Too Dumb To Vote, Part II – Verbal Struggles

In part one you had a glance at the beast from afar – saw its pelt, the stunted way it moved, smelt it musk. Now you’re into the flesh.

Marcus Tullius Cicero

Cicero loved rhetoric, the trotter

In this post, we’re looking at how badly you think with respect to spoken language. We’ll kick off with logical fallacies, because they pop up all the time, yet are recycled, quoted and enshrined as if they meant something. You hear them so often, you might even think they make sense!

A fallacy is a reasons error, which renders an argument invalid. There are hundreds of them, but we’ll look at some of the more common grunters.

Tu quoque (Latin: you too)
Excusing, justifying or arguing an action/inaction on the basis of its current actors. Similar to the Argument from Popularity, which justifies an action because everyone likes it.
Example: It’s OK that I speed – everyone does it.

The number of people effecting an action has no bearing on its validity. [Note that there may be logically sound arguments for the conclusions I pooh-pooh; just not these ones.]

To me, to you!

Straw Man
Presenting a flawed version of an opponent’s argument, in order to knock it down. By failing to interact with the opponent’s true argument, this is irrelevant.

Example: A. Miliband – The Tories are slashing the 50% tax band to help their millionaire cabinet and keep the poor , poor. This is immoral and wrong, we should be taxing the rich and voting out the Tories.

Regardless of your feelings on the 2012 Osborne budget, its justification from Vince Cable and Gideon is that slashing the 50% rate will stop driving the super-rich into tax havens, thereby actually gathering more net tax.

A Staw Man – none too tricky to outwit!

Ad Hominem (Latin: Against the man)
This one is similar to Straw Man, in that it attacks an opponent, not their argument. To continue a theme:
D. Cameroon: Although Miliband claims to be representing the working classes in his tax policies, we all know what he really is – an Oxford-educated upper-class twit.

NB – In limited cases, arguments that appear Ad Hominem can actually be valid, where they are a part of a logical process unpacking the assumptions and biases inherent in a class that pertain to weaknesses within an argument. For example, whilst >We can’t let Gollum rule the world – he lives in a cave< is a fallacy, a more extended >We can’t let Gollum rule the world – through living in a cave, he has become mentally unstable and out of touch with the realities of the complex Middle Earth political situation, so will cause great instability if installed as leader< is fine.

Appeal to Tradition

This one pops up along with its sisters, appeals to history, popularity, religion and charisma. It can be hard to spot, because some arguments validly examine a policy’s history, deriving evidence suggesting that it does/not work. An appeal to tradition, however, assumes an action is good purely because it has always been done – not for its benefits.
Example: Sauron has ruled Mordor for thousands of years, just as goblins have inhabited Moria. To oust them now would be an outrage!

“Don’t oust me, I’ve been evil for ages!”

Now you’re getting the hang of recognising them, right? And of course, you, dearest, most intelligent reader, does not fall for them. But perhaps, dearest, most intelligent reader, you can remember those you know deploying similar flaws in daily conversation, or media figures spewing them out on the evening news? Mitt Romney speaks French! Cameron went to Eton!

We could go on and on, we really could. There’s the False Dichotomy, presenting an issue as having only two solutions, and making one patently unacceptable. [Links to Straw Man? Clever you!] Hiding under bushes, you’ll see Appeals to Emotion, which often use single tearjerking examples to shore up various Abuses of Data – facts that are insufficiently representative, skewed, too few to induce a rule, or the crowning chestnut, imply Correlation, not Causation. Goldacre’s book and blog show some of the worse examples of this, all pervading the public consciousness. Grouchers guilty of galumphing with such improprieties often correlate with abusers of the Post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore on behalf of this) mistake, which attributes causation to preceding actions:
Eowyn dressed as a man and was nearly killed by the Witch King. Clearly cross-dressing is dangerous and should not be attempted.


