Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Populism, by Unpopular Demand

The term post- truth, coined by blogger David Roberts, refers to the way that many people today seem to create facts to match their opinions (or the opinions of their peers) rather than choosing opinions (or peers) to match their interpretation of the facts. Roberts points out that, since this runs opposite to the way that things have worked from the Enlightenment times, it may signal a reversal of the intellectual advancements set in motion by the Age of Reason. 

So the symptoms of the breakdown of logic have been named, but its cause has yet to be established. Is the post-truth era here thanks to the existence of fake news websites? Is it because politicians are ignoring - and even flat-out inventing - new facts? Is it encouraged by the absence of qualified experts on debate panels that we see on TV? Or by the media sensationalizing all debates that involve polarized views?

Yes, yes, yes and yes... all the above things have helped to place reactionary views on equal footing with rationalist ones. But the awful truth is that none of them should be enough to persuade the public... not unless its built-in defence system against bad logic has already been sabotagedIt's becoming obvious that this sabotage has been achieved through a sustained onslaught by people wielding dodgy logic, as if it's a weapon. Reading through 'debates' between left wingers, right wingers and middle-road moderates, one witnesses how the right wing 'side' keeps moving from one fallacy to another, as if on a loop. They seem as if they've been trained in the art of disinformation. Maybe they have; the attack on logic seems to have been unleashed in much the same way as all the other attacks on minorities that I discussed in my  series of articles on trolling. This is a shock & awe tactic designed to mire necessary debates down in murky & shifting, bitter sentimentPerhaps an all-out campaign to stop the public from making any headway toward truth really is underway. If it is, though, then the best defence is more logic, not less. 

Here are 12 of the most common logical fallacies that are employed by the right wing / alt right today. They are, of course, sometimes employed by more moderate commentators, as well, but the difference between how the right and left use them is one of degree. The right wing are, by and large, the worst offenders when it comes to crimes against reason; one reason why all the memes used in this piece come from their 'side' of the 'debate'



What it means: The Latin of this term, translated, means "argument against the man". It's a logical fallacy because it attacks the person making the argument, though, rather than their facts / interpretation of the facts.

AKA: "Bullying"

Who does it the most: The far- right and alt-right.

Ad hominem attacks tend to be "circular" in nature because the critic wants us to believe that their rage or hatred is proof enough that their target is in the wrong. A true debate requires a person to prove his or her point with facts, rather than merely re-iterating it in more aggressive terms. 

Most used by: People on all sides of any debate, but again it's a question of degree. The far right's websites and discussions seem riddled with every insult under the sky, whereas left-wingers tend to stick to a limited range of accusations that are related to ethics and fairness.

Using ad hominem arguments is a flawed approach regardless, though... no matter how funny / self-righteous it might make you feel. It doesn't offer any evidence for the other side to consider, which might not seem as important when the other side is flinging their poop at you, but it is important for persuading anyone who is reading, or watching the debate.

As Milo Yiannopoulos, a poster boy of the alt right, says: “I have never lost a battle, because I have nothing to lose. You don’t fight a pig, because you both get dirty. Nothing is too low-rent or dirty enough for me.” In essence, these are scare tactics meant to avoid discussion altogether, rather than participate in it.  And then the person employing it can tell himself that, because the other guy ran away, he's somehow won. It is, at best, a temporary victory though.



What it means: Argumentum ad populum is a fancy old Latin way of saying, "Do it because everyone else is doing it."  

Who uses it the most: The pro-Trump and pro-Brexit camp. A common variation on this style of argument is the 'So and so won the election or referendum, so just shut up and deal with it.'

Why it's wrong: Clearly, if a true majority were in favour of, say, Brexit and/or President Trump, then protests against them would not happen in the first place. Even if that weren't the case though, a debate is not decided on the popularity of one view over the other, but on facts. Even if only 1 person represents the opposing view, it doesn't necessarily follow that his or her argument is weaker until it has been disproven.

