How Not To Be a Demagogue: Ten Stupidest, Most Dishonest, And Most Cowardly Arguments People Make All The Time
It is a well-known fact that people say a lot of stupid crap. To point it out isn’t exactly a revelation. Still, some expressions of stupid thought are like the Red Bull of stupid — intensely nonsensical and intensely popular. Below is a list of ten well-worn arguments that, in my opinion, take the cake for idiocy, intellectual dishonesty, cowardice or some combination of the three.
1. Anything that’s “clever”. There are people who have the annoying habit of using metaphors as proof, rather than as garnish. For example, “Wives should submit to husbands, because a boat can only have one captain! A corporation can only have one CEO! Zing!!” The main problem here is that a clever (or “clever”) saying is absolutely irrelevant to the subject being discussed. (For example, a marriage is neither a boat nor a corporation.)
“Clever” arguments are simply not persuasive, because the biases underlying them are so apparent. If anything, their effect is contrary to what was intended. The argument would only work if I, the audience, accept the starting premise that “X is like Y ’cause I said so”. And why in the world would I do that?
2. “I am entitled to my opinion/You are entitled to your opinion”/ “People are entitled to their opinions.” I cringe every time I hear this one — and I hear it very often. The fact that people so copiously rely on this entitlement nonsense is especially deplorable given the fact that there exists an alternative expression that conveys the basic idea without all that obnoxiousness: “Let’s agree to disagree.” The message in “let’s agree to disagree” is simple and honest: I am acknowledging our ongoing disagreement, but for reasons that I won’t enumerate, I would like to end the discussion. Done.
When entitlement is brought into one’s desire to end the debate, an opinion ceases to be an expression of one’s thoughts and perceptions, and becomes more of a personal heirloom, something discreet and precious that one holds on to for sentimental (and thus wholly irrational) reasons. What this expression is saying, is “I don’t care whether your points are logically or factually valid, I have a right not to have my darling little opinion rudely trampled to death upon by your criticism.” (This attitude is what inspires the conflation of opinion with personal identity. An attack against one’s opinion is perceived as an attack against oneself.)
The only appropriate answer to this is, of course, this: Yes, you are entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to a stupid, uninformed and illogical opinion. You have the right to be a bigot, and you have the right to make a fool of yourself. You don’t, however, have a right to validation just because you are opinionating. You are not entitled to be free from criticism or scorn. You are not entitled to respect. All opinions aren’t created equal. An opinion does not deserve validation simply because it exists.
3. “I may disagree with a lot of things that Mr. Candidate believes, but I admire him for standing up for what he believes in no matter how unpopular it is. That’s courage!!” This one has always puzzled me. Well, yes, yes, of course, I can admire someone for sticking to his guns in the face of adversity — but only if I consider that person’s beliefs worth standing up for. I really don’t understand, however, how it is possible to admire someone’s “courage” in defending views one disagrees with — because, presumably, those views are wrong, illogical, ill-informed, bigoted, or based on something that lacks authoritativeness. (Otherwise, why would you disagree with them?) Suppose I say the Earth is flat, and the moon is made of green cheese — and when told I am wrong by numerous people, I proceed to double down. This is admirable … how? Since when is being really persistent in one’s ignorance or stupidity a virtue?
This stance is particularly nonsensical when people discuss politicians. A politician who persists in embracing wildly unpopular views isn’t demonstrating courage or fortitude. Rather, he is proving himself to be either (a) awesomely stupid; or (b) unfit to serve the public as a democratic representative (as opposed to, say, a “benevolent” dictator).
Of course, this common expression becomes less mysterious if we realize that when a person says “I disagree with this politician’s views, but I admire his persistence,” what he really means is “Actually I do agree with all of this guy’s wacky views, but I am too embarrassed to admit it.” Which leads me to the next item on my list:
4. “I’m not saying what I’m saying, even though I’m saying it.” Everyone knows how frustrating it is when someone misinterprets and reads into your words. For example, if you make a statement that a child’s socioeconomic background is a reliable predictor of his or her academic success, you’ll have someone screaming at you for supposedly saying that poor people make bad parents. Or write “hiking sandals are ugly”, and you are looking at a protracted flame war, initiated by some nincompoop calling you insensitive because he’s got foot problems and can only wear hiking sandals, and what are you saying, he should go kill himself now?
The flipside of that is people who say something objectionable and then, when called on it, claim it’s not what was said — even though it clearly was — and those irritated by it are being overly sensitive. Or, this claim is made preemptively, as an inoculation against criticism. There is a well-known blogger that I usually like and agree with, who once made a comment that the reason she had decided not to have children is that she can handle adult interaction — and followed it up with a directive to parents not to feel all “butthurt”, because she wasn’t saying that people have children because they can’t handle adult interaction. Except, of course, she had just said exactly that. This type of attack often rears its head in arguments over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which someone will invoke classic anti-Semitic tropes, then claim that those who call them on it are playing the “anti-Semitism card”.
