Calling Fallacies by their Proper Names

In the wake of Trump’s false analogy between the behavior of the neo-Nazis and the antifa counter-protesters in Charlottesville, there has been a good bit of criticism of the point.  However, the term used in criticism has consistently been that he ‘equivocated’ the two.  Here’s the headline at the Daily Beast:

Netanyahu’s Cynical Delay Denouncing Trump’s Nazi Equivocation

Other outlets have used the term ‘equivocation’ for the error, too.  CNN has consistently termed the error an ‘equivocation.’   Today:

… the moral equivalency and equivocation President Trump has offered …


…Trump’s equivocation earlier this week between white supremacists and those who were protesting them in Charlottesville.


… his initial equivocation, saying there was “blame on both sides.”

Vanity Fair:

…the president of the United States equivocated.

Even at the venerable Economist:

Mr Trump’s equivocation on Saturday thrilled the Daily Stormer

And so on.  In a follow up post, perhaps Friday, I’ll talk about the problems with the slippery slope argument Trump made defending the monuments, so there is a lot of bad reasoning and falsity to criticize.  But, my point today is just something small.  It’s just this:  if people are going to use the vocabulary of fallacy appraisal, it should be used correctly.  Here’s the big point: so much power is wielded by that vocabulary.  Think of the big-word points scored by folks who use that word — and notice the force it has when you’re criticizing someone.  It’s the fallacy-spotting game, and throwing a fallacy name out there shifts the course of conversation.  So using fallacy vocabulary (especially when it’s composed of Latinisms), means you’re claiming a kind of informed position on the debate — like pausing and making a point of order.

That’s the reason why you’ve got to be competent when using the vocabulary.  In this case, we’ve got a fallacy, and what’s being criticized, again is something just as simple as a false analogy (or false equivalence).  There may be an element of two wrongs to the reasoning, too (since T also implicated that because the antifa folks were violent, too, they bear blame, too).

Regardless, what he did not do is equivocate.  Here’s why.  Equivocation is an error of term-confusion.  It happens when you’ve got two meanings for a term, and you reason along only looking at the similarity of the term, but miss the dissimilarity of the meanings in the reasoning.  Here’s an example:

Students attend school to improve their faculties.

Their faculties are their teachers

So students go to school to improve their teachers.

Funny? Yeah,  and fallacious! It’s because faculty in the two instances meant different things, and so the syllogism looks valid, it’s because the term faculty appears as the middle term, but there’s two different things denoted by those two instances of the term.  (In the first, it means the mental functions, in the second, it means teachers.)

Here is a lesson about fallacy-charges.  They come with a burden of proof.  When I charge you with begging the question, I need to show either (i) how your conclusion is one of your premises or (ii) how one of your premises is, given the argument, more controversial than your conclusion.  When I charge you with straw man, I need to show how you’ve distorted my view to look worse than it is.  And so on.  When you charge equivocation, you have to show (i) that there are two instances of a term in some reasoning, and (ii) show that those two instances of the same term  nevertheless mean different things in the two cases.

So what’s the upshot?  Journalists don’t use the vocabulary of logic accurately.  For the most part, that’s not much of a surprise, but it’s disappointing to a college prof who tries to make it so that the names of things helps us keep them straight, not just that knowing lots of names for things makes it so that you can use them as you like.

Here’s another shot, perhaps a bit more of a sympathetic view on the use of the term.  When one says a speaker had an ‘unequivocal’ statement, that means that the statement was clear about its meaning.  So unequivocal statements are unambiguous, at least on the level of terms.  So perhaps the view is that in being unclear about whether T was really rejecting the commitments of Nazis or their behavior, T equivocated.   However, I’m not entirely moved by this line of thought, since many of the cases are those of ‘equivocating between’ not ‘equivocating about’.  So, perhaps, there are different kinds of misuse of this term.