The disturbing thing is, Western culture actually idolises these abuses of logic. It’s called ‘rhetoric’, and it has been the hallmark of an educated lawyer, statesman or hero since the days of Cicero and Caesar. Fast-forward a little, and you’ll recall that Gladstone, Disraeli and dear Churchill were all consummate speakers, as was Abe Lincoln, Kennedy and Aragorn. We have a natural disposition to think that good speakers are good leaders – the reasons of which I’ll explore a little later. I’m pausing here, just to point out the discrepancy: the ability to speak impressively does not necessarily correlate in the slightest with good policy. They are master-convincers, these beasts.
Scarier than rhetorical misdirection is speakers’ abilities to force your agreement before they’ve even begun arguing their points. Framing is a technique that uses definitions, popular prejudice and media tag-words to predispose anyone taking part in a debate to have already accepted the premises of one side, making all participants more likely to agree. Interestingly, pick-up artists like Adam Lyons use such ‘frame control’ when picking up women, apparently to great effect. In a more political situation, we could look at the narrative of the ‘War on Terror’. Bush did not immediately coin this phrase, but seized on it (along with ‘Axis of Evil’) a few days after 9/11. All discussions of global terror thereby took on a militaristic tone, and an aggressive one at that. Multiple invasions and restrictions of civil liberties might have been harder to justify if the debate was ‘framed’ around, say, “International Violent Crimes Prevention”. Doubtless certain Palestinian-supporting chappies would have loved a framing like “International Freedom-Fighter Persecution Cabal” or “Postcolonial Oppression Agreement”…
It is important to remember frames, because you are always operating under one, whenever you are thinking. About anything. The frame might no be as conscious, planned or intentioned as those above, but instead an organic collection of assumptions deriving from your wider situation. But it’s still there, and you might come up with different conclusions if you try to put yourself in an alternate mindset. For example, right now I’m operating in a frame which assumes logical thought is paramount to political progress. And I *love* it. Join the groove-train.

This is only the tip of the shit-berg. Your mind is one floppy tool when it comes to absorbing words and facts. You are completely incapable of remembering equally important facts: if you are given a list, you will recall the earliest and latest items far better than those in the middle. If a speaker is listing their points, you will better recall the first point if they explain, “x reason and y reason,” but the latter point if they instead say, “w reason but z reason.” That sentence structure can so screw with your recall is a powerful tool, and given the miniscule attention given to modern broadcasted speeches, something you cannot shrug off as an irregularity.

[SHAMELESS ASIDE – READ AT YOUR PERIL: As threatened in the previous post, we might consider the wider implications of frames and language . Not all professional linguistics academics agree, and I am not among that body, but there is certainly debate within that body as to a theory called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which suggests that the language we speak dictates what and how we can think. The grammatical rules and the processes for generating vocabulary might well colour our perceptions, our thoughts, even how we see colours. It’s all a bit 1984…]

Together, you can appreciate that even this early volley seems to reveal certain faecal qualities in the thoughts, memories and responses of the unaware ideas-consumer. The methods can be subtle, or can be so bullish and obvious that the observer assumes them to be valid, for who would air so blatantly flimsy an argument on national television?

They can be deployed in print, on the radio, in posters and films. They’re all out to convince you of something – my greatest concern is your vote, but there’s your cash to worry about too. Take metaphor, for example. This article suggests that they are surpassingly important in determining who the next US President will be. But? But metaphors, by their definition, add nothing substantive to the argument. At best they clarify a point or situation already made; usually, they make great leaps of logic, or take hugely reductive assumptions to equate the cases real and metaphorical. Speakers who can create anti-arguments such as those above, especially if they do so knowingly, are likely to be perfectly happy to indulge in the less-clever electioneering tactics too. They might lie, they might twist facts and invent statistics. They might shout down opposition, ridicule criticisms without answering them, or indeed change the subject entirely. If you find yourself dealing with such a slippery bugger, remember CONSTANT VIGILANCE.

Watch me fail on Twitter and collapse around Facebook

Edited 00:40, 2.9.2012 to include ‘metaphor’ discussion.


2 thoughts on “Too Dumb To Vote, Part II – Verbal Struggles

  1. Pingback: Too Dumb To Vote, Part IX – Religion, Morality & Politics | Haywire Thought

  2. Pingback: Archbishop Carey: A Reply | Haywire Thought

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