All posts by Scott Aikin

Scott Aikin is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University.

It’s all interpretation

There seems like there should be a name for the dialectical trap of saying something controversial, but then acting hurt that those who object to it interpreted it as controversial.  Talisse and I called a very closely related stategy spitballing, that of covering the dialectical space with too many things to respond to.   Consider the following case.  President Trump has been the target of a defamation lawsuit by Stormy Daniels, the adult film star who allegedly had an affair with Trump years ago.  Daniels’ lawsuit has been dismissed, and Trump goes to Twitter:

So he calls Stormy Daniels ‘Horseface’ when announcing the case is dropped. The President has a long history of saying nasty things about womens’ appearances, so he was asked about it by the AP in a recent interview.

Trump also did not back down from derisively nicknaming porn actress Stormy Daniels “horseface” hours earlier.

He says “you can take it any way you want,” when asked if it was appropriate to insult a woman’s appearance.

Such an off-base reply.  The question wasn’t what the statement meant, but whether the President stands by the statement given what it clearly means.  Moreover, what are the options for my preferences to interpret this statement, to begin with?  Is there another option, perhaps less misogynistic, to interpreting calling a woman ‘horseface’ to be a way of maligning her looks?  Maybe it’s a shorthand that rich guys use to show that they know someone who looks like they own horses… you say “Ah, Sterling… he clearly has a wonderful set of stallions at home… see his regal horseface?”  But still hard to take it in these lights when the expression is next to calling Danels’ attorney, Michael Avenatti, a “third rate lawyer”.

The question is what’s the problem?  Here’s a shot.  The problem is along two lines.  The first is just that it’s a form of incorrigibility — you get caught doing something that someone objects to, and even if you think it is fine even under their interpretation, you just say they are interpreting it all wrong.  So this is the ‘out of context’ play with verbal indiscretion — you make the game of nailing down exactly what you said just more costly than what’s worth the points of making the objection.  In this case, making explicit what the problem is, what the interpetive options are, and so on, is just more work than is worth it.  (At least for the reporters… I’m an academic… this is my JAM!)

The second part is the trap element.  The trap is as follows — if Trump has said that we can interpret the claim as we see fit, if we interpret it as offensive, that’s evidence that we’ve chosen to interpret the claim as something bad.  But who would do such a thing, except someone who suffers from an irrational, uncivil bias?  And so, by saying that this unqualifiedly objectionable piece of language can be taken as we wish, Trump, by his lights, is testing us for whether we choose to blindly resist him on everything and act all offended when we do that, or we just see that Stormy Daniels is as ugly as he thinks she is, and we agree.

But the point, again, is the trap — once you choose to be offended by interpreting his statement in the offensive way — how is he really responsible for the objectionable stuff.  The only apology he would owe, then, would be that he’s sorry that people can’t help themselves but to interpret him in a nasty way all the time.

With charges of straw man, those who make the challenge take on particular dialectical burdens.  One of them is to point out how the view that’s been straw manned is not only better than the representation, but that better view was accessible to those who performed the straw man.  Namely, that a reasonable interpretation was available that did not suffer from the problems with the represented view.  But here’s the problem with the Trump case here with the trap — he hasn’t offered any alternative that’s a reasonable interpretation that’s not misogynistic.   Not a surprise, really.  But it’s useful for the theory of fallacy.

When they say anything metaphorical, straw man them

Eric Holder, the former Attorney General, recently put a new spin on the familiar Michelle Obama quip, “When they go low, we go high.”  Holder’s is that “When they go low, we kick them.”  Here’s the video with the relevant pieces at the Washington Post.  Importantly, Holder, after the quip, clarifies what he means by ‘kick’ them:

When I say we, you know, ‘We kick ‘em,’ I don’t mean we do anything inappropriate. We don’t do anything illegal,… But we got to be tough, and we have to fight for the very things that [civil rights leaders] John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Whitney Young – you know, all those folks gave to us.

