How Words Manipulate Part 2

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

[Picture of PM interview with Jeremy Paxman]IN a previous article posted on this blog, I attempted to show how easily we are manipulated by the wording of copyright restriction notices (see How Words Manipulate of January 2007). I wrote that article because it had become annoying enough in my mind and I needed an outlet.

Recently I have been getting annoyed by the rhetoric of the gutter press, magazines, web sites, radio and television — especially when journalists interview serious professionals who cannot resort to quips or soundbites, or when politicians are involved!

That is why I have returned to this subject. This time I want to concentrate on how we are manipulated by the spoken word — by what is known as “fallacies”. Apart from my attempt to be helpfully informative, I sincerely do hope that my readers will enjoy this article — but, more importantly, that they enjoy playing spot-the-fallacy in interviews ever after.

The Straw Man

[Picture of Straw man]The Straw Man is a pretty good place to start as it is one of the most common fallacies. My mother used to use it all the time; I would say, “I am hungry, can I have my dinner early?” to which she’d reply: “No, if we were to allow our children to set the meal times, it wouldn’t be long before we’d be in utter chaos”.

That is “The Straw Man”. I did not suggest that we set all the meal times, I merely asked for one meal time to be adjusted, my argument was replaced by a straw man.

Here’s an example from Wikipedia:

Person A: We should liberalize the laws on marijuana.
Person B: No. Any society with unrestricted access to drugs loses its work ethic and goes only for immediate gratification.

The proposal was to relax laws on marijuana. Person B has exaggerated this to a position harder to defend: “unrestricted access to drugs”.

In my own personal experience, “The Straw Man” is over-used by school-teachers, policemen, and parents. It is also used quite a bit in comedy routines and sketches.

Argumentum ad hominem

[Picture representing “against the man”]This is a gem! It is usually called “ad hominem” meaning against the man. It is really annoying because, once you know it and can recognise it, you think of it as blatantly obvious and rather stupid — but it must work as it is extremely common. I reckon I hear this fallacious argument every single day on the news and current affairs media. Honestly!

Person A makes claim X
There is something objectionable about Person A
Therefore claim X is false

I know: it really is that daft! To understand how something so daft can manage to persuade, consider this example:

“You claim that this man is innocent, but you cannot be trusted since you are a criminal as well.”

That line must have been used in a million court-room dramas; discrediting a witness undermines their testimony. Yet, when you think about it, what has you being a criminal got to do with someone’s innocence? You might be right or you might be wrong, but the argument is a fallacy because it is illogical — the one thing does not follow on from the other thing.

It is called “ad hominem” because it attacks the personal, leaving the abstract realm of argument and counter-argument behind. It can get pretty abusive too, consider this:–

“Why are we listening to your opinion about Iraq when you do not even have a job or pay taxes!”

Ad hom & Association

The abuse continues with association tactics, such as — “Well you would say that” — “You would defend the government because you are in the cabinet”, “You would stick up for men against women because you are a man”

Attacks like these are difficult to answer. What can you say other than to protest that “it’s not like that”, that you are or try to be impartial or fair-minded. It is a cheap shot to use “ad hom abuse” for it is nothing more than bullying and belittling; it has no basis in rational argument or logic. Consider this:

Person A makes claim X.
Group B also make claim X.
Therefore, person A is a member of group B.

Example: “You say the gap between the rich and poor is unacceptable, but communists also say this, therefore you are a communist”. This can so easily become a red herring.

Red Herring

[Picture of red herring]A red herring is a deliberate attempt to change the subject or divert the argument. The above ad hom association can develop like this:

“You say the gap between the rich and poor is unacceptable. You don’t really mean that, do you? Communists say the same thing. You’re not a communist, are you?”.

The rhetoric here forced the person to engage in a debate about them being a communist, rather than discuss the actual topic. Their credibility can start to slip, and they seem less trustworthy! Listen out for this red herring style as it is in almost every political debate on TV and radio.

Tu quoque

[Picture of 2 COCK]“Tu quoque” (pronounced, unfortunately, as “two cock”, and meaning “And you too!”), is another deliberate diversion from the original issue (red herring). It is where the advice or argument is declared false because the person presenting it doesn’t follow it themselves.

“Tu quoque” is frequently seen in conjunction with ad hom, when the assertion implies wrongdoing on the part of the presenter.

A makes criticism P.
A is also guilty of P.
Therefore, P is trashed.

For example: “Thomas Jefferson argued that slavery was wrong and should be abolished, but since Jefferson himself owned slaves, how could slavery be wrong?”.
Slavery was either right or wrong, regardless of Jefferson’s actions. The validity or truth-value of Jefferson’s argument is not affected by his participation in slavery.

Finally, the rather splendidly named “ignoratio elenchi” (pronounced “ig-no’-rasho’-hay-laynshee):

Ignoratio elenchi

“I should not pay a fine for dangerous driving. There are actual dangerous criminals on the streets, and the police should be chasing them instead of harassing a decent tax-paying citizen like me”.

The existence of worse criminals is a secondary issue which has no bearing on whether the driver deserves a fine for recklessness. If this was a deliberate attempt to divert the issue, then it would be a red herring. While the argument about how the police should spend their time may have merit, the question of whom the police should prioritise pursuing, and the question of what should be done with those the police have caught, are separate questions.

Another example: “He such a nice guy, wildly popular at the moment — and he gives a lot of money to all sorts of charities. Clearly, he will end up with an Oscar tonight”.

The conclusion here is “ignoratio elenchi”, since friendliness and charity are not the main qualifications for getting an Oscar.

So have fun spotting straw men, tu quoques, red herrings, ignoratio elenchis, and ad hom abuses; they are everywhere! When you do you will realise just how little real argument and debate exists, how so much is avoided by such rhetorical tactics, and how in the end, we are all seriously misled and manipulated.

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3 Responses to “How Words Manipulate Part 2”

  1. renaud Says:

    You forgot about “ipsedixitism” from Ipse dixit, he said it himself. “The UK needs more doctors, so we need more medical courses at more universities” is an example of an ipsedixitism because it does not say why the UK needs more doctors, the whole logic is based on an unqualified premise, which may be fallacious. It is used constantly in political soundbites.

  2. Deshawnbl Says:

    well done, dude

  3. Dale Sherriff Says:

    This is an excellent article!! I see all these things regularly and wonder why so many people readily accept these types of stupidity and distraction form the real issues. But I guess we’ve all seen how parliament runs with the desk banging and opposition arguing over obviously correct moves by the government in power and feel we can’t expect more. well I for one will not stop looking for the real issues and answers to them amid all this fluff.


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