Tag Archives: hollow man

Magic words

Some of what argumentation theorists do is produce a metalanguage of argument. They make up names for stuff. Stuff you shouldn’t do (hollow man) stuff you should sometimes do (iron man). It’s partially a normative study, so the metalanguage is normative. As the Owl of Minerva Problem points out, however, there’s an inherent challenge in that the metalanguage for argument warps our performances. It’s a new thing to keep track of and it alters the way we interact. The thing it was meant to solve isn’t solved. It gets absorbed into the problem it was trying to solve. Interestingly, this is also the case for the Owl of Minerva problem.

Here is a variation on the Owl of Minerva Problem. Recall that the Owl of Minerva is retrospective, and productive of new normative terms. In some cases, once these terms get introduced, they are so powerful that they can never be used. This is to say that once a term becomes associated with a certain kind of extreme failure, it becomes magical. It’s a normative term with actual descriptive power. Take “racism.” Though there are significant disagreements about what really is the issue (ask a philosopher of race), there are no (significant) disagreements that it is bad, very bad. The same is true (with some perverse exceptions) of Nazism). No one wants to be a Nazi, even people who literally hold Nazi views. This video pretty much sums this up:

A more recent version of this featured three police officers caught on tape discussing their desire to engage in racially motivated homicide and start a race war with genocidal objectives. In their own defense, the officers said they weren’t racist:

Later, according to the investigation, Piner told Moore that he feels a civil war is coming and that he is ready. Piner said he was going to buy a new assault rifle, and soon “we are just going to go out and start slaughtering them (expletive)” Blacks. “I can’t wait. God, I can’t wait.” Moore responded that he wouldn’t do that.

Piner then told Moore that he felt a civil war was needed to “wipe them off the (expletive) map. That’ll put them back about four or five generations.” Moore told Piner he was “crazy,” and the recording stopped a short time later.

According to police, the officers admitted it was their voices on the video and didn’t deny any of the content. While the officers denied that they were racists, they blamed their comments on the stress on law enforcement in light of the protests over the death of George Floyd. Floyd, a Black man, died last month after a Minneapolis police officer put his knee on Floyd’s neck for several minutes.

I’d be happy to hear if someone has identified this phenomenon and given it a funny name. It’s something like the Harry Potter Problem, where one invokes fallacy names in place of (hopefully constructive) criticism and discussion. But in this case the invocation of the magic word necessarily backfires. It casts a kind of reverse spell. So one discovers a new powerful and descriptive normative concept, but its very power means its real targets will never accept it.

Don’t strawman me… I was strawmanning, myself

(Former) Governor Mike Huckabee has been criticized for the things he’s said about women and birth control.  Here’s the line folks are focusing on:

They cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government

The reply is that the Governor did say those words, but the quote is “taken out of context”. As it turns out, the context is that of attributing this view to Democrats.  Here’s Matt Lewis at the Daily Caller clarifying the situation:

If the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because [DEMOCRATS BELIEVE] they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government, then so be it.

The context of the quote, I think, is correct in terms of the Daily Caller’s clarification. The video HERE.  Huckabee isn’t stating his own view, he’s making it clear what he thinks that Democrats think about women and birth control.  So to criticize him for holding this view is a form of straw manning.

That’s better, but not dialecticaly.  The defense is that the view in question is not one he takes himself, but one he attributes to his opponents on birth control.  (He follows these sentences with a call for further debate on the issue, clearly calling attention to the fact that he sees his opponents as having a wildly indefensible view.)  Note that the address was not to a mixed audience wherein a liberal might say back: that’s not our view, Governor.  The issue isn’t about controlling libido, but having the right to manage when and by whom one has a child.  Isn’t that an important issue?  Ever notice how straw-manning is easier when your opponent isn’t in the room?

So in defending himself against being strawmanned, Huckabee reveals himself  the straw-manner.

To use the full taxonomic vocabulary: My hypothesis is that Huckabee was hollow-manning (nobody on the Democrat side has had a thought like that, right?), and the defense is a form of iron-manning.

First, get some straw…

We’ve pretty regularly noted that you can tell a straw man fallacy is coming when the speaker starts the windup for attributing views to his opponent by saying, “Some folks who believe X say…”  or “You know what all those X-ists say about this…”  What generally comes is a view nobody even recognizes as their view, or if it is, it’s only from the least capable of those who hold X.  And so we’ve been calling these hollow and weak men.

Now, what happens when the speaker’s on a roll?  It’s not just a one-off, but a series of these straw-man constructions.  For example, take Marta Mossburg’s “The Real ‘War on Women'” over at the American Spectator.   There are at least three in quick succession.

First, there’s the implication that Democrats who use the expression ‘The Republican War on Women’ don’t care at all about the way women are oppressed around the world.

When Terry McAuliffe, the governor-elect of Virginia,  relentlessly battered his Republican opponent Ken Cuccinelli for waging a “war on women,”  these innocent babies, teenagers and wives often attacked by their families and given no protection under the law throughout many countries in the world were not on his mind, however.  Not even remotely.

