Question Complex

So blatant an attempt at sneakiness is the complex question that none but the cleverest by half use it. That didn’t stop a very smirky Chris Wallace from throwing one at Clinton. In his infamous interview he asked the former President:

>Why didn’t you do more to put bin Laden and Al Qaida out of business when you were president?

As it has been pointed out by many on the internets, that’s a question of the “how long have you been beating your wife?”, or complex variety. There really isn’t anyway for Clinton to answer it without submitting to one of the question’s presuppositions. The question assumes an affirmative answer to the following implicit assertion:

1. Clinton didn’t do all he could have to stop Al Qaeda.

in order to ask the following:

2. What explains this failure?

But these are two separate issues. What does Wallace say? In Sunday’s New York Times Mag, he says:

>I think it was a straight news question, and I think it just touched a very raw nerve. The business I am in is asking probing questions and trying to get interesting answers. I think I succeeded admirably in my job.

It’s not a straight news question. It’s not a straight question. He should have asked the following two questions:

1. Do you think you did everything in your power to stop Al Qaeda?

2. If you don’t feel you did, what explains it?

Those are straight questions. Whether they’re straight news questions might be another matter.

3 thoughts on “Question Complex”

  1. First, in response to your remark:

    > that’s a complex question of the “how long have you been beating
    > your wife?” variety.

    The dorky side of me (yes, that’s most of it) wants to know, are there other varieties?

    Second, though I hate to defend partisan media, I think your analysis of the question in question may be incorrect. Assuming that we are departing empirical reality for magical logic-land, and ignoring the potential insinuations based on tone of voice, body language, and context, Wallace’s query itself I think is defensible.

    The question “why didn’t you do more” certainly contains the assertion that more could have been done. But is this really a contentious claim that requires an explicit initial agreement? More can always be done in nearly everything, and certainly that was the case here.

    That’s not to say that Clinton 1) didn’t do a lot, 2) could have reasonably been expected to do more, or 3) should have done more. The context may insinuate any or all of 1, 2, and 3, but as we’re sticking to the transcript here, the hidden assertion only provides that, by the laws of nature (mechanistic determinism not withstanding), more was possible. An answer to the effect of hindsight being 20/20, an explication of the complex political issues involved in further action at the time, etc., are all acceptable answers.

    The question may be in the form of complex question, but because the “hidden” assertion is so obviously true, I don’t think it could be called fallacious. All questions, in any form, make assumptions.

    Finally, and briefly, your analysis gives the first (hidden) question as:
    “Do you think you did everything in your power to stop Al Qaeda?”

    I think that the addition of the word “think” here in your expansion of the question adds cognitive issues which alter the meaning to something separate from Wallace’s original. But I’ve got studying to do, so I’ll have to prove you wrong on this issue some other time…

  2. Dolan–

    1. I guess the first point you make refers to my sloppy phrasing. I meant that it’s a complex question, like “when did you stop beating your wife?” I’ll fix that.

    2. I think you should remember that informal fallacies bring us within the realm of actuality and therefore, reasonability. The question underlying many fallacies remains one of “degree.” You’ll always find someone with the straw man view you argue against, but that does not mean it’s a reasonable argument. Analogously, in the present circumstance one certainly can make the modal claim that something more could have been done. But it’s important not to confuse possibility (anything’s possible that’s not a contradiction) with reasonable probability. So Wallace cannot reasonably insinuate that Clinton could have done more without first establishing that. He should have asked *whether* he could have done more to put an end to Al Qaeda. So, while the hidden assumption is “obviously true” I think it is trivially so–that is, true in a way that doesn’t bear on the present questtion.

    3. I also disagree with your final point. Wallace asked “why didn’t *you* do more. . . ” and so implied a lack of will or understanding or some other cognitive failing on Clinton’s part. Were this not the case, there’d be no point in asking Clinton why he didn’t do more.

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