I find this mode of arguing particularly dishonest. It is one where even its author so clearly realizes it’s bogus, he does not want to admit he is making it, but can’t resist the temptation to spray the venom anyway. It entails a double insult to the target — first, by insinuating something inflammatory (“Jews enjoy killing children”; “Breeders are stupid and child-like”), and then by claiming that the person offended by it is just being an overly sensitive, hysteric, fragile snowflake cry-baby, who should get over himself already.
(And incidentally — hiking sandals are ugly.)
5. “Women earn less because they work fewer hours, therefore there is no sexism.” Even assuming that the income disparity is entirely due to women working less — which is inaccurate, by the way, but even if it were accurate — saying that women working fewer hours than men with the consequence of earning less means there is no double standard is absurd on its face. If there were no double standard, men and women would be taking equal time off work to care for children, each other, and their elderly parents. If women work less outside the home than men and end up earning less, that at the very least means that women are still primarily the ones who are expected to knee-cap themselves financially and professionally in order to cook, clean, assist, and keep the baby from being a nuisance to its father. We still have a culture where a woman is branded as “selfish” if she wants her husband to make some sacrifices for the sake of her career and “selfish” if she doesn’t make sacrifices for the sake of his. Statistics that show women losing more money and earning power than men by working fewer hours is prima facie proof of that. No sexism you say?
6. “Prove it!” There are exceptions to everything, of course. But with the caveat covering occasional nuance, almost never is a person asking his opponent to provide proof actually interested in facts. Providing the most overwhelming proof will, at most, take the discussion off on various tangents. One of my favorite bloggers has come up with a perfect answer to this: “What evidence would it take to prove your beliefs wrong?” Writes Professor Dutch: “I have found it to be a great general-purpose cut-through-the-crap question to determine whether somebody is interested in serious intellectual inquiry or just playing mind games. “ More often than not, on the internet especially, the call for proof is the latter — playing mind games.
7. (On the other hand) “Research it yourself, it’s not my responsibility to fill gaps in your knowledge.” Ah, no. That’s not how it works. Although I realize casual discussion is not a court of law, and the legal system has its problems, I do find legal evidentiary rules to be a useful guide in how the burden of proof is allocated in an argument. The rule of thumb is: the person who makes a claim has the responsibility to provide proof for that claim. The person disputing the claim shouldn’t be expected to go out and build his opponent’s case while the latter is smirking with a sense of superiority. Of course, here too there are exceptions: presumptions, for instance, or the impossibility to prove a negative. But, reader, you know what I’m talking about: saying something outrageous, controversial or obscure, then telling anyone who questions you to go and do their own research to prove YOU right is both nonsensical and insulting.
“But wait a minute,” a hypothetical reader asks, “Doesn’t number 7 contradict number 6?” Well no, not really. If someone asks for proof, as people usually do, as a way to obfuscate, telling that person to go do his own research does not make sense anyway. If, on the other hand, someone asks for substantiation in good faith (such as when extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof), telling them to find it on their own is as good as an admission that there IS no proof.
8. “We just want a small government.” I have written previously that “small” government does not mean poor or impotent government. However, the problem with people who claim they believe in “small government” goes much deeper than simple anarchism. The root of it is that they either do not understand the concept of government or purposely define it so narrowly as to render it nonsensical.
To begin with, when most right-wingers today say “government”, what they mean is “Federal government”. Excluding state and municipal governments from the definition of “government” is nonsensical on the surface, of course, but it fits right in with what they want — lots of regulation of personal activity, especially sexual activity, to go with their “small government”. It looks like a contradiction in terms until you realize that what they want is to greatly expand local governments for the purpose of policing individuals, especially those deemed undesirable by virtue of racial or socio-economic background. It makes sense, too, since anyone who has studied how federalist systems work can tell you that democratic governments get progressively more reactionary and extreme the more local they are. Crazy wackaloons who don’t stand a chance in hell of being elected to US Congress may yet secure a seat on a city council somewhere or even in some state legislature. And such crazy wackaloons are precisely what you need if you want to pass and enforce laws making it illegal for people to have non-procreative sex, banning mammograms for lesbians or, I don’t know, requiring school teachers to police their students against premarital hand-holding .
I really wish American schools would teach history more intensively. Not just American history, but global history, from the dawn of civilization onwards. I also think political science should be taught in greater detail — not as a grab-bag of trivia on the mechanics of various governments, but as a study in how power works.
