When I was at school, we were forced to take a course called Rhetoric. It was mandatory. The textbook was approximately 9,000 pages long. No one wanted to take this course, and even fewer people enjoyed it. Looking back now, I’m glad I was forced to take it.
Rhetoric, in the classical sense, is the formalized way of making an argument. It comes to us from Greek and Roman democracy as a kind of rulebook for how to argue when we do. They viewed good rhetoric, as in playing by the logical rules, as an essential part of good democracy.
I write political content designed to go on the internet – I make a lot of arguments. I believe, more than any other political ideal, in the value of democracy. But it occurs to me, in a lot of the arguing we do on the internet, we don’t really play by the rules. We sling mud and call names. I do it too.
So, I’m going to give some credit to the people who invented democracy and say that the quality of our argumentation is directly linked to the quality of our democracy. In that spirit, what follows is a laundry list of some logical fallacies that need to go, as soon as possible, so that we can have meaningful discussions again.
CIRCULAR REASONING: The use of an argument to prove the same argument.
For example: Hillary Clinton is corrupt therefore Hillary Clinton will take money in exchange for favors.
We hear things like this in political analysis all the time, but these statements are logical duds. Without pointing to a specific outcome that is linked to the initial claim, you’re not really prove anything. In the case of the example, you’d need to prove that Hillary Clinton was corrupt, then go on to make the second statement.
PROOF BY ASSERTION/ARGUMENT TO THE STONE: This is the use of repetition of an unproven argument to make a point. This one crops up in politics A LOT and has also been called “sloganism,” the big lie, or brainwashing.
For example: “Yes we can.” Or “Crooked Hillary.”
By repeating these phrases, again and again, the speaker aims to give them meaning. However, the speaker has done nothing to prove that these claims are true or could be made true.
ARGUMENT FROM IGNORANCE: The claim that something is true because it has not been proven false.
For example: You can’t disprove that Santa Claus exists, therefore Santa Claus is a real person. (or, a more familiar example) You can’t know that the election isn’t rigged. Therefore it is probably rigged.
When people use this fallacy, they are shifting the burden of proof. Just because you cannot disprove something, does not make the opposite true.
POST HOC FALLACY: Also known as post hoc ergo propter hoc (meaning, after this therefore because of this). This is a fallacy of false causality, where something is attributed to a cause without proof.
For example: The rooster crows right before the sunrise. Therefore the rooster causes the sun to rise.
A more contemporary example: It’s hotter this year than last year. Therefore global warming is happening.
Post hoc assertions are not always untrue, as in the climate change example, but the logic behind them is faulty. Sequence- one thing happening before another- is not enough to determine cause.
THOUGHT TERMINATING CLICHÉ: These are phrases designed to shut down an argument without proof.
For example: What effect can one person have? Stop thinking so much. Here we go again.
These types of argument are a form of emotional appeal (more on that below) which sound familiar and appeal to the listener’s common sense. However, they don’t prove anything. They just sound nice, and we want to agree with them.
APPEAL TO EMOTION: This fallacy falls under the umbrella of “red herring” fallacies, which are arguments that fail to address the issue being discussed. It appeals to a broad sense of morality or emotion, but not the argument itself.
For example: We can’t legalize marijuana, think of the children.
The argument above draws an emotional connection between drug use and children but fails to address that many legal drugs are successfully kept away from children.
A more contemporary example: A Donald Trump presidency will be bad for women.
Again, a connection is drawn between A and B, but it is not causal. It ignores that there is no evidence that he will legislate against women.
There are many types of appeals to emotion, but my favorite subcategory is Reductio ad Hitlerum which is an emotional appeal to people’s fear of Hitler.
For example: The DEA is anti-drug. Hitler was anti-drug. Therefore, the DEA are Nazis.
This kind of logic may seem ridiculous, but it crops up in comment threads all the time, in accordance with Godwin’s Law – one of the funnier/saddest theories of internet behavior.
REIFICATION: Making an abstract precept a concrete reality. This one also has many incarnations, but the one I’m talking about is when people ascribe adjectives to ideologies as if those groups of people identify in the same way.
For example: Radical progressivism, vicious libertarianism, etc.
The problem with these fallacies is that they condition the listener/reader to feel a certain way about a group of people without allowing them to reach that conclusion independently. Another example, taken from the real-life New York Post is the phrase “pervert child molester.” They have formed the conclusion before the argument. Even though many parties would agree with the conclusion, it is logically invalid.
Did you like these? I hope so. If so, stay tuned for Rhetoric for Dummies: Part 2, coming to a Trigtent near you.