He means give it back with confrontational rhetoric, not actual violence.  Oh, but is that what Sean Hannity will have as part of his clip of the quip?  Nope.  Just the part about the kicking.  And here’s how he cuts the tape and explains it to his audience. (Video of Hannity’s show HERE, start at 6:19) He frames and restates Holder’s quip:

Just look at the number of democratic leaders encouraging mob violence against their political opponents…  When they go low, ditch civility. Kick Republicans, when they are on the ground, kick ’em.

He just plays the quip, not the clarification, note.  And that’s the key.  Holder’s expressing the view that political argument is high-stakes and hard-charging, so he’s willing to sacrifice the high road these days, precisely because he thinks it’s clear his opponents have done so.  So the metaphor of the ‘kick’ is the response to their ‘going low’ — invoking the way the battle would go.  But it’s all metaphorical about the rhetorical exchange.  Imagine someone saying,  after hearing another describing a coming debate as a ‘bare knuckle boxing match,’ they are worried for their physical safety.  For sure, this would be some willful ignorance of how metaphorical language works.

Trevor Noah’s Daily Show review of the selective quotation also revealed the additional irony: “Can we just acknowledge that by saying they’re gonna get kicked, Sean Hannity and his friends are accepting that they’re going low?”


Reverse Authority

In an earlier post, I’d noted the phenomenon of what I’d called the George Costanza rule – that you do the opposite of what you’re inclined to do.  Here’s the Seinfeld clip with the relevant info again:

The point is that if you find someone who you think has all the wrong inclinations, then you have a good bellwether about where things go off the tracks.  Like old Socrates’ daimon.  Call this the phenomenon of reverse authority.

The paleoconservatives have such a bellwether of reverse authority — it’s whatever progressive celebrities say.  And so, it’s headline news over at Breitbart that celebrities are objecting to  President Trump’s rescinding John Brennan’s security clearance.   This, of course, is news only if you think that celebrities with progressive politics are not only wrong about everything, but their statements must be highlighted so as to deepen one’s own commitment.  And a visit to the comments bears this out:

Dr. Strangely Deplorable: Those overpaid narcissistic aberrations known as “celebrities” are a true barometer of another person or groups rationality and Patriotism. If they are “furious”…all is well in the Great Republic at that moment and the war goes on.

It’s a strange place to be when you can tell you’re right only when the people you hate are objecting.

At some point… we’ll all love slippery slope arguments


Robert Astorino was on CNN with Don Lemon to talk about whether the Trump tweet calling Omarosa a ‘dog’ was racist.  Here is an edited version of the exchange:

Lemon: What do you think, Rob.  Was it a racist attack? Do you think he (Trump) should refrain from doing this?

Astorino: I don’t think it was a racist attack.  I think he’s (Trump) an equal opportunity offender. In that he goes after….

…. I had no idea that the word ‘dog’ – I knew it was pejorative – I had no idea that it was a racist term. And I don’t think that most people took it as one.

… I actually looked it up in the dictionary, and nowhere does it say that it’s a slang or racial word….

Lemon: Certain words used against certain people have a different context than if it’s used on a person of the larger culture…. Shouldn’t you know the nuances of this?

Robert Astorino: No. The quick answer is that at some point, we are going to get to the word ‘the,’ and ‘the’ is going to be racist. Because, as I just said is it (calling a woman a ‘dog’) pejorative? Yes. Because he (Trump) meant it as that – to punch back at her, figuratively.  Because he was upset – he knew her and she let him down.

The trouble with Astorino’s line of argument is that there are, as we’ve called them in the past, bumpy staircases (instead of slippery slopes) between a white man calling a black woman a ‘dog’ being racist and usage of articles (definite or indefinite, perhaps) being racist.  Lemon’s point about context is part of it, and the long history of animal vocabulary being overused with people of color is the main factor.    So what prevents the slipperiness of this slope is that there isn’t a long history of usage of ‘the’ as a term of abuse, but there have been ones with animal comparisons with people of color.