In the wake of the Charlottesville protests, counter-protests, ensuing riots, and homicide, there has been a good bit of reflection on (a) the fact that white supremacists are so numerous and open, and (b) the current state of political discourse.  The key here is that there’s a strange tension at the heart of these two considerations.  Here it is in rough form: If you’re for well-run public discourse, then you think that there are no in principle limits on what can be discussed.  And when people want to have “uncomfortable” conversations, there’s no reason why they should be shut out.  And all the sides, ideally, should come out of that discussion feeling like they’ve been heard.  Moreover, it’s important to discuss the issues, and leave the personal attacks out. That’s properly run public discourse.  But when the uncomfortable conversation is that of discussing, say, the status of public memorials of Confederate generals, folks representing the “lost cause” don’t feel like they are being heard. And they feel like they get painted nastily from the start.  (But, hey, when you’re arguing for racist stuff, that’ll happen, right? And therein lies the problem.)

To the protests and the riots, it’s possible to say that one side is right, but still behaves badly in the exchange.  And so, starting with the punch a Nazi meme, and now with the antifa movement, I think it’s possible to say:  I am against white supremacy, but I don’t condone violence.  Moreover, I think violence encourages worse behavior from the Nazis. That is the lesson of every escalation, and just war theory makes an excellent distinction between jus ad bellum and jus in bello. So, one can think that one is unjustly fighting a just war.

Enter the folks at Meet the Press this last Sunday.  Rich Lowery of National Review, responding to a question about President Trump’s tweet:

The key is that Trump noted that it’s violence “on many sides.”  People were (a) surprised and disappointed that Trump did not criticize the white supremacists, and (b) taken aback that he, especially after it was clear that a car driven by a white supremacist ran into a group of counter-protester, seemed to also lay blame on the anti-fascists.  Lowery’s take was to invoke something along the lines of the content-procedure distinction:

I do think he, obviously, should’ve specifically denounced the white nationalists. But there are two sides to this now. This country now has a violent fringe on the right and on the left, both of whom, the white nationalists and the so-called anti-fascists who like violence, who thrill to violence, like the attention that comes with it. And this is going to get worse before it gets better.

So, Lowery is making a point about how the discussion is going and is making a point about escalation.  Again, it has to be possible to say that someone is in the right, but pursuing their case wrongly.  Now, the question, of course, is what’s the more important issue – content or procedure.  Joy-Ann Reid reminds Lowery and the audience of the bigger point, and coins a nice phrase in the process:

I think that both-sidesism doesn’t serve anyone well. This is an unambiguous evil that is plaguing the country . . . . One of the reasons that Donald Trump cannot properly respond to what was an obvious proper response from an America president is the people in his government. Who’s writing the talking points that he was looking down and reading from?…

And Van Jones had a version of this criticism of the ‘both sides’ line on Sunday’s CNN State of the Union

An American citizen was assassinated in broad daylight by a Nazi. A Nazi, who the day before had been marching with torches down American streets saying anti-Jewish, anti-black stuff . . . This is not a time to talk about ‘both sides’. . . .  Both sides are not using ISIS tactics ― mowing people down with cars ― in the streets of America

Both Jones and Reid argue that ‘both sides’ arguments are in error, but Reid’s is about the content of the views as different, and Jones’s is about the different ways the sides have proceeded.

OK, now to the argument-appraisal part.  Here’s how I see Reid’s criticism of ‘both-siderism.’  Reid’s argument is that both-siderism is an error in this particular case, because of the significance of the disagreement.  It’s not just a matter of arguing with Nazis, but with the significance of them being in the White House.   So her criticism of Lowery’s line of argument is that he’s got a red herring, some line of argument that distracts us from the more important issue.  And this does seem right, to a degree.  For sure, if the matter is whether the President failed to distance himself from white supremacists, then this is a perfectly legitimate challenge.  But if the issue is what do we do now?, then I think Reid’s charge is off-base, because a relevant and pressing question of running public discourse (and being a part of it) is not just about keeping an eye on what issues are right and those not, but on the argumentative and deliberative culture we maintain as we pursue those truths.

