Fallacies

Overheard at a house-warming party:

Drunk blogger: Well, I’ve been called an ‘Islamophobe’ and an ‘anti-semite’ on my blog, so…

Drunk non-blogger: … you’re just the bigot in the middle?

The fallacy of the blogger here, of course, is to assume that the two positions attributed to him are mutally exclusive, and therefore cancel each other out. This is not the case at all, as his respondent was so quick to point out.

Its an extension of that argument which says that if you are against position x (say, the invasion of Iraq) you are necessarily supportive of position y (the regime of Saddam), which doesn’t quite capture the true nature of the situation. The fallacy begins when we assume that these arguments are binary, zero-sum problems. Our politicians (supported by their cohorts in the media) are very good at promoting these falsehoods. “You’re either with us or against us”. Buy into the way they have framed the debate, and your argument is already lost.

And yes, dear reader: I was that blogger.

13 Replies to “Fallacies”

  1. Robert,

    I am very sorry to hear that: I cannot imagine that anyone could sensibly make either of those charges stick. (unlike the Beeb, which often uses exactly this argument completely erroneously – it attacks both Labour and Conservative from the left).

    However – there’s always a “however” – I’m not sure that your binary sum example holds: being against the Iraq Invasion DOES necessarily mean that you would prefer a situation in which Saddam remained in power and emboldened (by virtue of the US having to back down) UNLESS you are able to advance a credible counter-strategy that you would be in favour of.

    Thus “I’m against the Iraq invasion” does equate to “I would have preferred the continued rule of Saddam”.

    “I’m against THIS invasion conducted in THIS manner: the US/UK/UN whoever should instead have done Y” does not. Providing of course that “Y” would indeed result in a) the removal of Saddam and b) less carnage.

  2. I don’t think PG has it quite correct in his “however” clause.

    I was against the Iraq invasion AND against the rule of Saddam Hussein (I don’t know him well enough to be on first-name terms).

    You see, I wished for some other way to get rid of him, and I can think of plenty. Just because you don’t like something, doesn’t mean you ever have to think war or murder is the best way to solve things, especially if you are a girl. Unless you don’t like your country being invaded, I guess, although I don’t think the Iraq regime ever did that to the UK, so it doesn’t really count in this instance.

  3. Clarice,

    “because you don’t like something, doesn’t mean you ever have to think war or murder is the best way to solve things”

    And for the record, I don’t think that war or murder is the best to solve things either. I think you will also find that soldiers who have actually done some fighting hold this view a little more strongly than most.

    My point here is that unless you COULD – at the time – come up with a credible alternative – and Christ alone knows that we would all prefer not to go to war – opposition to the war did mean a situation in which Mr Hussein continued his brutal rule. You may not have liked that either, but it is an unavoidable implication of the stance taken.

    I suppose the problem here is the gap between “being supportive of Y” and “advocating a position Z that has the very obvious and unavoidable implication Y”. If you do not like “Y”, advocacy of position Z without addressing its unavoidable implication – to show, for instance, that y is the lesser of two evils – is weak at best.

    PG

  4. Absolutely right – I think this is referred to a dialectic logic where only 2 positions love/hate, good/bad etc on any issue are possible. It’s often seen as an attribute of right wing politicians in particular, although I would argue its just as often used by the liberal/left – e.g the “you either support uncontrolled immigration OR you are are a racist” argument.
    The opposite is dualism where it’s held to be logically possible to hold two contradictory views simultaneously, for example believing in democracy but seeking to silence opposing viewpoints.

  5. Hi PG

    I see your point; I think you’re coming at it from a different angle to me though.

    There are lots of things in the world that I don’t condone, or think should continue, but because war is not my favourite answer to things, and because history is so full of evidence as to its monstrosity, I do believe that many things are preferable to war, even bad things, and things I don’t condone. And there is also the argument, which I think Rob has talked about previously, that to justify the war with reference to removing a brutal dictator is hypocritical, to say the least, unless it’s part of a general policy to remove all brutal dictators, and an acknowledgement of our shameful failure to do so in the past, and our shameful support and even installation of certain of them previously.

    To extend the original argument of the post, I do think at the time of the going-to-war, it was not unforseeable that such an action would realistically result in many more deaths than saddam hussein’s regime had done thus far. As I believe it has done. Therefore, to fail to oppose the war, on the grounds that to do so would entail the continuation of saddam hussein, also entailed an implied support for the deaths of many more iraqi people than were thus far attributable to the existing regime. And I don’t think that’s quite nice, obviously. In fact, it’s rather dodgy. Either you like killing people, or you don’t, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. I can’t personally decide whether I’d rather be killed (or have loved-ones killed) by the regime of a brutal dictator, or by invading forces of the self-serving nations that put him there in the first place.

  6. Hi Matt Munro
    Yes, I like trivalent logic, though it can lead to an infinite regress. A premise can be true, false, or indeterminate. And of course, if you can insert indeterminacy once, you can do it infinitely many times. I also like truth gaps and truth gluts, which have been demonstrated to exist in human thought.

  7. “being against the Iraq Invasion DOES necessarily mean that you would prefer a situation in which Saddam remained in power”

    I note that no one has stated the relevance of invading Iraq (again) at that particular time. Can anyone remember when it became necessary to invade? Was it something Iraq did?

  8. Clarice – I bow to your superior knowledge of philosphy and the nature of thought. Personally I am against the war in Iraq, not in any moralistic sense (war is an ever present, and therefore necessary by-product of evolution) but because I don’t belive in imposing an alien western value (democracy) onto a non-western culture. The west are guilty of cultural imperialism in thinking that democracy is a good thing, therefore it can and should be made to work anywhere, negating the fact that other political systems work to the satisfaction of other cultures, even if they do not accord with western values. Apart from that, it’s simply poor value for money, we will get little out of the conflict, even if we “win”, and the money would be much better spent elswhere.

  9. Clarice,

    That is a perfectly principled position. In effect you have merely stated that you agree with the last line of my first comment, which was:

    “Thus “I’m against the Iraq invasion” does equate to “I would have preferred the continued rule of Saddam”. I’m against THIS invasion conducted in THIS manner: the US/UK/UN whoever should instead have done Y” does not. Providing of course that “Y” would indeed result in a) the removal of Saddam and b) less carnage. “

    However, you are still relying solely on b) alone – that there will be less carnage to leave him in place. My criticism of the invasion is not that it was wrong PER SE, but that it was done in such a way and mismanaged in the aftermath to deny b). That is not the same thing as saying it should never have been done.

    Equally, whilst I agree that a general policy to remove mass-murdering dictators is a good thing, I don’t think this is in dispute, give or take Matt’s excoriation of cultural imperialism above.

  10. Returning to the main thread and if it is any consolation, which I grant it may not be, one of the main reasons I read your stuff Robert is to expose my own prejudices – I see you as being the benchmark for being NOT prejudiced.

    What, I ask myself, would Robert Sharp say/do?

    🙂

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