Monday, September 25, 2006

How To Lie Like A Politician

One thing I have noticed in my years of blogging and commenting in news groups is the inability of many people, especially on the authoritarian right, to argue rationally. The following is a lesson in logic and argumentation that I have written to help these unfortunate individuals. For anyone wishing to delve further into the logical fallacies used in argumentation see “Straight Thinking - Crooked Thinking” by Robert Thouless. An on line summary can be found at 

There are a number of tricks and logical fallacies that politicos and other scoundrels use to win arguments. They use these dishonest means since the truth would not further their cause. These tricks and fallacies have been used so often they have become the common currency of argument. People you could never accuse of lying use them out of ignorance, and think they are winning their point in debate. (Instead of making fools of themselves to anyone in the know.) Part of the problem rests with our wretched education system which waits until university to teach basic logic, and even then does not make it a required subject – the sorry results of which are all too obvious in many academic debates and publications. Anyway, here is a list of common tricks.
*The Straw Man. This is the classic, most common, and one of the crudest means of apparently winning an argument. One sets up a false, ridiculous, or exaggerated statement and claims that this is what their opponent believes. Set up thus, the straw man is easy to knock down and defeat. A typical example you see all the time is ‘anarchists are against organization’, when in fact we favor voluntary, non-authoritarian organization. The Straw Man gets much use in the media – in the 60’s peace marchers were straw-manned as being Communists, today they are “Saddam lovers”. Words and concepts have meaning. A liberal is not socialist, nor is a socialist a Marxist Leninist communist. And there are different varieties of liberals, socialists and communists. All of this is fudged over with the straw man attack. Another method of straw manning is to absolutize a statement. Suppose you come out in favor of local food production as an environmental measure. A dishonest anti-environmentalist might well scoff that you want to grow bananas and oranges in greenhouses sooner than import them, the reality being, of course, that you only want to grow locally those fruits and vegetables that make sense climate-wise. The propagandist is aided in his lies by the fact that sometimes a small minority of people do take an idea to ridiculous extremes or understand it poorly. Hence, it is possible to find irrational anarchists and apologists for terrorism, but the Big Lie is when you tar an entire group with these views.
*The Red Herring. The name probably came from the trick of dragging a fish across one’s path to deflect the tracking dogs. And that is basically it, the propagandist is faced with an uncomfortable truth and instead of dealing with it honestly, deflects the argument on to another terrain. Example - Suppose you tell a rightist that Pinochet was a tyrant. If dishonest (or ignorant of logic) he might well respond with, “Well, what about Castro?” This is a logical fallacy, Castro's dictatorial nature does not make Pinochet any less of a tyrant, and it is him we are talking about and no one else. At best, the Red Herring can show one to be a hypocrite, but this still does not negate the basic truth, that Pinochet was a dictator.
*Emotional Bullying, Invective And Ridicule. These related tricks are means to deflect arguments or to seeming counter-act arguments when one has little or no real ammunition. We are all familiar with the politician bellowing about how we must go fight a war in Afghanistan or the “terrists” will be at our back door. You can come up with hundreds of examples, but they all boil down to whipping up irrational emotions and bullying the opponent into silence. Ridicule and invective are used when one can’t attack someone any other way other than attempt to make them look venal, stupid or cruel. One’s opponent just doesn’t just have a different viewpoint, but is asinine, ignorant, a sell-out, a fool, or in a milder form, ‘confused’. Right-wingers like O'Reilly and Coulter specialize in bullying and invective.
* Hyperbole. Another common trick is to grossly inflate problems and dangers. This could also be called the Chicken Little Syndrome. Conservatives are always on about the immanent collapse of civilization any time their morality is challenged. Saddam's Iraq as a major military threat to the US is another example.
Sarcasm. Any 9 year old knows how to be sarcastic. This is the Bart Simpson school of politics. Check out Marx and Lenin’s writings. Their usual trick is to slather their opponents with sarcastic remarks. Eg. Marx’s continual reference to his opponent Max Stirner as ‘Saint Max’.
* Begging The Question is a form of faulty reasoning. What is supposed to be evidence is actually part of the conclusion. Also called circular reasoning. Eg. Nick is biased against Communism. The reason he is biased is because he is ignorant. Therefore Nick is not a reliable critic of Communism. Nick’s ignorance is given as a reason for his bias and his bias is given as a reason for his incompetence as a critic. Essentially, what is being said is that Nick is incompetent because he is incompetent. This does not mean that one's opponent might well be ignorant. But one has to show where he is lacking in knowledge rather than just writing him off as ignorant. The use of pejorative or emotionally laden language is also a form of question begging. Suppose in a public meeting someone denounces a proposal to cut taxes as ‘fascist’ or refers to a week-old fetus as a ‘baby’. The con-job here is to divert the listener’s sympathy toward the speaker’s opposition to tax cuts or abortion by using emotionally loaded language. Of course, terms such as ‘fascist’ and ‘baby’ used in such contexts have no bearing upon the truth or untruth of the arguments they are trying to defeat. Another example of question begging “That is a Marxist argument.” (implying I won't accept it.) Or “You sound like Hayek.” (implying therefore you are wrong.) The question that is begged for? Is everything that Marx or Hayek wrote wrong? The problem is not whether an argument is Marxian or Hayekian, but whether it is true or not.


Blogger Werner said...

Everything you say here, Larry, is very true but there ARE anarchists who seem to be opposed to mature organization, promote silly fads as this week's "revolutionary" culture, or bitch about technology at every opportunity. Fortunately I don't meet many people like this personally. I try my best to avoid real nuts...doesn't always work though. But it's getting hard to convince the truely honest skeptic when there is so much on the "left" including anarchism which is not particularly appealing, at least not to me.

3:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've found the logical fallacies essential to finding the flaws in my own arguments, which is much more valuable than knocking down the arguments of others... though that can be fun too.

No offense, but the blue-on-blue is very difficult to read. Is there any way to go back to what it was before?


10:03 PM  

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