Jones’s reply to the line of both sides is different, because he challenges whether both sides actually are equally to blame.  Both sides, he concedes, showed up with sticks, helmets, and shields.  But only one side “assassinated” a member of the other side.  So Jones’s point is that both-sidesism gets the facts wrong, or at least implicates something false.  One uses both-sidesism correctly only if both sides make equally egregious errors in pursuing their ends.  If one side is worse in their performance, then they deserve the criticism (and it’s more urgent if they are both wrong and badly pursuing their cause).

Here’s the good thing in these discussions.  We’ve identified a way we can take our eyes off the ball with some discussions, in particular, with the fact that not all of us are angels when it comes to deep, important disagreements.  (I have always worried that the discussions of the tone of public discourse has always been a way to sidestep a difficult challenge.)  But here’s the bad thing.  It’s important, especially when we are deliberating about how to not escalate adversarial discussions, that we be able to recognize that it takes two to tango.

But it’s also important to not get too hung up on this point.  Here’s the reason: the more we police how we discuss things, the more inclined we are to harbor resentment not just about the views, but how we’ve pursued things.  And so, the more there’s a ‘both-siderist’ line to take about Charlottesville, the more there’s a resentment harbored by the Nazis about how they were treated to shabbily by the antifa folks.  And something worse will happen.  (Recall on analogy with just war, one way to escalate a war is to put emphasis on how the other side breaks rules of in bello, which creates motives for reprisal.)


The Straw We

Lately with all of the doings I’ve run across a few examples of what we might call the “Straw We.” Here’s  (a not particularly ideal) one:

The idea is that this is false. Many indeed would have and did think this.

As far as I can tell, Steven Pinker first identified the “Straw We” in a review of a book by Malcolm Gladwell (we discussed it here briefly, some years back). The idea is that someone represents the view held by us, most of us, or some subset of us, to be more weak, less nuanced, less sophisticated, etc. as it actually is for the purposes, I imagine, of highlighting the ingeniousness of some discovery or other.

Here’s how Pinker put it:

The banalities come from a gimmick that can be called the Straw We. First Gladwell disarmingly includes himself and the reader in a dubious consensus — for example, that “we” believe that jailing an executive will end corporate malfeasance, or that geniuses are invariably self-made prodigies or that eliminating a risk can make a system 100 percent safe. He then knocks it down with an ambiguous observation, such as that “risks are not easily manageable, accidents are not easily preventable.” As a generic statement, this is true but trite: of course many things can go wrong in a complex system, and of course people sometimes trade off safety for cost and convenience (we don’t drive to work wearing crash helmets in Mack trucks at 10 miles per hour). But as a more substantive claim that accident investigations are meaningless “rituals of reassurance” with no effect on safety, or that people have a “fundamental tendency to compensate for lower risks in one area by taking greater risks in another,” it is demonstrably false.

At first glance, the Straw We might seem to be a narrative device meant to enhance the originality or insight of what responds to it. I can even think of several pastiches of it (mostly from the Simpsons). This technique might serve somewhat innocently to increase the uptake of whatever it is one is trying to say (or maybe sell) by way of heightening the contrast. You sharpen the contrast in order to make the lesson clearer.

The Straw We’s pernicious use mirrors the pernicious use of the regular straw argument strategy: it misrepresents the dialectical terrain: things aren’t really so shallow or silly.  But the Straw We draws attention to a particular feature of straw arguments, noticed by someone whose name I don’t have handy (but will fill in later). In a straw argument, the misrepresentation of an opponent enhances the stature of the one doing the misrepresenting (and at the cost of the ones who are misrepresented) to an onlooking audience. Someone in other words looks a fool so that someone else can claim insight. The same account might be given of the Iron Man or Iron Argument: the enhancement of the argument (and consequent impugning of critics) enhances the stature of the one doing the enhancing.

The Straw We, then, highlights the performative aspects of argument. You can rarely just assert your authority on some matter (trust me, I’ve tried) and expect to be believed. You have to perform it. An easy to way to perform it for an onlooking audience, and so establish your own awesomeness, is to find some dumb thing to beat up on: Look at me, I’m winning.