Citing argumentum ad populum is also illogical in the Brexit or Trump debate, because it dodges the question of how to resolve the concerns of nearly half the voting population and create a true consensus based on compromise... which is, after all, what democracy is about. It's not a death-match between opposing views, regardless of what our more macho leaders might like us to believe.



AKA: "Draping oneself in the flag"

What it means: Asserting that one's stance is correct because it is patriotic. Conversely, it means suggesting that anyone who disagrees with you is automatically unpatriotic, and therefore wrong.  

Who uses it: This logical fallacy is most common in America and Russia, and especially during elections. Many mainstream parties also employed it during the Brexit campaign.

Why It's Wrong: This argument is not illogical by default, but it's only relevant if the person making it can prove that the way the country 'has always been' works better than adopting the proposed changes, or that its traditions are still practical. Generally though, claiming that something is good for the country without proof is a cop-out since, obviously, almost anyone could make that claim about almost anything. It's an entirely subjective view.  



AKA: The 'Cause s/he said so" approach

What it means: Citing a non-expert 'authority' as if they were an expert on the subject (for instance, a celebrity). 

Who Uses it the Most: This is a tough one to find a visual "meme" of in the far right's repertoire. In fact, after spending the last few months on a steady diet of alt-right websites I've noticed that, the more 'right' a group is, the less likely they are to come up with any research or experts to back themselves up. They usually just employ insults, and/or the bandwagon approach.  

But there are numerous think-tanks which constitute improper authorities in the U.S., such as the American Enterprise Institute, which uses its 19 million U.S.D. privately funded annual budget to buy extra influence for marginal 'expert' views which, strangely enough, all seem to benefit big business. The AEI has defended the sustainability of big oil, the health benefits of big tobacco, as well as the invasion of Iraq, even when findings from independent researchers conflicted with their position on all of the above. These sorts of think-tanks, along with AstroTurfing campaigns, make up the largest part of improper authorities out there.

Example: The author of the above piece, taken from the National Review website, uses a paper by Monsanto to prove the safety of one of Monsanto's most controversial products, glyphosate. 
Monsanto sees a direct financial profit from every sale of Roundup (a glyphosate-containing product) so this glaring conflict of interest alone would tend to make it a non-credible expert, but especially when their report ignores all of the recent studies that have been put forward by independent bodies, casting doubt on Roundup's safety.
The most infamous example of Appeal to Improper Authority to date has got to be the climate change denial lobby, which chronically defers to other big-name deniers (George Bush, Donald Trump) whilst ignoring the estimated 90-99% of scientists who agree that climate change is related to human activities.

Of course, left-wing and moderate commenters are also wont to quote the opinions of celebrities and fellow activists or journalists as if it were proof that their stance is correct, when in all fairness, they should focus on facts. This can set a bad precedent - one that the right is all-too willing to follow. 



AKA: The "I just don't believe you" approach.

What it means: Arguing that your failure to understand something is proof that it does not matter / happen / exist.  

Example: The meme above is a classic statement of incredulity because it suggests that, since this woman hasn't experienced any serious assaults, feminism is unnecessary in her country. Many Western victims of sexual violence, domestic violence and discrimination would probably love it if that were the truth!

Who uses it the most: Those who deny the existence of discrimination against another group on the grounds that they've never personally experienced / witnessed the acts in question. Also, white nationalists who deny the need for refugees to seek asylum because they haven't personally seen the harsh conditions in their countries of origin. And so on and so forth. 
Why it's wrong: Because obviously, it's physically impossible for any one person to see, hear and know everything that happens to other people. Limiting all truths to what one sees and hears with one's own eyes and ears is also a tad egocentric and therefore, wholly biased. 



AKA: "Bait & Switch"

What it means: You focus on proving a point that you know no almost one will disagree with, rather than proving the point currently being debated. Or else you pile a bunch of unproven assumptions into a single, innocuous sounding question, in the hopes the other side will take the bait and swallow all of them without you having to make any further effort. Both approaches are attempts to slip a contentious premise past your opponent, under the guise of being something more benign.

