Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Basic Argumentation

Over the weekend, I read the article about Palin accusing Obama of "palling around with terrorists" because he and Bill Ayers, founder of the radical anti-war group Weather Underground, live in the same Chicago neighborhood and have served on a couple of the same committees and fundraising campaigns. I read similar articles on no less than six news sites and did some searching on my own. My conclusion was that while Ayers may or may not have done some extreme stuff in anti-Vietnam demonstrations in the 60's, charges against him were dropped, he's no longer in hiding, and he's a professor at U of I Chicago. Being board members together and socially cordial hardly seems like "palling around," and "terrorist" is a relative, inflammatory term in this case. In any case, this situation isn't analogous to, say, inviting the bin Ladens over for a 4th of July barbecue.

As I shut down my computer, I shook my head. In politics it seems like people can say anything they want, regardless of the veracity of their comments. Even when fact checkers uncover half-truths or total fallacies, the damage has already been done. The lie lives on in the mind of the average person as truth. How many people do you know that take the extra step to check the validity of the political commercials, debates, and speeches they've heard? A very sad few. Just once, I'd like to see arguments from either political party that would hold water in even a freshman composition class.

When I taught college writing courses, this was about the point in the semester that we started talking about their argumentative research paper. We spent a lot of time talking about what constituted a valid information source (i.e., not Wikipedia or your friend's blog) and how to analyze those facts to construct a solid argument. Inevitably we covered things like not twisting facts to support your agenda. We discussed how to respond to those who disagree with you and what constitutes an appropriate rebuttal. I responsibly taught them that a logical, valid argument doesn't indulge in ad hominem attacks, rely on straw man arguments and sweeping generalizations, or make irrelevant appeals (to fear, force, pity, etc.). I told the poor schmucks that this was the kind of critical thinking the professional world expected of them. Some of them were a little annoyed by the whole concept of logical argument and the extra time that would be consumed by weeding out those pesky logical fallacies. Why bother when one can build an entire political campaign (and an administration, come to think of it...) out of an array of artistically spun logical fallacies and outright lies?


  1. Welcome to the world of republican politics. As this has worked in the past (see Kerry and the swiftboating) I really think that this will fail. And there is one simple reason, the economy. Little Johnny does not have a coherent plan, and everone know this. That is why he is relegated to this type of sleaze, and that is why, this time, it will not work.

    Change will come.

    I believe it.

  2. A friend of mine and I (her blog is here, but she no longer posts) used to discuss the rather large missing gaps in american education, and the main one we usually came back to was basic rhetoric, including philosophical logic*.

    The more time I've spent arguing with people, the more I've realized there are four different types of folks to argue with. There are of course, the ones who just make shit up and then jump to horrendous and fallacious conclusions based on their Belief and Faith (the really obvious neo-con or fanatical morons.) The ones who are (mostly) logical, but don't take too much care in establishing the truth or validity of their premises. The ones who will actually do some fact checking and make sure their premises are in the real world, but then draw conclusions from their premises that are more works of art than real conclusions. And finally, the rare people who actually care about both.

    It's almost impossible to talk with the first group. Most republicans fall into one of the first three groups.

    The problem is, in ANY of the first three groups, it's really hard to actually have a rational discussion with the people. In the second group, you cannot simply have a conversation with them, because you have to chase their arguments back to the false or at least questionable premise, and then try and discuss that...which they think is changing the subject.

    In the case of the third group, you're stuck trying to teach them about logic, and why their gut feeling about Joe Klein being an imbecile really has nothing to do with Obama's presidential qualifications.

    Anyway...I guess this has become less than directly related to your post, but the whole thing struck a chord with because I work in a neo-con bubble and the sort of people you're describing and frustrated with make up the vast majority of my human interactions, and this seemed a good place to vent. :-)

  3. i find it quite sad that all this political writing is confined to the two-party system. democrats and republicans are both equally disgusting, in my opinion. if people want this change they talk so much about, why not try thinking outside of the box for once? are americans too ignorant to be capable of choices beyond one or the other? i mean, they can sure handle it at mcdonald's, right?

  4. Actually, if you think about it, forcing us to work within what comes down to being a two party system (regardless of the occasional independent) is an example of either/or fallacy. There's always more than two choices...