Category Archives: Informal Fallacies

Straw Sorbo

Kevin Sorbo (of Hercules fame and other entertainment ventures of playing a philosophy professor) has given a kind of critique of the California Coronavirus lockdown rules. Governor Gavin Newsom had imposed a 10PM curfew as numbers of infections had risen sharply in the last weeks. Sorbo, critiquing the rule, tweeted:

The folks at Breitbart thought it was fuggin’ hilarious. The joke, as I understand it, is that the hour of 10:00 is the threshold, and Sorbo narrowly avoided it. Of course, for the joke to actually criticize the curfew, you’d have to think that the curfew’s justification hung on things being radically different between 9:59 and 10:01. But that’s not what the justification for the rule is. The justification is that whatever happens later than usual dinner hours is unnecessary and likely more risky. And so, the penumbral zone between normal dinner hours (5:00 to 8:00?) and not (later than 9:00?) will admit of some relatively arbitrary line-drawing if we have to do it. Assuming there needed to be a curfew, the line was drawn at 10, likely to give as much room to err on the side of tolerance. (That’s how vagueness stuff works, right?)

So the joke works as a kind of straw man, then. Instead of constructing the reasons and attributing them to your straw man, and then turning to criticize them, one just announces a criticism — and the felicity conditions for that criticism produces the shitty reasons all by themselves. Clever!

The thing here is that this straw man argument is just so clearly crappy, and the joke sucks. So why did the folks at Breitbart love it so? (And Sorbo’s Twitter followers loved it, too.) This is what John and I in the new book on the Straw Man (now with a press, and we’ll see how things go!) have called the EFFECTIVENESS PUZZLE about straw man arguments. How in the world do they work when they very clearly misattribute the reasons criticized? We’ve got a whole variety of answers to this puzzle, but the big idea with this case is this: this straw man is not erected to be criticized for the sake of folks who sympathize with the lockdown rules — it’s erected and knocked down for the sake of an audience who already opposes those rules.

That is, the audience for this straw man already is committed to the fact that the rules are stupid and mere exercises of power. They are not out to convince anyone of anything, but to express an already held commitment and share it. Let’s call it the EXPRESSIVE ROLE of straw manning — it’s like a shared gripe session about one’s political foes with one’s allies. You mock up a picture of the hated ones and just beat it up together. And it doesn’t matter if the mock up accurately depicts the opposition or their reasons — it just matters that everyone in your audience already agrees that they are wrong, stupid, laughable, and need to be opposed. So with these kind of straw man arguments, the inaccuracy of the representation of the other side is beside the point — the negativity of the depiction is the point.

Of course, you can see that this is the case with Sorbo’s later tweet:

Err… it did work. Infection rates went down. Remember all that ‘flatten the curve’ business in the spring? To think that ‘worked’ meant that the virus was eradicated is, well, to get the situation all wrong. But that’s a whole other kind of intentional misinterpretation, isn’t it?

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?”


The fake straw man

Typically, a straw man argument is some kind of misrepresentation (by selection, by distortion, or by invention) in order to conclude that some alternative position is stronger by comparison. We often think that last part–that some alternative position is stronger–is the key move. You use a straw man to go somewhere else with the argument.

So, for instance, “the Affordable Care Act (ACA or Obamacare) is communism,” distorts the ACA in favor of a more sensible, non-communist version.

This morning I was struck by an account of a strategic use of distortion that skips the last, crucial step in straw manning: the sensible alternative. Here it is:

For context, this self-retweet is meant to characterize President Trump’s approach to revisions (rather, alleged revisions) to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The argument runs: NAFTA is bad (for exaggerated reasons), engage in a lengthy back-and-forth, NAFTA is fixed (when it’s the same).

You can see from the example that the distortion is almost entirely self-enclosed. In the first stage, it presents a distorted account of the current realty. So far, that’s very straw manny. But, rather than offering an allegedly more sensible alternative, it offers a second distortion, which takes us back to a non-distorted version of the status quo.

This version–I don’t know what to call it–retains all of the puffery of the standard versions: look at how dumb my opponents are! And it doubles that puffery by turning the exchange entirely into a show about how awesome you are.  You’re not as awesome if you have to share the credit with someone else.

Perhaps the more precise account is this: you distort an interlocutor’s position so that you can occupy the non-distorted version. So, the alternative position is strong enough as it is. The only problem is who is occupying it–not you. You have to steal it. To do that, you have to trick your opponent into leaving it.

There are some natural advantages to this. It’s easier to occupy an already constructed position than to make up a new one. Just ask the Great Horned Owl.  There’s got to be a real estate version of this scam. The closest I can find is the real estate practice of blockbusting, where unscrupulous developers scarred white people out of their homes in order to resell them at much higher prices to black families.

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.