Second, there’s the implication of reverse racism in describing the progressive view:

It also fits in nicely with the progressive narrative that history is moving irrevocably forward to some ideal – which does not include stodgy white men.

And third, there’s the simple imputation of sheer craven rhetorical objectives to their opponents:

The success of the “war on women” trope should make Republicans realize that they are fighting progressives for whom the idea of truth is an outdated relic of a racist, homophobic, misogynist past to be discarded in favor of tactics that allow them to win elections and sway opinion.

Now, sometimes, the writing in politico magazines isn’t about making arguments.  Sometimes, it’s just about reminding people what’s at stake, motivating them to go out and win, galvanizing the side.  But here’s the thing: dog-cussing your opponents like this makes it very hard to intellectually engage with them afterwards.  It inculcates a habit that Talisse and I have been calling the No Reasonable Opposition perspective on the issues at hand.  And when you don’t see the opposition as reasonable, you don’t work on developing good arguments, and when you don’t work on good arguments, you don’t maintain your best reasons.  And then you become, ironically, just like the folks you were dog-cussing.

To the three straw men here, it’s worthwhile to say the following.  1. The “Republican War on Women” trope was about a series of elections and domestic policy, not about foreign policy.  You focus on what’s different between the two candidates and parties in that argumentative context and about the things they will determine – to talk about the treatment of women around the world is not what that discussion is about.  (One might call this, by extension, a form of red herring.)  2. There’s a difference between having less (unearned) influence and having no influence – if everybody gets a fair shake, there are going to be fewer white guys at the top.  It shouldn’t be hard to see that.  3. As to the cravenness view of one’s opponents, I’ll simply say that if you, yourself, aren’t very good at constructing good arguments, you won’t be very good at detecting them, either.

 

Civility for jerks

Mallard Fillmore’s got a nice way to capture the civility problem — with a straw man followed by a  tu quoque!

fillmore

If President Obama charged the Republicans with wanting to kill the elderly and starve the poor, I don’t remember it.  In fact, the only kill the elderly lines I remember were the old ‘death panel’ charges a few years back. (This, then, is more likely a hollow man.) So a hyperbolic line of argument to begin, but doubling down with the fallacies is… well… uncivil?

A few months back Rob Talisse and I took a shot at making the case that civility wasn’t a matter of being nice and calm, but a matter of having well-run argument.  That sometimes requires goodwill, but more importantly civility is a matter of being able to argue appropriately when everyone in the conversation hates everyone else.

Bill Maher’s Ham Jihad

Bill Maher thinks there's too much manufactured outrage in our national discourse. When Bobby De Niro recently made a white people joke at an Obama fundraiser dinner, noted defender of the rights of minority groups Newt Gingrich leapt to our TV screens and demanded an apology from the President himself. It is of course absurd to think that Newt is legitimately outraged by this joke when he has famously argued that "one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don't encourage you to be nasty."

So, Gingrich's laughable fake outrage on this issue leads Maher to rhetorically conclude, "[w]hen did we get it in our heads that we have the right to never hear anything we don’t like?" When, indeed? Unfortunately, Maher takes this hollow man and proceeds to cast every recent instance of public outrage as an assertion of our right to not hear things we don't like. From the Limbaugh-Fluke uproar, to the Jeremy Lin-ESPN gaffe, Maher casts his net wide and far.

When did we become such whiny cry-babies? With all this thin-skinned outrage tearing our nation apart, Maher advances a solution:

"Let’s have an amnesty — from the left and the right — on every made-up, fake, totally insincere, playacted hurt, insult, slight and affront. Let’s make this Sunday the National Day of No Outrage. One day a year when you will not find some tiny thing someone did or said and pretend you can barely continue functioning until they apologize.

If that doesn’t work, what about this: If you see or hear something you don’t like in the media, just go on with your life. Turn the page or flip the dial or pick up your roll of quarters and leave the booth."

See, all you have to do is plug your ears.

Now, there's something to be said about ignoring things that are worth ignoring. Do we need to jump down Limbaugh's throat every time he has says something offensive? There might not be enough time in one day to do that job and we shouldn't feed the king troll. And politicians like Gingrich will feign outrage whenever it is politically expedient, and that crap gets annoying. But Maher treats all instances of outrage as analagous to the following scenario:

"When the lady at Costco gives you a free sample of its new ham pudding and you don’t like it, you spit it into a napkin and keep shopping. You don’t declare a holy war on ham."

Clearly not. That would be insane. But if an extremely popular and influential pundit makes aggressive misogynistic attacks against a person in an effort to deny what many feel are basic human rights, should we just smh and change the channel, or be fake outraged?

