No fair!

Scott and I wrote a piece for an anthology of fallacies (I think the title is still up in the air). One of our contributions was on the straw man (of course!), the other was on the “Free Speech Fallacy.” Here is how we defined it:

The fallacy arises when a contributor to a critical exchange confuses the protected freedom of expressing an opinion with correlate obligations to reply to freely expressed critical opinions of others.

I ran across an instance of this yesterday from VPEOTUS Mike Pence. Here’s the passage:

Lewis joins a handful of congressional Democrats who say they won’t attend Inauguration Day on Friday, when Trump, a Republican, becomes the country’s 45th president.

“I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected. And they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton,” Lewis also said in his interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

On Saturday, Trump retaliated against Lewis for the remarks.

“Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart,” Trump tweeted.

Trump, in a follow-up tweet Saturday, said Lewis should spend more time helping his “crime invested” district, instead of “falsely complaining about the election results.”

“All talk, talk, talk — no action or results. Sad.” Trump concluded.

Pence argued Sunday that Trump “has the right to defend himself.”

Whatever the context, what’s not on the table is PEOTUS Trump’s right to defend himself. What is on the table is whether his defense–or indeed Lewis’s criticism–is any good (it doesn’t seem to be, sad!). The question of rights here is, as it is so often, irrelevant.

And I think this actually points to a more generalizable problem in dialectical exchanges: call it “irrelevant rule-invocation.”* It consists in avoiding the substance of the dialectical exchange by alleging violations of rules that do not bear on the substance of the dialectical exchange. So, for instance, if I say, “I think A’s comment p was false.” Respondent B might say, “how dare you attack A!” But I’m not attacking A, I’m challenging A with regard to p. Alleging I’m breaking some rule is an attempt to disqualify me from further participation, since I’ve broken some key argument norm. But alas, I haven’t.

Anecdotally, I’m struck by how quickly this happens. The first move in an argumentative exchange seems pretty frequently to be just this.

*I’ve got to think of a better name (or someone point me to where this has been identified and described).

2 thoughts on “No fair!”

  1. I agree this is really common. I normally characterize it as “The First Amendment means I can’t be criticized” (Sarah Palin and others have essentially said that), but that’s too long for your purposes and the First Amendment isn’t always invoked. There’s a term called “rules lawyering” that kind of fits these instances but is more general. Argument lawyering? Appeal to Invulnerability? The ‘I’m Rubber You’re Glue’ Defense? Essentially, it’s an argument that any criticism is inherently illegitimate and that (aggressive) retaliation is justified. It’s pro-conflict, anti-substance — picking a fight to distract from a real discussion — a kind of false accusation of ad hominem. The Thin-Skinned Bully Defense? Or your “irrelevant rule-invocation.”

  2. Good suggestions. “Working the refs” has a similar connotation, but it’s already taken by the media people. I had (a while ago) something called the fallacy fallacy fallacy: the idea that accusing someone of a fallacy was a fallacy (this captures only one side of it, however).

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