Tag Archives: Free speech fallacy

Norms of Assertion #2

In more news of assertions made without backing (see previous post about the various norms of assertion), Joe Scarborough Tweeted:

Two assertions, really.  #1: Trump leaked the return, and #2: He did it as a distraction.

The backing: That it’s “painfully obvious.”  Pretty weak backing.  But, hey, it’s Twitter.

Interestingly, Scarborough was challenged by one of Trump’s lawyers, Michael Cohen — in particular, that he should have some support for such claims:

A pretty apt response, with a little heat to it.  It is ironic, however, that a Trump representative is making hay out of someone making unsubstantiated claims.  Oh, and then Scarborough took the bait:

Oy vey.  Wrong way to do this.

Scarborough is committing two errors here.  First, is what’s been called the Free Speech FallacyJohn’s got a nice bit on it HERE, and we’ve got an entry in the coming Bad Arguments: 100 of the Most Important Important Fallacies.  Here’s our line:

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.

And note, that using the Free Speech Fallacy is a form of ignoratio argument — that we change what’s being criticized from what was said to whether one has the right to say it.  (I’d had an earlier point about this HERE, which I’d called the ‘meta-move’).   So taking the first amendment strategy is no defense against the request/demand for evidence.  Nor is it a reply to the insult that he has a big mouth.  In fact, some replies seem to confirm the accusations!

The second error is with taking a request, admittedly with heat, as purely intimidation.  In a way, I think this is a bit of straw-manning, which is to focus on the tone of a challenge instead of the content, and then make the case that someone is using an ad baculum or some other scare tactic.

Imagine that A gives a crappy argument, perhaps that B has made some moral error.  B, in reply, says something like:

Look, asshole, if you’re going to make a charge like that, you’ve got to have better grounds.  Seriously, what’s wrong with you?

And A replies:

Now who’s the asshole… defending yourself with an ad hominem against me?

For sure, B put some stank on the reply, but there wasn’t an argument from A’s being an asshole to A making unsubstantiated claims.  Rather, it was from A’s making unsubstantiated claims to A being an asshole.  Mistaking heat of reply with a premise of argument or with intimidation is to mistake tone and content.  And, you know, grownups who have hard conversations have to keep the two distinct all the time.

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).