for everyone to read.   Call me old school.  However, it did give me a little qualm, thinking that what I said might not have the same relevance that it might have had if I had been a bit quicker at the keyboard.

Well, thank God for Donald Trump (and, trust me, that’s a prayer you’ll rarely hear from my lips)!  Almost as if my fairy godmother had let him know my worries, he posted the following on Twitter at 7:22 AM on 4 January:

Julian Assange said “a 14 year old could have hacked Podesta” – why was DNC so careless? Also said Russians did not give him the info! (https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/816620855958601730).

What a sweetie!

Clearly, Trump is using one of his favorite devices—the rhetorical question—to make the argument that the DNC’s ineptitude, and not the Russian cyber hit squad(s), are to blame for the hack.  There is not even a hint of a whiff of an explanation here:  the DNC was careless, therefore they are to blame.  The use of the question is especially telling, because questions, by their nature, raise, well, questions.  They do not provide facts.  They do not provide answers.  They demand responses.  So it is evident that Trump is using the old red herring (as well as blaming the victim) to distract us from the substantive questions about Russia’s role in his election.  Nice!

Furthermore, I can’t help but notice that Trump is using Assange as a source about both the DNC cybersecurity and the role of the Russians.  Now, Assange might be a stand-up kind of guy.  Haven’t a clue.  However, when it comes to Secretary Clinton, he’s hardly a fan:

“Hillary Clinton is receiving constant updates about my personal situation; she has pushed for the prosecution of WikiLeaks,” he told ITV. “We do see her as more of a problem for freedom of the press generally. (http://www.vox.com/2016/9/15/12929262/wikileaks-hillary-clinton-julian-assange-hate).

It kind of hurts to admit this, but I get the distinct impression that Trump has not read my earlier blog on how to evaluate sources.[6]  If he had, he would know to be wary of citing Assange under these circumstances as he fails two of the prongs of the RAVEN test:  V (vested interest) and N (neutrality).  Assange clearly hates Clinton, so he is far from neutral.  Further, while I’m sure that being squirreled away in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London is as much fun for him as it is for his hosts, I bet that Assange is hankering to breathe the sweet, sweet air of freedom.  But if he hits the pavements, he might be sent to Sweden to face two rape charges.[7]  Yet, that is not the least of his legal woes:  once he’s in Sweden, he might very well be sent to the US and face capital charges for leaking a whole heap o’ classified documents.[8] So things might be a bit rosier for Assange if a non-Secretary Clinton were in the White House—especially if said non-Clinton owed his occupancy of the Oval Office to, in some degree, Assange. In other words, Assange has a vested interest in the outcome of this particular debate.

So, in conclusion, I needn’t have worried that Kellyanne’s little red herring would be irrelevant.  It is as stinky now as it was when she rubbed it on CNN’s trail on the 29th. It also indicates that we can expect more, and not less, use of this logical fallacy on the part of the Trump administration.  Sad!

 

[1] This is not to say that the reason is a good one, or that it necessarily leads to the conclusion.  It’s just saying that this is how an argument is formally structured.  The argument, “[Because] Fox News is owned by Rupert Murdoch, therefore I believe every word Tucker Carlson says,” while structurally correct, does not pass substantive muster in ways too numerous to address.

[2] And for reasons given below, I would count this conclusion as a red herring.

[3] Of course, another formulation of the argument might have the following reason and conclusion:

Because you guys were suckers, [therefore] we win.  Nanny, nanny boo-boo.

But surely not.

[4] And, given the fact that the car wasn’t stolen, it is arguable that he got exactly what was coming to him.

[5] Unlike my rich friend, whose actions not only would have justified the theft of his car, but also the pressing of charges for insurance fraud.

[6] Here’s where you can find it, in case you forgot: https://essayettes.wordpress.com/2016/12/13/pizzagate-how-to-consider-the-source/.  It’s really good.  Trust my unbiased opinion.

[7] In the interest of fairness, I want to point out that Assange insists that these charges are politically motivated (https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/oct/14/wiileaks-from-liberal-beacon-to-a-prop-for-trump-what-has-happened). I don’t know enough to evaluate this claim, so I’m willing, for the sake of argument, to accept his statement.

[8] The United Kingdom does not extradite people if they are facing the death penalty after a court ruled that the risk of serving on death row would constitute a violation of article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which I think is rather sporting. Soering v United Kingdom (1989) 11 EHRR 439, Judgment of 7 July 1989. That’s why the trip to Stockholm is key to getting him to the US:  Sweden apparently has no such qualms.

Copyright 2017 D R Miller