When the argument is not the argument

Misrepresenting someone’s position is usually a no-no.  Two quick reasons: first, a critique of the misrepresentation reveals nothing about the view; second, the misrepresentation deprives the person making the argument of critical input.  Naturally, this second violation assumes people make arguments in order to receive critical input from others (which is dubious, but nonetheless important).

The problem with this is that people sometimes do not argue for their real positions.  They argue, rather, for positions they can defend, hoping that this defense will cover their real view or that it will distract or wear down attackers. Sorry for the war metaphor here (I’ve been thinking about this lately and will have something on it later).

The “covering strategy” is to assert entirely general principles that may not apply in your case.  This strategy is somewhat akin to the question-begger which avoids the controversy by taking two steps back. Perhaps this is why so many fruitless public debates center around various parties claiming their view is consonant with some or other founding principle. What’s at issue is usually rather the application of the founding principle to the specific case.

Something like this, I think, is at play in the Indiana case.  Mike Pence, the Governor of Indiana, claims that this law has nothing to do with discriminating against gay people. That, of course, is preposterous, and worthy of an Onion article.

There’s no question that the view the Indiana law and its supporters clearly advocate is an unpopular one.  It’s also pretty clear that people are going to heap piles of scorn upon them.  It might also be true that they think their view isn’t going to get a fair hearing from the crowd gathered to hear it.  I’m not sure, however, if any of these things is sufficient to justify the shifting strategy they’re employing. For one, such disingenuousness is shielding themselves from criticism relevant to their view.

5 thoughts on “When the argument is not the argument”

  1. Is this evidence for the (evolutionary?) argument that humans typically use “rationality” to defend their positions rather than seek the truth? Or is it just strawmanning one’s own position? Or both?

  2. No conservative will ever argue any point honestly. They call the estate tax “the death tax.” They claim capital gains taxes constitute “taxing the same money twice.” The Affordable Care Act is a ” socialist government takeover” with “death panels.” They know if they lay their positions out honestly, they will be rejected by a large majority of the voters.

  3. The metaphor of the dominant political worldviews being distinguished by dinner-table distinctions is a good one.

    My preferred metaphor is the echo-chamber. These have gotten so powerful that they can create wholly manufactured environments through selectively amplifying and muting various networks of information. Their power derives from how vastly they can amplify some ideas and how completely they can mute others. The answer in both cases is massively.

    The 97% statistic is an excellent example. Perhaps less than 1 in 100 people who have repeated it know where it comes from, that being a paper written by a modestly qualified physicist John Cook (an employee of a gas company in Australia) and Dana Nuticelli, writers for a Global Warming advocacy site Skeptical Science. It was refuted by a much more impressively qualified physicist Richard Toll here:


    He writes a synopsis here: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/blog/2014/jun/06/97-consensus-global-warming.

    Tol demonstrates rather compellingly that Cook’s methodology was so vacuous that the entire statistic of 97% amounts to a number pulled from nothing. But this has no effect on its perceived obviousness, because Extreme Amplification confers the quality of self-evidence to claims that are, in reality, extremely difficult to make with any accuracy. (97% of everybody? Who counts as a member of “everybody”? And so on.) But the number is just a numerical expression of the idea of universality that is communicated substantively through mass-repetition. The number reinforces the amplification and vice-versa, amounting to a propaganda tour-de-force.

    Tol is not really a bona-fide skeptic/realist. But he punctures the illusion of self-evidence, and so has to be muted and drowned out, which is well within the power of the echo chamber. Disconfirming evidence and dissenting voices are muted so effectively that they seem like aberrations and cranks.

  4. That’s a whoops. Meant it for “Playing Their Game” and accidentally put it here.

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