Failures of Composition

I have now come to see that the post below is mistaken. The fallacy is not one of composition, but is simply a hasty generalization. The reason I am wrong about the composition is that the argument does not assert that each liberal is weak on terrorism and therefore the Left as a whole is weak on terrorism. Instead, the fallacy lies in arguing that the Left is weak on terrorism on the basis that a few members of the left are weak on terrorism. We decided to leave this up, despite its flaws because the overall point that a fallacy is occuring here seems correct, even if I mis-diagnosed it at first. 8/8/5

>The denial of the peril facing America remains a staple of the left.

One of the cheapest rhetorical moves available to the pundit showcases the fallacies of composition and division. In these fallacies, the arguer claims that since X is a property of the whole (division) or a part (composition), therefore it is a property of the part (division) or the whole (composition): If table salt is a good seasoning, then its constituents Sodium and Chlorine are good seasonings; If Sodium and Chlorine are poisonous, then table salt is poisonous.

The fallacy of composition is often very close to the fallacy of hasty generalization, in which the attribution of a property to some members of a set is taken too quickly as evidence that the whole set possesses that property. Similarly the fallacy of division is often very close to the fallacy of accident, in which a generalization that is accidentally true of a collection is applied to an instance where it is untrue. The the argument that I am going to analyze is for mthe most part implicit, it will be hard to disentangle and identify precisely the fallacy that it commits.

This argument is a favorite of the talk show pundits–and any conscious viewer, I suspect, is aware of the fallacy even if she or he is not able to identify it precisely. It is usually combined with a straw man fallacy to create its persuasive effect. At the risk of belaboring the obvious here’s the logical analysis.

John Leo in a muddled column in the U.S. News and World Report (Source: USNWR 8/805) argues that the liberal Left does not take terrorism seriously.

>In the wake of the London bombings, New York City is now searching the bags of subway riders. As you might expect, this is provoking the usual cluster of perverse reactions. Someone on Air America, the liberal talk radio network, suggested that riders carry many bags to confuse and irritate the cops.

Far more troubling than the anonymous source in journalism is the uncredited, unsourced, and unexplained “someone” or “some argue” that is the staple of sloppy punditry. This allows the writer to attribute a view (often one they can’t find a credited source for) to someone vaguely associated with their real targets.

>From the first moments after the attacks of 9/11, we had indicators that the left would not be able to take terrorism seriously. Instead of resolve, we got concern about emotional closure and “root causes,” warnings about the allegedly great danger of a backlash against Muslim Americans, arguments that violence directed at America is our own fault, and suggestions that we must not use force, because violence never solves anything. “We can’t bomb our way to justice,” said Ralph Nader.

What’s important here is that Leo picks and chooses a series of seemingly idiosyncratic responses to terrorism from people who may be on the “left,”(but without doing his job and identifying these people). These views, or the unseriousness of them, are then attributed to the whole, i.e., the liberal left. We are given two more pieces of evidence. The first a series on the BBC (“a perennial leader in foolish leftism,”) which claimed:

>arguing that terrorism is vastly exaggerated. Al Qaeda barely exists at all, the series argued, except as an idea that uses religious violence to achieve its ends. Besides, the series said, a dirty bomb would not kill many people and may not even kill anyone.

The second, an unnamed writer, in the NYRB who claims:

>that the real weapons of mass destruction are world poverty and environmental abuse.

So here we have it. The evidence that the left is unserious about terrorism. But can we infer this from particular beliefs held by the left? We would have to consider more closely the meaning of this “collective term.” But let this suffice for the time being: it seems clear that there are many beliefs and attitudes held by people who are in general “on the left” that are not held by all. Thus, any argument would need to show that these beliefs are held prominently on the left, or even universally. Did significant members of Congress on the left assert these things? Did the major publications on the left argue for these positions? Do most of the core members of the left accept these views?

Depending upon how we state the argument there seems either to be a fallacy of composition or a “hasty generalization.” Either way, the conclusion does not seem to be justified.

In Leo’s column, we don’t find this argument displayed with the full force that we find on the “O’Reilly Factor,” or in a great deal of what Ann Coulter writes. The next two steps of the argument are generally to then impute these claims to particular members of the left (as a sort of fallacy of division) and then argue against them. This is taken then as a refutation of the particular person’s views whatever they in fact are.

2 thoughts on “Failures of Composition”

  1. The division between the right and the left is becoming almost essentialist in character, at least among the contemporary punditry. In the past there were “socialists,” “anarchists,” “communists,” “liberals,” “moderates,” etc. Writers used to use these terms not interchangeably, because they mean different things.

    The effect that homogenizing discourse has on the actual pluralism of the so-called left is alchemical in character, transmuting a once variegated and often at odds community of ideologies into a lump sum, devoid of character and voice (hence the unnamed sources). The result leaves the distinction between right and left as a binary opposition, failing to take into consideration the agreements and conflicts that actually make up the political discourse by resorting to the new reductionist world view held today.

    For example, if I’m against the war in Iraq, for the department of Homeland Security and the Patriot act, against abortion, for faith-based funding and school prayer, and I support socialized health-care, am I on the Right or the Left? This distinction no longer makes any sense, unless we do some type of quantitative average to determine where I fit on this illusionary number line. Against war: +3; against abortion: +5; for socialized health-care (uh-oh): -7 you commie bastard.

    It is clear that in holding various political views they do not cancel each other out. This article comes very close to reaching the disturbing heart of the matter: the misuse of language to create false dichotomies whereby political rhetoric can slip passed under the veil of objective argumentation.

    Good anlaysis.

  2. Yes this is exactly what I was trying to analyze.

    As I think further about it, I think it’s wrong to characterize it as a fallacy of composition. It’s really much closer to the hasty generalization, but I think you’re right to see it as a sort of essentializing move and that might be what looks at first like composition. We move from individuals to the homogenized monolithic “left” (or “right”).

    But I think strictly speaking to see this as composition is wrong–it’s more of a hasty generalization with a sort of re-ification that constitutes the identity “leftist” on the basis of a handful of positions on the left.

    It’s just fascinating how effective this rhetoric and logic has been over the last twenty years. To see someone like Harry Reid lumped together with or Ralph Nader is almost incomprehensible.

    And certainly the articulation of political differences along a single axis (left/right and us/them) is entirely inadequate for “saving the phenomena” and leads to this sort of sloppy thinking.

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