But notice a further thing with this particular slippery slope argument – it represents the opposition as having a very badly formulated view of the matter.  That the term ‘dog’ doesn’t have racist connotations is right from the dictionary — what a way to portray your opposition, that they don’t know the meaning of words.  The importance here is that with this slope argument Astorino represents the concerns about Trump’s racist overtones as just not knowing what words mean.  Notice, by the way, that the word ‘monkey‘ doesn’t have its racist usage noted in the dictionary, either.



Nutpicked Trump Derangement Syndrome

Nutpicking, or weak-manning one’s opponent, is a form of the straw man fallacy wherein one finds the worst or weakest version of your opponent’s views or the least sophisticated defenders of an opposed view and then subject that view to scrutiny.  So one goes after the bad versions of one’s opposition, instead of the good ones.

The strategy can occur in lots of ways.  One can wait for an offhand and awkward comment to encapsulate the view, or one can track down the least informed representative of the opposition.  Or one can listen in on the other side’s loose talk.  This last one is a new way to weak man — listen in on a comedy show by and for liberals and wait for them to say something that sounds all-too-revealing.

Well, the folks at INFOWARS did just that.  They listened in on Michelle Wolf’s new Netflix show, and in a comedy gag, she asks:

Are you sort of hoping we don’t get peace with North Korea so you won’t have to give Trump credit?

A funny question.  Of course it’s a joke, but one that is at the expense of the deep resentments at the heart of American politics.  The joke gets funnier, since the audience polled answered YES 71% to No 21%.   That’s pretty funny, and surely everyone who responded had a little chuckle.

Oh, but the INFOWARS folks were listening, too.  They don’t like humor, unless it’s them making a joke about how sensitive liberals are.  Anyway, Paul Joseph Watson, the INFOWARS author, didn’t get the joke, and now reports:

In other words, a significant majority of leftists would happily risk nuclear war, so long as it meant Trump would look bad.

Let that sink in.

When conservatives talk about how many on the left “hate America,” it’s seen by most as a tired cliché, but when you see clips like this it really makes you wonder. . . .

Indeed, it seems that the left is so beset by Trump Derangement Syndrome that they’re quite happy to see the pilot crash the plane even though they’re on it.

So, as I see it, a reporter watches a comedy show and reports that a gag that the audience was supposed to play along with bespeaks a traitorous vendetta among liberals.   So much of the straw man fallacy generally is about interpreting your opponent in a way that exercises minimal charity, if only for the sake of the quality of the exchange that these defaults encourage.  But, look, if your defaults are set on interpreting a comedy sketch like this as little more than a suicidal desire for Trump to fail, then it’s hard to see how there’s much of any opportunity for critique either way.

Yeah, well everybody tu quoques

The fallacy of ad hominem tu quoque is that of identifying an inconsistency either between what’s said and what’s done or between what’s said in one case and in another.  It’s sometimes a strategy of criticism, but it can also be used as a way of deflecting criticism.

The deflection strategy is one that goes after the authority of a speaker for a critical point.  So that I smoke can be a point someone may make back at me when I say one shouldn’t smoke.  For sure, it’s an uncomfortable fact, and one that makes me subject to my own critiques.  So I’m a hypocrite. And that’s why it’s got the pull it does — it’s a matter of making someone uncomfortable in their critical role.  Again, it’s just a deflection strategy, and it still holds that one shouldn’t smoke, even if the person  delivers the message with a cigarette in their mouth.

Now, consider Donald Trump’s defense against the critique of his exchange with Kim Jong-un.  Apparently, there was no discussion about human rights in the meeting.  When asked about it by Bret Baier of Fox News, Donald Trump replied:

Baier: “But he’s still done some really bad things.”

To which Trump said: “Yeah, but so have a lot of other people done some really bad things. I could go through a lot of nations where a lot of bad things were done.”

