Fallacies Peculiar To Political Discussions
Here are a few fallacies that often spring up in the theater of political discussions. Doubtless there are others, but these seem to be most common.
1. The "we" fallacy. An instance of conflating the public interest with the private and papering over relevant differences in class, race, and social status; an assumption that some situation is of particular importance to an entire group rather than merely to some narrow circle.
Presidents seeking support for war are famous for employing inclusive language: the war, they say, is necessary because "our national security is at stake"; "we cannot let the enemies of freedom prevail"; "we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship," and so on.
Who is "we"? We who make foreign policy, write the tax code, sit on the boards of corporations, own vast tracts of land and precious commodities in faraway places? "We" meaning you and I, our friends and neighbors, or somebody else?
We're all citizens of the same land; we're all "one" after all, right? Or are we? Are the interests of a small clique of New York bankers the same as those of New England fishermen? Does a Texas oil man fret over the same problems as a California farmer? Does he have the same friends, loyalties, interests, values? A historian living in St. Paul, MN might take a slightly different view of Cuba than an immigrant family living in Miami. A man owning a million shares of Exxon Mobil stock may have a keener interest in the ousting of Saddam Hussein than 80% of the American population, which owns little if any stock in anything and has no material stake in the Middle East. Would it not be a tad deceiving to amplify the oil man's personal interest into "our" interest, the "national interest"?
"But we're all citizens of the United States." But what is the status of this statement when "we" is alluded to by a politician in a speech? Does being a citizen of a country engender interests beyond that of mainland security? What are they?
Note the instances in which "we" disappears from the discourse. Thousands of children in this country go to bed hungry every night, but who among us would describe their plight as "our own"? It is naturally written off as an individual issue, an issue of a family's responsibility to provide for its children, not a problem that is of distinct concern to the State of New York or to the United States Government. An "I" problem in this instance, not a "we" problem.
2. The ad populum fallacy. It happens every two years. A candidate for some office will interrupt his opponent in the middle of a scripted, jejune debate and exclaim, "You are out of step with the American people," or "You are out of touch with the people of this district." Here "we" are -- good, fine, decent people of a district or state, and there at the dais is some oddball, crackpot, weirdo, intent upon some ruthless deed, a menace to "us all." Unfortunately, ad popping works, and a cursory look at American voting trends reveals, in all but a few states, disdain for anyone who cannot safely be characterized as "moderate" or "mainstream." America, comprised of diverse peoples who are themselves "other," is ever leery of the Other when it comes to public policy: a candidate can look a little different, even sound a little different, but must ultimately belong to the same subset of opinion and judgment.
3. The moral feint. This occurs when a political leader or class not known for vocalizing its outrages suddenly intones about the evils of another nation or ruler. When Saddam Hussein used mustard gas to kill thousands of Iranians in the early 1980s, no din could be heard among the leaders of the National Security Agency or the self-important scribes of the leading newspapers. [See "The Saddam In Rumsfeld's Closet," Common Dreams, 9/2.] War happens; war is bad; war is ugly. "Let them kill one another; the world will be better off for it." Years later, under different circumstances, the man's proclivities are Hitleresque, and the fact that he has used noxious chemicals on people shocks the conscience like it never has before.
The feint is easily discernible: does one shudder in the face of any and all killing and brutality, or is one indifferent three-quarters of the time and revolted only once in a while? If once in a while, the sceptic can be forgiven for wondering whether something else is causing the sudden surge of moral energy.
4. The fallacy of delineated extremes. Sit any three or four commentators down and have them discuss something, and automatically parameters will be erected. The conversation will unfold within a certain scope. Something will be left unsaid; some idea will be given insufficient attention -- often an idea that is unpopular or that is perceived to be threatening to someone or some group. In the major broadcast and print media, ideas that challenge the legitimacy of the socioeconomic order are often simply ignored.
Imagine two politicians or pundits talking about Muammar Qadafi's rule in Libya. One participant adduces anecdotal evidence to the effect that Qadafi is aiding and abetting hijackers, that the man is a menace to the West, a friend to Muslim zealots everywhere, &c. The other participant agrees that Qadafi is a seedy, shifty man, but that he may be brought along to assist in the U.S. government's "anti-terrorism" crusade around the world. The world is full of undesirables, he reasons, and there are eggs more rotten than Qadaffi, so why not see if the man can be "worked with" for a while? Their debate proceeds along these lines.
A detached observer, restless and inquisitive, may look on with some agitation. "How well do either of these guys know Colonel Qadafi?" he may ask. "How many biographies of the man have they read? Do they know his friends personally? Do they know his enemies? Do they know whom he went to school with, who his girlfriends were, what his earliest political affiliations were, what books he reads and has read, what international leader inspires him the most, what he does for leisure?"
The observer may continue on with such questions. "Why does the category of 'terror' automatically apply to Colonel Qadafi, even if he has had a hand in a nefarious plot or two? Why should it be the one sticker affixed to the man? How much more about him might be known? His political aspirations, for instance, his vision for Libya, his hopes for economic revitalization, his legacy as he moves on in years?"
TV and radio discussions, newspaper editorials, magazine pieces do a fantastic job of oversimplying things. So often the scope of serious discussion corresponds only to the first designation below; here 'x' and 'y' refer to the outer reaches of expressed opinion.
As always, the responsibility of the thoughtful citizen is to ask how much farther the outer reaches of inquiry can be extended, and whether ideas that are ignored have any merit to them.
(© Tim Ruggiero, September 29, 2002)