Who uses it the most: Most of the far right
Example: See above. Instead of addressing the central premise - whether 'Western Civilization' actually does lack a country or society of its own - David Duke shifts the viewer's focus to a less-contentious assertion: that wanting one's own country is not a bad thing

See this archived Reddit thread for another classic example of how such a logical fallacy unfolds in a debate.


AKA: "I didn't start it, s/he did!"

What it is: Another kind of bait & switch but this time, the arguer is trying to divert attention away from a contentious point by citing an even more sensational claim. It's the verbal equivalent of saying, "Look behind you!" and then sucker punching them while their back is turned.

Who uses it the most? The "Clinton-Was-Just-As-Bad-As-Trump" brigade, as well as those who constantly attempt to frame vegans as plant-murderers, or environmental activists as sign-dumping polluters.

Example: In the above meme, the claim that Trump is as bad as Hitler is countered by an accusation that, "Clinton was worse!" The person making this argument is hoping we'll get so caught up in comparing Hilary Clinton's vision of social welfare to Hitler's distorted, race-specific vision of it, that we'll completely forget that s/he still hasn't addressed the accusations against Trump.   



AKA: "Going on a witch-hunt"

What it means: Strawmanning means you're making an oversimplified and negative caricature of your opponents, in order to make your position seem fairer, more rational or just by comparison.

Example: The three UK high court judges featured on the Daily Mail's front cover, above, were labelled 'enemies of the people' after they ruled that Parliament should be consulted before the Brexit could be set in motion. 

Calling the judges 'Enemies of the People' was an extraordinary claim, yet still within the realm of possibility. But to prove it The Daily Mail would have had to prove that 1) a Parliamentary consultation would definitely result in the Brexit being halted 2) that the Brexit truly represented the will of 'the people' rather than just the will of 52% of voters, and 3) that the judges made their judgement based on malice, not on evidence. Maybe the Mail was just hoping that its readers would be so angered by the mere possibility that the judges were their 'enemies' that they would turn against them without further proof

Why it's Wrong: Well, lynch mobs work on a similar premise - and when was the last time you heard about one of them making a good call?



AKA: The "Between a rock and a hard place" argument.
What it means: Arguing that there are only two options available when there is clearly a middle ground that has been left out. A classic example of this is, "Immigration needs to be halted or else our country will be overrun by immigrants." There are many alternatives between no immigration and being "overrun" but the vast majority of right wing reactionaries pretend there are only two ways that the immigration policy can end. With feminism it's, "Women should stay at home in the kitchen, rather than setting out to replace men," an argument which presumes that there are no models in which men and women both work and/or share chores at home. And so on, and so forth.

The Brexit campaign was one big, endless succession of false dichotomies. At least it had the defence that the campaign itself was dichotomized though, but the either/or comparisons were not always logical

Who uses it the most: People who oppose immigration and asylum law.  Oh: and loads of advertisers employ this tactic too... but that's a discussion for another time.


AKA: "Rewriting the rules whenever it suits you"

What it means: Using a word in a different way than the other side uses it, without agreeing the change in definition with them first.  I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say that this has happened in approximately 90% of 'debates' between reactionary right wingers and moderates, or left wingers, that I have seen.

Who uses it: Anyone who is trying to shift the debate away from a field that s/he is not familiar with, in to one that s/he knows better.

Example: In the image above, the term 'privilege' has obviously been redefined to mean 'freedom from working as a cleaner'.  Most feminists would probably argue that the concept of male privilege refers to the overall trend of men getting easier access to a range of basic human rights. By revising that definition to a single, narrow meaning, it becomes much easier for an anti-feminists to dismiss it as frivolous

Why it's wrong: Kind of like the False Dichotomy and Straw Man approaches, this approach is an attempt to re-frame the debate in terms that one is able to rebut instead of rebutting the point that is actually being discussed. But since it's impossible to have any debate at all when the definitions of shared terms are not agreed, this amounts to an obstructive tactic. 



AKA: "You're not a real man/woman/American" etc.