When you shrink your government, through weakening it by various means — whether by defunding it or by stripping away its powers — you create what political scientists call a “power vacuum”. A power vacuum cannot sustain itself — someone or something will always fill it, and that something may not be as restrained or controllable as its predecessor. So the few people who knowingly argue for a “small government” actually want just the opposite — to shift power from a more centrist entity to a more extreme one, that will proceed to act in all sorts of overbearing and intrusive ways.
Individuals and private entities can act as de facto governments as well, when the existence of a power vacuum allows them to do so. When the dilution of homicide laws allows some wackjob to kill me because he doesn’t like the color of my skin or the cut of my sweater, that person acts as a punitive entity, just like the government — except unlike the government, he won’t provide me with any kind of due process; no trial, no jury, straight to execution. One person’s so-called “liberty” to kill with nothing more than a subjective feeling of being threatened is another’s loss of the inalienable right to life.
The era before labor laws curbed the power of employers over employees was the heyday of paternalism, and a number of big industrialists, like Henry Ford, undertook an extraordinary degree of intrusion into their workers’ private lives. Here is the thing: when agents working for someone on whom I depend for my livelihood come in and search my home and take the lids off the pots in the kitchen to look for “un-American” foods (as Henry Ford’s police would do), they act no different than government agents. Your liberty is your liberty, regardless of whether you lose it to the government or a major corporation. (And no, it isn’t as simple as going to work for someone else, given the enormous difference in bargaining power between different individuals and entities. In an unregulated system, those with greater wealth will always wield tremendous power over those with less. Unless, of course, a disaster of Biblical proportions wipes out a good deal of the labor force, like during the Black Death. And even then — look, Eastern Europe went completely the other way on that one.)
In short, that stuff about “small government” is nonsense. No wonder it’s usually accompanied by something along the lines of “I want the government to monitor people I don’t like and stay the hell out of my life.” Nothing like strict consistency in political discourse.
9. “Schools should teach that evolution is just a theory.” Every scientific explanation for natural phenomena, no matter how universally accepted, is “just a theory”. You know what I really want schools to teach? I want schools to teach that words mean something when used in a scientific context. I want schools to teach — rigorously — what a “theory” is, scientifically speaking. And, I want schools to teach what a theory is NOT.
At this point, it’s useless to try to explain to fundamentalists and racists (trust me, I know from personal experience how often “questioning” evolution is just a cover for good old racism) what the difference is between a theory and a hypothesis, and what criteria a hypothesis must meet in order to be called a “theory”. They are impervious to something so complicated. So I’ll try a different approach, one that focuses on what the term “theory” does NOT mean.
– “Scientific Theory” does not mean “some explanation that someone likes, no matter how unprovable, untestable or outlandish”.
— “Scientific Theory” does not mean “conjecture”.
— “Scientific Theory” does not mean “whatever I want to believe, regardless of whether or not it’s supported by scientific observation or analysis”.
— “Scientific Theory” does not mean “something that’s consistent with a book I like but is not actually a scientific text”.
— “Scientific Theory” does not mean “obscure ramblings of a bunch of Bronze-Age Mesopotamian priests, who, incidentally, were notorious in their own time for a tradition of using extremely cryptic metaphors, understood only by the few initiated into their mysteries”.*
— “Scientific Theory” does not mean “something someone takes on faith”.
— “Scientific Theory” does not mean “whatever explanation subjectively makes sense to me, because I really don’t like exerting my precious brain or being put outside of my comfort zone”.
Another thing I want schools to teach? Things we call “laws” — laws of physics, laws of nature — are not “laws” in any lay sense. It is impossible to “break” them. They are just scientific shorthand that encapsulates our understanding of reality. When our understanding of reality improves, scientific “laws” change.
*For a good overview of non-Biblical Mesopotamian literature and religions, I highly recommend Erich Zehren’s book The Crescent and the Bull. It’s an old book, and it’s not flashy, but it will really put the Old Testament in perspective for you.
10. “You should calm down and not be so upset.” You know, some things are upsetting. Some things should be stood up to, forcefully. Not caring about anything, or pretending not to care, isn’t really a sign of objectivity or emotional well-being. Moreover, the fact that a person is upset about something does not mean that person is wrong.
Aside from the fact that putting someone’s emotions in controversy is outrageously condescending, it is also idiotic. A person’s emotions are none of anyone else’s business to comment upon. And, the only thing I hate more than someone accusing his or her opponent of being “emotional”, is that opponent falling into the trap and going on the defensive.
That’s it for this Tuesday’s rant. I hope this has been enjoyable.