The strategy here is to say: Look, lots of people do bad things… why make a big deal of it now, especially if we’re making this progress with the de-nuclearization of Korea.  But that’s not exactly what got communicated.  What got communicated is that because everybody (or “lots of other people”) does bad things, we don’t have grounds for criticizing someone who’s done bad things.

This is a pretty strange strategy of managing norms and their demands.  I think that since Trump criticizes people for bad things at other times, he’d probably not accept this as a reply.  Right?  So when he criticizes the ‘deep state’ for undermining his Presidency, I suppose he’d think it irrelevant that lots of other nations have states that undermine their leaders, too.  Or when he complains about celebrities who criticize him, the fact that there are many other people criticized by celebrities is not much of a defense.

One way, maybe, to get a handle on why a defense like this is disappointing is that the fact that lots of people or countries make the error is likely a very good reason to take the criticism to be important and serious.  That is, if it’s a widespread and very costly error (which abusing human rights is, if anything is), then shrugging one’s shoulders and saying that LOTS of people do it is a way of highlighting how important the issue is.  Not of deflating the criticism.

Real Life Circular Arguments

A pretty common complaint among argument theorists about the fallacy of begging the question and circular argument is that hardly anyone ever really commits the error.  But then there are the cases where it happens for realz.

President Trump, before flying to the G7 conference in Montreal, argued that Russia should be included in the proceedings again — so, returning the meeting to the familiar title, G8.  Reported at Politico and InfoWars(don’t read the comments!) (Russia was expelled after their 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea.) Here’s the argument:

I would recommend — and it’s up to them, but Russia should be in the meeting, it should be a part of it. You know, whether you like it or not, and it may not be politically correct, but we have a world to run . . .  And in the G-7, which used to be the G-8, they threw Russia out. They should let Russia come back in. Because we should have Russia at the negotiating table.

As far as I can see, the explicit form of that argument, given the ‘because’ clause, is:

We should have Russia at the bargaining table

So: Russia should be part of the G7(8).

That’s pretty much a perfectly circular argument, since the premise is just a differently worded version of the conclusion.  I think the only mitigating factor to this fallacy challenge is that Trump also says, “we have a world to run,” which I think is a point about economic and political necessity.  Something like:  Look, Russia has been and should be sanctioned, but leaving them and their economy out of these discussions is short-sighted…”  But he doesn’t do that.

One lesson, then, is that fallacy charges of circularity may be good ways to elicit submerged reasons.   Like what we see with the Trump case here — there is a hint of a better argument in the background, but it’s really just a series of assertions of the conclusion.  The charge of begging the question is a way of getting those other reasons out for evaluation.  So there’s something right about the argument theorists’ complaint that there aren’t really circular arguments, but there’s also something to the thought that the fallacy categories are useful.



I’m pretty well convinced that knowledge is the norm of assertion — that one should not assert that p unless one knows that p.  (Here is a Philosophy15 about it.) There are a few puzzle cases with the norm (blameless assertions like in cases of weird Gettier scenarios and so on) but it otherwise looks about right.  So it seems right that if someone says something true, but without warranting evidence, though that person was correct, the assertion isn’t praiseworthy, and the person isn’t fully creditable for the assertion.  In fact, asserting without warrant is blameworthy, even if what was said came out true.

So, for example, had I said way back in 2000, without any reason favoring its truth, that Donald J. Trump would one day be President, I would have said something true, but still something unwarranted.  And though it came to pass that DJT is President, it’s not like that statement is vindicated or I should get any more credit for it than your friend who hits the hole-in-one on the mini-golf hole when he’s taking a drink of his soda and looking elsewhere.  And moreover, I’m inclined to say that would still be intellectually blameworthy for saying things without backing.

And so, now, over at The American Spectator, Daniel Flynn makes the case that DJT was right all along about the government spying on his campaign.  And he analogizes the situation to that of Watergate – that the party in power spies on the opposition party in the midst of an election.  Flynn opens with a pretty catchy line:

Vladimir Putin did not hack the election. Barack Obama did.

