Politics, Serialized Blog

The Sad State of Arguments

Originally posted November 20, 2014 on the Nation of Change

The constant swirl of dumb arguments are not only a measure of the low level to which public discourse has sunk, but they displace thoughtful communication and analysis, thereby keeping us from addressing our most important problems.

…More than one in five Republicans last year told a pollster they believed that President Obama was the anti-Christ.

“It’s harmless hyperbole you say. The 114th Congress will not take up the matter of what to do with the Beast at the end times. But they will hold crucial votes on whether one of the world’s largest users of energy—us—can curb carbon emissions enough to mitigate climate change…”[i]  Timothy Egan

It is no exaggeration in the slightest to say that we are called upon daily to make gut-wrenching decisions on life and death issues that affect everyone everywhere. And yet, we are bombarded daily by arguments that by any measure are paranoid, pathological, and delusional. In brief, America is awash in dumb arguments.

The constant swirl of dumb arguments are not only a measure of the low level to which public discourse has sunk, but they displace thoughtful communication and analysis, thereby keeping us from addressing our most important problems.

Illogical Versus Dumb Arguments

All dumb arguments are illogical, but not all illogical arguments are necessarily dumb. Illogical arguments are arguments whose underlying premises are deeply flawed. In brief, the premises don’t make sense and thus the purported conclusions don’t follow at all.

But false premises and dubious conclusions alone don’t necessarily make something dumb. The primary form of dumb arguments that come most readily to mind are out-and-out idiotic, nonsensical statements like those generally associated with Rep. Michelle Bachmann and Gov. Sarah Palin.

Among the worst are those that are riddled with contempt and ridicule. (Evil arguments are unquestionably the absolute worst of all.) Such arguments are dumb not because they are idiotic, but because of the way in which they express contempt and disdain towards those they portray. In short, they demean those to whom the arguments are directed by characterizing them in the worst possible way.

Dumb arguments are also a reflection of the deep polarization that is characteristic of our times. According to recent polls, we are not only more divided politically than at almost any time in our history, but we are more inclined to demonize those who don’t think and behave like us. Many would in fact ostracize members of their own families who dared to marry someone of an opposing political party.[ii]

At least on their surface, other types of dumb arguments are not riddled with open contempt and hostility. For example, the longstanding refusal, if not outright inability, of the NRA to acknowledge that there are strong interaction effects between all forms of technology and those who use or control them is a prime example.

Most people clearly recognize the need to license drivers (people) before they are allowed to operate cars (a special form of technology) and to make that technology as safe as possible by incorporating safety features like seat belts and crushable bumpers in their design. Although in nearly every case car manufacturers initially fought the changes, they finally acceded to the demand that both cars and people needed to be made as safe as possible.

In sharp contrast, the NRA has always wanted to put the entire burden of responsibility for the safe operation of guns solely on the backs of users. Indeed, the NRA has persistently fought any and all proposals for increasing the safety of guns and reasonable background checks of potential buyers.

Major Types of Dumb Arguments (DAs)

I’ve been able to identify six major types of DAs. The reader is warned that the various types are neither mutually exclusive, nor exhaustive. The six are merely enough to expose the major features of a highly disturbing landscape.

  1. The Truly Idiotic/Dumb, Stupid, Ignorant
  2. Deceptive
  3. Insulting, Overly Aggressive, Demonizing
  4. Narrowly Ideological
  5. Lame Excuse/Apologies
  6. Evil.

Let me give just two examples that cut across many of the six major types I’ve identified. The point is depending upon what portions of an argument are stressed, many, if not most, of the examples can be used to illustrate any of the different types of DAs.

(The earlier case of the NRA is a clear example of a Deceptive DA.)

Example I

In agreeing to end discrimination against gays, lesbians, and trans-genders, President Obama has been accused of discriminating against those who discriminate against gays, lesbians, and trans-genders![iii]

Of course in agreeing to end discrimination, President Obama is rendering a strong, unequivocal judgment against those who discriminate. But to call his judgment reverse discrimination is downright Orwellian.

In taking away the “rights” of slave owners, was one thereby discriminating against them? If one was a slave owner, I have no doubt that they felt they were clearly being discriminated against, so much so that they were willing to go to war to defend their beliefs. Or was one correcting a grievous and evil societal wrong? Obviously, history has judged it to be the latter rather than the former.

Of course in correcting previous injustices, one is seriously affecting those who caused the injustice in the first place. But would we call it “harming them?” Should we view ending slavery as “harming” slave-owners?

The proponents of DAs fundamentally misuse words and ideas. In short, they suffer from “thinking disorders.”

Example II

Along with Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck stands out in proposing ideas that are clearly conspiratorial, if not downright evil. Mr. Beck said recently that in allowing illegal children into the U.S., President Obama was laying the groundwork for an Israeli-Palestinian type conflict within our borders.[iv] In other words, there was a conspiracy afoot that only he could call out.

To compare the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the plight of immigrant children basically defies all reason. It is the hallmark of a demagogue.

Dumb arguments wouldn’t exist if they didn’t fulfill important social purposes. Dumb arguments help to: simplify an inordinately complex world; reaffirm one’s core values that are seen as constantly under attack; differentiate oneself from the opposition; attract voters who are undecided and could vote either way; close down discussion and ignore inconvenient facts and arguments; demonize those who are seen as bitter enemies, etc.

Dumb arguments are nothing less than a virulent form of social pathology that must be treated as such.

[i] Timonthy Egan, “Why Do We Re-elect Them?,” The New York Times, Thursday, October 9, 2014, p. A29.

[ii] Charles M. Blow, “Dangerous Divisiveness,” The New York Times, Monday, June 16, 2014, p. A17; Nate Cohen, “Polarization: It’s Everywhere,” The New York Times, Thursday, June 12, 2014, p. A3.

[iii] Kate Patrick, “Obama’s LGBT Executive Order Threatens Religious Liberty, Say Advocates,” Daily Caller, July, 21, 2014.

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