Half an Hour,
Aug 16, 2017
This is a response to an email query, and I offer it here as an analysis of how I would look at, read, and respond to a typical email exchange. 99% of the time I don't say anything, but for everything I read, this is the sort of thought process that runs through my mind. Just so you know. :)
Hello Mr. Downes,
Really enjoy your website on fallacies.
As someone who aims for clear thinking, I was hoping to get your expert opinion on Commenter #2’s response to Commenter #1’s reply to Pat, particularly regarding fallacious logic. There was talk of a straw man, false equivalence using Black Lives Matter, and other errors.
In addition, Commenter #2 later accused #1 of a straw man by implicating Trump into the initial post by Pat.
For context: Pat and Commenter #1 are relatives and share political ideology. Commenters #2 and #1 had never interacted until this exchange.
· Pat (original post): “I cannot believe that what I'm watching on the news is from 2017 and not 1964.”
o Commenter #1 (replying to Pat): “Pat, Pat, Pat. America is being made great again... are you not paying attention???”
§ Commenter #2 (replying to Commenter #1): “Yeah , blame pres Trump for that. Not Obama praising Black Lives Matter. It’s sad that there are situations occurring like Virginia, but you can't throw blame around and pretend that it just started in January.”
Thank you for any help you are willing to provide,
It's an interesting exchange. A lot of the argumentation is by analogy. Analogy is a special case of inductive reasoning: X is like Y, X is a p, therefore Y is a p. The inference to Y being a p is based on X and Y sharing relevant properties q,r,s such that if something is a q,r,s, then it is probably a p.
The first analogy is expressed in the original statement: the news from 2017 is like the news from 1964. The suggestion is that the news from 1964 (which is in the middle of the battle over the American civil rights movement) was bad (or some such thing; the author doesn't specify) and therefore so is the news from 2017. We could analyze this further but you get the idea.
Commenter #1 uses the badness of 1964 to suggest that Donald Trump and his supporters are bad (and by implication, in the same way). The argument is something like: Trump thinks 1964 news is good, 1964 news was bad, therefore so is Trump. This argument is very obliquely stated. The 'Make America Great Again' stands both as a reference to Trump and a reference to the state of affairs prior to the civil rights movement, and associates them (as Trump himself may have intended, but that's a separate issue). That this is an argument against Trump is inferred from context: the use of "Pat, Pat, Pat" and "are you not paying attention???"
Commenter #2 misrepresents the point made by commenter #1, jumping from "Trump is bad" to "Trump is to blame for the badness of 2017". The commenter then suggests an alternative explanation for the badness of 2017 ("Obama praising Black Lives Matter."). He then restates his argument: " you can't throw blame around and pretend that it just started in January." This is a second misrepresentation, as it is unlikely people blaming Trump would agree that his actions to create the situation "just started in January".
Before I assess this, a note: there is no such thing as the "false equivalence" fallacy. I understand the disagreement with statements like "Trump praising the Alt Right is the same as Obama blaming Black Lives Matter." But the question is not whether they are 'the same' or 'equivalent'. The question is whether they are relevantly similar to each other; whether they are analagous, so that if we could say the one thing caused some event (eg. riots in Virginia) then so did the other. It is true that Commenter #2 is trying to create an analogy between Trump and Obama, in order to support the alternative explanation. But whether this analogy succeeds depends on an assesmeent of the analogy, not the mere fact that one is drawn (as the use of 'false equivalence' suggests).
But of course, remember that Pat never actually asserted that Trump is to blame for the events of 2017.
So how should we regard this exchange?
The statement by Pat expresses regret about the current situation, and draws the parallel with 1964. There is overlap, but we would do well to recall that the situation in 2017 is very different from 1964, just as 1964 was very different from 1939. The rise of fascism and racism occurs from time to time, but has historically been defeated, and is weaker each time it occurs. In the (very) long term, things are better than they were. True, this is no guarantee, and we should be disappointed and to some degree alarmed, but we should not be lured into believing that all progress has been lost.
Instead of offering this sort of measured response, commenter #1 increased the rhetoric by associating the current unrest with Donald Trump. Yes, it was a misrepresentation to say that Commenter #1 blamed Trump, but commenter #1's comment was irresponsible enough and vague enough that a response such as commenter #2's could have been anticipated. Without commenter #1, commenter #2 has nothing to hang his comment on.
Taking the heat of of it, we can still ask whether commenter #1's criticism of Trump is a fair criticism. In many respects, it was not (and you'll notice I had to nuance the assertion above ("state of affairs prior to the civil rights movement"). Is "make America great again" the same as "fascism and race riots in the streets"? Clearly not. Any charitable reading of Trump requires that "great again" refer to the best states of affairs in the past, not the worst. It's a vague slogan (which is why it works). Maybe it refers to America of the 1950s. But maybe it refers to America on the 1980s, under Reagan, after civil rights had been established.
