Let’s face it: Americans are about the easiest people on Earth to brainwash. Now, I like to think the War on Bullshit readers are above-average thinkers, but if the intellect of the general populace is any indication, I could probably convince the majority of our American readers that it would be a good idea to strip naked, paint themselves blue, and run backwards around their house three times if I just throw in the words socialism, Muslim, and maybe the phrase destroying family values.
Unfortunately, many people, however politically aware, are blissfully unaware of the rhetorical tactics used to distract and mislead the public. It’s a sad thing, but it seems most folks slept through the lesson in English 101 about common logical fallacies. Here’s just a few of them I notice just flipping stations or perusing the Internet.
If you want a fun drinking game, watch an hour of CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC’s political coverage and take a shot every time you hear someone use one of these tactics.
1. ad hominem
This logical fallacy is by far the most common in politics – and probably the easiest to spot, as well. The ad hominem is simply an attack on someone’s character, without ever addressing the issue.
How It Was Used
This was used by both sides during the presidential election to sway voters away from a particular candidate by convincing them that one side or the other are evil, stupid scoundrels hell bent on destroying the American way of life.
Ex.: The repeated references to Barack Obama’s supposed refusal to salute the American flag or recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The accusation is often accompanied by a video showing Obama standing with hands folded as the anthem plays in the background, meant to show his lack of respect for this symbol of America’s inherent greatness.
For one thing, ad hominem arguments are almost always backed up with distortions, lies, or overstatements. The above-linked video, for instance, does show Barack Obama not saluting the flag; however, those who accuse him of anti-Americanism usually ignore the countless other occasions where he did salute the flag.
This instance is also a good example because it shows one of the biggest problems with character attacks: they are rarely relevant. What do Obama’s feelings about the flag have to do with how he will run the country?
2. Argument from Authority
The argument from authority is something we see every time a commercial for Sprite plays or an ad for Nike shoes pops up. This logical fallacy uses a high profile spokesperson’s endorsement to give merit to an idea, or, in the case of politics, a candidate. We’ve all run into this one before.
How It Was Used
“Hi. I’m ___, world-famous musician/actor/professor of ancient marsupial history, and I endorse ______.”
Ex. The environmental movement often employs this logical fallacy, convincing celebrities with little knowledge of the subject to advocate certain actions. For instance, here is Heather Mills and Paul McCartney debating Newfoundland Premiere Danny Williams on the seal hunt in northern Canada. These idiots didn’t even know which province they were in during the interview.
The problem here is when people completely unqualified to speak on a subject act as if their opinion matters. When Colin Powell, a former Secretary of State with a deep understanding of the inner workings of the White House, speaks of his reasons for supporting Barack Obama, there is legitimate content and a depth of knowledge. This is an expert opinion.
When Toby Keith endorses Barack Obama, however, who cares? Does it really matter what some Nashville star thinks about the current crop of politicians? Does his endorsement mean more than yours or mine?
3. The Disregarded Middle
This fallacy is particularly common in politics. Those who use this tactic ignore the middle ground, leaving the extremes as the only viable solution to a problem.
How It Is Used
Ever notice how common sense solutions seem to be ignored by government? Ever wonder why Democrats and Republicans can’t work together more to solve the nation’s problems? Pretty much any time a politician creates some false dichotomy (right-left, pro-gun vs. anti-gun, etc.) you are seeing this fallacy in action.
Ex. This is a common tactic for gun advocates. The NRA, for instance, blasted Barack Obama because he would take away Americans’ guns, when in fact, Obama simply supports laws which regulate and control the ownership of firearms – kind of like we already have. In the eyes of the NRA, a candidate must either be for every American owning firearms, or against any American owning them; there is no middle ground.
Simply put: life is rarely as simple as black and white, and often times the best answer is found in compromise.
Originally I’d intended for this to consume a single post, but as it turns out, I’ve got notes on several more logical fallacies floating around the Interradiowebvision. Next post, we’ll tackle observational selection, the slippery slope, weasel words, and the ever-popular straw man.
Oh, and careful with that drinking game. Just twenty minutes of Fox News can lead to alcohol poisoning, I’m told.
If this isn’t enough reason to distrust politicians, here’s some more logical fallacies they use to lie to us.