DJT, then a candidate, said that the Obama Administration had wiretapped the Trump Tower. He didn’t have evidence for this, beyond a radio show by Mark Levin’s claims. When asked about it, nothing.

Now, it turns out that, as reported by CNN, the feds were listening in on Paul Manafort.   It’s important to note that, according to the report (again from CNN): “While Manafort has a residence in Trump Tower, it’s unclear whether FBI surveillance of him took place there.”  So we don’t know if it was Trump Tower being tapped.

But does this stop Daniel Flynn from wagging his finger?  Oh, no.

The media went all-in this spring on the notion that the loose-tongued Trump once again spoke without reference to the facts. Newsweek’s Nina Burleigh labeled his charge “incendiary.” The Los Angeles Times called it “a phony conspiracy theory.” PolitiFact bluntly judged his accusation “false.”

Who will fact check the fact checkers?

Now, the issue is how to read all the vagaries of what it is to ‘tapp’ a phone or whether the issue is whether ‘my’ phones are really Paul Manafort’s phones.  Regardless, the issue is whether we can give any credit to someone who makes a charge like this (even when true) with no evidence?


Argumentum ad bawitdabam

So we’re doing this.  Kid Rock gave a speech about his upcoming Senate bid during one of his concerts.  It was not well-composed, but it did have something that looked like an argument in it.  And here we are, seeing if we can do some logic with the American Badass.  Here’s the speech:

And a transcript of it is available here (provided, btw, by Metal Injection).

Rock gave two arguments of note.  One had an interesting bit of complication about taxes and entitlement programs to it.  Here’s the relevant piece:

It seems the government wants to give everyone health insurance but wants us all to pay. And to be very frank, I really don’t have a problem with that. ‘Cause god has blessed me and made my pockets fat.

“But redistribution of wealth, seems more like their plan. I don’t believe that you should say sacrifice, do things by the book and then have to take care of some deadbeat, milking the system, lazy ass, motherfucking man.

So, here’s what I see to it.  Rock holds that he’s OK with government subsidized health insurance, and he’s happy to pay in to that because he’s rich.  But he thinks that there’s a limit to what government entitlements he’s willing to support — and so he’s against free riders to the system.  (He runs a follow-up to the argument about ‘struggling single parents’ and the threat of ‘women, who can’t even take care of themselves, but keep having kid after fucking kid’).

But here’s the crucial thing.  It looks like Rock is saying his defaults are on supporting these entitlement programs, and he’s not willing to let the fact that there are free riders defeat support for these programs.  He just wants to stop the free riders from doing what they are doing.  Now, how he proposes to stop them is bonkers. In all the cases, he proposes that we ‘lock up’ those who are taking advantage of the programs.  That free riding is productive of outrage does not imply that free riders must be punished with incarceration.  Hence an argument from outrage.

What’s important here is noting that, again, Rock’s defaults are on supporting the programs.  It looks like he can distinguish his disappointment with those who cheat them from the fact that the programs work for those who really need them.  Again, his over-reaction to one shouldn’t overshadow the fact that he’s made a good move with the other.  (Well, perhaps it can overshadow it a bit … are we really going to ‘lock up’ people who have more kids than someone like Rock thinks they should while on welfare?)

The second argument is just a piece of word-salad that seems to come out as a case for him to be President.  Here’s the relevant bit:

Kid Rock for senate has got folks in disarray. Wait till they hear Kid Rock for president of the U.S.A.. ‘Cause wouldn’t it be a sight to see, President Kid Rock in Washington, D.C.. Standing on the Oval Office like a G. Holding my dick ready to address the whole country.

I’ll look the nation dead in the eyes, live on TV, and simply tell them, you never met a motherfucker quite like me

This image is very hard to erase from a mind.