What it is: This fallacy gets its name from the old stereotype whereby a Scotsman was seen as a die-hard fighter on the field of battle, and any Scotsman who didn't fit the stereotype was mocked as being not true to his nation. It is used to describe any argument where the debater is employing a tired stereotype as proof of his/her position... but refuses to admit it. Instead, they will claim that a person who doesn't fit that stereotype isn't really true to their type, whether that be a Scotsman... a woman... a lizard... or whatever

This is used most often against women, trans and queer people who defy gender stereotypes.  
 As a side note, it's also widely used by music snobs and left-wingers when they disagree on their methods and/or tastes: "People who eat honey aren't true vegan" or "The only truly radical solution is the socialist alternative" or "You're not a real punk unless you like the Damned". Etc.

Why it's wrong: It presumes that applying a one-size-fits-all approach to human beings is workable, desirable or fair. As always, it may be possible to prove this point in some cases, but you'd really need to draw on evidence to do that... not on lazy stereotypes.



AKA: "Guilt by association"

What it means: Implying that a relationship between two things is always a cause-and-effect relationship, even when there are many other possibilities. The most common form of this is to say that an event is caused by the people who are most affected by it. i.e., "Women are employed in worse jobs because they're less qualified". "Blacks do worse in school because they're less intelligent", or  "Middle Eastern wars happen because the Muslims live there." 

Who uses it the most: At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the alt right and far right. Just have a look at any one of their websites if you don't believe me.

Right now, the anti-Islam faction is rinsing this particular logical fallacy. "Islam is inherently violent," it says, "just look at Al Qaeda, ISIS, Syria, and the war-torn Middle East!"  But to claim that radical Islam is the sole root cause of violence in these homelands is to ignore the West's repeated bombings and invasions, and the CIA's interference in Middle Eastern politics
The person making this claim may of course, be in the right but, to establish that, s/he must provide proof. Clearly, not every relationship between two things is one of cause-and-effect.

Is "Right" the new "Wrong"?

Many of the claims that the far right and alt right are attempting to foist on the public - via a mix of manipulation, over-exposure and brute force - fall into the category of logical fallacy. And that's not a political distinction, it's an academic one.
That's not to say that there aren't, or have never been, logical arguments in favour of right wing ideas; it's to say that they have all been drowned out by the volume of dumbed-down, reactionary ones. I'd love to see what a real debate between the left and the right looks like when it follows the rules of logic, but I've not found one recently. 
Instead, the average right-winger online is a troll who substitutes rational arguments for a hail of faulty logic, falling so thick and fast that it threaten to destroy all sense of what constitutes a debate. In all likelihood, this is the whole reason WHY they're throwing so much trash talk around in the first place; because, like so much that online trolls do, this is about controlling a discussion, rather than having one

Even before the advent of the alt right, though, the word 'debate' had already been severely damaged by the mainstream media, in its attempts to frame nearly an opinion, criticism or reaction as a legitimate "side" of every debate... regardless of how coherent or factual it was. Maybe the media does this because it makes it easier to keep the viewers watching, or the readers reading, when they feel involved. (Well, it worked for the tabloids, didn't it?) Maybe it's because it's run out of good stories. Maybe it's because the people in charge of the media are, themselves, that incoherent & uninformed.

But as with 'truth' and 'logic', the definition of a 'debate' is not really open to interpretation. To do it right, one should stick to logic and facts. That's because logic is the closest thing that we humans have to an absence of bias. 
Bias is a bad basis for any decision - let alone decisions made in a world with as many different classes, races, genders and religions as ours has. If the tradition of debate is bound by the rules of logic, it is probably because so many debates are used to decide national, or global, policy. Unless your vision of this planet is one that is filled wtih mass-produced cogs, holding a singularity of views... like soup cans churned out on a factory line... then bias has to be left out of the debate. And that means logical fallacies have to be left out of it, too.
But then again, it may be that a world of mass produced cogs is the exact the one that autocratic businessmen like Trump are trying to create, by bringing populism back into fashion again.


*Edited to remove a few typpoes (<--- but that one was a joke)