Grown ups

People acquainted with media narratives know that the "adults" and the "grown ups" and the "serious people" are very often the Republicans, especially when we're talking about entitlements.  Democrats and their union friends, we're often told, are childish or immature for wanting something–public benefits such as medicare and social security–at no cost.  Click here for a funny illustration of that sorry meme

We have something along these lines in this Steve Chapman column from the Chicago Tribune.  The "real world," of course, demands cuts and reforms just like the Republicans want:

After House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., unveiled a plan to overhaul Medicare, Democrats announced that despite its minor flaws, it was a brave and thoughtful attempt to grapple with a serious problem that has been ignored for too long.

Just kidding. They said it was the worst thing they've seen since "Sex and the City 2."

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi accused Ryan of offering "a path to poverty for America's seniors." Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said Ryan's proposal would not reform Medicare but "deform it." The White House faulted Ryan for "placing a greater burden on seniors."

The chief outrage, in their minds, is his proposal to restructure Medicare for Americans currently younger than 55 while keeping the old version for older folks. Instead of guaranteeing a certain set of benefits regardless of cost, the government would pay a fixed premium so recipients could choose their own packages.

The other meme is the "brave" or "courageous" meme.  This one, unfortunately, has even been adopted by Democrats.  On the unity of the virtues theory, however, you can't be stupid and courageous, or wrong and courageous. 

Back to the point.  The "reality" meme usually requires that you show that someone else's plan is unrealistic.  You can do that by carefully demonstrating the shortcomings of their views or their presuppositions, or you can do that by misrepresenting them.  The second is faster.  Here's Chapman again:

I have news for people old enough to be thinking about retirement: Your children may love you, but not enough to be taxed into poverty. Ryan's detractors pretend we can go on enjoying the status quo indefinitely. But it's only a matter of time before we hit a fiscal wall, hard.

There are three basic choices. We can keep on just as we have in the past until the program collapses of its own weight. Or we can restrain costs by letting the federal government ration medical care. Some patients would have to wait months or years for procedures now taken for granted — and some wouldn't get them at all. Death panels, anyone?   

"Ryan's detractors" sure seem stupid, don't they?  There's a reason they don't have a name–they don't exist.  They're hollow men.  Whatever you say about the opposition to Ryan, you'll have to admit that they tried to have a discussion about health insurance reform in light of the problems of rising health care costs, an aging population, and, of course, the limitations of the private insurance model.  Whatever you say about them, you cannot say that they embraced the status quo indefinitely. 

One more thing along these lines.  Notice that Chapman considers three options for reforming medicare: (1) do nothing; (2) death panels; (3) Ryan's plan.  That's a false trichotomy.  It's like a false dichotomy, only you add two unworkable choices rather than just one.  Since (1) and (2) are ridiculous, ergo, ipso fatso, (3) is our only realistic option. 

A courageous adult conversation about the realities of health care systems in the industrialized world, however, would consider many other empirically tested options.  Would it be immature to want that?

Iron man

Corresponding to the three versions of the straw man scheme (straw, weak, hollow), one may identify three forms of dialectical distortion going the other way–i.e., that is the "positive" way.  That is to say, one may be guilty of not being critical enough, or of being too nice, or too interested in analyzing good arguments to bother with all of the bad ones.  The last one here, I think, is a typical philosopher problem.  

This idea of being too charitable has come up before.  See here. And here and to some extent here.

Like the classic straw man, this sort of distortion would admit of both fallacious and non fallacious varieties.  The non fallacious varieties one might employ in class (among other places), for the kids sometimes make crappy arguments that could be made better with a little tweaking.  It's the same kind of tweaking one does to make them worse, only the point is to then evaluate the better argument, the argument not given.

One type of fallacious employment, let's call it the iron man, consists in being insufficiently critical to an obviously weak argument (or arguer) when that criticism is right, proper, and necessary.  Here's an example from Jennifer Rubin's "Right Turn Blog" at the Washington Post:

Bachmann’s greatest challenge, should she run for president in 2012, will be to convince a wide cross-section of voters that she isn’t the media’s cartoon figure. But she’ll have to do it without dampening the enthusiasm of her most devoted supporters. However, candidly, the biggest challenge will be for the other candidates, who will have to debate a very smart, articulate and entirely underestimated woman. As one Republican operative told me, “Hey, I wouldn’t want to get on that stage with her.” And that is precisely why a Bachmann candidacy, far from being a “joke” or a “farce,” might be the most interesting thing to happen to the 2012 GOP primary race.

Bachmann has many more obvious challenges, but this alternate reality post happily refutes itself, as it seems to suggest her most ardent supporters will be turned off by her losing the alleged media caricature.  Bachmann may be smart in some sense, but she's nowhere near the serious contender Rubin makes her out to be.  And this doesn't help–it doesn't help Republicans in particular–clarify what the viable options are.  Bachmann, on even Bill O'Reilly's accounting, isn't a serious candidate (or person or thinker).  Why we should waste precious minutes in the 24 hour news cycle is beyond me. 

There a Poe's law corollary here somewhere.