As far as I can see, this is a form of ad populum, one that runs that because the Kid is dope/fly/cool, he should occupy the highest political office in the land.  The fact that the interest in his candidacy has ‘got folks in disarray’ is a form of the negative ad populum we’ve discussed a few times, one that runs:

P: If I do X, it will drive liberals/elites crazy

C: I should do X.

Again, I’m calling the move now negative ad populum, because the core of the line of argument is that the judgment of a certain class of people is so badly aligned, they are a barometer for the correct decision, except by way of negation.  You just do whatever would make them mad, or the opposite of what they would do.   Rock is, in many ways, running this argument convergently — both as an ad populum (I’m cool, so deserving the Presidency), and as a negative ad populum (my candidacy drives the libs nuts, so I’m deserving of more votes).  Of course, as with any ad populum, the matter is regularly underdetermined by the premises.  But, hey, when you’ve got a rock show to run, who has time for relevant premises, amirite?



Losers say ‘what?’

It was a dumb game in junior high — you mutter, “loser says what?” and your buddy says, “What?”, because you muttered it and he couldn’t hear it properly. Then you say, “Ha ha, you’re a loser.”  A great way to make and keep friends.

David Harsanyi has a little move like that in politics, and he runs it in his recent article, “Democrats are Increasingly Comfortable with Religious Tests” over at NRO.  Here’s the setup.  Because a standard liberal line is that religiously-inspired law and jurisprudence is a threat to religious liberty, vetting judges in terms of how significantly their religious commitments influence how they vote is important.  But this test is not a religious test, it’s a zealotry test.  And, again, we keep the religious nutcases from making and deciding law for the sake of religious freedom — because religious nutcases make law only for their religion.

Well, you can see where this is going.  With Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination for the Federal Appeals Court, Harsanyi takes every question about whether and to what extent her religious views influence her policy decisions to be a religious test,  not a zealotry test.

It is irksome, no doubt, that Barrett’s faith informs her views. Our backgrounds and beliefs always color our opinions. This is not yet an illegal act. But these lines of questioning, which are becoming increasingly prevalent in political discourse, are an attempt to create the impression that faithful Christians whose beliefs are at odds with newly sanctified cultural mores are incapable of doing their job. They are guilty of another kind of apostasy.

But the some of these colorings that Harsanyi thinks are inevitable are different from the very or extreme colorings that these lines of questioning are out to determine.  Once we see it through Haryani’s lens, though, it’s all a form of religious discrimination by the Left.  His middleschool trap, then, is roughly something along the lines of saying, “Leftist anti-religious bigots say ‘What’s the role of religion in your policy decisions?’… and he waits for them to say it.  But it’s a confusion of what the purpose of the question is.

Of course, when there are occasions for clarification of what the purpose of the questions, Harsanyi won’t hear it, because he can’t take anything the folks on the other side says seriously.  Here’s the height of it, recounting Al Franken’s exchange with Barrett:

“I question your judgment,” the former star of Stuart Saves His Family lectured the mother of seven.

Of course you can’t hear a reasonable thing come out of someone’s mouth if you keep bringing up the dumbest things they’ve ever done.  Maybe we should go drag up some of Harsanyi’s early essays or attempts at painting or standup comedy or his performance in a sophomore year poetry slam to see how well they hold up…

To the Fallacy Analysis point, this is a peculiar case.  I’m inclined to think it’s a special kind of straw man — you interpret the questions along some totally uncharitable line, and then you criticize it for being the bad thing you took it to be.  And you avoid the main line of critical questioning, which is about the proper role religious commitment has in making policy for a society committed to religious liberty.  Surely a reflective person can see the issue, right?  But what arises out of this distortion of the point of the questions is a further issue, one that seems to make it so that the other side just can’t make good or decent points.  Once you see their track record through such a lens, they can seem to be little more than those who make awful noises and act on the basest of instincts.  And so, straw man arguments extended over time make for consistent well poisoning.