There is a case to be made that Trump supports fascists and racists, and it is certain that fascists and racists support Trump. And it is possible, but to my mind as yet unproven, that Trump yearns for the America of the 1950s. There's more evidence to the supposition that he doesn't particularly care one way or another, that in Trump's mind it's about Trump, not about fascism or racism or any other issue. But no matter how you feel about this point, commenter #1's comment was not the way to make it. It was a drive-by comment that lowered the tome of the debate, with inevitable consequences.
Commenter #2 took the bait and raised the stakes even more, first by offering an uncharitable reading of commenter #1's post, and second, by drawing an analogy between the Alt Right and Black Lives Matter.
Nobody actually accused Trump of causing the events of 2017, so as I suggest above, commenter #2 is misrepresenting commenter #1. It's a classic straw man (even if commenter #1 laid the groundwork for it). The entire comment could be ignored, or if someone must respond, could be answered simply by saying "Nobody said Trump caused this." (If commenter #1 views this as a retreat then it's not a straw man. Something to consider.)
Is it true that Trump caused this? The assertion that the situation "just started in January" does not prove the assertion because Trump existed (and was politically active) prior to January. However, if we accept the original analogy (2017 is like 1964) then it seems clear that Trump did not cause this, because Trump was not active in 1964. Whatever caused it then probably caused it now.
Also raising the stakes is the analogy between Trump's support for Alt Right and Obama's support for Black Lives Matter. How you stand on this is going to depend a lot on what you believe caused the events of 2017.
If you believe the events were caused by fascists and racists, then the analogy does not hold. We can observe that the Alt Right does contain fascists and racists, while Black Lives Matter does not. Therefore, the Alt Right caused the events of 2017, and Black Lives Matter did not. I personally think this is the correct interpretation (and the question is, did Trump cause Alt Right, or did Alt Right cause Trump? I think it's more a case of the latter, though a case could be made that the two are symbiotic).
What, though, if you believe the events of 2017 were caused by the oppression of the right? And in particular, oppression of right-wing views, and the dispossession of whites in America? Reading through Alt Right literature you will find numerous references to both lines of thinking. If so, then there is an analogy that can be drawn between the Alt Right and Black Lives Matter: each is defending publicly the oppression of their race and way of life.
I believe that this analogy is a false analogy, and that it is based on a misrepresentation of actual states of affairs. But I also observe that it draws upon facts that are easily exploited to make this case, and that a genuine desire to combat the Alt Right must be rooted in this understanding.
The misrepresentation of the actual state of affairs lies in the assertion that there is oppression of right-wing views, and the dispossession of whites in America. Neither is (to any reasonable degree) true. Specifically, the right wing has extraordinary privileges to express their point of view in the United States, even to the point of publicly expressing racist and fascist sympathies. What they want, and don't have, and perceive as oppression, is majority support from the population as a whole. If people (university professors, teachers, environmentalists) don't want to support right wing views, that's an expression of democracy, not evidence of oppression. Nor, by any reasonable standard, are whites being dispossessed. Indeed, whites - and white males in particular - continue to enjoy a privileged status in society.
But the Alt Right exploits the perception of oppression and dispossession to make their point. It points to the loss of power, and increasing poverty, among white males who used to be members of America's shrinking middle class, and using this as evidence of fascism and racism on the other side. To address fascism and racism (and for that matter, international and homegrown terrorism of all stripes) you have to address the loss of power and presence of poverty. People who belong to a society are less inclined to blow it up.
So, in sum:
- Pat's original comment laments a state of affairs, but the analogy between 2017 and 1964 doesn't really hold
- Commenter #1 responds irresponsibly, using the state of affairs to make an unsubstantiated political statement about Donald Trump
- Commenter #2 misrepresents commenter #1 and uses the argument to suggest that Black Lives Matter could equally be the cause of the current rise of racism and fascism, which is unsupported by the facts.
If it were my discussion board, I would delete both comments, as neither make any effort to contribute to the discussion, but serve simply so 'sign' their support for one side of the other, like a graffiti tagger.
Postscript - not send back to the query.
There's a lot of analysis in my response. A lot of drawing inferences about what was actually said, and how to reconstruct the argument, a lot of assessment of the argument, and a certain amount of testing the statements against actual states of affairs.
A person reading my post, any my reasoning, might find a dozen points where they disagree with me. Some of that disagreement is going to be simply unreasonable (eg. the inevitable commenter who will insist that right wing thought really is suppressed in the media) but most of it could well force me to at least respond, if not to change my views.
Any I'm holding the commenters to pretty high standards. I'm requiring that they view the other side charitably. I expect them to be restrained and measured in their own responses. There's no way I live up to those standards on a day to day basis, and I've been quite rightly called to task on that from time to time. My own analyses can be coloured by anger or fatigue.
So I am reminded every time I write something like this that I need to be humble, that I need to be aware of my own capacity for error, my own capacity for failure, and to give the other side a break.
I, at least, try. What disappoints me so much about the sort of exchange above is that there is no evidence that anybody even tried. That's why I would delete it all. I will engage with any opinion freely and fairly made. I won't engage with verbal pummeling. Sadly, freedom of speech is far more frequently invoked to protect the latter than the former.