How To Argue Like a Right-Winger, Part 2
In the first part of this series, I looked at six common tactics used in fallacious arguments, primarily drawn from right-wing sources. (For what it's worth, various factions on the less reality-based segments of the political left tend to use these too, but they're neither germane to the target audience for this series, nor a particular problem at the moment.)
For those of you playing along at home, there may very well wind up being enough of these to fill a Bingo card. If anyone with better graphics skills than I would do one, I'd appreciate a link!
- The Windows Fallacy, or Keyword Triggering.
What is it? This is one of the key cognitive and argumentative strategies employed by hard-core right-wingers. I've taken the name of the phenomenon from something that the Microsoft Windows operating system used to do (it may very well still, but I've beaten XP into submission years ago, and have no plans to downgrade to Vista), where you would perform an action, and Windows would interpret it differently to how you had meant it, in effect saying, "You just tried to do X! You must mean 'Do Y!' instead!" (Picture Clippy the Psychopathic Paperclip speaking that line, and you'll have it perfectly.) Likewise, this phenomenon refers to the unusual tendency for right-wingers to think they know what you're talking about based on hearing (and only hearing) keywords and not parsing what you're actually saying. From there, they feel perfectly free to assume they know what you're talking about, and generally feel free to dismiss, discard, and refuse to respond to the rest of your argument. In essence, you could say this behaviour is a synthesis between the Strawman (the caricature has primacy over your actual speech acts), Conflation (two things confused), a lack of understanding of figurative speech, and overall intellectual laziness. It also ties in nicely with denialism, which seems to have a lot in common with radical right-wingery.
For example, my friend Rustin just had a conversation regarding sewer storm peak with an apparently very right-wing member of the Portland, OR city government. He was trying to pitch a solution he'd come up with to help ease water overflow problems by slowing off-roof outflow, essentially by attaching a gizmo to a downspout that would function not unlike a large plastic bottle with small holes punched in the bottom. Try as he might, he couldn't get the guy to understand what he was talking about. "Think about it like a rainbarrel with holes in the bottom," Rustin said. "That won't work," answered the municipal mook, "Rainbarrels only solve the problem for the first surge of the first storm of the season," and shut his ears off again. Apparently there were several iterations of this, with Rustin trying ever more exotic ways of framing the concept, and the RW shooting down what he was thinking he was hearing every time.
Where Do People Use It? This one is nearly universal. You'll see this in discussions about public policy, politics, evolution, and just about everywhere else.
What Does It Do? It allows the RW to maintain his or her protective bubble of stereotypes, preconceptions, prejudice, and ideology, because nothing you're saying will actually penetrate. Because the preconceptions and ideology are so ingrained, it also reinforces political divides where people might be able to find common ground.
How to Combat It. Point out that the RW is using the tactic. Ask the RW to define the terms they think they're hearing. Define your terms. Try to reframe the issue in completely unfamiliar and unexpected ways so that the RW in question doesn't have any easy cubbyholes to stick your arguments based on their existing set of keywords. This is probably not easy, and may not even be possible, however.
- Argument By Assertion
What is it? This name refers to RW's tendency to argue by asserting that certain things are true or valid without actually having to provide any evidence that they actually are. A clever RW debater will actually say something like, "I hope you'll grant me the point that..." or "Of course, we can all agree that..." (Don't do it! Never let them get away with this! Give your opponent the first premise, and you've just lost the argument.) Another tactic a clever RW debater will use in conjunction with this one is to assert (or assume) that it's up to the other side to prove them wrong. Bzzzt! Sorry, no. Claims require evidence, and the person making the claim is obligated to provide the evidence for that claim.
Where Do People Use It? Everywhere.
What Does It Do? Ideally for the RW, it either gives them a leg up on the whole argument by granting them the first premise, or else it diverts and derails the discussion into having the helpful liberals do the RW's homework for them, which they will then ignore or use to nitpick (see "Changing the Subject" from Part 1).
How to Combat It. There are several things you can do to combat this one, including the old high school debate-team tactic of repeating "State your sources" over and over. Try to get the RW to pony up their sources. Point out to other readers that they won't if they don't. If they do, point out any biases or known deficiencies in the source. Secondly, don't fall for either of the two traps outlined in the first section here. Don't give the RW the first premise. (I'd recommend not giving them the time of day, but I'm not one of these "nice liberals.") Don't do the RW's homework for them, and don't let the claim that they have to be "proven wrong" stand unchallenged, either.
- False Comparison
What is it? This is a comparison supposedly made for statistical or analogical purposes (but note that right-wingers are really notoriously bad at analogy; they tend to be disturbingly literal-minded for people who have seriously broken user-to-world interfaces) that for some reason or other simply does not work. Examples include the scarily innumerate "Iraq is less dangerous than Washington, DC" canard, and, as I mentioned earlier, the "male circumcision is exactly like female genital mutilation!" problem that occurs every single time a feminist blog attempts to discuss FGM.
Where Do People Use It? Generally this one gets used anywhere the RW wants to either exaggerate or deprecate a particular point (as in the examples above, one of each). By making a false comparison, they're drawing an equivalence between the two things that doesn't belong.
Aside: Formally, in metaphorics, we'd call a false comparison a "mismatch between the source and target domains," meaning that the trait selected for the comparison doesn't actually have what we'd call "congruence" (similarity) between the thing we're comparing and the thing to which we're comparing it. You can see how this works in the examples above. For more information, you can get a small taste in section II:1 of this paper, or you can go look up George Lakoff's original work on metaphorics and conceptual metaphor theory.
What Does It Do? As I stated above, this one either heightens or lowers the importance of a point unduly. It's used to minimise important issues and make mountains out of molehill issues. (No word on the whereabouts of the mountain's Mohammed, however.) It also can act as fodder for a derail, as various people will be tempted to leap in and correct the false comparison, bad statistics, or other falsehoods.
How to Combat It. Correct the falsehoods if necessary, then return to topic. Point out that the exaggerated or minimised topic is as (un)important as it actually is.
- Argument from Tone Problem or the Plea for Civility
What is it? Pretty much everyone in the liberal blogosphere is familiar with this one. Some RW will enter an argument spewing the same damn tired stupid canards that have already been debunked seven hundred thousand times as though they're new, exciting, and original. (I was saying about a lack of imagination? Guys -- you need a better farm system, because your fresh talent is looking like it turned into sludge in the icebox a couple years ago.) Various commenters will leap on them, perhaps intemperately, and the RW will immediately put on a big show about being offended by the very nasty words s/he hoped to provoke in the first place. You also see this a lot in right-left blog wars, where the right side of the blogosphere basically writes off the entire left side on the grounds that we DFHs fucking swear too fucking much. You also saw a variant of this when faux-moderate right-wing blogger Ann Althouse tore into feminist blogger Jessica Valenti for daring to wear her breasts while in the same room as Bill Clinton. How incivil!
This one is a key component of the phenomenon known as concern trolling.
Where Do People Use It? This one comes out pretty much anywhere tempers get hot and someone uses invective. Which, in liberal circles where we tend to both not be so uptight about looking proper in public and the power of malediction in general, this one gets used a lot.
What Does It Do? It's a distraction, a way of changing the subject, a way of derailing, and a "make the bastard deny it" tactic.
How to Combat It. Ignore it if possible. Point out to the other commenters that the RW is attempting to change the subject by using this tactic. Stay on topic.
This essay is getting very long, so I'm going to wrap it up here, but I will apparently be writing another part, since there's still so much more to cover. Stay tuned...